OPINION | North's Liberal vote a rebuke of Harper's Arctic policy

Monday's election saw the territories’ three incumbent MPs go down to defeat, which can only be read as a rebuke of Conservative policy in the North, says political scientist Jerald Sabin.

Conservatives focused on sovereignty and resource development over social policy

Stephen Harper adjusts his Canadian Rangers sweatshirt at a camp near Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, in August 2013. Jerald Sabin says Arctic sovereignty, security, and the development of natural resources were important pillars in a Conservative Party strategy to replace traditional symbols of Canadian identity – the Charter, health care, and peacekeeping – with those more aligned with Conservative values. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Monday's historic election saw the territories' three incumbent MPs go down to defeat. In the end, these were not close races, but decisive victories for Liberal challengers in the ridings of Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon.

Liberal Hunter Tootoo roundly defeated Leona Aglukkaq, a prominent cabinet minister, by a 22-point margin in Nunavut. Ryan Leef, the incumbent Conservative MP in Yukon, lost to former Liberal MP Larry Bagnell in a stunning comeback that saw him take 53.6 per cent of the vote. NDP MP Dennis Bevington lost to Liberal Michael McLeod as voters in the Northwest Territories caught the red wave sweeping across the rest of the country.

These results can only be read as a rebuke of Conservative policy in the North.

Over Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decade in power, Canada's North – and particularly its Arctic – has been a cornerstone of Conservative politics. Arctic sovereignty, security, and the development of natural resources have been important issues. Harper laid the groundwork for a new Arctic naval facility, concluded negotiation of a devolution agreement with the Government of the Northwest Territories, and led the international Arctic Council over the past two years.

Sovereignty strategy

Since John Diefenbaker's "Northern Vision," Canada's territories have featured prominently in the policies of Conservative governments. Along with reviving the Crown and Canada's military history, Harper continued this tradition with the North. The territories have been important pillars in his strategy to replace traditional symbols of Canadian identity – the Charter, health care, and peacekeeping – with those more aligned with Conservative values. The prime minister's annual Northern tours, as well as the government's search for the lost Franklin expedition ships Terror and Erebus are prime examples of this shift.

Milk for sale at the NorthMart in Iqaluit, with the Nutrition North subsidy displayed. The introduction of Nutrition North was called a 'total failure' by Liberal Aboriginal Affairs critic Carolyn Bennett a year after it replaced the food mail program. (David Common/CBC)

In contrast to these policies, critics have found fault with the Conservative government's record on social policy in the territories. The introduction of Nutrition North was called a "total failure" by Liberal Aboriginal Affairs critic Carolyn Bennett a year after its launch, and attempts at reform have not had a significant influence on the price of food in Arctic communities.

The government's climate change policies have also been denounced by critics for privileging the oil and gas sector over the traditional activities of the North's aboriginal peoples.

Expect a Northerner in cabinet

With the victory of Justin Trudeau's Liberals on Monday night, much of this is likely to change. The North will continue to play an important role in the government, especially because all three territories will be represented in caucus. Expect to see a Northerner sitting in cabinet when its members are announced in the coming weeks.

During the campaign, Trudeau promised to address the failures of Nutrition North by raising the program's funding by $40 million. He promised to work to increase the amount of affordable housing in the North and, as part of his campaign's centrepiece infrastructure promises, to invest in climate change preparedness.

Northerners will have to hold their new MPs to account on these issues. They may also need to be patient with the competing priorities of a new government in Ottawa.

Perhaps the most significant change for Northerners will be Trudeau's approach to aboriginal-federal relations. In promising a nation-to-nation relationship with aboriginal peoples, Trudeau is turning the page on an acrimonious decade that saw the rise of such movements as Idle No More. Trudeau has promised to immediately launch an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, and for the full implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations.

It was a historic night in Canadian politics. Harper's legacy in Northern Canada will not be quickly forgotten. Over the next four years, however, Northerners will experience for themselves what a new government and its new direction will mean for them and their lives.


Jerald Sabin is an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Que. He is a former editor of Northern Public Affairs.


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