Premier credits pandemic policy for Sask. Party's byelection upset

Premier Scott Moe believes pandemic policy played a role in his party's unprecedented bylection win in the northern Saskatchewan riding of Athabasca on Tuesday, while NDP Leader Ryan Meili chose not to address possible reasons in a statement he released on Wednesday.

Governing party scored stunning byelection upset victory in Athabasca, a riding it's never held before

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said Tuesday's byelection win in Athabasca was a historic victory for his Saskatchewan Party government. (Matt Duguid/CBC)

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe is crediting his government's "come back together" approach to the pandemic for its stunning upset in a Tuesday byelection in the province's north.

The Saskatchewan Party's Jim Lemaigre defeated the NDP's Georgina Jolibois, a former Member of Parliament, and two other candidates to win Tuesday's vote in Athabasca — a constituency the Saskatchewan Party has never held before.

Following a preliminary count of ballots, Lemaigre had 1,146 votes (51.4 per cent) of votes counted so far, while Jolibois had 900 votes (40.4 per cent).

The NDP had held the seat since 1998, and it has only ever been held by the NDP, CCF or Liberals.

Calling the Saskatchewan Party victory "historic", Moe told reporters on Wednesday that it was "divisive policies" of other parties that contributed to his party's win.

"As you look at this byelection and the results of this byelection, it really highlights the different approaches that we're seeing with the political parties in this province," Moe said.

In a statement on the byelection released on Wednesday, Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili didn't address why he thought his party lost the seat.

Meili congratulated Lemaigre and said he will need to be a "dissenting voice within his own government."

"Whether it's lack of cell coverage, lack of available health services, or crumbling roads, Northerners need a strong advocate in the legislature to bring their voice to Regina," Meili said.

Moe said Lemaigre will be a "very strong voice" for the north in the Saskatchewan Party government.

"I think he'll also be a very strong voice within the government with respect to how we continue down the path of, yes, reconciliation with, our Indigenous, the Indigenous people in our province," Moe said.

Former MLA blames 'horribly low' voter turnout for NDP loss

Long-time NDP MLA Buckley Belanger created the need for a byelection when he resigned from the seat last summer to run federally.

"I'm not holding my breath for the Sask. Party to do anything significant [for the north]," Belanger said.

However, Belanger said in order for Lemaigre to prove his value as a member of the governing party as he argued during the campaign, northwest Saskatchewan communities will need to see their forestry rights restored, among other things.

"If you're serious about making a difference in the north, bring back NORTEP. Help these communities that are having challenges with illegal drug use," Belanger said.

Belanger also doesn't believe pandemic policy had anything to do with the outcome.

"Absolutely not. Moe fumbled the COVID response from Day 1, and he knows it," Belanger said. "Trying to cover it up with electoral success in Athabasca ... well, good luck with that."

Belanger said the NDP lost because of an "extreme" low voter turnout.

"The turnout was horribly low," he said. "A lot of the other voters — in particular, the NDP voters — stayed home.

"And I have no idea why they stayed home."

He said there needs to be easier, more convenient ways for people to vote, and suggested curbside voting options.

With a relatively few number of ballots still to count, Elections Saskatchewan said about 24 per cent of registered voters cast ballots in the byelection — down from almost 34 per cent in the last general election in Athabasca.

As of Tuesday's preliminary count, the Saskatchewan Party gained a few dozen votes in this week's byelection over what it had in Athabasca in the 2020 provincial election, while the NDP lost more than 800.

'NDP collapse' story of byelection: political scientist

Greg Poelzer, a political scientist at the University of Saskatchewan, said the election result was a surprise to many people, especially since the NDP had a very experienced "formidable politician" in Jolibois.

"You would have thought that northern riding should have been a slam dunk for the NDP," he said.

Poelzer said the Saskatchewan Party numbers in the byelection were pretty similar to the 2020 election, so it had no trouble getting out its vote despite the lower overall turnout.

"So I think the story is really about the NDP collapse more than anything else," he said.

Poelzer said the byelection win presents an opportunity for the governing party.

"If they did put some more attention and had some policy developments and initiatives coming, it would show it is worth it for northerners and Indigenous communities to consider the Sask. Party going forward," he said.

In a social media post on Wednesday, Jolibois said she is returning to her duties as mayor of La Loche.

"I am proud of my record as the longest-serving mayor of La Loche," she said. "Again, thank you to many who believe in my style of leadership."

The premier said Lemaigre will be sworn in when the legislative assembly returns in the spring.

With files from Ethan Williams and Kevin O'Connor


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