Power of incumbency, low turnout may have led to big Conservative win in northern Sask. riding, experts say

The federal riding of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River was expected to have one of the closest races in Saskatchewan, but Conservative incumbent Gary Vidal held onto his seat in the province’s northern riding with a commanding win on Monday.

Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River had been pegged by analysts as riding to watch in the federal election

The Conservatives Party took all 14 Saskatchewan seats in the 2021 election, including Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, where many analysts expected a tighter race. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

While some analysts had pegged the northern Saskatchewan riding of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River as one to watch in Monday's federal election, in the end, the race wasn't even all that close.

Conservative incumbent Gary Vidal held onto the seat, with 49 per cent of the votes cast. The Liberals' Buckley Belanger, the former MLA for Athabasca, placed second, with 27 per cent of the vote, and the NDP's Harmonie King came in third, with 18 per cent.

Though Saskatchewan's northernmost riding has elected candidates from all three of those parties in the past two decades, this was the first time a Conservative took more votes than the Liberal and New Democrat candidates combined. 

"Saskatchewan continues to be quite conservative," said Daniel Westlake, an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan.

"By seat share, we were certainly the most conservative province."

As in the 2019 election, the Conservative Party once again took all 14 of Saskatchewan's seats this year.

Vidal's margin in Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River was even wider than in 2019, when he won the riding with 42 per cent of the vote. The Liberal and NDP candidates took 26 and 28 per cent respectively in 2019.

Effect of incumbency

Westlake said there are many possible explanations for the strength of the Conservative win in the riding — geographically the third-largest federal riding in the provinces, at more than 340,000 square kilometres. 

Only individual poll data, which will be available later from Elections Canada, is likely to provide more clarity, he said.

But Westlake notes incumbents tend to do better in elections.

"Vidal this time is an incumbent, and he wasn't last time, so that would be an explanation that fits with a broader literature and what we've seen in other ridings," he said.

Incumbent Gary Vidal, the former mayor of Meadow Lake, won the riding with almost 50 per cent of the vote. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

The rural riding encompasses the northern half of the province and has a number of fly-in communities, making it more difficult and costly for candidates to campaign there.

Westlake said another reason could be the riding becoming more like the rest of Saskatchewan.

"It is a rural riding, and rural Prairie ridings tend to vote Conservative, so it could just be matching up with the rest of the ridings."

Westlake says another plausible explanation is the Conservatives' approach in this election, which was "less hostile in reconciliation" with Indigenous people. That might have attracted Indigenous voters who traditionally voted for progressive parties, he said.

About two-thirds of voters in the riding are of Indigenous background.

The pandemic may also have played a role, Westlake said.

Elections Canada had trouble finding polling stations where social distancing could be followed, which might have impacted voter turnout — and that could have hurt the Liberal and NDP challengers more than the Conservatives.

Summer election may have affected turnout

Doug Cuthand, a Saskatchewan freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, seconds that. He said low Indigenous voter turnout and Vidal's strong relations with the community as a former mayor of Meadow Lake could have helped in the win.

Cuthand said traditionally, support for Conservatives came from the southern farming regions of the riding, while the Liberals and NDP got their support from more northern areas.

The snap summertime election may have also affected Indigenous voter turnout, since many were busy on their own land or fishing camps.

He said in 2015, there was a record turnout among Indigenous voters all across Canada, because there was more advance notice the election was coming. 

Doug Cuthand, a Saskatchewan freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, says low voter turnout due to the snap election may have been a factor in the result in Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River. (Richard Agecoutay)

He was hoping to see more votes for NDP's King this year.

"Harmonie King came from Meadow Lake and she was competing in Vidal's very own backyard," he said.

He said "lip service by all the parties" around Indigenous reconciliation likely didn't help encourage Indigenous voter turnout either.

Ken Coates, a professor of public policy at University of Saskatchewan, agrees with that. 

"There was actually considerable Indigenous enthusiasm in 2015 for Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party. That dissipated quite a bit in 2019. I think we're going to see that flatline this time around," once more voter turnout numbers are in, he said.

Rising Conservatism

Coates said with Saskatchewan becoming more conservative, he sees the power of the political party over individual candidates in ridings like Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, noting even a well-known candidate like Belanger couldn't garner as many votes as some expected.

"Buckley did very well in the Indigenous parts of the riding and poorly in the southern parts of the riding, which has a southern corridor that largely has non-Aboriginal communities," he said.

University of Saskatchewan professor Ken Coates says he'd like to see reform of representation and distribution of ridings to help bring Indigenous voices to the foreground. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Coates said the same phenomenon happened in Kenora, Ont., where Conservative candidate Eric Melillo won over the NDP's Janine Seymour, who was vying to be the first Indigenous representative elected in the riding.

Though the riding has many Indigenous communities, "the city of Kenora is the main population base, and is largely non-Aboriginal," Coates said.

He also believes that northern Indigenous communities already have a full political plate with regional and council elections, and they focused on the latter over the federal elections — another factor that could have impacted the turnout.

Though Coates says he was happy to see Indigenous issues being discussed during this election campaign beyond partisan lines, he hopes for a reform of representation and distribution of ridings to better bring Indigenous voices to the foreground.

"If you continue to put areas in large Indigenous populations together with a solid core of non-Indigenous people, you end up with very predictable results," he said.

"We should redistribute the boundaries … to not limit the opportunity for indigenous voices to come forward."


Pratyush Dayal covers climate change, immigration and race and gender issues among general news for CBC News in Saskatchewan. He has previously written for the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, and the Tyee. He holds a master's degree in journalism from UBC and can be reached at