A different kind of BC Conservative candidate

Á’a:líya Warbus sees a progressive side to her party. But do voters—or her leader?

Á’a:líya Warbus wants a seat at the table. What she does if she gets there is still an open question.

Earlier this month, the BC Conservative Party announced its candidates in Chilliwack’s two ridings. Heather Maahs, a Chilliwack school board trustee who has opposed gender neutral washrooms, fits the mould of a candidate for a party whose leader has asked for SOGI educational msaterial to be pulled from schools. But Warbus—a staffer in the Stó:lō Xwexwilmexw Government, an artist, a university instructor, and the director of a film about a Stó:lō trans woman’s search for acceptance—very much does not.

In a system where governments rise and fall on party loyalty, parties rarely nominate candidates whose personal histories and beliefs seem like they might clash with those of their leader and caucus.

Indeed, Warbus doesn’t fit the mould of a provincial or federal candidate in any of Canada’s established parties, which have rarely looked to First Nations for candidates—even in a region like the Fraser Valley with dozens of experienced Stó:lō politicians and administrators.

Now Warbus is looking to blaze a new path and says she is happy for the Conservatives’ help. But if she ends up in the legislature, she may have to figure out how far she is willing to bend if and when her personal beliefs clash with those of her party.

Note: This is a piece of our election coverage. Warbus’s background and her involvement in projects that don’t align with statements by her party leaders make her a rare type of candidate and, thus, interesting to speak to and hear from. So while we don’t have time to interrogate every would-be candidate at this point we want to hear from her and consider what her candidacy means. At the same time, we’re aware it would be unfair and improper to subject one of the valley’s first female Indigenous provincial candidates to a grilling that other candidates won’t receive this early in the campaign. Statements by the Conservative Party of BC and its leader speak for themselves. So rather than a close interrogation of specific parts of Warbus’s personal and still-developing platform, this piece reflects a desire to explore the complexity of what it means to run for office and the challenges that candidates face in reconciling personal views with those of their party.

Becoming a candidate

Warbus is not a stranger to what it means to be in a politically prominent position in British Columbia.

Her father is Steven Point, a man who, perhaps more than any other British Columbian in modern times, straddled the muddy line separating (and sometimes connecting) Indigenous and provincial systems of government. Point, one of the Fraser Valley’s most prominent citizens, has served as a provincial judge, tribal chair of Stó:lō Nation, grand chief of Stó:lō Tribal Council, chief commissioner of the British Columbia Treaty Commission, and British Columbia’s lieutenant general. He is currently the chancellor of the University of British Columbia, while also providing legal help to the Stó:lō Xwexwílmexw Government.

Point, who served as chief of Skowkale First Nation for 24 years, demonstrates the potential for a Stó:lō leader to ascend to some of the highest offices in BC. But even as his daughter follows in his footsteps in various ways while building her own formidable resume, the pathway to pursue involvement on a political level still seemed unclear until recently.

“The intuition from a lot of Indigenous people who want to create changes is to work within the community and run for Chief and Council,” she said. But First Nation political leaders lack influence over many policies that impact Indigenous people both on reserve and off. “For me, I’ve always felt like some of the structures are limiting because we were given Indian bands and reserves as a template to work within and we’re still stuck with that. It’s frustrating to me because I see a larger vision for people and don’t want to get stuck working within a structure that’s limiting.”

From BC United’s Ellis Ross to the Green’s Adam Olsen and the BC NDP’s Melanie Mark, Indigenous people have occupied some prominent roles in provincial politics in recent years. But especially in the Fraser Valley, political parties have consistently shown little inclination to recruit candidates from Stó:lō communities and governments the same way they recruit from other local governments.

Even as local ridings have become more competitive in recent years, that pattern looked to be continuing this election cycle as parties announced candidates, almost all of whom had pre-existing party ties or sat on municipal councils or school boards.

In February, the Conservative Party of BC announced their candidate for the Chilliwack-Cultus Lake riding: Michael Geoghegan, a longtime political consultant and lobbyist who was a newcomer to Chilliwack. Geoghegan, a political insider keenly familiar with how to go about running for provincial office, was a fairly standard candidate for any provincial party in BC without a huge line of members seeking to run for it.

But within a couple weeks, he dropped out, citing health issues. And though he didn’t have a long history in Chilliwack, he already had a replacement in mind. Geoghegan had become the executive director of Skowkale First Nation’s economic development arm and thought Warbus, who served on the organization’s board of directors, might make a good candidate in his stead. He arranged a meeting between Warbus and Conservative Party leader John Rustad. And Warbus came away impressed and feeling welcomed.

“I don't think there's enough Indigenous representation of voices at [the provincial] level. And if I can be welcome, and encouraged to use my voice and have a platform for buying ideas, and solutions that I've been dreaming … over my career, then I'll do that in whatever way is presented to me, and this was the way that was presented to me.”

Although her candidacy drew little provincial attention, Jesse McCormick, an Anishinaabe federal Liberal candidate in 2021 from Kamloops who now is a vice-president of the First Nations Major Projects Coalition, applauded her candidacy, writing “all parties need to be actively recruiting and nominating Indigenous candidates if we want to unsettle the power relationships that have lead to the marginalization of Indigenous Peoples.”

Warbus, who has three children, said she liked Rustad’s stance on the overdose crisis and drug supply, and saw a place for herself in the party and group of candidates being assembled by the BC Conservatives.

“I'm picking up what's being put into my path and going to do the work with the best, you know, knowledge I have from my elders, and from my learning in university. I'm trying to put the two worlds together the best way I can under this new progressive conservative movement that’s being built by John.”

Warbus’s seemingly progressive interpretation of the party is at odds with the popular conception of both Rustad and the party, though she pointed to a Vancouver Island candidate as evidence that not all the Conservatives’ candidates are obviously right-wing. But her view comes both because of their shared distaste for drug decriminalization, but also because of the welcome she felt from Rustad.

“What encouraged me to run—when I was coming from what I have always felt was a very left perspective—was sitting down and having a conversation with [Rustad] and him being so open and willing to go over his entire platform with me and answer my questions and address my concerns.”

Warbus said the two agreed “that it's okay that we might not land on this on the same page on absolutely everything, but that on big ticket items, we are in alignment because our values are a lot more similar than they are different.”

Warbus said she hadn’t quite expected to find common cause with Rustad and his party. Finding shared values, she said, was “a surprise to me because I've always felt like they're over there in terms of, you know, a conservative party—and honestly, all BC politics. Like we just haven't been involved, and so many of the issues directly affect my people. I’ve never felt like there has been a push—and maybe this is from our side or maybe it’s from theirs—for our voice to be involved in any line of thinking.”

Warbus said that feeling applied to all BC’s political parties.

Upon meeting Rustad, Warbus said the pair found common cause on issues—again, like the response to the drug epidemic—that were close to her heart.

“It's more important to put aside some things that may be considered differences and say ‘That's OK, we don't exactly meet in the middle on those things and that can be worked on, there's room for conversation, but on some of the really difficult and I'll call them hard issues, we do [agree].’ And that is putting family values first approaching the drug problem in British Columbia, with an attitude of ‘Let's figure this out now and start helping people.’ Because my people need that.”

For Warbus, that was enough to feel comfortable running for the Conservatives, despite reservations elsewhere.

But those potential differences could loom incredibly large if Warbus does end up casting a vote in the legislature—and they are also likely to surface during the election campaign. Because those touchy issues are massive and at the core of Warbus’s recent artistic and professional work. And voters will want to know just how a “progressive” candidate for the BC Conservatives will, or won’t, use her voice if elected.

Alignment—or dissonance

Rustad has prominently said that he wants to repeal BC’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA), the bill enshrining the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) into the province’s legal framework.

Rustad—who voted for DRIPA when he was a BC United MLA—says he would now scrap the act because he said UNDRIP was ill-suited to be the framework for British Columbia’s specific Indigenous governance conditions. He has also tied it to the BC government’s aborted plan to change how land is managed in consultation with First Nations in the province.

The president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, said First Nation leaders were “disgusted” by how Rustad and BC United leader Kevin Falcon campaigned against the land act changes, saying they used it to score political points and, in doing so, sparked a “racist backlash.”

Warbus said she specifically asked Rustad about UNDRIP. She said she agreed that UNDRIP might not be the proper framework to underlay Indigenous-government relations in BC—but that the rights protected under DRIPA do need to be preserved.

“We have close to 250 different Indian Act bands in British Columbia; we have the highest amount of diversity and culture and different languages in British Columbia. So if you're going to apply word-for-word UNDRIP into BC legislation, and give veto power to that many different micro-nations, and have them sit down and talk about shared resources with the province, we're never going to see the economic benefit of those resources in the next 100 years. And that's where I take issue with that.”

(The characterization that the rules would give veto power to First Nations is at odds with the UBCIC’s interpretation of the proposed changes.)

But Warbus also said the broad intention of DRIPA—the enshrined protection of Indigenous rights in BC—needs to be preserved if the legislation is repealed.

“I could understand [Rustad’s] perspective immediately and where he takes issue with certain provisions of UNDRIP. But that also needs to be made clear when you're saying I want to repeal all of UNDRIP.”

Warbus spoke to The Current just a handful of days after her candidacy was announced. She said she was still processing what campaigning would mean. Indeed, her answers in the interview suggested a person who had not yet been trained to repeat party lines and avoid otherwise normal expressions of uncertainty..

She said the question of what she would do if a vote on DRIPA came up in the legislature is “is something that I am going to have to answer,” but that she was still trying to sort it out herself and listening to others.

“My job is to gain those perspectives and those understandings and when the time comes, make the best decision that I see fit, taking all constituents into account.”

‘My views on this are never going to change’

Warbus also will have to reckon with her party—and her fellow BC Conservative candidates’—stance on gender issues.

Rustad has taken a stance against sexual orientation and gender information material in BC’s schools, and issued a social media post last fall that appeared to compare gender education teaching with residential schools. Maahs, Warbus’s fellow BC Conservative candidate to the north, has called the Pride flag offensive to Christians and actively criticized her school board’s policies aimed at increasing inclusiveness for trans people in local schools.

Warbus, meanwhile, is the producer of one of the valley’s most unabashedly pro-trans works of culture. Last year, she premiered Slhá:lí (Woman), a film about the first out Stó:lō trans woman in modern times. The film discusses the challenges faced by trans people. It was screened to mark the Trans Day of Visibility. Kwantlen Polytechnic University described the film as bearing witness to “a trans/’twin-spirited’ woman who broke ground to confront and reshape understandings of gender in her Stó:lō community.”

Asked about the apparent conflict between her party’s statements on gender issues and the message behind her film, Warbus said:

“My views on this are never going to change. I’m always going to stand by why I created the film and the fact that every single person deserves safety and space to be who they are. I’ll never shift on those values.

“But in order to create bridges and more understanding, between the 2SLGBTQ+ community and other people, we really have to be willing to collaborate and meet on middle ground.”

Warbus said that some members of the public need time to adjust to changing perspectives on gender issues.

“I don’t think it’s fair to tug on people and force them into ideologies that they are not ready for.”

Warbus said she worried that she and Rustad would clash on the topic. But she said it’s possible for the BC Conservatives to encompass both her beliefs and those of gender education opponents.

“In reality, [Rustad] is in one place of readiness, I’m in another, but we’re both willing to put our heads together to make a path forward.”

Warbus frames the question as one of tactics, and of the need to perhaps consciously slow down the rate of change in order to bring more people on board. She likens it to getting into a hot tub or bath and slowly turning up the temperature. Warbus believes it is possible to create legislation that appeases both SOGI opponents and meets the objectives of SOGI and the queer community.

The question, of course, is whether middle ground is possible—especially when there are fundamental disagreements about simple things like the importance of gender-neutral washrooms, about which both proponents and detractors make arguments pertaining to the safety of users.

Needless to say, others see the question differently than Warbus. Advocates have declared significant change necessary and urgent to improve the safety of trans people today. And they argue that improvements to help trans people are not harmful to the general public and can actually be beneficial. Progress, they say, shouldn’t be stopped because some people are uncomfortable. And while Warbus said the SOGI educational materials and policy changes have proven divisive, the timing of protests and rhetoric has more-closely aligned with continental political debates, rather than the introduction of SOGI policies themselves, which now date back more than seven years.

A bridge?

Warbus says she sees herself as a potential bridge between communities that have found themselves on opposing sides of hot-button issues. But some bridges are more structurally secure than others. And BC’s political parties have a dubious history when it comes to accommodating candidates and members whose views clash with the majority of their caucus or are seen not in line with their voters.

The BC Conservatives’ two sitting MLAs—both of whom left BC United—are evidence of how politicians can find common cause within their party one year, but not the next. Just a few years ago in Abbotsford, MLA Darryl Plecas found himself eventually unable to reconcile his less-partisan impulses with the demands of party loyalty and ended up splitting from the then-BC Liberal Party. And Pro-LGBTQ federal Conservatives have recently found themselves literally running from reporters when asked about their party’s stance on queer and gender issues.

Rustad has promised candidates he’ll do things differently and permit members more freedom to speak their mind. That’s what Abbotsford MLA Bruce Banman said prompted him to join the party last year.

Warbus also said Rustad said she would be able to have and express her individual values and voice in the legislature—but he also said that as a party, the Conservatives would need to be on the same page on “bigger ticket items.” For Rustad, the need to get a diverse caucus to fall in line post-election will be a sign of electoral success—a large caucus would mean the party has achieved a voter breakthrough few would have predicted a year ago. But Warbus will face questions during the campaign about what she would do if elected.

For now, Warbus is still wrestling with the personal dilemmas an election may pose. It will be up to her to decide how far she is willing to bend to seek compromise, and where to draw the line. And up to voters to try to predict the future.

Either way, one person Warbus will have by her side, if she needs it, is her father and BC’s former lieutenant general, Steven Point.

When Warbus told her father about her decision, she said he expressed his pride, and said he supported her decision and would help in whatever way she needed. Asked what that meant to her, Warbus took a deep breath, pausing for several seconds to contain her emotions.

“That’s the greatest honour that anybody could get, I think. For someone like my dad to endorse me and have trust and faith that I was doing the right thing strengthened the bond that we already have.”

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