Kelowna’s political history could succinctly be summed up under the title, 50 Shades of Blue.
Faithfulness to small-c conservative politics is consistent throughout its history, save for one four-year blip.
That was in 1968 when Kelowna, like the rest of the country, showed the symptoms of ‘Trudeaumania,’ and voted in a Liberal MP.
Bruce Howard, then 45, was one of the 155 Liberals elected to the House of Commons that year. The Conservatives took only 72 seats.
On the night of his win, Howard told a Kelowna Daily Courier reporter that his success was due in large part to the party leader Pierre Trudeau.
“Trudeau inspired people to think there was something worthwhile about politics,” said Howard.
“He makes them feel, by involving themselves, there is an attainable objective.”
By the next election, however, the prime minister’s star had faded some and Howard, in turn, was ousted.
As he conceded the 1972 election to Conservative candidate George Whittaker, the Kelowna daily paper quoted Howard saying: “There will be more battles to be won and fought, and we, as Liberals, will be there to fight them.”
The Liberals never disappeared from Kelowna in the intervening years, but their fights have continually come up short.
As have the efforts of the NDP, Green Party and various others.
A search of Elections Canada’s record of riding histories shows that Howard’s win is a standout for the better part of 60 years, otherwise the region has voted in Social Credit, Reform and Canadian Alliance MPs.
When the Progressive Conservatives merged with the Canadian Alliance, the Okanagan Valley officially became Conservative.
“If you could find records that go beyond that, you’d still only see conservatives. It’s the conservative heartland,” said Wolf Depner, a political scientist, who has instructed students at UBC Okanagan on Canadian politics, and before that covered local politics as a reporter.
For those who have wondered why, the answer isn’t complicated.
“It’s history,” said Depner.
“It’s a very Anglo Saxon part of western Canada, with strong British, German and Dutch roots. These people are conservative in terms of their values,” he said.
It’s also an area with a high proportion of seniors, he said, who also tend to vote conservative.
Most telling about its right leaning tendencies, however, may be the region’s economic roots.
The Central Okanagan, for example, has never had any experience with unions. The driving force of its economy has historically been small to medium size businesses, and their allegiance is to parties that value less taxation and social spending.
“Think of Wacky Bennett and Bill Bennett,” he said.
“These are prototypical small business westerners and they’re from the Okanagan.”
W.A.C. Bennett, a hardware merchant from Kelowna, was B.C.’s premier for 20 years, earning votes by paving roads and building bridges. His son, Bill, followed his lead and became premier in 1979. He passed a series of laws, known as the “restraint” program, aimed at unburdening businesses from government spending on social services.
Their free-market economy approach to politics was a departure from what was happening in eastern provinces. And the way British Columbians voted federally often mirrored their provincial political choices.
Since the heyday of the Bennetts, however, some of B.C.’s more urban areas have changed their political stripes, overcoming the feeling of western alienation that often influenced its political ideology.
The Okanagan, said Depner, was slower on that front. In the ‘90s, the Reform Party gained traction in the region, using the slogan “the west wants in,” he said.
“Now the Okanagan has a government that reflects local politics,” he said. “There’s a weird regional alliance between Southern Ontario and Western Canada, so it will be interesting to see what will happen in this election.”
Southern Ontario could glide off and go NDP, or they could return to the Liberals. “Then the Okanangan will be in the a familiar pattern.”