Former BC Chamber CEO Val Litwin made a stop in Fort St. John this week to outline his priorities for Northern B.C. as he rallies support ahead of next weekend’s BC Liberal party leadership election.
Litwin is one of seven candidates seeking the party’s leadership, and he has put PST tax laws for visiting Alberta businesses and a new Taylor Bridge at the top of his commitment list for the north.
He says creating a level playing field continues to be the number one issue raised by local businesses frustrated and demotivated trying to compete with their PST-free competitors in Alberta, whether it's the oil and gas industry or ranchers.
“Our friends, who we love, in Alberta … we know they don’t pay the PST. They come over the border, they got an unfair advantage over businesses here in Northeast B.C.,” Litwin says.
“The uneven playing field is something that is going to take more than just a motion at the Treasury Board to approve the budget and get building the bridge. It’s going to take a concerted, multi-pronged effort to create that competitive even playing field.”
Litwin sees replacing the Taylor Bridge, now 62 years old, as a “transactional fix” that needs to get done now, and not be mired behind delays of continued study and consultation.
“We’re not going to study it, we’re not going to have another consultation. This is a vital trade link for British Columbia,” he says. “We will be completely vulnerable and exposed as an economy and as communities if this bridge fails.”
Among his other key northern priorities, he says, are enhancing funding agreements, investing in healthcare supports and amenities, boosting fibre connectivity investments and building an emergency fibre stockpile, and working as a province in partnership with municipalities and First Nations.
“The future obviously in British Columbia is one where we’re creating shared prosperity with our indigenous communities,” Litwin says. “We’re appreciating more than ever that we’re not going to get things done in B.C. unless we work in close partnership with indigenous communities.”
Litwin believes his background in business and public policy can rebuild a BC Liberal party that lost 13 seats in the 2020 snap election, as well attract young new members and manage a diverse caucus.
Working as CEO for the BC Chamber between 2016 and 2020, he says he had to balance competing interests — from the Fort St. John and Kitimat Chambers that supported LNG, to the Tofino and Ucluelet Chambers that didn't, for example. He says he also had to bring grassroot stories and evidence-based policy concerns to whichever political party has been in power in Victoria and Ottawa.
“I have been in politics for the last 10 years, I just haven’t been a partisan,” he says.
“I spent every week in my job at the BC Chamber in a different town in British Columbia, walking the main streets, shaking the hands of business owners, meeting with the elected officials, learning the policy files. But most importantly, I had to manage a caucus of 120 regional chamber CEOs who all had very different opinions about where this province needs to go, and where our priorities should be.”
Prior to working in public policy, Litwin himself was an entrepreneur scaling up hair care and health care startups to franchise enterprises, and co-authored a book about corporate social responsibility. He currently chairs a charity to mentor women entrepreneurs across Canada.
“I know what it feels like to dig into personal lines of credit just to make payroll, I know what it feels like to have to go through miles and miles of red tape just to get a glimpse of my dream, and I know what it takes to build a team,” he says. “It’s a lot of work. But if you haven’t been an entrepreneur, like most of the people sitting in Victoria right now in power, it’s really hard to understand how to create the conditions for business to thrive. But I’ve lived that life and I know what we have to do.”
Litwin notes the majority of the B.C.’s population is now younger than 40, and that the BC Liberal party has a chance to become “Canada’s first fiscally responsible but socially and environmentally conscious party.”
“That doesn’t make me a crazy progressive. I’m a fiscal conservative at heart," he says. "But I look around the world, I look at my environment, my economy, and I understand that we have to tweak and change things."
Of today’s younger generation of voters, he adds, “This younger generation that is coming up, that we are trying to engage as a party and in political conversations, they don’t want to see the old school, hyper-partisan rhetoric that I grew up on. It seemed normal. But I talk to younger people, it’s not the same. That’s not quite what they want to see.”
"Any party that wants to gain power now has to be talking about people," he says. "Any party that’s serious about government has to put people in the middle of the picture."
BC Liberal party members will hold their leadership vote Feb. 3 to 5.
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