Adrian Dix walks into a large greenhouse and is suddenly surrounded by fields of spruce seedlings. This is his kind of campaign stop.
"Amazing," the NDP Leader says to no one in particular. And within minutes the self-described policy geek is grilling Mike von Hahn, owner of Silva Gro, the massive seedlings nursery that Mr. Dix is using as a backdrop for a forestry announcement.
He wants to know about everything from heating systems and harvest time to current capacity and future volume targets. Along the way, Mr. Dix will drop obscure references and mention arcane facts he has stored in his encyclopedic memory vault. Premier Nerd is not a sobriquet that would likely offend the NDP Leader one day.
Mr. Dix has arrived in the north to win the 2013 B.C. election.
Before his stop here Wednesday, he spent the day in Prince George, speaking to a caucus of provincial mayors and visiting a machine shop on the campus of the College of New Caledonia to make a statement around jobs training. The city is split into two ridings and the NDP has never won an election without winning them both. Mr. Dix knows that if his party doesn't win them this time, it will likely again be sitting in opposition after the May 14 vote.
Prince George was the first place Mr. Dix visited following Monday's televised leaders' debate, one that he did well in by most estimates. The NDP Leader is his own worst critic, so would only allow that he thought the debate went fine. He wouldn't concede that he was nervous, but did admit to feeling enormous pressure.
That pressure is a burden that is rarely spoken about on the campaign but is always there in the background. It is formed by the knowledge that the very existence of the BC NDP is at stake in this campaign. The latest polls show the NDP leading Christy Clark's BC Liberals by 14 points, making this the party's best opportunity to gain office since 1991. If the NDP can't win this election – given all the troubles and lethal political baggage the Liberals have accumulated after more than 12 years in power – it's hard to imagine the party surviving in its present form. And Mr. Dix knows this.
That's why he is here, pounding hard on issues that he is assured have resonance. Matters like forest practices and the foreign workers debate, one that exploded in these parts a few months ago. It was HD Mining in Tumbler Ridge that brought in Chinese temporary workers to fill jobs that many felt should have been filled by Canadians. But HD hasn't been the only company to take advantage of this practice in which the workers are often paid wages 15 to 20 per cent less than the going rate in Canada. It has sparked widespread resentment in the North, a bitterness that Mr. Dix believes is unhealthy and possibly dangerous.
He is proposing a series of measures to address the issue, including ensuring companies operate under the same employment standards with which their competitors are forced to comply. But mostly, Mr. Dix believes the answer lies in a massive investment in jobs training. It is probably the most important and highly visible plank in his election platform.
"I like what he has to say on this issue," said Leila Abubaka, a 27-year-old marketing student from the College of New Caledonia where Mr. Dix held a news conference on skills training on Tuesday. "He wants to invest more in schools and I believe help kids get jobs once they get out of high school or college or whatever. I don't hear the other leaders talking about that."
While in Prince George, Mr. Dix also told B.C. mayors he'd commit to a stand-alone ministry for local government, a move they applauded. He's talked, too, about increasing resources to cut waiting times for permit applications, and highlighted an earlier pledge to create a job protection commissioner. It raised questions from reporters on the tour about Ms. Clark's contention that Mr. Dix plans to grow government. Does the Liberal Leader not have a point?
Mr. Dix says all his plans are fully costed and his proposed changes will make government more efficient, not less. He maintains there is nothing wrong with making moves that will create widespread benefits. But that, of course, remains to be seen.
The NDP expects fresh postdebate polling to come out this week that will show the race tightening even further; the current lead is already down three points from the start of the campaign. Mr. Dix says the narrowing is inevitable. But it will not force him to make any campaign course corrections, he insists. He is going to try to win the election being positive, not negative, by giving long, thoughtful and often complex answers to questions and not providing the quick sound bites that the television and social media age demand.
And at almost every campaign stop, he shows just what an anomaly he is.
"Today they thought they'd put me in front of a bunch of trees," Mr. Dix joked before starting his news conference at Silva Gro. "You know, to show you just how charismatic I am."