What threatens to politically divide the communities of the West Kootenay has also brought them together.
With a proposal on the table to chop the Greater Trail region into two, and separate the three cities of the Columbia/Kootenay river valley, the issue has created waves in some corners of the West Kootenay.
And created some unison amongst the disparate voices of the region, as evidenced by the impassioned pleas Wednesday night in Castlegar for the federal Electoral Boundary Commission to stop consideration of the proposal.
The proposal to split the riding that now connects Trail, Rossland, Castlegar and Nelson has actually united the people of the region more than anything in over a century, said Stephen Hill, the Conservative candidate who once vied for the seat as Member of Parliament for the B.C. Southern Interior riding.
“You’ve done more for geographic peace and harmony from Nelson to Trail than has been done in the last 100 years.
“And it is terrific that you are just bringing that love to the area,” he said.
Hill spoke at the commission hearing in favour of a split—one that would marry Trail and Rossland with Penticton, and shuffle Castlegar, Nelson, Montrose and Fruitvale off to Cranbrook—but he was only one of two voices in favour of the changes.
He felt the riding was unworkable in its present state for people on the western edge near Princeton and needed to be re-worked.
That sentiment was dismissed by the first speaker of 17 on the night, the man who beat Hill out for the Southern Interior seat in the last federal election, the NDP’s Alex Atamanenko.
“The area is doable. It is a big area but it is doable because it follows the Highway 3 corridor,” Atamanenko said, noting the regional district in the Okanagan did not want Penticton to be included with West Kootenay communities.
“There is historical precedence here. For over 100 years, Penticton has not been part of this riding, and we have not been part of the East Kootenay for that matter.”
That message was iterated and re-iterated throughout the night, from the mayor of Salmo, Anne Henderson, to Village of Montrose councillor Mary Gay, that the riding’s borders should not change, splintering the Greater Trail communities as well as the three cities of the Kootenay/Columbia river valley.
“I was quite horrified by the suggestion,” said Warfield resident Holly Pender-Love. “It seemed like a fracture to me.”
The commission—made up of commissioners Dr. J. Peter Meekison and Stewart Ladyman, as well as chair John E. Hall—attracted 26 people to the hearing in Castlegar at the Fireside Inn.
The communities of Rossland, Fruitvale, the regional district (Areas A and B), Salmo and Montrose were represented by elected municipal officials, while Trail and Castlegar chose not to send anyone.
The previous night in Nelson over 50 people showed up and the sentiment was similar: don’t change the boundaries and split the West Kootenay communities. Twenty-five people registered to speak about the proposed changes to the Southern Interior riding.
In Castlegar, the 16th hearing out of the 22 planned in B.C., the commission continued the process of considering whether an additional electoral district might be situated in the West Kootenay geographical area.
“Ultimately we concluded that the census population did not make this feasible,” Ladyman said in the opening response to the commission. “Presently these districts as proposed have populations somewhat above the median.”
The 2011 census figure for the Kootenay Columbia was 88,026, a variance of nearly 16 per cent from the electoral quotient (16,737 people).
The 2011 census for the B.C. Southern Interior was 97,952, a variance of about 6.5 per cent.
Ladyman said Parliament had assigned the commission the task of adding six new electoral districts to the existing 36 electoral districts in B.C., with the electoral quotient for each area set at 104,763.
“It is not always possible to achieve parity of numbers,” he said. “The commission must pay due regard to access issues, communities of interest and historic patterns.”
All points that were raised by Larry Gray, chair of the board of directors of the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary. He described the Greater Trail area as a family.
“It’s as though we have a family of seven members and now we are splitting that family up into two jurisdictions. This proposal separates off communities which certainly have an identity and an interest in common,” he said.
The areas have a lot of historical ties and have a good working relationship as a regional district. Splitting off communities causes problems in terms of applications for grants and political representation, Gray noted.
“But it’s really how do you separate out communities that are side by side, meticulous, work together, play together, live together?” he said.
Given the topography of the province, Ladyman said, access is always significant. The commission has taken into consideration major roads, rivers and mountain ranges, he said.
“In all these cases, we consider that voters should be able to have reasonable access to their representative because of existing transportation links,” he said.
But the proposal would run contrary to that statement, Rossland city councillor Kathy Moore said. The region already struggles to work together in certain areas, she explained.
“We do work together as best we can on issues that do concern us and we are hopeful that we would all be in one federal riding,” she said. “We don’t need the added challenge of having divided representation.”
Ladyman praised the process after the hearing was closed.
“In every one of them democracy is working phenomenally because people are polite, they are thoughtful, they’ve given us some great suggestions, some people have analyzed things in detail with maps and have taken a lot of time,” he said.
The commission will be submitting its report before December to Elections Canada and then re-tweak the definitions of the ridings, sending recommendations on to the committee members of Parliament.
In late spring the efforts of the commission will be made public.
However, up until Oct. 18 people can still write letters and give their input on the proposed changes (mail to Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for B.C., 1095 West Pender St., suite 301, Vancouver, V6E 2M6, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Of the over 300 written submissions the commission has received, the commission has received over 100 letters from residents of the West Kootenay, said the commission’s secretary.