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Rob Shaw: A tale of two MLAs, one BC United and one NDP, and how the province plays favourites

The money was requested by rival MLAs working together, but it flowed only to the NDP riding
Fraser River Delta - aerial view
The BC NDP government chose the NDP MLA and not the neighbouring BC United one to award funds to help them deal with Fraser River sediment.

Two communities on either side of the Fraser River co-author a letter to the B.C. government asking for money for river dredging to restore much-needed marine shipping lanes and protect hundreds of jobs. One is in a long-held BC United riding; the other, a swing riding won narrowly by the NDP in the last election.

Can you guess how the NDP government responds?

You don’t need a PhD in political science to figure it out.

The money flows only to the NDP-held riding, of course, along with a self-congratulatory press release from the New Democrat MLA.

Such is the situation playing out in Richmond and Delta right now, where two mayors and two local First Nations chiefs co-authored a March 28 letter asking for funding from the provincial and federal governments.

The money would be used to dredge sand, dirt and mud out of secondary channels of the Fraser River, which have become so backlogged that it’s preventing access to marinas and businesses, creating a safety hazard for recreational boaters and even tilting float homes sideways when the tide is low.

The two sides didn’t hear anything back until Monday, when Kelly Greene, NDP MLA for Richmond-Steveston, took an out-of-the-blue victory lap for securing $2.1 million in dredging funding on her side of the river, representing one-half of the signatories on the letter.

“Reliable harbour access is vital for fishers and Steveston's rich community of maritime businesses,” said Greene, who somehow got to make the announcement “on behalf of Rob Fleming, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure,” according to the press release.

“Our vibrant fishing and maritime economy will thrive for years to come as a result of this dredging project, supported by our government.”

On the other side of the Fraser, where voters have elected BC Liberal/BC United MLAs for most of the last 30 years, incumbent Delta South MLA Ian Paton was left fuming.

“It’s just more gifts to some of their people in particular ridings,” Paton said of the NDP government. “Suddenly $2.1 million goes to Kelly Greene’s riding over in Steveston to help out with dredging, but nothing in Ladner.”

There’s a long history in this province of so-called “blacktop politics” where the government funnels money to ridings it wants to hold or win in the next election to drum up votes. Apparently, blacktop politics also extends underwater now as well. Greene’s Richmond seat is one of several Lower Mainland swing ridings the BC NDP have to hold on to in 2024 if they want to retain power.

The Ministry of Transportation issued a statement saying the money is part of a program with the Steveston Harbour Authority that requires matching funding from the harbour, the City of Richmond and the federal government. Ottawa never came through with its cash, but B.C. wrote a cheque anyway, according to the ministry.

“The joint request by the mayors of Delta and Richmond for additional dredging is more recent,” said the ministry statement. “We know that more dredging is needed to keep the waterways open and supporting thousands of jobs.”

Sustained, long-term funding of at least $2.5 million a year to dredge the never-ending flow of sediment into the Fraser River is the long-term request of mayors in both ridings. A $10 million program in 2013 tackled the problem head-on, but that money, and the dredging benefits, are over.

“With the amount of sediment coming down the river now, which is the most we’ve ever seen, with atmospheric conditions, rains and forest fires, it’s something that has to be done every year,” said Delta Mayor George Harvie.

Harvie took a more optimistic view of the funding for Steveston, saying he met with the provincial government two weeks ago to push Ladner’s case, and will be heading to Ottawa soon where he’ll also request money from federal officials.

“We’ll be pressing them,” he said.

“It’s getting pretty drastic, and from an economic point of view, the amount of federal and provincial tax dollars associated with recreational boating of those marinas are not full, we’re losing economic opportunities. We can’t just keep throwing money at it and turning our backs on it for a couple of years again.”

Sediment in the Fraser River is a natural phenomenon, occurring mainly during late spring and early summer with the melting of the snowpack in the mountains. The dirt clogs up not just the main channel, but the secondary channels that house marinas and businesses, making the water dangerously low and impassable in spots during low tide.

“We have a major float home community in and around Ladner,” said Paton. “When it’s low tide, these float homes are sitting on an angle, which compromises their natural gas connections, their sewage connections, their water lines and all those different things. Not to mention major recreational marinas where people can’t even get their boats out of marinas on low tide.”

Steveston’s commercial fishing harbour is the largest in Canada, with more than 400 vessels. But Paton said Ladner is not far behind, including with major businesses like Lions Gate Fishers and S.M. Products.

“They have a hell of a time getting out,” he said. “You have to really play the tides to figure out when you’re going to go out or come home again.”

The province argues any solution requires money from Ottawa.

“The Lower Fraser River and its side channels face the same issue of sediment infill, and there is a need for a broader regional dredging program,” the ministry said in its statement.

“The province is ready to participate in such a program, but we need the support of the federal government to lead this work.

“The province has engaged in discussions with a number of stakeholders about next steps.

“We hope that the $2.1 million provincial contribution to the Steveston Harbour Authority’s project will kick-start conversations about a longer-term approach.”

The funding certainly has kick-started a conversation. But it’s mainly about how the NDP government continues to play favourites with public money.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]