Proposed boundary shift could change political landscape

Electoral commission suggests adding Penticton to riding that stretches into the Kootenays

Despite a Conservative stranglehold on the Okanagan that can make for dull elections, the 2015 vote could get a shot of excitement if ridings are redrawn as suggested by the B.C. Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission.

The commission joined this week with others across Canada to release once-a-decade proposals that adjust the political map to ensure fair representation by population.

B.C. was preordained to get six new seats, five of which the commission recommended be placed in the Lower Mainland, and the sixth on Vancouver Island. And while population growth in the Southern Interior doesn’t warrant one of those new seats, the commission concluded, it does warrant redrawing some boundaries. That’s where things get interesting.

Penticton, currently in the Okanagan-Coquihalla riding held by Conservative Dan Albas, would be shaved off and replaced by downtown Kelowna. The new riding, called Central Okanagan-Coquihalla, would still include Peachland, West Kelowna, Summerland and Merritt, but also extend south to the U.S. border to gobble up Princeton.

Right now, Princeton is included in the western portion of the B.C. Southern Interior riding held by the NDP’s Alex Atamanenko. The new riding, called South Okanagan-West Kootenay, would only extend as far west as Keremeos, but also adopt Penticton. Its eastern flank would be retracted to drop Nelson, which would be shuffled to an adjacent riding.

Therein lies the rub, according to Wolf Depner, a political science instructor at UBC-Okanagan.

Nelson is a left-leaning stronghold for the NDP, while Penticton favours the Conservatives, Depner said. So the new South Okanagan-West Kootenay riding would likely swing to the Tories.

Atamanenko “will be in for a tough race,” if he runs there, said Depner, a former journalist.

For Albas, the election itself would probably be a cake walk, Depner continued, but getting the party’s nomination in Central Okanagan-Coquihalla could be a different story if he has to contend with strong Conservative candidates from Kelowna.

It’s also possible that Albas and Atamanenko could square off for the South Okanagan-West Kootenay seat.

“That would be a very fascinating race,” Depner said. “That would be the strongest challenge that Dan Albas would face.”

Albas lives in Penticton and may want to stick with the riding in which he lives, but he said it’s “really too early to speculate,” and noted that his wife is expecting their fourth child this fall and the family may be looking for a bigger home.

The first-term MP found the commission’s proposal “very interesting,” but is concerned that Summerland would be split from Penticton. Albas noted too that the changes aren’t final, and still subject to a public comment period this fall before a final proposal is sent to Parliament in February for approval.

Atamanenko, meanwhile, said the proposed shuffle “doesn’t make any sense,” because it separates Nelson from Trail and Castlegar.

“It’s crazy,” said Atamanenko, who was first elected in 2006 and prefers the current configuration, which is “a workable riding.”

John Hall, a B.C. Court of Appeal justice who headed the three-member commission here, encouraged people to tell him what they think.

“A lot of the Interior stuff is certainly not set in stone, because those are big ridings, territorially, and it will be interesting to hear what people have to say,” Hall said.

The commission kicks off a provincewide series of public hearings in September and visits Penticton on Oct. 9. Anyone wishing to speak at the hearing must register by Aug. 30. Registration can be done online or by mail. For more information visit bc-cb@rfed-rcf.ca or phone 1-855-747-7236.