Federal election candidates in South Okanagan-West Kootenay (SOWK) offered contrasting views when asked to comment on a proposed national park reserve in the South Okanagan.
All three major party candidates said they support protection of the natural environment in the South Okanagan, but they differ in their responses to a recent proposal by the provincial government.
The Green Party does not yet have a candidate nominated in SOWK.
The province released a discussion paper earlier this month that proposes a national park reserve in areas south of Highway 3 and south of Okanagan Falls between Vaseux Lake and White Lake. An area between Oliver and Cawston, south to Highway 3, including Mount Kobau, would become a provincial conservancy.
NDP candidate Richard (Dick) Cannings has long been a supporter of a national park.
The biologist and author said that one of his first contracts in 1980 after obtaining his Master’s degree was with Parks Canada to identify areas in the dry interior of B.C. for a national park.
“This is one of the last eco-regions of Canada that doesn’t have a national park,” said Cannings. “The report I did for them was describing characteristics of the dry interior, this big area that went from Osoyoos to Smithers, looking for natural places that represented those characteristics.”
Cannings was also on an ad hoc science committee that was struck after Parks Canada and the province signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a national park reserve in the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen.
Cannings said he definitely supports a national park and is happy to see the provincial government appears set to return to the table.
Conservative candidate Marshall Neufeld is more cautious, saying it is prudent for a person running for federal office to wait and see the results of the provincial consultation and what the public expresses.
“I feel it’s important that we be both preserving our most beautiful natural environment in the South Okanagan, as well as protecting the lifestyle of our local residents who currently make use of the land,” said Neufeld.
In this latter category, he includes people using the land recreationally as well as for their livelihoods, such as ranchers and helicopter training.
Neufeld said his team has knocked on about 8,500 doors throughout the riding and the subject of a national park has only come up “two or three times” at the doorstep.
“In each of those cases, it’s been from someone who is concerned that if it went ahead, that they wouldn’t be able to go and hunt or drive up into the hills and enjoy the land as they currently do,” he said.
Liberal candidate Connie Denesiuk said she supports a national park and would be pleased to see the province and federal government return to the table.
She does, however, think there are details to resolve.
“There are a number of issues that need to be worked out with local people who ranch on some of the areas as well as people who want free access,” she said. “I spoke with a number of Oliver residents a couple days ago and they said the important thing for them is that they have free access.”
Denesiuk said she’s also heard a lot of support for the park. “It certainly is a beautiful area of the province and it’s an unknown gem too,” she said. “I think a lot of people don’t know it exists. It’s an area that I think people recognize needs to be protected for the next generations.”
Meanwhile, with just under two months remaining before the Oct. 19 general election, the candidates are still crisscrossing the riding to knock on doors, meet with community groups and attend events.
Denesiuk had a grand opening last week for her campaign office in Penticton.
“It’s a small space, but it was overflowing out onto the street,” she said. “So many people came. There’s a momentum building. I think the more people are hearing of Justin Trudeau’s platform, the more sense it makes.”
The attack ads directed against Trudeau attack his appearance, but not his platform “because it is just too solid,” she said.
Denesiuk acknowledged that she doesn’t yet have campaign signs like her two opponents.
“Our signs are coming in the next few days,” she said, admitting the early election call caught her by surprise and when the order was placed, the sign makers were all busy.
Getting signs out this early was not a priority, she said.
“I honestly was not in a hurry because 11 weeks is a long time to have to look at signs,” Denesiuk added.
Neufeld, however, was first out of the gate with large signs that now dot the sides of highways and major intersections throughout SOWK.
“We have teams of volunteers who take care of our signs, putting them up and unfortunately repairing them as required,” Neufeld said. “Mostly my focus is going door to door.”
He said he goes door knocking with several volunteers and they have already covered 8,500 homes in many communities of the riding.
“We’re trying to continue this pace and get to a significant number of doors in the riding,” said Neufeld. “Obviously there’s between 40,000 and 50,000 separate households in this riding, so I doubt that we’ll get to all of them, but we’ll try to get to a significant number.”
Cannings said his campaign has been continuing as it did before the surprise early start to the official campaign.
He was recently door knocking in Castlegar and Trail. He’s also been busy in recent days knocking on doors in Penticton, Osoyoos and Oliver.
By Richard McGuire