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B.C. Conservative Party leader John Rustad speaks to members of the media during a year-end availability at legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Dec. 6, 2023.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s newly resurgent Conservative party envisions sweeping changes to schools, housing, climate and reconciliation with First Nations if it’s elected to form government this fall for the first time in nearly a century.

The party, which has been climbing steadily in the polls and is now well ahead of the BC United, the current Opposition, would repeal the provincial Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act in favour of pivoting to an approach of “economic reconciliation” by signing business deals with individual First Nations.

As well, the party would strike a committee to review all school textbooks and literature to ensure they are “neutral,” party leader John Rustad said during a wide-ranging meeting with The Globe and Mail’s editorial board in Vancouver earlier this month.

“It shouldn’t be about indoctrination of anything, whether that’s environmental or whether that’s political or whether that’s sexual,” Mr. Rustad said, referencing his proposal to censor books deemed by his Conservative government to be inappropriate for students.

While the NDP still remain ahead in most B.C. opinion polls, the Conservative Party of British Columbia is in solid second place, eclipsing the Opposition BC United, formerly the BC Liberals, a party that held government in the province for the first decade and a half of this century. However, an Angus Reid poll released this week found that more than half of the 1,203 British Columbians it surveyed in an online panel couldn’t identify Mr. Rustad as the leader of his party.

On Friday, BC United’s caucus chair, Lorne Doerkson, who represents Cariboo-Chilcotin, crossed the floor to join the Conservatives, giving the Conservatives a caucus of three. The NDP holds 55 seats in the current 87-seat legislature and BC United now has 25. Independents and Green party have two seats each.

Mr. Rustad is a five-term MLA from the Nechako Lakes riding west of Prince George and, for four years, was the minister of Indigenous reconciliation in Christy Clark’s Liberal government.

Mr. Rustad and Bruce Banman, of Abbotsford South, both sit as BC Conservatives in the legislature after being elected as members of BC United in 2020. Mr. Rustad was ejected from the BC United caucus in 2022 after his social-media posts cast doubt that people are directly responsible for the climate changing around the globe. Mr. Banman crossed the floor to join Mr. Rustad last September and has refused to say whether he agrees or disagrees with climate change.

Long-time pollsters and conservative strategists in Western Canada say Mr. Rustad is clearly riding the popularity of federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and that – if he wants to win as many seats as possible – he would do well to remain laser focused on that politician’s main message of how life is unaffordable for most people.

He must, they warn, stay away from campaigning on other more-divisive policies, which echo the reactionary “culture war” currents now animating Donald Trump’s Republican Party in the United States. In the past two months, three BC Conservative candidates have quit or been fired by the party, one for xenophobic and homophobic posts and two for supporting quack COVID-19 science.

Mr. Rustad acknowledged that Surrey and Vancouver Island’s myriad ridings will determine who wins this election and added that his party plans to run a full slate of 93 candidates. He said he reckons he’ll spend six days a week this summer travelling the province hammering home the multiple crises people face, including sky-high housing costs, spiking grocery bills, gaps in access to healthcare, the poisoned illicit drug supply, the ailing forestry sector and deficit spending.

At the meeting with The Globe, he said his party is not yet ready to unveil the planks of its election platform that will address these problems, but did say he wants to scrap most of the NDP’s housing policies.

“It’s more of the question ‘Is there anything I’d like to keep?’ Which is: probably not much,” Mr. Rustad said.

He singled out the “authoritarian” way the province has selected 30 communities to produce a targeted number of new homes over the next five years, an effort the NDP says is spurring these cities to do more to confront their housing shortages.

“I don’t believe that they should come in and override local government and local government decision-making,” Mr. Rustad said.

Regarding health care, he said Conservatives would commit to maintaining the universal system paid for by the government, but would look to increase the number of private clinics providing services and procedures such as hip replacements. This privately provided care would be covered for patients by the public system, he said, an approach that Ontario and Alberta have embraced as a way to reduce wait times and one even B.C.’s NDP government is increasingly using as well.

Mr. Rustad said a group of medical professionals recently told him the closest analogue to B.C.’s healthcare system is that of a totalitarian dictatorship across the Pacific.

“I’m told that there’s only one jurisdiction that even comes close to following what we do and that’s North Korea – and it’s not exactly a stellar model, from my perspective, of success in health care,” said Mr. Rustad, who added that his government would immediately fire Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry over her support for COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Mr. Rustad refused to identify the group of medical professionals that provided this analysis.

On climate change, Mr. Rustad has been vocal about ending the province’s carbon tax, which the BC Liberals created in 2008 as the first such levy in North America.

Mr. Rustad argues the science around human causes of climate change is “a theory and it’s not proven,” a position widely at odds with accepted science. But Mr. Rustad maintains there is no pressing need to legislate solutions.

“It’s not even a crisis,” he told The Globe.

These views prompted BC United Leader Kevin Falcon to kick Mr. Rustad out of caucus two summers ago on his birthday.

The animus between the two long-time politicians continues. Earlier this month, conversations between the BC United and the BC Conservatives aimed at providing a united front against the NDP fell apart. Mr. Rustad called his former colleague “irrational and unreasonable and prepared to lie.”

Mr. Falcon said that Mr. Rustad put his own ambition above ensuring a “free-market coalition” of conservatives return to power when he rejected the plan to split the ridings up with 46 for BC United and 47 for the Conservatives.

Mr. Falcon said in an interview this week that he remains confident that right-leaning voters will realize BC United has more in common with the surging federal Conservative party than its eponymous provincial party, which he characterized as “extreme” group that is now working with political operatives to pressure him to resign.

Ken Boessenkool was Christy Clark’s short-lived chief of staff in 2012 as the BC Liberals were contemplating two ways of dealing with the provincial Conservatives in order to beat the NDP the following year: “crush ‘em or merge with ‘em.”

But he said that may not work now.

“It’s not clear to me that Rustad is congenitally capable of moving to the centre and capturing those centre Liberal votes so it might be a little tougher for him to do the crush ‘em strategy,” he said.

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