Premier visits to Northeast B.C. historically limited by travel, today by political will

FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. – Premier John Horgan’s brief visit to Fort St. John marked the ninth confirmed visit by a premier to the city during their time in office and the 1st visit by a premier from B.C.’s NDP. 

Over the years, premiers from different ruling parties have visited Fort St. John. Though the visits are rare, they have increased as the ability to travel to the region improved–but not in proportion to the ease of travel. Instead, the frequency of visits is determined by the political benefit they might achieve. 

According to Dr. Doug Jarvis, a professor of political science at the University of Northern British Columbia, these visits are important because the north is a vital part of the province. 

But 90 per cent of the Canadian population lives within 100 km of the 49th parallel, and seats are determined by population. There is little political benefit to most trips that premiers take north. 

“So the north only finds itself in a bit of an unfair position,” he said. “But every seat and every region counts.” 

“Unfortunately, this is true to all of the Canadian northern regions that have felt that they’ve been rather ignored, especially because they’re an integral part of the country,” he said. 

Premiers from the modern Liberal party have visited Fort St. John at least four times over the last 20 years since the party’s birth in 2000.

Visiting premiers include Christy Clark in 2012, 2016, and 2017 and Gordon Campbell in 2009. According to press secretary Andrew Reeves with the B.C. Liberal Party, liberal premiers prior to 2000 belonged to a separate, earlier incarnation of the liberal political tradition in B.C. 

NDP premiers have been seen less often in the city. Staff members in the NDP caucus noted that Premier Dan Miller likely made a visit to northern B.C. between 1999 and 2000. They noted that Premier Mike Harcourt, in office from 1991-96, made a visit as well. These visits and their specific locations could not be confirmed by other records.

Premier Horgan’s visit to Fort St. John is the first confirmed visit to the city by a premier from the NDP since the party’s origin in 1961. 

Other premiers, including those of the now-defunct Social Credit Party of B.C., made earlier visits to the region. W.A.C. Bennet visited three times over the course of 1958, then again in 1968 to open the first hydroelectric dam on the Peace River. This dam was later renamed in his honour. 

His son, Bill Bennet, became premier in 1975 and made a visit to the region between  1984-1986, according to the Fort St. John North Peace Museum. 

These visits, and any attempts earlier, were subject to a different set of conditions than those in place today– namely, the ability to reach the region. 

Heather Sjoblom, the manager and curator at the Fort St. John North Peace Museum, notes that Northeastern B.C. was geographically isolated from the rest of the province until the railroad was built in 1958. 

The airport was built earlier, in 1943, and flying into the region was possible for politicians as early as the later 1940s, though still a difficult flight for pilots and an expensive journey.

“It would have been quite tricky to travel here back then,” Sjoblom explained.

Physical hurdles to visiting the region as B.C.’s premier today, however, are far lower. 

Though visits have increased, they have not done so in proportion to the ease of travel.

Visits by premiers to the region–or lack thereof–depend on different factors. 

“We’re still more isolated from the rest of the province. But today, it’s so much easier for politicians to travel,” Sjoblom said. “They just don’t always have the time or desire to come.”

The political value in visiting the region, despite its significant economic contribution to the province, is low. Few seats in the provincial legislature are at play in the north. 

“There are still politicians who, especially when they’re campaigning, don’t always see the region as as significant as it could be,” Sjoblom said.

“It’s significant in terms of resource development. But in terms of numbers of seats in the legislature, it’s not so significant.” 

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