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Prince George 2020 candidate profiles: BC NDP’s Joan Atkinson looks to dethrone Liberal reign

Prince George-Mackenzie candidate believes NDP can help revitalize the forestry industry
Joan Atkinson is the BC NDP's 2020 election candidate for the Prince George-Mackenzie riding. (via Kyle Balzer, PrinceGeorgeMatters)

The 2020 B.C. provincial election is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 24.

PrinceGeorgeMatters has reached out to all candidates in the city's two electoral districts for interviews to bring you these profiles.

Joan Atkinson says she was excited at the chance to take the leap from municipal to provincial politics.

The current Mayor of Mackenzie was asked to run as a candidate for the BC NDP by premier John Horgan himself and, though it’s her first time running for a seat in the legislature, Atkinson is no stranger to politics.

She comes into the provincial race with an extensive resume that includes 18 years’ experience as a B.C. government employee, a member of several local and regional committees, and has sat on Mackenzie's district council since 2007.

“I know there are certain jurisdictions that the municipally elected have no control over,” explains Atkinson, who was elected mayor in 2018.  

“I love being a councillor for the District of Mackenzie and the mayor of the last couple of years, but I realized that in order to have a strong voice to initiate some change, particularly with the forest industry because that is a huge economic driver in the north, my time would be best spend in Victoria fighting for those changes.”

She says her experience in politics and as a resident of northern B.C. for the last 22 years has allowed her to establish relationships with industry leaders, First Nations, and many provincial MLAs.

“I certainly am well aware of the issues of the north,” says Atkinson. “I am feeling very confident that my experience as a municipal councillor for the last 13 years and mayor for the last two, that I have made those connections that is going to be able to promote our needs.”

One of the key aspects of Atkinson’s campaign mandate is the collapse of the forestry industry in her community and in the region.

It was the NDP’s response to the downfall of forestry, and her involvement in the Timber Supply Area (TSA) Coalitions, that inspired Atkinson to wave the orange flag.

“Back in April 2019, Premier Horgan sent out letters to all of the CEOs of forestry companies in this province encouraging them to establish Timber Supply Coalitions and I applaud the premier from coming from it from that point of view,” says Atkinson, explaining Conifex Timber Ltd. stepped up and applied to form the Mackenzie TSA coalition.

“He recognized that it is the people on the ground and the people involved in the industry that know what the challenges are and what needs to be done to fix it.”

She says the TSA has been working from January to September and has narrowed down 10 recommendations to bring to government.

“As soon as this election is over that Timber Supply Area Coalition will be coming to government with recommendations. I was very happy to see that John Horgan recognized the system was broken and he went to the people working in that industry to find out what the challenges are and asked ‘what do you think needs to be done to fix this.’”

Prince George saw the permanent closure of the Isle Pierre sawmill this spring affecting 94 employees, while Mackenzie saw its Paper Excellence pulp mill close in the summer putting 253 people out of work.

This followed a brutal 2019 in the forestry industry, which was riddled with numerous curtailments and closures throughout the region.

“I have every confidence that we are going to be revitalizing the forest industry in this province and it is a huge economic driver, as we all know,” says Atkinson.

“It is a huge part of our economy and that has to be fixed. I am confident the NDP will move this forward because it was their initiative that got these Timber Supply Area coalitions moving.”

Atkinson also pointed to mental health and addictions, calling on more support needed during the opioid crisis, and particularly Prince George’s need for safe and supportive housing for the homeless.

“I myself lost a brother to addictions so I know what I am talking about,” says Atkinson. “I strongly feel that communities have to come together and social agencies have to work together to assure we are providing the best opportunity so that marginalized individuals can break out of that cycle.”

Atkinson says she is also happy with the NDP’s approach to the province’s other public health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, of course.

She points to NDP initiatives like B.C.'s Emergency Benefit for Workers, B.C. Temporary Rental Supplement Program, and recent announcements like the NDP's $1.4 billion plan over 10 years to eliminate multi-patient rooms in long-term care homes.

“The NDP under the leadership of John Horgan has clearly proven they are the working for everyone in the province regardless of where you live or what political party you support,” says Atkinson. “The NDP wants to be the government for everyone so I am certainly very happy with the recent announcements.”

Not unlike the NDP party itself, Atkinson is critical of the BC Liberal’s campaign promise to cut the Provincial Sales Tax (PST) for a year in hopes to boost COVID-19 economic recovery.

“The reduction in PST does very little to help the middle class or lower class or people living in poverty,” says Atkinson, “I don’t think that is a solution that is in anyone’s best interest except for the wealthy and well connected”

She has also expressed full support for Horgan’s decision to call the election during the pandemic, claiming a minority government, at this point, isn’t enough to move the province in the right direction.

“What it means is that we are going to have a solid forward-thinking government that is going to help us through the next four years because they are going to be challenging,” says Atkinson.  

“The NDP has clearly shown they have the drive, the passion and our Premier certainly has compassion for all of us. He wants to make things better for the everyday British Columbian and I am confident that the NDP will help us through these next trying years.”

Atkinson is campaigning against incumbent Mike Morris, who's seeking a third term with the BC Liberals.

He won 57 per cent of the vote in 2017, outpacing Bobby Deepak who was the NDP candidate for the riding.

She also faces BC Green Party candidate Cathatrine Kendall and BC Libertarian Party candidate Raymond Rodgers.

Voters will go to the polls on Saturday, Oct. 24, but advance voting starts today (Oct. 15) through to Oct. 21.

“Get out and vote,” notes Atkinson.

“This is your opportunity to have a say about how we are going to move this province forward.”

- with files from Kyle Balzer, PrinceGeorgeMatters