When I moved to Kelowna in May 2007, there was no doubt that I had just landed in the Conservative heartland. Kelowna-Lake Country’s MP at the time, Ron Cannan, had just been elected to his first term the year before as part of the Conservative minority government. But he had inherited the seat from Werner Schmidt, who had represented the area for Reform, then the Alliance and finally the Conservatives. Cannan won his first election with 49 per cent of the vote, almost double what the second place Liberal got.
Kelowna is also the home town of two B.C. right wing icons and former Social Credit Premiers, W.A.C. Bennett and his son, William R. Bennett. When I got here in 2007, my first job was as the business reporter for the Kelowna Capital News and my interactions with the city’s movers and shakers only confirmed the area’s conservative leanings. To win public office here, you had to promise to keep taxes low and you pretty much had to belong to a church.
But there were also signs that things were changing. UBC had just opened its Okanagan campus two years before, Kelowna’s population was swelling with new comers attracted by the sun and the lifestyle, and the economy was further shifting away from traditional agriculture to a reliance on tourism and wineries. Meanwhile a nascent tech industry was just starting to set down roots, which deepened in August of 2007 with the sale of local start-up Club Penguin to Disney for $350.93 million.
And now, it is clear. Kelowna today is not the place I moved to over eight years ago.
Cannan won his seat again in 2008 with 56 per cent of the vote and again in 20011 with 57 per cent. But last night, he dropped to 40 per cent and lost to Liberal Stephen Fuhr. Sure, some of that is simply Kelowna getting caught up in the big red wave of change along with the rest of the country. And I’m guessing the broadcasting of the early results from out east influenced voters here who cast their ballots after they learned about the Liberal sweep of Atlantic Canada.
But the last time the Liberals did this, in 1993 when Chretien and company swept into power, Kelowna voters overwhelming chose the Reform Party.
A big part of Fuhr’s success I believe, is directly connected to the blossoming of Kelowna’s tech industry. A tech executive here recently told me Kelowna now has 780 tech companies that generate $1.8 billion in economic activity. And Municipal leaders are doing what they can to remodel the city to make it more attractive to young creative professionals, who in turn are moving here and bringing their more liberal social values with them.
Last November, Kelowna elected a person of colour as mayor for the first time thanks largely to the tech industry. 37-year-old Colin Basran’s campaign team was largely made up of people who own and work for tech businesses and he was publicly endorsed by tech bigwigs like the founders of Club Penguin.
And in this federal election, many of those same people got behind Liberal Stephen Fuhr’s campaign, including Colin Basran, who didn’t officially endorse anyone during the campaign but who was seen handing Fuhr his first beer at his victory party last night.
But even though I saw those efforts coalescing , I still didn’t see this result coming. Until the votes were counted, I didn’t believe this area was ready to turn its back on the Conservatives, especially considering that a number of business leaders and other heavy hitters in the community publicly endorsed Cannan. People like popular former mayor Walter Gray, Troika Group CEO Renee Wasylyk, and former Kelowna fire chief and city councillor Gerry Zimmermann (who pretty much walks on water around here thanks to his heroic leadership during the devastating 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire.) When it comes to calling this election wrong, at least I’m in good company.
Kelowna now has a mayor and an MP who owe their offices in large measure to the efforts of people in this city’s tech industry. And it’s clear the industry also has the attention of its MLA, who just happens to be Premier Christy Clark (in the riding of Westside-Kelowna.) She recently helped deliver a promise of up to $6 million in funding for the Okanagan Centre for Innovation, which is under construction just down the street from me.
These are heady days for Kelowna’s tech industry. Its people have money and are organized. And that combination is winning them ever increasing amounts of power and influence.