Canada's North should have played a bigger role in the federal election

Canada’s North — Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut — should have played a bigger role in this election.

In a tight election decided by vote-rich central Canada, no room for the North in this year’s contest

A file photo of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and P.J. Akeeagok, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, on Aug. 1. Jerald Sabin writes that all leaders, not just Trudeau, should have visited the North on the campaign trail this fall. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

In a federal election seemingly dominated by provincial issues — from Quebec's secularism law to Alberta's economy — the territories scarcely registered.

Canada's North — Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut — should have played a bigger role in this election. Policy areas as diverse as climate change, Indigenous rights, affordability, and the state of Canada's foreign policy all run through the North, shaping and being shaped by northerners. 

Yet, federal leaders and their parties concentrated their efforts elsewhere in Canada. Only Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau visited the territories during this campaign — and to a riding won decisively by the NDP.

The North has not always received such short shrift in federal election campaigns. Despite only having three ridings and a small population, the North has been an important crossroads for both nation-building and policy-making by federal parties. 

In 2015, all three Liberal, Conservative, and NDP leaders visited the North, some more than once. While the North offered federal leaders a canvas on which to paint a national vision, the region was also a source of genuine policy concern. Arctic sovereignty, the cost of healthy food, and natural resource development were all prominent federal issues. 

During this campaign, however, the North lost its lustre for the federal parties in Ottawa. In a tight election decided by vote-rich central Canada, there was no room for the North in this year's contest.

Continuity and change

Election results reflect both continuity and change in the North's political landscape. In 2015, the Liberals swept the North, promising a new direction in northern policy, including a renewed relationship with Indigenous communities and governments. 

Michael McLeod was re-elected as the Liberal MP in the Northwest Territories. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

Over the last four years, those promises have been challenging to accomplish. A long-delayed Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, opposition to the carbon tax by the N.W.T. government, and the stubbornly high cost of food and housing have stymied the Liberal government's ability to deliver for northern Canada. 

Last night's results reflect this patchy record. The Northwest Territories incumbent, Liberal Michael McLeod, sailed to victory with a comfortable 40 per cent of the votes — a 14-point lead over the Conservatives. 

The race in Yukon was much closer. The Liberals' Larry Bagnell bested the Conservatives by only 164 votes — far from a resounding endorsement of the incumbent government. 

Liberal Larry Bagnell was re-elected in Yukon following a close race on Monday. (Kaila Jefferd-Moore/CBC)

Nunavut may demonstrate the greatest dissatisfaction among northerners with the governing Liberals. Nunavut's outgoing MP, Hunter Tootoo, was first elected as a Liberal before resigning in 2016 from both cabinet and caucus for personal misconduct and to seek treatment for alcohol addiction.

Tootoo's decision to sit as an Independent MP not only left Nunavut outside the governing party and cabinet — with no northern replacement, the North had no representation at the cabinet table.

Mumilaaq Qaqqaq's stunning victory for the NDP over both the Liberals and Conservatives — the latter represented by former cabinet minister Leona Aglukkaq — is a rebuke to the Liberals and the policy failures of all levels of government in the territory. 

As Qaqqaq stated in a video posted to Facebook, "The federal government needs to step up and needs to start doing things that they should have been doing here for the last few decades."

Twenty-five-year-old Mumilaaq Qaqqaq of the NDP was elected in Nunavut. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)

Are minority governments bad for the North?

After two successive majority governments, Canadians have returned a minority to Ottawa. 

Political history suggests that minority governments can benefit the North. The short-lived government of Joe Clark, for example, granted Yukon province-like self-government — also called responsible government — to the territory in 1979.

Under Stephen Harper, who led minority governments in 2006 and 2008, the Arctic was a core feature of the government's foreign policy and was integral to its interpretation of Canadian identity.

The political dynamics of this minority may be especially fruitful for issues of importance to northerners. In this Liberal-led minority government, the parties of the left are most likely to offer their support. For northerners seeking action on climate change, affordability, and Indigenous rights, this will be fertile ground.

The North has a special relationship with Ottawa. The territories are creatures of federal statute and depend heavily on federal transfers. The federal government has the fiscal and policy capacity to make the lives of northerners better, but only if the federal parties pay attention.


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