The Cariboo North riding is larger than Vancouver Island. (Cassidy Dankochik Photo - Quesnel Cariboo Observer)

The Cariboo North riding is larger than Vancouver Island. (Cassidy Dankochik Photo - Quesnel Cariboo Observer)

Cariboo North MLA set to take stand for rural ridings in B.C. legislature speech

Coralee Oakes says in her speech reducing northern ridings could see poorer services for residents

Coralee Oakes is set to sound the alarm on potential changes to electoral boundaries in the province at the BC Legislature today.

The Cariboo-North MLA, who represents a riding bigger than Vancouver Island — with six First Nations spread over 38,000 square km — says proposed changes to B.C. election laws could add six seats and remove a 2014 restriction preventing the elimination of already huge rural ridings.

Her speech, during the debate on the second reading of the updated bill, comes after Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad said on May 10 the area north of 100 Mile House could see the number of seats in the legislature drop from 10 to six with new legislation. Electoral boundary reviews take place every six years, led by a B.C. Supreme Court judge.

READ MORE: B.C. election law could add 6 seats, remove rural protection

“This bill as it stands suggests that government does not understand the disparity that currently exists between people living in different parts of this province or that it just does not care,” Oakes says in her speech. “Why has the government not recognized in this bill that there are inequalities between regions? And why has it not included the need exists of special circumstance in rural ridings?”

In her speech, Oakes says she was told by a BC Wildfire Service commander in the 2017 wildfires that her riding could “lose it all,” and she is still worried about further fires and flooding. She adds representing ridings with large areas with no cell service, internet and transit is also a huge challenge, leading to 15-16 hour days to set up mobile offices in some cases.

“To be a successful rural MLA you need to travel to these communities,” she says. “Until the government ensures that every British Columbian has cell service, internet and reliable roads and landlines, they need to take into consideration that a rural MLA must travel out into their riding in order to effectively represent them. This was part of the understanding in the previous piece of legislation that is absent in this piece of legislation before the house.”

Oakes shares more than a dozen stories of communities and individuals rallying in times of crisis to support one another in her speech.

“I feel a responsibility to share my experience of representing a riding that has and continues to face catastrophic trauma and impacts in hopes that we can be better prepared and that our people’s voices are heard during challenging times,” she says. “I pray and hope that you never feel the impacts that Cariboo North has felt.”

One of the stories Oakes relayed was having to tell the members of Lhoosk’uz Dene Nation to get in a boat and go in the lake for safety when threatened by fire in 2017, as there was no fire egress road. Oakes says the opening of that road was one of her proudest days as an MLA.

READ MORE: New road will provide emergency exit route for Kluskus Nation settlement

She calls on the electoral boundary commission to visit communities off the beaten path like Wells, Horsefly, Narcosli and Nazko, and for her fellow MLAs to consider Cariboo North residents when voting on the legislation.

“What happens if the rural ridings become so large that it is, realistically, no longer possible for an MLA to get out and effectively listen to their constituents?” she says, questioning how constituents’ voices will continue to be heard. “Are you willing to vote on a piece of legislation that will effectively alienate so many fellow British Columbians?

“I ask each of you when you truly talk about addressing inequalities in this province, will you place action with your words? Please remember the hardworking men and women of Cariboo North. Please help us rebuild and recovery. Please do not be a part of the people losing their voices, they have already lost so much.”

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