Residents of both the Okanagan-Coquihalla and Boundary Similkameen federal ridings made it clear Tuesday that they have some serious concerns over a proposed realignment of the riding boundaries.
The major issue for many speakers was splitting Summerland and Penticton into separate ridings, and possibly cleaving the social and economic ties that join the two communities together.
“Summerland and Penticton have never been divided into two federal ridings since B.C. entered Confederation,” said Jason Cox, who joined with Connie Denesiuk from Summerland to present a combined view of the chambers of commerce in both communities.
“There is an almost continuous residential link between these two communities,” said Denesiuk. “The proposed changes take away from our ability to advocate as a unit and diminish the sense of community these neighbouring towns enjoy as we approach national issues together.”
They were speaking to the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for British Columbia, which was in Penticton to gather opinions on the proposed boundary changes, which would see Summerland as part of a riding stretching from Merritt to West Kelowna, while Penticton would join with Oliver, Osoyoos and a portion of the West Kootenay over to Castlegar.
Losing the ability to act as a unit federally was a concern also expressed by Penticton Mayor Dan Ashton, who was also speaking as chair of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen. His concern is that splitting the two communities into separate ridings will interfere with their ability to work jointly to get federal grants.
“By working together and working very cohesively together, we have been very successful in insuring those dollars do come,” said Ashton.
“There is a definite link between Penticton and surrounding municipalities, including the District of Summerland and those communities in the Similkameen that are slated for adjustment.”
Former Summerland councillor Carla Ohmenzetter expressed similar concerns, pointing out that the change might affect relations with the Penticton Indian Band, which has lands bordering both communities.
“The new borders would eliminate that opportunity to speak with them in a venue that is formally recognized by the federal government,” said Ohmenzetter.
“We have a long history of working together as the two communities. I think we have benefited extremely well, we work very hard together and because of that, we are seeing some great progress.”
Ohmenzetter and others listed a long range of services and other factors shared by the two communities, including courts, shopping and even a common school district.
The number of people expressing concerns about the division of Penticton and Summerland provoked a comment from Oliver resident Allan Mathieson.
“Listening to the people here talking about Penticton and Summerland, I felt you people had a romance going,” said Mathieson.
However, he had concerns about stretching a new riding to include the West Kootenay, pointing to the strong north-south bias of the valley.
“I live in Oliver and I golf in Osoyoos and my wife and I always have our operations done in Penticton,” Mathieson joked. He feels there was little connection to the eastern side of the proposed new riding.
“I can’t remember the names of those places, because I have never gone to them,” he said. “You have to go over three mountain ranges to get to Castlegar.”
Arlene Arlow, of Keremeos, approved of the inclusion of Penticton into a new South Okanagan-West Kootenay riding. Including a major government and trading centre, she said, would help avoid the problem of the western side of the riding being overlooked, as she felt happened in the current Boundary Similkameen riding, with the major population centres on the Kootenay side.
However, cutting the Similkameen Valley in half, along Highway 3, did not make sense.
“It is logical to maintain the trade and commerce relationships that exist along Highway 3,” she said, also noting that the new boundary would split apart lands of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band. “The communities of the LSIB — west and east of Keremeos — are served by their band office in Keremeos.”
Alex Atamanenko, the NDP MP for Boundary Similkameen, expressed concerns that an MP would have even more trouble serving such a varied riding, which if implemented, would be the largest in B.C. with a population of over 114,000. There is a large difference, he said, in the needs of a collection of smaller communities and an area with a metropolitan community like Penticton.
“Sometimes, decisions made on the future of rural B.C. are made in Victoria or other large areas and they often don’t make any sense. We need to tailor, somehow, these areas to rural B.C,” said Atamanenko.
If Penticton were to be included, it would pose some problems, with large populations on either side of the riding not having direct access to their members of Parliament.
“This current riding, although not perfect, is workable,” said Atamanenko.
Okanagan Coquihalla MP Dan Albas chose not to make a presentation, preferring to leave it to the residents and officials of the various communities.
“I am really here to listen. I think that it is important that as an independent panel, that they hear from those that would be affected by it,” said Albas. “For me, I don’t think it’s appropriate to make comments that might bring partisan politics into an apolitical process.”
The three members of the Boundary Commission included retired educator Stewart Ladyman, political scientist Peter Meekison and retired judge John Hall, the chair of the commission. He hopes to return their report to the parliamentary committee by the end of November, and they, in turn, are expected to release revisions sometime in spring 2013.