Notes from 60° North

Playing political games with Canada’s North

It is election time again in Canada, which means a whole lot of vague spending platforms, photo ops in factories around the country and attack ads selling fear on TV. It also means, in the last few election campaigns at least, promises by politicians of all political stripes to focus on developing Canada’s North.

The three Canadian territories – Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut – compose over 39 per cent of Canada’s total land mass. Yet each is barely populated. The NWT, for example, has just over 40,000 people spread over 1,346,000 square kilometres. That’s 17 times the size of Scotland, for a population 130 times less.

The territories also mark Canada’s Arctic border, and in these days of Arctic Ocean exploration and the potential of huge oil and gas deposits under rapidly melting ice sheets they may be the main source of Canada’s future wealth.

It all makes for quite the political dilemma. Each territory has only one member of parliament in Canada’s 308-seat government – certainly not enough influence for any party to seriously try and woo a large block of Northern voters. Yet each political party has its own vision for Canada’s North. So we end up with all kinds of attention from southern politicians with no personal experience in the North, promising all kinds of ideas to improve life in the territories, all with the intent of showing other southerners (usually with no experience in the North) that one party knows more about the vast northern expanses of the country, and what is best for the people who live there, than another.

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the king of these northern stage shows. For the past five summers he has embarked on a “Northern tour,” a week-long whirlwind trip full of military bluster on Arctic shorelines, quad rides over barren tundra landscapes, expertly staged visits with Inuit youth in community halls and photo shoots in front of every northern landscape you could imagine.

Granted, Harper’s efforts have brought attention to the North. And the man truly seems to enjoy his time up here. But these are staged visits to exotic locales for the benefits of southern voters who will never step foot in a territory. There is very little genuine in the exercise – no reference to the young Inuks who live in what often amounts to third-world housing conditions, no mention of Dene communities where 70 per cent unemployment is the norm, no photo shoots with homeless men in Yellowknife who have been drinking since they were taken by police from their home communities and put in an Indian Residential School.

Likewise, the other political parties speak of the North with a similar attempt to attract southern voters. While the Liberals and New Democrats may talk up a different vision than the Conservative’s focus on military sovereignty in the Arctic, their visions are equally distant from reality. For the most part the people making the plans to build houses, eliminate poverty, provide employment and build communities have no idea what the North is all about, and little idea what to do to help it.

Which leaves the actual candidates in the northern ridings to appeal to the voters on the ground.

Remarkably, in the context of the rest of the country, the three northern ridings tend to switch between political parties quite frequently. In the NWT the Conservatives held the seat in the 1970s and early 80s, before the Liberals held it through the 90s and the early part of this decade, and now the New Democrats are going for their third straight election win.

Victory in the North is largely determined by the personalities of the candidates involved. People in the territories tend to vote for individuals, regardless of their political stripes. And they are used to meeting candidates face to face and making judgments on his or her abilities in person, rather than through any advertising campaigns.

Given the sheer size of the ridings, that makes campaigning in the North very difficult. Last week, for example, one candidate started a day in Inuvik, near the Arctic coast, flew through Yellowknife, and then ended up in Fort Resolution, 1,500 km south. Combined, Inuvik and Fort Resolution may have only 2,500 voters, but in a riding that was decided by 500 votes in the last election, the voters in small communities often make the difference.

Of course the job of being an MP does not get any easier once one gets elected. Current incumbent Dennis Bevington says the NWT is probably the most challenging place to represent in the country. First of all it is over 3,000 km from Yellowknife to Ottawa, with no direct flight. Second of all, once you do get back to your home riding, you’ve got over 1,600 km from north to south and 33 communities vastly different in size, geography and cultural makeup to represent and visit regularly.

Bevington rarely made it home over the past three years of being in office, but that is the price to pay to actually know what you are talking about when it comes to Canada’s North.

It is not quite as sexy as Prime Minister Harper riding a quad over the tundra. Then again, real life rarely lives up to election campaigns.

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Shawn Bell is a jaded political junkie who writes for the Slave River Journal in Fort Smith, NWT.


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