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Riding profile: In Kootenay East, infrastructure is top concern

Tucked away in British Columbia's southeast corner is a riding so distant from the Lower Mainland that it's in a different time zone – maybe culturally as much as geographically.

In Kootenay East, people synchronize their clocks with Calgary, not Vancouver; they often tune their radios to Prairie stations, and when kids graduate from high school, most think about going to university in Alberta, not B.C.

That may explain in part why Liberal incumbent Bill Bennett – whose rough-hewn charm would make him seem at home in Alberta's Wild Rose Party – has had a lock on the riding for so long.

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First elected MLA for Kootenay East in 2001, the former operator of fly-in hunting and fishing lodges won again in 2005 and 2009. The last time, he had more votes (51 per cent) than NDP, Conservative and Green challengers put together.

He was playing to his populist base last year when he ran a full page ad in the Daily Townsman with the heading "Bill Bennett supports the grizzly bear hunt" and a picture of a happy hunter posing with a dead bear.

"Most MLAs do not hunt. I do, and I will fight for our right to a science-based grizzly hunt as long as I am your MLA," he promised. Mr. Bennett also fought hard to keep the Flathead Valley from getting a national park, knowing that while a park might be popular with people in Vancouver, locals did not want to lose one of their favourite hunting areas.

Novice NDP candidate Norma Blissett is expected to give Mr. Bennett some competition, but is not likely to poach many of his supporters among outdoors enthusiasts. Her only hope is that Mr. Bennett stumbles on the campaign trail, which is not impossible, given the way he sometimes loses his temper and speaks, Tweets or sends e-mails without thinking.

For her part, Ms. Blissett, a former professional forester, is hoping her background in the resource sector plays well with concerns about regional job losses.

"I have been in pulp mills in Temiscaming, Espanola, Dryden and Skookumchuck. I know the value of the pulp-and-paper industry, particularly to rural economies," she said recently.

Cranbrook Mayor Wayne Stetski says any challenger would have a tough time unseating Mr. Bennett in Kootenay East, but it is too early to make predictions.

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"One of the things I have learned in politics out here is that you never know until the night of the vote," he said.

Mr. Stetski said voters in Kootenay East are going to weigh issues and will look to see where the parties stand.

"No. 1 is infrastructure," he says, noting that the City of Cranbrook, like many small towns in the province, is struggling to maintain aging road and waterworks systems, and to modernize health and education facilities.

The Cranbrook high school, for example, is 60 years old. The road network is getting only about $3-million a year in maintenance and upgrades when $12-million is needed. And a homeless centre that the Salvation Army wants to build is still a long way from its $15-million goal.

A $20-million upgrade for the local hospital's intensive care unit, however, did get approved earlier this month, which gives Mr. Bennett something to brag about.

But provincial support is still needed on a lot of things, and Ms. Blissett has a chance to underscore what the Liberals have not done for Kootenay East over the past four years – such as help with the deer thing.

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Killing problem deer does not rank high on political agendas in Victoria, but Mr. Stetski hears about it all the time.

"Culling for Cranbrook is definitely an issue," he said. "And I know it's an issue in Kimberley as well."

Located in an environmentally rich valley between the dramatic Purcell and Rocky Mountains, the small towns of the region rely heavily on tourism, and wildlife viewing is an important part of that. But the communities are overrun with deer.

When Cranbrook decided to start removing some this year, the mayor and council got an earful from citizens who felt that shooting animals was not the right thing to do.

Kimberley wanted to try scaring the deer out of town with specially trained dogs, but could not get the permit from the province.

Mr. Stetski said wildlife falls under provincial authority, but the province has not helped the towns deal with the problem.

"Where do you stand on deer culling" could be a question in Kootenay East that separates the winning candidate from the loser.


Riding Snapshot: Kootenay East

Bill Bennett, B.C. Liberal (incumbent)

Norma Blissett, B.C. NDP

2009 election: Liberal Bill Bennett won the riding with 51.21 per cent of the vote; NDP candidate Troy Sebastian came in second with 35.62 per cent; Conservative candidate Wilf Hanni was third with 9.82 per cent.

Population: 37,410

Seniors, 65 and older, in private households: 13 per cent (B.C. average 14 per cent)

Average household income, before tax: $63,558 (B.C. average $67,675)

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