Northern voters chose more of the same in what could be the 1st of many pandemic elections

'Luckily for the Yukon's (and the country's) fight against COVID-19, the most muted of the colourful carried the day,' writes Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, as she ponders what the pandemic election means for the future of the North.

In Yukon, 'the most muted of the colourful carried the day,' writes Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox

Liberal supporters await the arrival of Brendan Hanley at the McBride Museum in Whitehorse. Election celebrations were muted affairs as COVID-19 continues to circulate in the N.W.T. and Yukon. (Jackie Hong/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, a consultant, academic, and author who lives in Yellowknife. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The Whitehorse Star used to carry a column by artist Jim Robb called The Colourful Five Percent, stories about the unique characters of the Yukon. Collected since the 1950s, they inspired some of Robb's distinctive drawings, and spawned his 1984 book by the same name (re-released in 2020).

In a recent radio interview he notes that in the Yukon "we have some of the most interesting characters that ever walked the earth." 

Indeed. Enter the group of Yukon candidates who did battle in this federal election. The campaign laid waste to a kayaking lawyer, dispatched a COVID-19 vaccination libertarian and ended the hopes of an ardent unionist.

The final fight raged between a Harlequin romance novelist, and a Mahler enthusiast with a medical degree. 

Luckily for the Yukon's (and the country's) fight against COVID-19, the most muted of the colourful carried the day. Liberal MP-elect Dr. Brendan Hanley has for the past 18 months been responsible for stewarding Yukon residents through the pandemic, a veritable roller coaster of changing conditions as the disease waxed, waned and mutated, with its impacts and perils intensified by the small and vulnerable health system in the territory.

With his election, the rookie MP-elect will follow on the two consecutive terms enjoyed by the previous Liberal incumbent. 

N.W.T. voters choose stability

The fight for power in the N.W.T. appeared monochrome in comparison. In addition to one independent, all major parties ran candidates: well, sort of.

Conservative nominee Lea Mollison, barred by her team from giving media interviews, refused several opportunities to campaign publicly. While the Conservatives could claim that they ran an N.W.T. candidate, ghosting an entire territory of voters was a peculiar election tactic.

Nevertheless, over 1,800 conservative loyalists, undeterred by this arguably eccentric performance, voted for her anyway. 

McLeod addressed media, and few others, from a hotel in Yellowknife well after midnight on election day. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

In contrast, the Conservative candidate's competition were game for earning votes. Kelvin Kotchilea, who took 33 per cent of the vote share, promised that his youthful energy would energize the NDP commitment to fighting climate change and key northern issues.

Meanwhile, Independent Jane Groenewegen's 20 years of political experience translated into 13 per cent support. Green party candidate Roland Laufer's environmental platform in the end saw him ranking higher in vote share than the Green's national take, with three per cent of N.W.T. voters going Green, versus 2.3 per cent nationally

However, none of their efforts were a match for an election where N.W.T. voters were distracted from the start by a fourth wave of COVID-19.

In a riding highly dependent on federal largesse, stability was a clear ballot option. Incumbent Michael McLeod's relatively low-key campaign efforts secured a third mandate for the Liberals, with 38 per cent of voter support. 

NDP support grows slightly in Nunavut

The three women seeking election in Nunavut had a tough act to follow in former NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, whose parliamentary farewell speech was a searing and courageous indictment of Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples and in particular, the glaring failings of successive governments to meet priorities of Nunavummiut.

Despite this high bar, or perhaps because of it, Nunavut voters had an enviable decision before them in the impressive candidates vying to represent the three national political parties. In the biggest electoral district in the country, voting trends toward unpredictable at best.

Nunavut NDP winner Lori Idlout with friend Sheldon Nimchuk and other supporters at a subdued event in Iqaluit. (Don Sommers/CBC)

Of the three, lawyer, entrepreneur and consultant Lori Idlout won with a 48 per cent vote share for the NDP, increasing the margin by seven per cent over the previous NDP first-timer.

During the campaign, Idlout emphasized the importance of housing and inclusiveness. The NDP party leader's speech on election night pledged to support and fight for Indigenous peoples, in a Parliament where NDP votes will be important to the governing Liberals.

The 1st of many pandemic elections?

Nationally, little has changed because of this election in terms of the composition of Parliament, or the government's agenda. For the North, we continue to have a Liberal government, which for the majority of voters maintains a welcome status quo to counter the political and social divisions of a drawn out, uncertain and unstable pandemic-normal.

While some have criticized the Liberals for holding an election during a pandemic, the reality is that mid-mandate elections are a norm for minority governments. The pandemic is simply an unfortunate backdrop. 

Until the vast majority of Canadians get vaccinated — and the possibility for that slips further away as more politicians jump onto the economy- and health care system-wrecking "personal freedom" bandwagon — the pandemic and all its attendant restrictions and societal instability are here to stay.

COVID-19 has disrupted all aspects of daily life and created economic havoc, yet a significant minority of people are refusing to do what they can to end it. Too few people are vaccinated, and refuse to consider that by standing apart, they threaten all of the things important to each of us. Until they get vaccinated, pandemic elections are here to stay.


Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, PhD, is a consultant, academic, and author. She lives in Yellowknife.