BC Conservative leader John Rustad says he’s raring to go for next year’s provincial election — and while that might not appear to be the case in much of the province, in the Peace Region the Conservatives are already shaping up to be a real threat against incumbent BC United MLAs.
The party has set its two candidates for the area, and believes the long-held conservative values of the north could translate into two of its strongest areas of support in the province.
“The Peace Region has, of course, always been more conservative,” said Rustad. “So there’s potential there. But really we are polling well in regions right across the province.”
Rustad this week announced farmer Jordan Kealy as his candidate in Peace River North. Kealy is well-known in the agriculture community for his farm-to-table beef business, but also in local politics as the director for electoral area B in the Peace River Regional District.
“Right now in the house we really don’t see many true conservatives,” Kealy said in an interview with Northern Beat.
“I see two of them on one side, and they almost get treated like terrorists for common sense perspectives a lot of people agree with.”
Desire to solve bigger issues inspired candidacy
The 41-year-old moved to Cecil Lake, near Fort St. John, almost 20 years ago and has worked as a mechanic, farmer and local politician. He said concerns over the carbon tax, and the overwhelmed state of the healthcare system, spurred him to consider provincial politics.
“I love my current role in being able to represent constituents, but I kept on seeing these bigger provincial issues that I couldn’t really do much about in local government,” Kealy said.
In the past two decades, a person in the Peace looking to take a run at office in Victoria would likely have chosen to seek a nomination with the BC Liberal Party, now known as BC United. But Kealy said many no longer consider that party their political home.
“The people in my riding, they are going to have an option now,” he said. “If they’ve got conservative values they can actually vote for a Conservative. The only reason it’s been Liberal is because they haven’t actually had a good Conservative party as an option.”
BC Conservatives and BC United battle for most conservative
The BC Conservatives have undergone a high-profile makeover since the 2020 election when party leader Trevor Bolin picked up 34 per cent of the vote in Peace River North against BC Liberal incumbent Dan Davies.
Since then, Bolin has left the party, while Rustad and Abbotsford-South MLA Bruce Banman both defected from BC United to give the BC Conservatives official party status in the legislature. Provincial polls suggest the Conservatives are currently the second-most popular party in the province, behind the NDP — though a good chunk of that may be due to voters confusing them with the federal Conservative Party of Canada (the two parties are not connected).
Even Davies is burnishing his conservative credentials as part of his attempt to win a third term in office for BC United.
“Everyone knows I’m a conservative,” he said. “I even ran for the federal Conservative nomination back in 2011, which garnered a lot of attention in the area.
“So I think people are pretty smart. Let’s be honest, they know that our party is the right-of-centre party and the party that is the government-in-waiting, the adults in the room.
“I have a lot of faith and confidence in the folks in the Peace Country that they are not just going to look at whatever is in the wind that day and go with it. They understand and get the political climate here in British Columbia.”
Wildfire, carbon tax healthcare, hot topics in north
Kealy said locals are angry at the provincial wildfire response this summer, and felt they were largely left to fend to themselves. He said the NDP government’s redesign of emergency laws this fall don’t cut it either.
“I was so mad because I had neighbours getting evacuated from their houses and farms, I had fires on one side, another evacuation on another side,” said Kealy.
“I had people bringing their animals to my farm. I even got walking pneumonia, there was so much smoke. And the only solution I got from provincial politics was they are going to revamp the entire system, not give us what we need in the meantime.”
The carbon tax, which the NDP has vowed to keep and BC United wants to exempt from home heating fuels, is also a hot topic in the north. The Conservatives propose to scrap the carbon tax, fuel tax, fuel standards and the NDP’s CleanBC plan.
“That would probably be my number one thing,” said Kealy. “I would love, when I’m in power, to be able to scrap that tax along with the others.”
On healthcare, Kealy said the system needs a full audit to determine its problems, much like he said he would conduct an inspection on a piece of machinery as a mechanic to diagnose a solution.
B.C.’s north has been particularly hard hit by hospital closures, emergency room curtailments, a lack of family doctors and a shortage of nurses.
Crime and vandalism inspired candidate to run
In Peace River South, local businessman Larry Neufeld said crime and vandalism in Dawson Creek were two big reasons he sought the BC Conservative nomination.
“My business was broken into six times in two years,” he said. “It was all done to feed drug addiction. We have video of each of the individuals doing things… and the criminal justice system was incapable or unwilling to act.”
The crime crisis in Dawson Creek has been well-documented, with a small group responsible for a large amount of damage and theft. There have been few arrests or prosecutions. Earlier this year, the situation escalated to the point that frustrated residents formed groups to try and recover their stolen property from homes known to be occupied by the criminals.
Neufeld, who owns an environmental engineering firm, said he didn’t even bother reporting his sixth break-in. He said he’s paid in excess of $70,000 in damages, out of his own pocket.
“This is something I feel strongly enough about that I’m willing to make a sacrifice in my personal life to better my local community,” said the 52-year-old.
“This is the community I raised my children in, and hope to raise my grandchildren in, and I desperately want it to be a better place.”
Neufeld, a former reserve infantry platoon commander, said he also wants to see balanced provincial budgets and less government involvement in the education system (particularly citing the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity curriculum).
“I’m a fiscal conservative by nature without question, and as far as what I’ve seen come from some of the other parties, particularly the incumbent, I don’t see them providing the voice of the conservative population that lives in our riding,” he said.
BC United are the path to unseating NDP, says Bernier
Mike Bernier, the BC United incumbent MLA for Peace River South, said he doesn’t take re-election to a fourth term for granted but thinks the BC Conservatives aren’t resonating with the public as much as they think they are.
“The big thing is as I remind people in our riding, the BC Conservatives have nothing to do with the federal Conservatives,” said Bernier. “That confusion is there. And when I tell people that, they go, ah okay I thought I was voting for [federal Conservative leader Pierre] Poilievre.”
BC United leader Kevin Falcon said this week he doesn’t consider the BC Conservatives, or their early candidates, much of a threat.
“They’ve always been a bit of a thorn in our side, that’s okay,” he said.
“I’m going to focus on the fact that we’re going to get great candidates, great public policy, and go into that election as the only group that has a credible chance to step into the premiers office and actually run government from day one.”
It’s a sentiment Bernier echoed.
“The BC Conservatives have not elected an MLA in almost 50 years,” he said, noting their only MLAs in that time have been defections from people elected under other party banners.
“There is no hope in hell they will form opposition or government. So if people are ticked off with the NDP in my riding, as they are telling me, well like or not, the path to get rid of the NDP would be voting for BC United, myself and Dan.”
The two Conservatives, though, say they are confident by offering something different they can retake the ridings from the Liberal/United banner for the first time since 1996, when the ridings were held by the now-defunct Reform and Social Credit parties.
“I don’t think you have to be a lawyer or a doctor to be a politician, especially right now,” said Kealy.
“If you look at my profile, compared to a lot of people in politics, I’m very different. The great thing about that is I offer a perspective to things that very few politicians do.”
BC United is hoping for a change election, to sweep the NDP out of power. But in the Peace, the winds of change could mean something else entirely.