Former Lower Nicola Band Chief and First Nations lawyer Aaron Sumexheltza has won the NDP nomination in the provincial riding of Fraser-Nicola, sparking a bitter battle between the riding association and the B.C. NDP.
All 13 members of the Fraser-Nicola Riding Association resigned on the weekend of Sept. 11, and former vice-president Dennis Adamson has told the Journal that Sumexheltza will have to find help elsewhere. As the riding association normally runs a candidate’s campaign, the move could mean that the NDP has to bring in organizers from outside the riding.
While the next provincial election is not scheduled to take place until Oct. 2021, speculation that NDP Premier John Horgan might call a snap election as early as next week has ramped up recently.
The riding association has accused the B.C. NDP of ignoring the wishes of local members and setting such a short timeline that no one else was able to run. “[B.C. NDP party president Craig] Keating will say he mentioned the nomination process on July 12, 2020,” says Adamson. “The party flatly refused to send any membership lists to us following repeated requests by us. We needed those lists in order to send out notices for the nomination as per the Party’s own constitutional requirements.”
The riding association says that they received an email from NDP Nominations Coordinator Lise Fenton, stating that the Fraser-Nicola NDP nomination date had been set for Sept. 24, and that Sumexheltza had been approved to run for the nomination and was the only person who had been vetted by the Provincial Office. Fenton further started that anyone interested in running for the nomination had to give 28 days’ notice to the party, which disqualified anyone else from running as there were only 22 days between her email and the closing date of Sept. 24.
“They sent an email saying the nomination was on Sept. 24, and that Aaron had been vetted [as a candidate].,” says Adamson. “A week later they sent an email saying he was acclaimed. It’s not democratic at all. The riding association had no say. We’re there to fundraise, do organizational work, do outreach, and pick a candidate. They skipped all the parts we were supposed to do and picked [Sumexheltza] knowing we didn’t want him.”
B.C. NDP president Craig Keating has defended the process, and does not dispute that once the nomination date of Sept. 24 was chosen, it was too late for anyone else to run. He says that while the party would have welcomed a contested nomination, they are pleased that Sumexheltza is the party’s candidate in the riding, saying that it puts them in a good position. The Journal reached out to the B.C. NDP Party, which had not replied as of the time of going to press.
This is not the first time that the NDP has found itself embroiled in controversy in the Fraser-Nicola riding. In May 2016 NDP veteran Harry Lali — a longtime MLA who was the riding association president until last weekend — announced that he would once again be seeking the NDP nomination after being defeated by Liberal newcomer Jackie Tegart in 2013. He was unchallenged until Dec. 2016, when Sumexheltza was persuaded to throw his hat into the ring against Lali.
In Jan. 2017, less than four months before the provincial election, Horgan stated publicly that he had asked Lali to step aside and make way for Sumexheltza. Lali refused, and won the nomination, only to be defeated by Tegart — who plans to run in the next election — by 524 votes in the May 2017 election.
“The B.C. NDP tried to get [Sumexheltza] the nomination last time,” says Adamson. “They kept moving the nomination date further and further, and asked Harry to step aside. He strongly won the nomination, but their interference took away time and helped us lose the seat.
“This time they know how we feel. Aaron hasn’t been participating in any meetings, doing any fundraising, doesn’t share our values. He’s somebody the NDP put in because they don’t like Harry and think they know better than us. Executing nomination meetings is the responsibility of the constituency association. Head office undermined us and bypassed the constituency association completely, and did everything unbeknownst to us behind our backs. We had zero input into the process. They never consulted us at all.”
Adamson says he has to ask why the B.C. NDP is so keen on Sumexheltza as a candidate, noting that the decision has left many members of the riding association bitter.
“They think they can push us around. Keating said at the July 12 meeting that we should be good NDPers and vote for who’s there, but we’ll vote our conscience. Some lifetime members don’t want him, but they are NDP. They could stay home [on election day] if they choose. I quit the NDP, period, and will be seeking another party to join. I don’t think he’s the right person for our riding and don’t think he’ll win. I think head office is making a very big mistake.”
The narrowness of Tegart’s 2017 win has made Fraser-Nicola a key battleground riding in the next election. It is widely viewed as a riding that the provincial NDP needs to “flip” into their column if they want to win an outright majority. They currently hold 41 seats in the 87-seat Legislature — the same number as the Liberals — but govern with the support of the provincial Green Party (two seats), with whom the NDP signed a Confidence and Supply agreement in 2017. There are also two Independents sitting in the Legislature, and one seat is currently vacant.