The Contenders: An accidental politician - The Orca

The Contenders: An accidental politician

Katy Merrifield

Katy Merrifield interviews the BC Liberal leadership candidates. First up, Skeena MLA and former Haisla Chief Councillor Ellis Ross.

Ellis Ross had every reason to accept the COVID-19 vaccine offered to him as part of the BC government’s priority population rollout. But he refused. Not just once, but three times.

“I didn’t think that a person like me, given my ethnicity, should get the vaccine ahead of front-line workers. I’m waiting for my age group to come up.”

“I just don’t think I should get a vaccine based on where I come from.”

He follows all requisite health protocols, of course. But it underlines Ross’s firm opposition to identity politics, which he describes as a cynical practice politicians use to divide people.

Ross is nothing if not a narrative-buster. A First Nations leader who abhors identity politics – and was the first to pledge his candidacy as leader of the BC Liberals.

Born and raised on the reserve near Kitimat, Ross found himself in public life almost by accident, nominated to Council without his knowledge.

He chose to let his name stand after deciding this could help fund a local basketball team in need.

The timing was fortuitous. Council was broke, but Ross and his colleagues managed to take the band council from BC’s poorest to richest in the province, and in 2011 he was elected Chief Councillor of the same council he never intended to serve.

It got noticed. Ross says there were multiple recruitment efforts from various political parties, but chose the BC Liberals.

“For their commitment to a strong province and their advancement of First Nations in BC, particularly in areas of forestry, mining and LNG,” says Ross.

First elected as MLA for Skeena in 2017, he now has his sights set on the party’s top job.

Regardless of party affiliation, many political observers agree: Ross’s communications style in unique. Inspired by his father, a “straight-talking survivor of the residential school system,” Ross is honest, unscripted, and humble (which I must note is refreshingly rare for a politician).

Ross pulls no punches on the BC Liberals’ main competitor, the NDP. For him it’s not their core values or principles he takes issue with, but a “record of false promises of quick fixes with nothing to show for it.”

From housing to homelessness to child care, he argues they bought votes with taxpayer money:

“Their pattern of dishonesty will surely catch up to them.”

Ross also makes no effort to conceal his enormous disappointment with how the government has handled the implementation of UNDRIP.

“That’s one of the biggest false promises made to first nations in the last forty years. They haven’t consulted once on any piece of legislation since they passed that bill. I don’t know if it’s politics, which I disdain on issues like this, or is it ignorance?”

Political observers can look forward to hearing much more when Ross formally launches. Yes, he was technically the first to jump in, based on a surprising February interview he gave to his local paper, but plans to have a more comprehensive and thoughtful formal launch in the weeks or months ahead.

Given the unusual way his candidacy became public, Ross recognizes political tactics and organization as a potential challenge. Most seasoned BC Liberal campaigners are already committed to other teams, particularly those in the crucial and vote-rich Lower Mainland.

In my experience, strategic smarts and political institutional knowledge are assets, but loyalty, dedication and passion are just as important. I don’t think Ross will have any trouble attracting attention and even support with his no-nonsense, values-based approach, and commanding personal narrative.

He is also committed to a respectful race. To his competitors he advises, “keep it clean. Shots are not needed.”

“We’re not here to tear each other down; we’re here to talk about the future of BC.”

Whoever wins, I sincerely hope those words are heeded.

Katy Merrifield is the Vice-President for BC at Wellington Advocacy, who has served as Communications Director to Premiers of both Alberta and British Columbia, and was the youngest woman to run a winning leadership campaign in BC.