The Conservative Party of BC has announced Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad as their new leader — 43 days after he joined the party after nearly two decades with the BC Liberals.
Rustad — who technically remains an independent MLA, but described himself as B.C.’s only Conservative MLA — had sat with the BC Liberals until Aug. 2022, when BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon kicked him of caucus for comments about climate change.
Rustad ran unopposed for the leadership of his new party and replaces former leader Trevor Bolin, who had assumed the role of interim leader in early March.
Rustad told Black Press Media that he found out late Thursday he would become leader. “I’m very excited actually, because I truly believe that people in this province are hungry for some change,” he said. “They are hungry for another option and they are looking for a party that is going to stand up and fight for them.”
Rustad, who has been the MLA Nechako Lakes since 2009 after first being elected in 2005, promised in a statement that nobody will outwork him.
“I’m going to be focused, I am going to be relentless, and I am going to bring the fight to the woke NDP and Liberals who think that they should get to limit your job prospects, deny your freedom, gatekeep your healthcare, spend your money, tell you how to raise your children and reduce your public safety by having compassion for criminals instead of their victims,” he said.
Rustad clarified that the NDP is woke and that the BC Liberals are “woke-lite” or “woke-wanna-be” because few differences exist between the parties.
He acknowledged that the climate is changing and humans are having an impact on climate. “But I do not believe it is a crisis,” he said. “I do not believe it is an existentialist threat.” Most importantly, policies proposed to deal with climate change in B.C. threaten food security while hitting the pocketbooks of British Columbians, he said. “A lot of that (crisis rhetoric) has been pushed hard by politicians,” he said.
These comments echo the populist tone of Rustad’s announcement that he would be running for the leadership of the party, when he expressed sympathy for the Freedom Convoy and called himself “proudly pro-freedom.”
But Rustad’s statement also tried to build a bridge to First Nations in stressing his credentials as former minister of Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation. He said in that role he signed more than 400 agreements with First Nations.
“These agreements brought tens of thousands of jobs to B.C. and brought thousands of families out of poverty,” he said. “Failure wasn’t an option then and it isn’t an option now.”
This language also raised the question of whether Rustad would recruit BC Liberal Ross Ellis of the Haisla Nation, who represents the riding of Skeena and has been a proponent of economic development among First Nations through liquified natural gas.
Rustad, who co-chaired Ellis’ unsuccessful campaign for the leadership of the BC Liberals, described Ellis as a friend with whom he speaks on a regular basis. “I actually try hard not to talk to him about coming over and joining the Conservative Party, because we are friends,” Rustad said. “If he is interested, I would certainly be interested in having that conversation with him. But at the same time, I respect our friendship and I respect what we have been able to do together over the years.
“Of course, I have harrassed him from time to time and had some fun. But that is part of the jesting that goes on. At the end of the day, I do respect his decisions … and I’m not going to try to be (putting) any heavy pressure on him or anything like that.”
Rustad added other MLAs could be interested in joining him, but he himself does not anticipate that.
“The work that I need to do is to go around the province and build the party, get our riding associations up and running, and if at some point, the work I am doing resonates with some of the other folks in the legislature, I’d be happy to have that discussion with them.”
Once instrumental in the early history of B.C., provincial Conservatives have gone through various changes over the years, winning a mere 35,902 votes, or 1.91 per cent, across 19 ridings in the 2020 provincial election.
But the party has the potential to play spoiler to the detriment of BC Liberals in competitive ridings.
Consider Abbotsford-Mission, where Conservative Trevor Hamilton won almost eight per cent of the vote. NDP Minister of Agriculture Pam Alexis won that riding by less than three per cent against BC Liberal incumbent Simon Gibson.
An even closer riding was Vernon-Monashee, where New Democrat Harwinder Sandhu edged out incumbent BC Liberal Eric Foster by less than 1.5 per cent with the Conservative Kyle Delfing having won nearly 13 per cent.