The new leader of the B.C. New Democrats says that he has his work cut out for him when it comes to reconnecting his party with the province's resource communities.
John Horgan started that work last weekend, with a barnstorming tour of Northeast B.C. Announced with little notice on Victoria Day, Horgan's "mini tour" during a week off from the legislature took him to Fort St. John, Tumbler Ridge and Prince George for meetings with municipal employees, Northern Health and a group of steelworkers who have been recently laid off from Tumbler Ridge's Wolverine coal mine. The outing was his first foray north since he was acclaimed leader on May 1.
"The challenge is to get people to look at the NDP differently, and that has to be in deed. So that's why I'm showing up," Horgan told the Alaska Highway News during an interview in Tumbler Ridge.
"I can't issue a press release from Victoria saying 'Horgan supports LNG.' It's much better for me to come here and sit with you and have you see in my eyes that I'm genuine when I say that. I've got to show up, and I have to take the criticisms and the kudos when they come."
Horgan's bellicose pro-resource development stance is a departure from his predecessor, Adrian Dix, who came out against Kinder Morgan's proposed TransMountain pipeline on last year's Earth Day, in a move which many believed derailed the campaign.
Critics have said that the NDP is failing to connect with small communities in B.C.'s hinterland, and that that is costing the party at the ballot box. The NDP carried most of the coast, Vancouver Island and a sizable chunk of Metro Vancouver in the last election, but failed to make any inroads in the Cariboo or Fraser Valley.
And the Peace is far from being NDP country. Since the ridings were created in the 1950s, a New Democrat has never won either Peace River North or South.
In the last election, Mike Bernier and the Liberals carried Peace River South by a wide margin, while Peace River North went to Pat Pimm by more than 3,000 votes. NDP candidates came in third in both races.
Horgan, who served as energy critic for eight years and represents the riding of Juan de Fuca, said he would make "balanced" resource extraction one of the NDP's major planks.
"I've been a supporter before, during and after the election of trying to get more wealth from our resources," he said of the B.C. Liberal government's plan to ship liquefied natural gas to Asian markets. "If we can get our resources to those markets, it benefits everybody. The question is, what are we going to give up to get there?"
He said that government investment in social infrastructure for a potential LNG boom has not been up to par - citing a shortage of healthcare professionals as the key issue.
"You see all this money flowing out of the North to the South, largely. Are we going to be investing in social infrastructure in the north? Or is it all going to be going into transit in the south?" he said. "The investment here in healthcare, education, social services - they're not there."
Blair Lekstrom, the former Liberal MLA for Peace River South, said that Horgan's NDP might stand a stronger chance in resource-based communities.
"I think John actually gets the fact that we're a resource province - we extract our resources so we can fund our education and social programs and healthcare," he said. "I think his biggest challenge is with New Democrats as much as anybody."
Horgan said he and Lekstrom became friends in the Legislature, and added that he looks favourably on comparisons to the rebellious former MLA. Lekstrom regularly broke with his party before deciding not to run again in 2013, and voted against the Liberals 26 times between 2001 and 2012.
"Blair Lekstrom's values aren't that far off mine, and if people can vote for Blair Lekstrom, they can vote for John Horgan," he said. "I want to attract candidates in both Peace River ridings that reflect my values, which I believe are similar to those who live here."
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