Richard Cannings says politics wasn’t on his radar. So when the NDP came calling last June, asking him to run in Penticton, his answer was no.
But after about three weeks, he started coming around.
“I obviously told my wife and other friends, and they were all very supportive and positive,” he said. “And then I thought maybe I could make a difference … There really won’t be another chance to run in provincial politics. I thought this would be a great challenge.”
Mr. Cannings is a fresh face in politics – the man’s name has never been on a ballot. But he has credentials to back him. He has worked extensively as an ecologist in British Columbia, sitting on several high-profile environment boards and commissions, and has become a well-known figure in the community.
The 59-year-old thinks it’s a combo that might send him to Victoria.
There is no incumbent in Penticton – long-time Liberal MLA Bill Barisoff announced last year he wouldn’t seek re-election – and Dan Ashton, Penticton’s mayor who is running for the Liberals, is arguably Mr. Cannings’s biggest opponent.
The Liberals have had a stranglehold on the area for 17 years. Mr. Barisoff won the Okanagan-Boundary riding in 1996, which then included Penticton. Mr. Barisoff won again in 2001 and 2005 when the city was part of the Penticton-Okanagan Valley riding. In 2009, when Penticton became its own riding, Mr. Barisoff beat NDP candidate Cameron Phillips by more than 3,000 votes.
Mr. Cannings, a biologist, worked in the zoology department at the University of British Columbia for more than 15 years before moving back to the Okanagan Valley in 1995. He has written a dozen books about the environment and the province. He spent eight years as co-chair on the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada focusing on birds, 11 years on the B.C. Environmental Appeal Board and five on the B.C. Forest Appeals Commission. He currently owns a consulting firm that, among other things, puts together large-scale bird surveys.
“I’m not a career politician … I tried to think of a scientist, a biologist, who has gone into politics, and there really haven’t been any I could think of,” he said. “And I think this is something I could add to the conversation in Victoria – a different perspective.”
If elected, Mr. Cannings believes his voice on environmental issues will be heard, whether it’s part of a ruling government or not. He says one of the biggest issues to tackle will be getting B.C. back the power to do environmental assessments on major projects such as the Enbridge pipeline.
B.C.’s ability to shape the project was curtailed in June, 2010, when it accepted the National Energy Board’s environmental review process as its own on major project proposals, including transmission lines, offshore oil development and pipelines.
As much as provincewide issues are important to Mr. Cannings, he is quick to point out that he’s a local Penticton guy, born and raised. His father was born in town as well, and his mother in neighbouring Summerland. He has worked on numerous local projects, including running the Meadowlark nature festival for the last 15 years.
He says the biggest issue on the minds’ of voters in his community is the expansion of Penticton Regional Hospital, a project that has long been ranked as the Interior Health Authority’s top priority, but still hasn’t received the official go-ahead.
“I’m sure it will be done, no matter who gets in, but it’s something the Liberals could have done years ago,” he said. “And I think that issue of credibility is much on people’s minds here.”
Mr. Cannings says running for office has been a steep learning curve so far, but an experience he’s thoroughly enjoying.
“I’m learning very quickly what a lot of work this is, but it’s exciting,” he said. “The wonderful thing about being a candidate is that it gives you the licence to walk into any meeting, knock on anyone’s door, go into any store and talk to people about their issues … As you can imagine, it’s very different than my life before.”