B.C.’s governing New Democrats have barely a half-dozen rural MLAs, so nobody was expecting much of a high profile presence for those parts of the province in Premier David Eby’s first cabinet.
Boy were we wrong.
Eby not only named Kootenay West’s Katrine Conroy as Minister of Finance, he offered a promise to the province’s smaller interior and northern communities that they’d have a voice in the most important decisions of his government.
“I’ve seen her at work, she is rural tough, and British Columbians want someone like her on their side,” Eby said of Conroy.
“She is a great complement to me in the sense that she comes from a smaller community in the province. She has that rural lens on things. And also I know that she has the values that British Columbians do, the priorities that British Columbians do, around delivering on health care, on housing, on public safety and building a strong economy.”
Conroy is, on paper at least, the polar opposite of Eby.
The new premier is a lawyer in his mid-40s who lives with his wife and two young children at the University of BC, and has spent much of his career fighting urban poverty and homelessness. Conroy is a cattle-breeding rancher in her mid-60s with nine grandchildren, whose husband passed away in 2020 and who lives in an unincorporated community near Castlegar that is so small its only elementary school closed almost 30 years ago.
She’s widely-respected inside the NDP caucus. And although her public profile is low, Conroy’s resume includes having been a power engineer, an early childhood educator, the executive director of a non-profit agency, a college instructor, a small business owner, an Opposition MLA, and minister of both the children’s and the forests ministries.
Conroy is the NDP’s senior-most rural MLA, and her experience in southeastern B.C. is far different from that of her colleagues in Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island. Her background living in a resource-dependent part of the province, made her John Horgan’s choice to balance the priorities of forestry-dependent jobs with old-growth protection in her last cabinet post.
“I think it’s critical that the British Columbians see, in our government team, themselves reflected, their concerns and their priorities reflected, both in the cabinet and in the government as a whole,” said Eby.
“Best of rural life”
“So for rural British Columbians, they’re seeing a new finance minister, who to my mind represents the best of rural life, with a background in agriculture. She’s a hunter, and she is tough. And I am really excited that she is going to complement and bring that perspective in a very high profile and significant role to our team.”
The appointment was a surprisingly strong nod to rural B.C. from Eby. It comes after a leadership bid in which he set aside time to tour northern communities like Terrace, Prince Rupert and Smithers. The only other northern contender for the job would have been Stikine’s Nathan Cullen, but he bowed out before the race even began.
Eby moved Cullen from Municipal Affairs to Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, which has some precedent-setting tasks ahead: negotiating new economic agreements and developing “modern land use plans” with First Nations, implementing old growth review recommendations, and protecting 30 per cent of B.C.’s landmass by 2030, to name a few.
Also in cabinet, representing ridings outside the Lower Mainland and Victoria area, are Sheila Malcolmson in Nanaimo, moved from Mental Health and Addictions to Social Development; former mayor of Tofino, Josie Osborne at Energy and Mines; and several MLAs serving as parliamentary secretaries, including Boundary-Similkameen MLA Roly Russell at Rural Development.
Rural political prospects
Eby’s appointment of Conroy to Finance raises the tantalizing prospect that the urban premier sees more ridings to be won in B.C.’s North and Interior. That region has been such an uphill battle for the NDP, it was all but abandoned by previous leaders in past election campaigns. But with the NDP’s overwhelming success in Metro Vancouver, as well as its new inroads into the Fraser Valley, the only place left for the party to grow will be in the Interior and North anyway.
For Conroy, Finance was not the job she asked for (she wanted to stay in Forests). But she said she’s honoured to be given what is effectively the second-most-powerful position in government.
“We talked about my experience in both a social ministry, and an economic and resource ministry, and my past experiences, and my personal life and what I’ve done, and I thought — yeah, OK, I can do this,” she said. “It’s a big job, but it’s an honour to be able to do this job.”
Conroy said she’s “a pragmatist,” having run businesses and raised a large family, and will bring that lens to the finance portfolio along with her rural roots.
“It gives me a good understanding on rural B.C. but also on the resource industry,” she said.
“I’ve been working in it and I understand that where our funding comes from in this province, much of it comes from the resource industries… I also have an understanding of what real people need and want. I’ve had many conversations with people across the province in my years of service. And I’ve always been delighted to be from rural B.C. and will continue to be and bring that experience to the job.”