John Rustad wants you to think of him as an “everyman”. The new-ish leader of the BC Conservatives is a vocal supporter of working-class people and their personal freedom, and is critical of the BC NDP government’s spending on social programs, climate action and reconciliation attempts with First Nations. 

To be sure, Rustad is benefiting from the popularity of the federal Conservative party led by Pierre Poilievre. But his program clearly appeals to British Columbians of all ages, in all regions of the province. Recent polls show Rustad neck-and-neck with Premier David Eby.

If the Conservative brand holds strong through the October provincial election, Rustad could soon be leader of the official opposition, or even our premier. So who is he, where does he come from, and why are so many British Columbians thinking of voting for him?

Small-town lumber barons  

Rustad was born and raised in northern B.C. surrounded by blue collar industry folks, including his own family. He’s seen what a hard day’s work looks like. But is he really a down-home dude? 

John Rustad was born in Prince George, one of three sons to a father who built their family wealth and local status on logging and timber sales. 

John’s dad, Laurie Rustad, and one of his uncles first worked for Rustad Brothers Saw Mill before starting their own logging operation, Gillhorn Lumber. 

Later, Laurie went into real estate where he specialized in land and timber sales. He would look for properties with “good timber potential” and broker the sale of logging rights to local lumber companies.

John followed in the family footsteps, working in the lumber industry for 20 years, including founding his own business in 1995: Western Geographic Information Systems Inc. — a consulting service to the forest industry.

As we’ll see, John may be a public servant now, but his first love has always been logging companies. Many of the proposals he champions today come straight from powerful industry groups like the Council of Forest Industries.

The BC Liberal years

In 2002, Rustad was elected school trustee for District 57 in Prince George. He served for three years, then won a seat as MLA for the BC Liberals in Prince George–Omineca in 2005. Four years later, he was elected MLA for Nechako Lakes, which is the seat he’s held ever since.

In his first two terms as MLA, he served as Parliamentary Secretary for Forestry to the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, and as a member of the Environment and Land Use Committee, Legislative Review Committee, and a handful of others. 

In 2013, he was appointed to then-premier Christy Clark’s cabinet, becoming one of the high level decision makers in a government notorious for unlimited political donations, cash-for-access events with corporate lobbyists and political decisions that benefited those donors. After Clark’s Liberals lost the provincial election in 2017, an inquiry was launched into members of her government turning a blind eye to money laundering for years, which allowed drug money to be “cleaned” in B.C. casinos and used to buy up real estate.

Rustad cut his teeth in a party that leaned on fuzzy math, exaggerated numbers and just making stuff up to appear fiscally strong. But with a touch of amnesia perhaps, he has openly criticized the NDP government for not balancing their budget. According to him, society is great as long as the books are balanced. 

During his time with Clark’s Liberals, the party would often brag about their balanced budgets. But austerity, in their case, led to the downfall of social safety nets every single British Columbian relies on.

With Rustad in tow, Clark’s government let our public education and our medical systems wither on the vine while oil and gas companies raked in government subsidies. And it was only after the Liberals were kicked to the curb in 2017 that we found out ICBC was on the brink of collapse. All that, under a “balanced budget”.

Rustad’s time with the Liberals-turned-BC United ended when Kevin Falcon kicked him out in 2022. Thankfully (for him), he found a new home with the BC Conservatives, quickly becoming their leader and spokesperson for right-wing thoughts and ideas.

Rustad’s beef with Falcon

Rustad was supposedly booted from BC United for spreading climate change denial. But Rustad and Falcon are equally supportive of oil and gas industry expansion. It seems more likely the split came out of their bitter personal rivalry, which continues today.   

Recently it was reported that BC United attempted to broker a deal with the BC Conservatives, to settle fears that two parties would  split the right-wing vote in the election this fall. Rustad turned Falcon down, claiming he had asked BC United for a similar agreement back in February, to which Falcon told him to “F#ck off”.

Falcon took to Twitter to deny a deal was offered in February or that he used expletives. His tone was pissy.

Rustad and Falcon worked together in the BC Liberal caucus for many years, but didn’t consider themselves friendly. Then when Andrew Wilkinson stepped down as leader, Rustad co-chaired a party leadership campaign for Ellis Ross, in direct competition with Falcon. 

Falcon being the leader who booted Rustad also seems to have bruised his ego. According to him, it came down to a retweet.

Rustad was spreading misinformation about climate change, amplifying the idea that carbon dioxide isn’t a big  deal and people’s “fixation” on it is a red herring. According to him, the now rebranded BC United party would not tolerate any dissent, and used the social media post to kick him out.

If the BC NDP manages to hang onto power this October, they can thank the personal rivalry between Falcon and Rustad, and the massive egos of both right-wing party leaders. But it seems only a matter of time before Conservative political forces align under one banner in B.C. – and in the meantime, their views are becoming increasingly extreme. 

Running cover for oil and timber

When you listen to Rustad speak, it doesn’t appear he understands (or cares about) many of the complex issues we’d expect a premier in 2024 to help us face. And he seems happy about it, flaunting his disdain for social supports, public services and, of course, the conversation around climate change.

In talking about proposals to reduce emissions from agribusiness companies, Rustad said “Somehow cows burping and farting changes the weather, this is the kind of nonsense going on with this stuff.” By “this stuff”, he meant climate science. 

He’s also said “Taxing people into poverty isn’t going to change the weather.” That’s a snappy line Pierre Poilievre likes to use too, but it obscures the truth: taxing billionaires and big corporations would reduce emissions – and raise money to pay for the damage from climate disasters.  

Rustad is dismissive of building out renewable energy, despite the fact it could be a booming industry given the proper support. He’s posted strong criticism of renewable energy, and especially doesn’t like the idea of giving government subsidies to forward-thinking projects. No signs of outrage about billions of public dollars going to oil and gas companies, though. 

And more than anything, the BC Conservative leader is fiercely loyal to the timber industry.

He’s advocated for opening up protected areas for logging, including spots with old growth. He’s also talked openly about wildfires as a business opportunity: spreading the idea that timber companies could grab up all the scorched trees and turn them into wood pellets (that get burned for power) to be sold overseas.

Most recently, Rustad stirred up a lot of false fears and misinformation around Indigenous land rights, a dog-whistle to voters who feel sympathy for residential school survivors has “gone too far” and a way to stay loyal to timber companies that are no doubt worried about losing profits when First Nations exert more authority over ‘Crown’ lands.

Rustad voted in favour of UNDRIP legislation back in 2018, a document that reinforced the rights of Indigenous peoples to reclaim their land. But when it threatens timber companies? We know who’s side he’s on. 

The BC Conservatives – a short history

Unlike the federal Conservatives, the BC Cons have had only a minor presence in our provincial Legislature since the 1950s. B.C.’s first premier (once political parties became a thing) was technically Conservative, though the party has evolved over time as all parties do. 

There hasn’t been an elected member of their party in B.C. since 1970, and they didn’t have Official party status until last year when BC United MLA Bruce Mann crossed the floor and became the second serving party member. 

Ask most folks in B.C. who they’re voting for in the provincial election, and they’ll say Pierre Pollievre. The leader of the FEDERAL conservatives is deftly tapping into people’s current frustrations and fears around the cost of living, crime, drug addiction and fear of immigrants. 

It’s on Pierre Pollievre’s laurels that John Rustad and the BC Conservatives now rest. But will that matter? People are buying what the conservative brand is selling, and they’ll vote according to that regardless.

That means there’s a very real possibility B.C. could end up with our first Conservative premier since 1903. 

Dear John

By all accounts, John Rustad has led a comfortable life in northern B.C., dabbling in power and politics by way of the Legislature since 2005. He has a nice house on a lake, and appears to own a ski boat. Maybe he’ll show up on election day Stockwell Day-style

His story isn’t one of a “struggling working man”, but rather someone who’s capitalized on his family’s roots in the business of cutting down trees.

Would John Rustad make a good premier in B.C.? I don’t think so. Just the opposite: if Rustad lives up to all of his promises, he could do immense social and climate damage.

He’s never met an extraction project he didn’t like. And while all the parties in B.C. except the Greens support fracking and logging, the BC Conservatives are the most unabashed about wanting to drill, pump and burn more fossil fuels.

There’s still more to learn about John, like just how far he’ll go to grab power once again. But he’s already proven he’s not upfront about whose interests he’s really serving, he has false or overly-simplistic solutions to systemic problems (created by the very industries he promotes) and he’s a career politician out of touch with the everyday folks he claims to represent.