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Looking for votes in New Democrat country

David Parkins for The Globe and Mail/david parkins The Globe and Mail

It was no random act of campaign scheduling that brought Brian Topp to British Columbia the day after he announced his desire to be the leader of the federal New Democratic Party.

A casual observer might have questioned the strategy. After all, Quebec has more New Democrat MPs than British Columbia these days. And the party's caucus met in Quebec City this week, creating opportunities to press the flesh in that province.

But the NDP was little more than a fringe party in Quebec until the so-called "orange surge" of the spring federal election.

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Not so in British Columbia, where the party has won at the provincial level three times and where a solid base of existing members was created during last year's provincial leadership campaign.

As a result, British Columbia has more paid-up New Democrats than any other province – about 30,000 of them – and one out of every three Canadians who has bought an NDP membership lives in B.C. By comparison, Quebec has just 1,695 card-carrying New Democrats.

A membership in the provincial party brings an automatic membership in the federal party, and with it a vote in the race to replace Jack Layton. Which renders B.C. fertile ground for candidates.

"The leadership candidates are going to focus in the early stages on trying to reach out to these existing members to attempt to move them into at least listening to them and, if possible, committing to them," said Doug McArthur, a professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University, who was an NDP provincial cabinet minister in Saskatchewan before becoming a senior public servant in British Columbia.

In the end, the key to success is probably in Quebec, where candidates will have to bring new members into the party, Prof. McArthur said.

But for the moment, B.C. is the place to be.

"I did go there on my first full day of the campaign, and I went there because British Columbia is a key part of the heart of our party and our largest section and nobody is going to be elected leader of the New Democratic Party without significant support in British Columbia," said Mr. Topp, who, as of Thursday, was still the only person in the race.

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Mr. Topp has significant support in British Columbia. He helped provincial NDP Leader Adrian Dix prepare for a fall election that failed to transpire and would have run that campaign.

However, three veteran New Democrat MPs in B.C. are also thinking about leadership bids: Peter Julian, Nathan Cullen and Libby Davies.

The federal party has never had a British Columbia-born leader. But Prof. McArthur said more people, even in British Columbia, are likely to think that, tactically and strategically, the NDP should choose a leader from Quebec given the success of the party there. "I don't think people will be saying it's B.C.'s turn," he said.

Don Davies, the New Democrat who represents Vancouver Kingsway in Ottawa, is not so sure. "A candidate from B.C. will have a pretty good advantage, I think, in terms of getting an initial boost out of the people in B.C.," he said.

Given the importance of British Columbia to the race, any leadership hopeful will have to consider how best to appeal to the diverse province.

Mr. Davies said the environment must be addressed by anyone hoping to win political points on Canada's West Coast. "Even our so-called small-c politicians like [former Liberal premier]Gordon Campbell was a leader in terms of environmental protection, bringing in the first carbon tax," he said.

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But respect for the West is also important, Mr. Davies said.

Dawn Black, the former New Democrat MP and an early supporter of Mr. Topp, agrees.

"British Columbia, by its very geographic nature, is a long way from the centre of Canada, and there's always been a sense of perhaps not having been factored into decisions made in central Canada for a long time," said Ms. Black, who now sits for her party in the provincial legislature.

"From a Canadian perspective," she said, "the people in British Columbia want to know that they are heard, want to know that they are listened to, want to know that their opinions matter."

Trio of B.C. MPs weigh running

Three New Democrat MPs from British Columbia are considering entering the race for their party's leadership: Libby Davies, Nathan Cullen and Peter Julian.

All are political veterans. Ms. Davies has been a central figure in her caucus but is not fluently bilingual – a clear disadvantage in a party that is so heavily weighted in Quebec.

Some political observers say the next leader of the NDP will have to come from Quebec for that reason. But British Columbia is also a crucial province for the party.

"British Columbia is pivotal," Mr. Cullen said, "not just because of numbers of our members that live there, but also because of its increasing strength in Confederation. B.C.'s voice is going to be increasingly important in the direction that the country takes."

Mr. Julian said there is no doubt that British Columbia "will be an important aspect to the whole campaign because we have a strong membership and that membership is going to grow in the coming months."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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