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Four-corner Sea to Sky

A provincial election primer for Whistler and beyond

Polling might indicate good fortunes for the NDP across the board, but the West Vancouver-Sea to Sky riding could be in for quite a lot in the way of kissing hands and shaking babies in the upcoming provincial election as the riding comes back into play with a repeat strong Green candidate, a retiring incumbent and a well-known challenger for the governing NDP.

Any and all politicians will respond to a query about polling numbers by telling you the only numbers they live by are the ones that come in on election day. It’s a trite response anyone asking can expect to get (sort of like a polite greeting), but polling does tell a story, and what a story it is telling in 2024.

Seven months out from the Oct. 19 election, polling suggests the incumbent, long-in-tooth NDP government led by David Eby is going to cruise to a comfortable win, riding high on (depending who you ask) voter contentedness with the current trajectory, aversion to change, or a distracted opposition grappling with a rising challenger on its right flank.

Down here in West Vancouver-Sea to Sky, voters can expect a spotlight to be trained on their riding because of how many players have skin in the game with either historical support, a real chance at winning the seat for their party for the first time, or the thrown deck that is the right in B.C. politics.

Four-corner race?

Long held by BC United, the NDP has never made much in the way of inroads in the riding, but the Greens have emerged as a rising force locally, and there’s a changing dynamic on the right.

“It’s the kind of riding that could be a three-cornered contest, or even a four-cornered contest with BC United having to contend with the BC Conservatives,” said UBC political science lecturer Stewart Prest in an interview with Pique.

Prest said there is a real opportunity for the NDP to make progress locally and across the province given the dynamics on the right—and that would be quite a development, because recently, the story of this riding’s election results has had more of a green tinge.

In the 2020 election, the riding turned into a battleground after decades of solid BC Liberal support, with Green Party candidate Jeremy Valeriote coming within a whisker of securing the party’s first riding on the B.C. mainland, falling just 60 votes short in a judicial recount that was a green bright spot on what was otherwise an orange landslide.

We’ll get back to them, but the Greens have come second here in four of the last five provincial elections, explaining why the party spends so many resources in the riding.

For the incumbents, the BC Liberals have held the seat at every election since 1991—but the BC Liberals aren’t around anymore, having renamed themselves BC United in mid-2023 to a tepid response from an electorate confused by the change of brand (and anecdotally suspicious of the dropping of “Liberal” from the name amid the unrelated Liberal Party of Canada’s declining popularity).

Changing dynamics on the right

Current MLA, Jordan Sturdy, first won the riding in 2013, and told Pique he plans to step down before the next election to focus on his family business.

The party he leaves behind, BC United, is slowly moving through candidate announcements, and is yet to get to West Vancouver-Sea to Sky. Sturdy is one of 10 (as of early March) of BC United’s 26 MLAs not running, a factor that gives up a crucial incumbency advantage through name-recognition.

Sturdy may be leaving at the right time—he could be considered somewhat of a circumstantial, perhaps even reluctant politician, who planned to leave politics in 2020 (he said as much to Pique when interviewed about his plans for the election)—and BC United is facing a challenge from the BC Conservatives on its right flank that could be curtains for the party’s chances at the election… and maybe even beyond.

“We are in a position where we can ask those kinds of existential questions about the former BC Liberals, about the BC United Party,” said Prest. “For decades and decades in B.C. we’ve seen a kind of dynamic where on the left of centre we have a strong NDP, which at times has been out of power for considerable lengths of time, but continues to exist and to hold itself together and to compete for power, and on the right we have this succession of right-of-centre parties.”

Indeed, the NDP coming to power in 1991 precipitated the complete collapse of the Social Credit Party within that term after a four-decade run as the ruling party of the province (besides a three-year interruption in the ’70s), while the BC Liberals will not return to power—with that name, at least—after former Premier John Horgan ended its 16 years of ruling in 2017.

“I think it’s far too early to pronounce BC United a dead party walking, but they have to be fundamentally concerned about their future,” Prest said. 

“The more that we see MLAs declining to run again and bleed away that incumbent advantage, or other potential candidates opt to run for the BC Conservatives … All of these are real warning signs for a party that is going to have its hands full simply treading water in this election, and not losing that pride of second place to the Conservatives.”

That fight means that, as it stands now, provincially, the election is shaping up to be the NDPs to lose.

“The focus of the BC Conservatives and the BC United is really going to be on one another in this upcoming election, as things stand right now,” said Prest. “If one emerges as an undisputed champion of the right, then they can make their argument more strongly against the NDP and then vie for power, but as of right now it seems they’ll be competing on who can be that voice more effectively between the two of them.”

Down on the riding level, Sturdy giving up the BC United’s incumbent advantage heading into the next election is just another challenge for a party that has its hands full.

Since August 2023, cumulative polling done by various firms has shown the BC Conservatives either close to, tied with, or ahead of BC United in voter support—a development Prest said could divide the right and let the NDP hold onto power without much trouble.

It’s a commonly-held concern of those opposing the NDP on the right. Despite planning to retire, Sturdy said he believes in BC United, and called the rising Conservatives “naive … to believe that they’re going to be anything more than a spoiler.”

Kevin Falcon was in the riding earlier this month, facing about 50 Squamoleans at a town hall on March 7. A few were there hoping for a candidate to be announced, but besides an introduction from Sturdy, Falcon stood and spoke alone for well over an hour, fielding questions on a vast array of policy talking points.

Pique asked about timeline, and Falcon said he expects an announcement “within 45 days,” saying the party is still vetting prospective candidates.

Over the hour Falcon spoke, the Conservatives weren’t mentioned once, with his talk and Q&A focused on the NDP and his record as a BC Liberal minister in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

Asked after the event whether he is concerned the Conservatives really could be a spoiler in the coming election, Falcon said that concern is always there.

“[The] BC Conservative Party have been around 70 years, and they’re not connected to the federal party at all, but they do have the benefit of having the same name, which creates voter confusion,” he said.

The polling that showed BC United and the BC Conservatives vying for second place was all noise from that confusion, he said.

“Most people, when they’re asked who they’re voting for and they say conservative, they’re thinking Pierre Poilievre … they don’t even know who the leader of the BC Conservative party is,” Falcon said.

“By the time the election rolls around and people are paying more attention, they’ll know exactly who I am, and who we are, and that we are the true coalition that’s been around since the Social Credit days.”

Despite being an elephant in the room, like BC United, the BC Conservatives are yet to nominate a candidate for the riding, but the party is working its way around the province announcing candidates for outer rural and inner-city ridings, including the neighbouring West Vancouver-Capilano riding, all but ensuring a BC Conservative candidate will be on local ballots come October. 

The party also confirmed to Pique it plans to run candidates in every riding in the province, with an announcement pending locally. 

An opportunity for the NDP

Polls that show BC United and the BC Conservatives fighting for second place show the NDP well ahead of both.

“We see an electoral map that seems to be shaping up pretty well, all things considered, for the NDP,” said Prest. “So much can happen between now and our expected election date, but with the Conservative Party seeming to have real momentum behind it, we could expect some voters to continue to be loyal to the BC Liberal brand, there is a real potential split there. The NDP with a strong campaign can then effectively come up and win enough plurality.”

The NDP has never held West Vancouver-Sea to Sky in any capacity in its current form, or any of its predecessors as West Vancouver-Garibaldi or West Vancouver-Howe Sound.

The party is making a bet it can change that, with its recently-announced candidate, Whistler Councillor Jen Ford.

With a long track record in municipal politics and experience working on a provincial level through the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM), Ford has long been a rising star, and looks to be the NDP’s best bet it can snatch the riding from a BC United grappling with the right, and deny the Greens a foothold on the mainland.

It’s quite a bet: the riding has long been the domain of the BC Liberals, and before that, the Social Credit Party (and before that, the Liberals again, all the way back to 1966), putting it firmly in not quite the centre-right, but at least the anti-NDP column on the provincial level (note, the BC Liberal Party was affiliated with the centrist Liberal Party of Canada up until 1987).

Indeed, for the last five elections locally, it has been the centre-right that was united, while the centre-left split itself between the NDP and the Greens… until 2020, when the left (and quite a lot of the centre) broke for the Greens across the entire riding.

Ford, who was the only candidate seeking the local NDP nomination as of this writing,  said she is hearing voters are heartened by policy moves by the NDP since Eby took over, and the prospect of an MLA in government is appealing to voters.

“My bias tells me, polling is telling me, and people I am speaking to are telling me that generally people like what the NDP has done, generally the platform is supportable, and generally people are wanting someone in government rather than electing a party that may not form government,” she said.

“Does the NDP have a good chance of turning enough voters from Green or United? I think so, because people want to support a member in government and a platform that is supportable.”

Ford said she believes the desire for change permeating many aspects of Canadian politics is attainable through a re-elected NDP.

“Their platform has been aggressive, their legislation has been aggressive, but I think as we’ve seen in many different aspects of the political atmosphere in our province and in Canada, people are looking for aggressive change to change the things that haven’t been working,” she said.

Ford may be onto something there: Prest said the chance of another NDP MLA on an already large government bench in Victoria could well be appealing for voters—with the right kind of candidate.

“It would come down more in terms of personality—a particularly distinct voice within government may be appealing,” he said.

“If there’s a sense of a powerful candidate who has a good chance of being in cabinet, and can really make the case to voters while campaigning that this will take the riding in the direction that people want to go, then it can become more of a factor.”

That factor is front-of-mind for Ford, who, as mentioned, has a long CV as councillor, and has worked with higher levels of government through the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District as chair, and through the Union of BC Municipalities as president—all factors which could make her well-placed to secure the confidence of the riding, and a seat in cabinet.

“I don’t want to sound overconfident, but I am in it to win it, to be sure,” she said.

That could be a spanner in the works for the BC Green Party and local candidate Jeremy Valeriote—though Ford said she won’t be focusing directly on her challengers.

“Is my campaign going to focus on him? Nope. My campaign focuses on the issues of the Sea to Sky, and who can best serve the people of West Vancouver-Sea to Sky,” she said.

A Green in the wings

Valeriote’s name should be familiar—he was the Green candidate in 2020, and was declared as the Green Party candidate for West Vancouver-Sea to Sky all the way back in April 2023, giving him the first-mover advantage of almost an entire year.

The riding is fertile soil for the Green Party—it has done well here for the last five election cycles—but Prest warned trends aren’t in the party’s favour on a provincial level.

“Looking at provincial tendencies, the Green Party doesn’t currently have a lot of momentum on its side,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to be resonating very well, it doesn’t seem able to take advantage of any sense of frustration with the BC NDP on issues of the environment or issues on affordability—though that may change quickly.”

For his part, Valeriote is regarded as a strong candidate—after all, he came within 60 votes of winning the riding in 2020.

Granular polling-place results show that, in that year, he almost completely overran Squamish—the NDP’s traditional heartland in the riding—so he, along with the provincial Green Party, appears to be placing a fair bet, too.

Valeriote is confident: He told Pique he feels the winds are blowing in the Green Party’s direction, but he isn’t taking anything for granted.

“We’re doing a lot of work to improve those chances, but we feel good about the landscape as it is,” he said.

Valeriote’s campaign vastly underspent Sturdy’s in advertising expenses in 2020, yet still came within a whisker of snatching the seat. Valeriote’s campaign spent $22,402.33 on advertising, while Sturdy spent $38,195.99, and the NDP candidate—Keith Murdoch—spent $7,698.29.

Despite the orange-tinted polling dominating provincial political discourse for months, Valeriote said he believes the NDP has “slim chances” in the riding considering its candidates finished last of the three major parties in the previous two elections.

“What we’re offering as BC Greens is an independent and evidence-based third party that can bring new ideas to the table and hold the government accountable,” said Valeriote about the upcoming campaign.

“Every government gets long in the tooth and develops blind spots or complacency, [and] the value proposition of a BC Green MLA is to be a watchdog for that, keep an eye on things, keep presenting new, innovative ideas and influence policy in the legislature in a way that’s constructive.”

Valeriote actually won the initial count on election night in 2020, and only fell behind after mail-in ballots were counted. A judicial recount found he fell short by only 60 votes in what was the closest race of the election—which could make voters more likely to back him this time around, he said.

“Voters are very observant, they remember what happened last time, and they understand what it’s like to lose something by a thin margin,” Valeriote said.

“There’s a lot of support that comes from finishing very close, [and] some people maybe wish they’d voted differently if they knew it was going to be that close.”

With a 10-month head start on the other candidates, he’s had plenty of opportunity to get himself out there and make his case.

Valeriote is a former Town of Gibsons councillor, so knows Ford through UBCM, and is the husband of the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s top bureaucrat, Ginny Cullen, adding another dash of personal intrigue to what is already a complex political race.

Moving boundaries

It’s not just the moving pieces of politics and parties playing a role here: The BC Electoral Boundaries Commission has been hard at work, moving a large chunk of West Vancouver into the neighbouring riding.

According to 2020 data, the area that is now part of West Vancouver-Capilano supported the BC Liberals by a large margin, putting this riding well within the Greens column if the result were repeated over again.

Don’t believe it? The neighbourhood excised from West Vancouver-Sea to Sky in the redistribution was West Bay, which has four polling places that counted 363 votes, of which 232 went to Sturdy and 85 went to Valeriote. Without them, Valeriote would have won the riding by almost 90 votes, and that isn’t even counting the advance voting polling station in that neighbourhood, which Sturdy won by even more, making the neighbourhood a keen loss for BC United. 2020 was also the year voters were instructed on where they could vote, tying neighbourhoods to locations, and cementing the reliability of the data.

All this to say, West Vancouver-Sea to Sky is in for quite the race, but given 2020 was also quite the nail-biter, this might be the “new normal” for the riding.

With a potentially divided right made up of two parties after the same voters, an NDP with a well-heeled candidate and a strong Green candidate who already has a campaign’s worth of pounding the pavement, West Vancouver-Sea to Sky will be a race to watch—because after so many years of BC Liberal strength, the riding is very much in play.

“The Green Party may choose, for strategic reasons, to really pour resources into the riding, so if you’re looking for wild cards in the race, that really is one. If people are frustrated with the NDP but unwilling to vote for a right-of-centre party, that Green candidate may yet burst forward,” said Prest.

“It’s going to be a fascinating seat to watch.”