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When speaking to the north, Finance Minister Mike de Jong’s standard lines about good economic times did not fly.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. Liberal government is trumpeting Canada's latest employment statistics as proof that its jobs plan is working. The year 2016 saw a record number of jobs created in British Columbia, and the province posted the lowest unemployment rate in Canada.

But it is a lopsided success. Most of the new jobs are in the urban communities in the southwest corner of the province – especially Metro Vancouver. By contrast, employment in the northeast shrank – roughly one in 40 jobs disappeared in 2016.

As Finance Minister Mike de Jong puts the final strokes on the pre-election budget he will deliver in February, he has surplus cash to spread around. But his government is already committed to boosting spending on affordable housing, education and health care. There may not be much room left to assist those communities that have been left behind.

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Mr. de Jong launched a series of telephone town halls last Monday to engage with the public about budget priorities. The first stop on his virtual tour was in the north, where his standard lines about good economic times would not fly.

The town hall started with the Finance Minister's usual cheery overview: He is about to deliver his fifth consecutive balanced budget on Feb. 21, and he noted that the province has led the country for the past two years in economic growth. And 2017 is also shaping up to be a year of growth.

But before opening the phone lines for questions, he acknowledged: "Having said all that, some of you are listening from parts of the province that are facing challenges."

Those challenges include depressed commodity prices and the resumption of the Canada-U.S. softwood trade war. They include dangerous rural roads and a shortage of family physicians. They include rising costs and declining job opportunities.

"What frustrates me the most is that I don't have access to a doctor," Nicola from Smithers, B.C., told the Finance Minister. (The callers did not provide their last names.) "I feel like I'm paying for a service that's not being provided."

The community of Fort Nelson was a boom town when B.C.'s northeast was buzzing with development of its shale gas reserves.

But a caller from Fort Nelson, who identified herself as Cathy, said the downturn is so stark, she could not imagine how the province can be doing well. "There is no gas exploration in Fort Nelson now, and we don't have a diversified economy," she said. "How are you going to balance your budget?"

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Mr. de Jong explained that B.C. is doing well – if you are working in aerospace, construction or technology. "Now for you and the great folks in Fort Nelson, that's pretty thin gruel," he added, "because not a lot of that is visiting upon the energy sector right now."

The town-hall participants were offered a chance to vote in an informal poll – Do you see evidence of economic growth in your community? By a wide margin, the answer was "no." The B.C. Liberal government, with an election looming in May, will be looking for solutions that will make those communities feel a little better by the spring.

Economist Jock Finlayson of the Business Council of British Columbia, cautions that government can't do a whole lot. "It's difficult to come up with a list of sensible measures you can bring forward that would target regional economies," he said.

As well, Mr. Finlayson isn't convinced that Mr. de Jong really has that much room to manoeuvre. The province has already made hefty spending commitments on housing, while pressures on health-care spending continue to grow and B.C. faces an obligation to spend significantly more on education following the B.C. Teachers' Federation victory at the Supreme Court of Canada. "They have significantly eaten into whatever surplus they had," he said.

Plus, the frenzied real estate market that drove much of this past year's surplus is shrinking. "The underlying budget surplus may be close to zero," Mr. Finlayson said.

In an interview, the Finance Minister maintains the province can help diversify those regional economies, but he didn't dispute that the surplus can evaporate pretty fast: "It's interesting how quickly and easily you can spend that money."

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With whatever room he has, Mr. de Jong hinted strongly he is keen on tax relief. "These are the fundamental questions that confront us in developing a budget: Do you want to spend more, to grow government, or do you want find ways to return money to British Columbians through tax relief?"

It's the one voter appeal that rings true for residents in the north or the south, in communities urban or rural. Politically, that makes heaps of sense for a government on the eve of an election.

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