BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark hopped on a water taxi as she wrapped up a tour of two NDP-held ridings in British Columbia's northwest. On its way to Prince Rupert's island airport, the taxi navigated a busy working harbour, including a ship loaded with wood pellets bound for European markets.
This is one of B.C.'s many resource-dependent towns. As British Columbia's political parties sprint toward a May 9 election, these places aren't traditional Liberal territory. But nor can the NDP take them for granted, lessons underscored for both parties by the last provincial election in 2013.
The New Democrats "are opposed to LNG, they are opposed to the resource sector that keeps so many of us employed across the province," Ms. Clark proclaimed during a campaign stop at Cowpuccino's Coffee House in Prince Rupert, a riding currently comfortably held by the NDP.
Ms. Clark was speaking to a small crowd of supporters who cheered as she blasted her New Democrat rivals for a platform that she said would kill the fledgling – but still not realized – liquefied natural gas industry that is offering this community an economic boost.
The BC Liberal Party owned the jobs issue in 2013 by featuring Ms. Clark in a hard hat and talking relentlessly about "getting to yes" on resource development projects. The promise of LNG was at the centre of her platform then, and she filled a vacuum created by the rival New Democrats who did not offer a clear jobs plan in the alternative.
In this campaign, Ms. Clark can point to the prospect that LNG may come. But she is doubling down on LNG, highlighting the opportunity that has provided hope for an economic rebound in communities where traditional jobs in forestry and fishing have all but evaporated.
Although resource issues can influence voters across the province, natural resource industries dominate the economy in the north, the interior and much of Vancouver Island. That makes up 32 of 87 seats in this election, and these are battlegrounds that neither the NDP nor the Liberals will ignore.
During the 2013 campaign, a contest the NDP was widely expected to win, a mid-campaign flip-flop proved disastrous for the party after then-leader Adrian Dix declared the party's opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline, an effort to shore up the votes of environmentalists. In the final weeks of the campaign, the Liberal's internal pollsters watched with glee as the support of male voters 55 and older soared and women voters – previously an elusive target for Ms. Clark – came aboard.
This time, NDP Leader John Horgan has made sure he gets his own hard-hat-wearing photo opportunities during the campaign.
The NDP has promised tens of thousands of jobs would be created under its policy platform, with publicly funded energy and transportation projects, and policies designed to boost jobs in forestry and agriculture. That includes a pledge to curb the export of raw logs – a serious irritant for the communities that have watched their sawmills shuttered while logs are shipped overseas for processing.
But in wooing blue-collar workers, the NDP is still hobbled by opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline project and it has promised to review the province's most expensive public-works project in history, the Site C dam, which is already under construction.
So Prince Rupert – in the riding of North Coast, which the New Democrats won handily in 2013 – was still a suitable backdrop for Ms. Clark to promote her liquefied natural gas ambitions that have at least delivered jobs in the early development stages, notwithstanding the fact that none of the proposed plants around the port of Prince Rupert have reached the point of a final investment decision. (BG International Ltd. announced in March that it has abandoned development of its proposed LNG project located on Ridley Island in the port of Prince Rupert. A final investment decision on the proposed Petronas project on nearby Lelu Island has been put on hold.)
Over in the riding of Skeena – one of B.C.'s resource-oriented campaign battlegrounds – the town of Kitimat has seen a short-lived boom as LNG proponents prepared the groundwork for facilities that may yet be built.
Elizabeth MacDonald has lived in Kitimat for 37 years and raised her six children in this town.
"All my adult life, I voted NDP," she said in an interview. She has been an advocate for social programs and the NDP seemed like the party most likely to deliver, she said.
But in this election, she is out campaigning for the Liberal candidate Ellis Ross, the former chief councillor of the Haisla First Nation.
Ms. MacDonald says the promise of LNG – even though nothing more than preliminary site clearing has begun – has made a significant difference in the region.
In particular, she said Indigenous communities are being empowered and uplifted. That, she believes, is the key to addressing the chronic needs for social programs that she spent so long working for – hours of efforts putting food in classrooms and assisting single parents. A large part of her business now is teaching Indigenous students about environmental monitoring so they can be a part of industry while at the same time protecting the land and waters.
"Yes, people need to be supported," she said. "But we need to balance that with training opportunities. … I've never met anyone who wanted to live on welfare."
New Democrat Jennifer Rice, the incumbent in the North Coast riding, acknowledges that voters in Prince Rupert are divided over the prospects of LNG, but she said the Liberals are misleading when Ms. Clark asserts the NDP would shut it down.
"It's simply wrong," she said. The NDP says LNG has to meet certain conditions – just as Ms. Clark set conditions for her approval of the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline.
But Ms. Rice noted that while the Liberal leader talks about LNG jobs that might happen, forestry and fishing jobs – the bedrock of the economy here – have been disappearing under the Liberal government.
"Drive along Highway 16 and pass the shuttered mills – it's heart-breaking," she said. "We won't ignore fishing and forestry."
Ms. Clark also campaigned in Kitimat, where she posed with workers at a job site under a banner that read, "We want LNG." Again, she told voters there that the NDP would "snatch away" their prospects for LNG.
These communities are looking for a message of hope after a steady econonomic decline.
The B.C. economy has shifted over the past decade or more, and it is urban centres that have benefited most. Last year, the average number of employed people in urban communities in B.C.'s southwest climbed, but in almost every other region in the province, the average number declined.
Rising mineral and natural-gas prices early in 2017 have helped restore some balance, but the Liberals have had to readjust their jobs plan to reflect that the strongest prospects for growth are in the high-tech sector, not in natural resources.
Forestry remains under a cloud of uncertainty. In addition to the prospect of punitive tariffs on B.C.'s softwood exports to the United States that industry expects to learn shortly, there is a shrinking supply of fibre for the province's interior mills.
Already, the forestry sector has shrunk since the BC Liberals came to office in 2001, when there were 91,000 workers. In 2016, that number declined to 60,000.
When the riding of Fraser-Nicola switched to the Liberals in the 2013, defeated NDP MLA Harry Lali blamed the loss on the fact that the New Democrats weren't offering enough hope to blue-collar workers.
Mr. Lali singled out the NDP's mid-campaign policy surprise when then-leader Mr. Dix came out against the construction of the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project – a bid to shore up support with environmentalists. The Liberals pounced on the flip-flop with a devastating attack ad, and Mr. Lali watched as his supporters turned their backs on the NDP.
But the continued slide of the forestry sector has exposed a crack in the Liberal jobs plan. Mr. Lali, who hopes on May 9 to take back the riding he held for three terms, said people in the area are angry that the Liberals did not fight to protect their jobs.
"When I was MLA and they tried to shut the mill down, I said 'No.'" Under the NDP government of the 1990s, the log supply was tied to the local mill, a regulation that was scrapped under the Liberals. Now, unemployed mill workers are watching logs from their community shipped to mills in other ridings.
Harbinder Hara worked at the Tolko mill in Merritt for 32 years. He is hoping the NDP will win this time out, because he hasn't seen the Liberal government helping protect forestry jobs. The mill shut down in December and he now finds himself a " 60-plus-years-young man" without job prospects.
"I've been a tradesperson my whole life. I lived my whole life in Merritt, I raised four kids here, and now I am out of work. Who is going to hire me? I'm a really healthy, active guy but there are no jobs in my region."
Earlier this month, Mr. Hara travelled to Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, where workers are also facing shuttered mills.
"We saw a ship loading the raw logs. I was burning. My lord," he said, "how can the government live with that? I would give my vote to the party who is saving the mills for the workers."