Monday, January 12, 2015

Riding History: Skeena-Bulkley Valley

Representatives of the riding of Skeena-Bulkley Valley have sat on the opposition benches for all but five of the last 58 years. Currently represented by NDP MP Nathan Cullen, the riding is tucked away in the northwestern corner of British Columbia, bordering Yukon and Alaska. It is a vast, sparsely populated riding. Every square kilometre has a mere 0.3 people in it. And they have reliably voted NDP for most of the last half century.

This is the fifth riding the history of which I am profiling as part of the 2013 Kickstarter campaign. This riding was requested by backer Jonathan Van Barneveld, who generously contributed to the project that led to Tapping into the Pulse: Political public opinion polling in Canada, 2013. The ebook can be ordered here, or directly from Gumroad here and Amazon for your Kindle here.

Conservative dominance, 1871-1891

What is now Skeena-Bulkley Valley began as the riding of New Westminster in the new province of British Columbia in 1871. For the first two decades of its existence, the riding was mostly represented by Conservatives, though they only infrequently bothered to face the electorate.

Hugh Nelson
The riding's first MP was Hugh Nelson, an Irisman from County Antrim and a lumber merchant. He was elected as a Liberal-Conservative, the same party he represented in the provincial legislature from 1870 to 1871.

Nelson was a supporter of confederation, and apparently a bit of a pedant. His first recorded words in the House of Commons came on May 28, 1872, during a debate on the Canadian Pacific Railway:

"Mr. Nelson said the hon. gentleman (Amor de Cosmos) had taken the ground that the railway was to terminate on the Pacific Coast, and that a terminus on the island waters between Vancouver's Island and the main land was not the Pacific Coast, and at the same time he advocated that the line should be taken to Victoria or Esquimalt."

Nelson was acclaimed in the 1872 election, but he decided to leave politics after the Pacific Scandal had pushed John A. Macdonald, a man he supported, out of the top job. His loyalty would be rewarded in 1879, when he was named to the Senate. He would serve there until 1887, when he was named Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia.

But before Nelson left the House of Commons, he sparked an amusing dust-up between the then Finance Minister, Samuel Tilley, Ontario MP David Mills, and Alexander Mackenzie, the leader of the Liberal Party, as recorded in the hansard. Nelson's last words in the House were delivered on May 7, 1873, when he implored the Government to re-establish trade with the Sandwich Islands (as Hawaii was then known). After Tilley warmly welcome Nelson's words, Mills stood up:

"[Mills] said he had not very clearly heard the hon. gentleman. Were they to understand that he [Tilly] was favourable to asking Her Majesty to give the Government power to negotiate a treaty with the Sandwich Islands? If so, he was becoming a convert to the views of the Opposition.

"Hon. Mr. Tilley remained silent.

"Hon. Mr. Mackenzie: Surely we are to have an answer to this question.

"Hon. Mr. Tilley gave no reply, and the motion was withdrawn."

Nelson was replaced by another Irishman in 1874, when James Cunningham of the Liberals defeated the Conservative candidate by a slim margin. Cunningham resigned in 1878, however, but would be a Liberal MLA in British Columbia from 1884 to 1886.

Thomas McInnes
In 1878, Thomas McInnes, an independent, ran unopposed in the by-election. He was a coroner, physician, and surgeon born in Nova Scotia, a reeve in Dresden, Ontario in 1874 and mayor of New Westminster from 1876 to 1878. Having studied at Harvard University, McInnes had served in the Union Army during the American Civil War.

In the general election held later that same year, McInnes was this time opposed by a candidate whose affiliation is unknown to the record books. McInnes was re-elected with 57% of the vote, but did not finish out his term. He was named to the Senate as an independent in 1881, serving until 1897 when he, too, was named Lieutenent-Governor of the province.

A merchant named Joshua Homer was acclaimed in both the 1882 by-election and federal election as a Liberal-Conservative, but died in 1886.

In the 1887 election, two Conservatives faced off against one another. Donald Chisholm, a teacher, prevailed with 69% of the vote. But he, too, would die in office in 1890 at the age of 68.

G.E. Corbould was acclaimed in the by-election that followed, and secured re-election in 1891 with 76% of the vote against a Liberal candidate.

The Liberal era, 1896-1953

Burrard, 1895
By the 1896 election, the ridings had been re-drawn and the riding of Burrard was created, turning into Comox-Atlin in 1904 and finally Skeena in 1917. The change in boundaries was beneficial to the Liberals, who would hold the riding from 1896 until 1953 with the brief exceptions of the Robert Borden years (1911-1921) and single victories by the Tories in 1926 and the CCF in 1945.

George Maxwell
George Maxwell won the new riding of Burrard for the Liberals in 1896, as Wilfrid Laurier was swept to power nationwide. Maxwell, a Scottish Presbyterian minister was aided by two Conservatives being on the ballot. He won with 48% of the vote, improving that share to 57% in 1900. Maxwell died in office in 1902.

In the 1903 by-election, an insurance executive named R.G. MacPherson retained the riding for the Liberals. An independent Liberal was his main opponent, taking 43% while McInnes, in a failed comeback attempt, took 8%.

William Sloan
MacPherson did not run again in the riding of Comox-Atlin in 1904, choosing instead a successful bid for the riding of Vancouver City. William Sloan, a businessman, was acclaimed, as he would be again in 1908.

Perhaps having no mandate from the voters made it easier for Sloan to step aside for William Templeman in 1909 (he would eventually have a successful provincial career as an MLA from 1916 to 1928 and cabinet minister). Templeman was acclaimed that year.

Templeman was the owner of the Victoria Daily Times (now part of the Times-Colonist), and a man who could not get himself elected. He first tried, and failed, in 1891. He lost two elections in 1896 and one in 1908. His only victory was a 1906 by-election win in Victoria City, and he did manage to get named to the Senate in 1897 by Laurier, holding the portfolios of Minister of Inland Revenue and Minister of Mines.

In 1911, Templeman tried his luck in the riding of Victoria City again, and lost (again). In the first real vote held in Comox-Atlin since 1903, Herbert Clements of the Conservatives won with 53% of the vote, defeating Liberal Duncan Ross, a former MP for Yale-Cariboo. Clements had a political history already, but not in British Columbia: he had previously been the MP for Kent West in Ontario before meeting defeat in 1908.

War broke out in 1914, and when the 1917 election came around Clements ran in the new riding of Comox-Alberni, as the new riding of Skeena had been carved out of the electoral map. Cyrus Peck won Skeena in the riding's first election, taking 57% of the vote for the Conservatives.

Peck was a war hero, a captain in the 30th Battalion who shipped out to Europe in February 1915. He would rise to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel with the 16th Battalion of the Canadian Scottish Regiment, and served on the Western Front. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Bar in 1917, having "personally led his men in an attack on nests of machine guns protecting the enemy's guns, which he captured."

He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the British Empire's top honour, in 1918, "for most conspicuous bravery and skilful leading when in attack under intense fire."

But the residents in Skeena were not overawed, and in 1921 Peck was defeated by Liberal Alfred Stork, who had been his opponent in 1917. The vote was close, though, with Stork taking 50.3% to Peck's 49.7%.

Stork was a merchant, as well as the mayor of Fernie in 1904 and Prince Rupert in 1910. He secure re-elected in 1925, even though a Progressive candidate captured 10% of the vote. His luck ran out in 1926, however, when James Brady of the Conservatives won with 52%. Brady was from Ireland, and a school principal.

Olof Hanson
The riding returned to form in 1930 when Brady was defeated by Olof Hanson, a Swedish lumberman. Hanson took 55% of the vote for the Liberals, his best showing over three elections. He would win again in 1935 (a Reconstruction candidate took 21% of the vote) and 1940. That was the first election in which the CCF ran a candidate here, the party taking 30% and displacing the Conservatives as the second choice.

The CCF rode that momentum to victory in 1945, when Hanson opted not to run for re-election. Harry Archibald, a young member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, won with 37% of the vote, as 13% went to the Labour-Progressive Party, the vehicle for Canada's communists at the time.

Edward Applewhaite
Archibald met defeat in 1949, however, when Edward Applewhaite of the Liberals took 58% of the vote in a direct face-off between the Liberals and CCF (the Tories did not run a candidate). Applewhaite, a life insurance agent, was the first MP for the riding to actually be born in British Columbia. His great-granddaughter was Deborah Gray, who would later win a 1989 by-election for the Reform Party.

Applewhaite was re-elected in 1953, as a Social Credit candidate captured 24% of the vote to finish third. The election was notable for the candidacy of Ann Minard, a housewife, for the Labour-Progressives. She was the riding's first female candidate, and she took 3% of the vote.

The swing to CCF and the NDP (and Frank Howard), 1957-1988

In the 1957 election, when the Liberals finally met defeat at the hands of John Diefenbaker of the Progressive Conservatives, Skeena began its long history with the CCF/NDP. The party would hold the riding virtually uncontested until 1974, before winning it again by comfortable margins between 1979 and 1988.

Frank Howard
Applewhaite was defeated in 1957, as Frank Howard of the CCF took 39% of the vote (the PCs, after sitting out the previous two votes, captured 25% of the vote, the Liberals 36%).

Howard was a trade unionist out of the logging industry and former BC CCF MLA. He had a rough past, having been convicted for armed robbery at the age of 18 (the biography he would later write was called From Prison to Parliament).

Howard would secure re-election six times, representing the riding from 1957 until 1974. He routinely won with a majority of the vote when he ran under the NDP, topping out at 60% in 1962. His vote share slowly dropped from there, however, until it fell below the 50% mark in 1972 and finally put him in second place in 1974.

Before then, he saw off the Liberals, who fell to between 22% and 33% of the vote for much of his tenure (the Tories were hardly a factor). In 1972, Howard ran for the leadership of the NDP after the departure of Tommy Douglas. He would finish fifth and last on the first ballot with 7%. David Lewis would eventual emerge as the party's new leader.

Jim Fulton
In 1974, Howard finally met defeat (he would continue his political career as an NDP MLA from 1979 to 1985). The Liberals' Iona Campagnolo won with 40% of the vote, and she was the riding's first (and only) female MP. She also made history as the first female president of a federal party in 1982 and Lieutenant-Governor of B.C. in 2001. An Order of Canada recipient, Campagnolo served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development from 1974, and later as Minister of State (Fitness and Amateur Sport) in 1976 in Pierre Trudeau's government.

But Campagnolo was only a brief Liberal interlude for Skeena, as the NDP won the riding again in 1979 when Jim Fulton, a probation officer, took it with 42% of the vote to 40% for Campagnolo. Fulton would win three more times, pushing his vote up to 53% in 1988, as the Liberals fell to third place behind the Tories during the Mulroney years.

Reform/Canadian Alliance interregnum, 1993-2000

When the NDP's vote collapsed in 1993, Skeena was not spared. The NDP fell to third place behind the Liberals in two of the next three elections, as Preston Manning's Reform Party surged in rural British Columbia. Only when the right was merged in 2004 did Skeena go back to its NDP roots.

In that momentous 1993 election, Fulton opted not to run again and the NDP's vote collapsed to just 21%, its worst ever performance in the riding. Mike Scott of the Reform Party prevailed with 38%, as the Liberals moved into second with 24% and the Tories plummeted to just 7% support. That put them behind the National Party, which captured 8% of the vote here.

Scott was re-elected in 1997 with 42% of the vote, as the NDP vote rebounded to 31% with Isaac Sobol, the former National Party candidate, on the ballot. The PC dropped to just 4%, and would fall further to 3% in 2000.

In that election, Andy Burton, who served as mayor of Stewart for six years, ran in Scott's place for the Canadian Alliance, winning with 43% of the vote.

The Nathan Cullen era, 2004-present

Though the newly merged Conservative Party would be the main competitor to the NDP now in Skeena-Bulkley Valley, the New Democrats under Jack Layton had recovered from the lows of the 1990s. Nathan Cullen, a young HR consultant from Ontario (though he moved to B.C. in 1998), would represent the riding for the next decade.

Election Results: 1988-2011
In 2004, Burton tried to hold onto his riding as a Conservative, but was defeated by the NDP's Cullen. He took 37% of the vote against Burton's 34%, as the Liberals slipped to 22% in the riding.

In 2006, the Liberal vote slumped further to just 13% as Cullen surged to 48% in the riding, holding off a comeback attempt by Scott. Cullen would win again in 2008 with 50% and in 2011 with 55%, as the Liberals fell to just 4% support.

One interesting tidbit about Skeena-Bulkley Valley is the presence of Rod Taylor. He has been the Christian Heritage Party candidate in each of the last four elections, and will lead the party in 2015. The CHP has interestingly done relatively well here, first taking 3.6% of the vote in 1988. Taylor has garnered 3.8%, 3.2%, 3.3%, and 3% support respectively in the elections held since 2004. A footnote, of course, but something about Skeena-Bulkley Valley that sets it apart from many other ridings.

Skeena-Bulkley Valley is a riding the New Democrats can count on. Cullen is a popular MP (he finished third in the leadership race in 2012, with 25% support on the third ballot). The Conservatives have been stuck at between 33% and 36% in the last four elections, despite a consistently increasing vote share nationwide. The Liberals will likely see a boost but have no base from which to build upon. For the foreseeable future, the northwestern corner of British Columbia is likely to remain painted in orange.