At 23, Jonathan Van Barneveld is the youngest councillor in Houston history.
On the morning of the day he was sworn in, Van Barneveld wrote one of his final university exams in Prince George—in the span of a week, he came home with an elected office and a UNBC forestry degree.
But young as he is, Van Barneveld has been getting schooled in politics and community-building since at least 2004.
“I’ve always believed in being involved, no matter what community you’re in,” he said.
Here in Houston, Van Barneveld coached kids’ cross-country skiing and co-founded the Houston Hikers Society, which re-opened the Palisades trail and spruced up several others last spring and summer.
“I think last summer there was only one weekend that I wasn’t outside camping, fishing or hiking,” Van Barneveld said. “And that’s because I had to go to a wedding.”
Van Barneveld said forestry is a natural fit given his love of the outdoors, adding that UNBC has a top-notch program.
While in Prince George, Van Barneveld started the first campus club of Young New Democrats.
“It’s worked, because there are so many more political clubs than when I started,” he said, adding that UNBC now has Young Conservatives, Young Greens and Young Liberals clubs as well.
“It’s a good thing because it opens up a dialogue and people are actually getting involved.”
Van Barneveld got his first taste of politics by volunteering on NDP MP Nathan Cullen’s winning 2004 bid for the local Skeena-Bulkley Valley riding.
“Nathan’s really shaped my life, for sure,” he said, adding that he was excited to see Cullen do so well in the first NDP leadership debate last week.
“I think in the grand scheme of the NDP he’s really a moderate,” he said. “He just wants to get things done. I know staunch conservatives in this riding who vote for Nathan because of his approach.”
After helping Cullen through two elections and acting as Houston’s rep for the pro-electoral reform and the anti-HST campaigns, Van Barneveld threw his own hat into the federal ring. Last spring, he finished a strong second to Conservative MP Richard Harris, taking 30 per cent of the vote in Cariboo—Prince George.
“We did really well actually. It was the most votes we’ve had since the 1980s,” he said. Van Barneveld’s bid was close enough that even the late Jack Layton stopped in to show his support.
In the federal election, Van Barneveld said he had great exchanges when he met voters on their doorsteps. But his rivals dogged him about his youth.
Candidates and voters in the Houston election were more receptive, he said.
“In the municipal election, it was so refreshing—there was no real opposition to how old I was,” he said.
Van Barneveld has deep family roots in the community, and is the fifth generation to follow in the forestry footsteps of his his great-great-grandfather.
“He landed in Bella Coola, walked up the Alexander McKenzie trail and built a homestead on Ootsa Lake,” Van Barneveld said, adding that the family moved to nearby Burns Lake after that homestead was flooded out by Alcan.
Harry Hagman, another of his pioneering forebears, started up one of the first mills in town—Buck River Lumber.
“I only figured that out because this summer I was at the museum in Prince George and they had an exhibit, an unusual exhibit, with a bunch of paintings of beehive burners,” said Van Barneveld, laughing.
A caption under a painting of the burner at Buck Flats Roads and Highway 16 said it had belonged to his family.
“We haven’t moved around a lot,” he said. “I guess I don’t want to break up the line.”
Although he’s quick to admit that his family is full of “fairly opinionated people,” Van Barneveld said he’s the the first one to jump into politics.
“I don’t want to go into council guns-a-blazing, because I think there’s going to be a steep learning curve,” he said. “But I think it’s going to be good, with this young-ish council. We might be able to get a lot of stuff done.”
One of Van Barneveld’s obvious strengths is in looking out for Houston’s future in forestry.
After doing fieldwork at Canfor, West Fraser and BC Timber Sales, Van Barneveld said he’s seen forestry from all sides: government, industry and academia.
He spares no time saying what a challenge Houston faces when the mills finish off the last of the region’s beetle-killed wood in the next 10 years or so.
“It’s big. The whole interior’s going to be feeling this,” he said. “Because of the uplift, there’s going to have to be a fall-down to compensate. Houston could very easily become the next McKenzie.”
Van Barneveld said Houston will need to start planning for that fall-down.
“Forestry has been screaming for years that it needs to diversify and find value-added products,” he said. “Maybe, with the fall of the mountain pine beetle, that will be the final kick in the butt.”
But among the challenges, Van Barneveld also sees plenty of reasons to be optimistic. A suite of young councillors were just elected in Burns Lake, Houston and Smithers, and that promises change, he said.
And Houston has done a lot for itself in the last two years or so, he said.
Getting up to leave the Houston Today office and prepare for council’s inaugural meeting, Van Barneveld pointed to a front-cover photo of the two new solar panels by the Chamber of Commerce.
“That’s an important symbol,” he said.
“Houston’s really got a fresh coat of paint,” he added. “For the traveller passing through, we have a brand-new GM building, Castle put a new face on, a bunch of businesses painted by themselves, the Tea Gallery opened up, and you know everybody comes to our pool in the region.”
“It’s turning around again, and that’s really nice to see.”