Win or lose on Pro Rep, B.C. faces big battles ahead

BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson isn’t worried which way the referendum goes on proportional representation. If his new plan bears fruit, Elections BC will never have a chance to implement a new voting system – even if that’s what British Columbians want.

The opposition has already launched a three-part strategy that could send B.C. into a snap election as soon as February. It goes like this:

  1. Undermine the referendum results
  2. Discredit the Speaker of the House
  3. Win the Nanaimo by-election

Right now the BC Liberals hold 42 seats, the NDP 41 and the Greens 3. Darryl Plecas, the Independent MLA for Abbotsford South, serves as Speaker. If the government loses a single seat, Plecas will hold the tie-breaking vote on all matters of confidence in the legislature.

The BC Liberals hate Plecas. His defection from their caucus after the 2017 election allowed the NDP to form government, supported by the Greens. That’s why they’re trying to pin the blame on him for the mysterious scandal enveloping the legislature. If Plecas can be recalled or forced to resign, the BC Liberals will be one vote closer to bringing down the government.

Key by-election looming

Meanwhile, a juicy opportunity has emerged in Nanaimo. Veteran NDP MLA Leonard Krog resigned his seat to serve as Mayor of the Harbour City. Premier Horgan says he wants a new MLA sworn in before the government tables its budget in February. And budgets automatically trigger a do-or-die confidence vote in the legislature.

The NDP has nominated candidate Sheila Malcolmson, former chair of the Islands Trust council and federal MP. But the Greens, who secured 20 per cent of the vote in the riding last year, have a strong candidate too: Michele Ney daughter of popular longtime Mayor Frank Ney.

The BC Liberals are hoping to consolidate right-wing votes behind their candidate Tony Harris, whose father Tom Harris built a small empire of local auto dealerships and cell phone shops. So far Harris is sticking to the BC Liberal script: against electoral reform, against the speculation tax, in favour of oil tanker expansion.

With one poll in November showing 38 per cent support for Harris, progressives in Nanaimo will need to fight the trend of low voter turnout in by-elections – and choose a champion they think can win on climate, affordable housing, corruption and democratic reform.

Otherwise the province could soon be back to BC Liberal rule. You can bet that even if the Pro Rep referendum succeeds, Premier Andrew Wilkinson would find a way to bury electoral reform.

Singh faces crucial test in Burnaby

Meanwhile voters in the federal riding of Burnaby South will have their own by-election early in the new year, after MP Kennedy Stewart left federal politics to become Mayor of Vancouver. Hoping to win the riding is NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who recently moved to Burnaby from Brampton, Ontario to contest the seat.

The federal Greens have opted to sit this one out. Singh will face Conservative candidate Jay Shin, that much is known. But who will represent Team Trudeau? Former Burnaby North MLA Richard T. Lee is signing up members to the federal Liberal Party, while 2015 Liberal candidate Adam Pankratz, who finished just 500 votes behind Stewart, has been knocking on doors as well.

Either way, a senior Liberal source in Ottawa told reporters the by-election will be called first thing in the new year. The Liberals would dearly love to humiliate Singh and plunge the NDP into an internal power struggle months before the 2019 federal election. For Singh, it’s a chance to prove the doubters wrong within his own party – and secure a seat in the House of Commons from which to spar with the Prime Minister for a few months on national TV.

Burnaby South voters will have only one candidate on the ballot opposed to oil tanker expansion and the massive public bailout for Texas pipeline company Kinder Morgan. What’s more, if Singh wins and manages to whittle a few seats off the Liberals later in the fall, the door could open on a whole suite of progressive policies – including democratic reform. I’ll revisit that scenario in another blog post in the new year.

Strengthening the fortress

Whatever happens on the federal scene, B.C. is its own place, with lots of reasons to feel hopeful. The first is electoral reform (if the referendum passes and the government survives). Under Pro Rep, citizens of all ages and backgrounds can look forward to being better represented in the legislature, with more cooperation on policy and fewer swing elections with wildly distorted outcomes.

But even without that change, we have the tools to carve out a different destiny than the rest of the continent. The legal reality west of the Rockies is that most of the existing nations never signed treaties or gave up their land to the Crown. This gives Indigenous communities real power in deciding how best to steward their territories for everyone’s long-term benefit.

We also have a unique regional and political identity: the feeling that we have different priorities from a Doug Ford or a Jason Kenney or Donald Trump or Justin Trudeau. That’s a good thing, in that it empowers British Columbians to stand up for ourselves and defend the things that are core to our place in the world.

Working together, First Nations and organized British Columbians have won extraordinary David-and-Goliath battles. And as the climate crisis intensifies, the choice will become increasingly stark. It’s either every man for himself, or some kind of collective project of survival. If you lean towards the latter, there are some great opportunities coming up to organize.

A busy calendar

If you’re interested in grassroots local politics, the upcoming by-elections in Nanaimo and Burnaby offer a great opportunity to talk to neighbours who share your values and encourage them to participate in democracy. By-elections historically have terrible voter turnout rates, so every person you can coax to the polls will have an outsized voice in shaping the future of this province and country. No pressure!

If you’re troubled by our government’s historic treatment of Indigenous communities, and determined to hold them to a higher standard, there is always work to do. One important case to watch is the B.C. government’s ongoing battle with the Squamish Nation over whether to uphold Premier Christy Clark’s approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Clark rubber-stamped the proposal after her party took more than $770,000 in campaign donations from Kinder Morgan and its oil patch backers. She based her approval entirely on the National Energy Board’s hideously biased project review – which has since been thrown out by the federal courts.

How can the NDP government in Victoria continue to issue pipeline construction permits under Clark’s original approval? It’s a good question, and one we need to take directly to MLAs if the government continues to fight the Squamish Nation’s attempts to overturn the certificate.

If you’re more acutely motivated by the housing crisis, and the need to root out the corruption and criminality that has infected B.C.’s real estate industry, that work continues. It seems like every day a new puzzle piece is brought to light, as the curtain slowly opens on a network of powerful gangs that used B.C. as a playground to sell fentanyl – and launder billions in dirty money through the property market.

British Columbians deserve to know what really happened, and why our leaders at all levels turned a blind eye to these deadly crimes until it was too late. We will continue to push for a public inquiry that can expose the links between politicians, crooked companies and organized crime.

New initiatives

If you care about wild salmon, human rights or corporate accountability, it’s hard to go very long without hearing horror stories about B.C. mining companies. Remember the Mount Polley tailings pond collapse that dumped 25 billion litres of mine waste into Quesnel Lake and ultimately, the Fraser River? As we approach the five-year anniversary I can tell you: it’s even worse than we thought.

The mining lobby has long been a major obstacle to stronger environmental protections in B.C. Companies rely on laws drafted in the 1800s to get around local communities and disregard Indigenous rights. Not all mining companies behave like this, but there are enough bad actors to warrant serious reforms – before another catastrophe like Mount Polley unfolds.

The pipeline campaigns highlighted for Dogwood how important it is to conserve our wild salmon watersheds, how weak our environmental laws are and the outrageous things companies can get away with (like using orange plastic snow fencing to block Chinook from spawning on a proposed pipeline route). We look forward to supporting local communities who are ready to stand up to corporate bullies in the mining sector.

We are also thinking about how to harness the momentum from our Stop the Bailout petition – aimed at Kinder Morgan – into a wider campaign on corporate welfare for fossil fuels. At this point many low-value, high-carbon export fuels, like U.S. thermal coal, fracked gas or raw bitumen, are only viable thanks to massive write-offs and indirect subsidies from taxpayers. Talk to most Canadians and they agree: they don’t want billions of public dollars going to companies desperate to prolong the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Acts of faith

All those themes come together in our organizer trainings and youth workshops, which we are excited to offer for another year. We believe that investing in local grassroots leaders, and especially young people, will pay dividends years down the line.

At the same time, we have to defend the progress we’ve made. So long as our political system concentrates power in the hands of a moneyed elite, we will always be fighting an underdog battle to mobilize ordinary people – who often don’t see the point. Thanks to decades of unlimited corporate donations and distorted, winner-take-all elections, many voters have internalized the idea that their voice doesn’t matter.

We simply don’t accept that.

Organizing is an act of faith in the dignity and potential of each individual in our community. And at a time when democracy itself is under attack, it is all the more important to exercise our freedoms and encourage others to make full use of their rights. As individuals, all we can do is take out the recycling and wait for the apocalypse. But working together, there are moments when enough us can collectively tip the scales – and alter the course of history. That’s why Dogwood teams will be active in Nanaimo and Burnaby, and across the province in 2019.


You can help power our work into 2019.

Sign up to volunteer with us — or invest in our team. All gifts will be matched until December 31.