The long roads to election: Candidates traverse distance and demographics in enormous northern Sask. riding

Five candidates face the challenge of getting elected in a riding where concerns range from preventing Indigenous youth suicides, creating economic development and preserving Indigenous language, to lumber tariffs, crop exports, the carbon tax and the limits of legal gun ownership. 

Saskatchewan swing riding with a history of close results

In a region that covers more than half of Saskatchewan, candidates for the riding of Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River have their work cut out for them. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Georgina Jolibois stands by a dirt road in the northern Saskatchewan community of Weyakwin, waiting for two young boys to get their grandmother from a nearby house. A freshly-painted sign on the home features the family name Lavalee.

Jolibois is the incumbent NDP candidate for the Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River riding in the upcoming federal election. She is among five candidates who face the challenge of getting elected in a riding where concerns range from preventing Indigenous youth suicides, creating economic development and preserving Indigenous languages to lumber tariffs, crop exports, the carbon tax and the limits of legal gun ownership. 

The geography in the riding is vast, the types of communities diverse.

The boys' grandmother emerges from a front door framed by toys and bikes. The reason for the delay becomes clear — she's on crutches. 

Yvonne Cachene Lavallee has a hip injury that's been getting worse for about five years. She said travelling to access medical care has become harder over time. 

Yvonne Cachene Lavallee, pictured with two of her grandchildren, says her family is struggling with the cost of living. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

With the provincial bus service having shut down in 2017, Cachene-Lavallee has to hire someone to drive her to medical appointments in Prince Albert or La Ronge — both about a one hour drive away.

"If it's just La Ronge, maybe $60, but if you go to PA it's like $100 a trip," said Cachene Lavallee, adding that she does get some coverage from the province but her husband does not. 

"It's usually just people around town that we hire."

Things got tough when her husband started working and she got off social assistance, Cachene Lavallee said. She said the cost of rent, heat and electricity have all gone up since then.

Cachene Lavallee is not alone in her concerns about the cost of living, affordable housing and access to healthcare in the northern riding. 

Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River covers some 800 kilometres from its southernmost point to the northern border where Saskatchewan meets the Northwest Territories. The riding covers more than half of the province, but has a population of only about 70,000. According to the 2016 Census, about 70 per cent of that population identifies as Indigenous. Crops cover fields in the south, while forest envelops First Nations communities in the north. 

The candidates for the three major parties each have a history of leadership in their riding; Liberal candidate Tammy Cook-Searson as chief of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, Conservative candidate Gary Vidal as the mayor of Meadow Lake and Georgina Jolibois as the NDP incumbent. 

All three are born and raised in the region. For each one, a key part of their message appears to be, "Look at my record." 

IT security specialist Sarah Kraynick is running for the Green Party in the riding. Saskatoon-based Jerome Perrault is the official candidate for the People's Party of Canada.  

With two Indigenous candidates in the running for the seat, band politics could play a role in the outcome. 

"You've got three main parties, three super strong candidates and if all the Aboriginal vote coalesced around one of those Indigenous candidates it would be a walk and the Conservatives wouldn't have a chance, but that's not the way it is," said John Lagimodiere, publisher and editor of Saskatchewan-based Indigenous newspaper Eagle Feather News. 

Voter turnout could also be a major factor. The 2015 election drew 8,000 more voters than the one before it.

The riding has a history of close races. More than one — including Jolibois's win in the 2015 election — have been decided by less than 100 votes. 

Less than 100 votes decided the outcome of the 2015 election in Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River. (CBC News Graphics)

Georgina Jolibois

Jolibois arrived in Weyakwin after driving from Prince Albert through the yellow and green autumn tapestry of the boreal forest.

As she sat behind the tidy local post office to answer questions about her campaign, the sound of a dog or coyote howling rang out in the distance.

Jolibois asked to hold a Maclean's award she won for being a parliamentarian of the year, chosen by her peers as being the MP who best represents her constituents, during the interview.

A former three-term mayor of La Loche, Jolibois grew up on a trapline near Clearwater River Dene Nation. She said her dream of being a public servant started when she was 16 years old.

Jolibois said she believes she has given her riding a voice during her first term as an MP. 

According to CBC's Poll Tracker, an aggregation of all publicly available polling data, the NDP is polling at around 13 per cent nationally.

Jolibois would not directly address questions about how the party's performance at the national level could affect her chances at re-election.

Instead she said she likes the "freedom" she has to represent her constituents without party influence.

La Loche-based NDP candidate Georgina Jolibois is campaigning for re-election after serving a four-year term as MP. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Jolibois' biggest campaign focus is housing, which she said is either unavailable or in desperate need of renovations.

Her message is in line with the NDP's national campaign promise to build 500,000 units of quality affordable housing in the next 10 years, including half of those in the next five years. The party's motion for the same project was voted down 248 to 46 earlier this year.

During her term as MP, Jolibois pushed the government for more, faster.

When the Liberal government allocated $2.2 million to the La Loche Community High School, where a school shooting killed four people and injured seven others early in Jolibois' term — in her home community — she pointed out that the community had told the government it needed $15 million.

She accused the government of dragging its heels on a project to build a road to Wollaston Lake, where an unreliable ice road is the only land-based access point during the winter. 

Georgina Jolibois and a campaign assistant door-knocking in Weyakwin. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Asked if she feels she has made any mistakes in the past four years, Jolibois again made reference to the need for independence from Ottawa. 

"[Ottawa] is the core and the heart of colonialism," she said.

Jolibois said infrastructure, skills and training for young people, quality of life for older people and housing are the biggest concerns she is hearing from constituents while campaigning. 

Patrick Nagy, who works at the local gas station in Weyakwin, said candidates' gun control stances will decide his vote.

Nagy collects and trades firearms, and hunts. 

"From rabbits right up to moose, bear, deer everything," said Nagy. 

"I hunt for food and I hunt for the enjoyment of hunting."

Nagy is opposed to a Liberal government plan to ban semi-automatic assault weapons and give municipalities the power to restrict or prohibit handguns.  

"How are the rifles in my collection, and my grandfather's rifles from his collection, how are they dangerous to downtown Toronto?" said Nagy.

"I have upwards of $15,000 to $20,000 sitting there in a collection and I'm scared that some politician with the stroke of a paper is going to take that all away."

Patrick Nagy says gun control measures will be the biggest issue when he votes in 2019. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Nagy said people in the area don't know who to vote for.

"I have a hard time taking politicians seriously in this election," said Nagy. 

"The only argument I've heard from the politicians is 'We're not the Liberals' and 'We're not the Conservatives.' Give me a plan, give me a solid something to vote for and then I'll see where I can go."

Tammy Cook-Searson

A tangle of wild forest surrounds Lac La Ronge, where people are milling outside the Kikinahk Friendship Centre on an early September day.

A campaign sign outside the building shows the smiling face of Tammy Cook-Searson. 

Inside, Cook-Searson is launching her campaign as the Liberal candidate for the riding that she has always called home. 

There's bannock and jam made from berries picked by her mom, Miriam, who is also in the crowd. As she speaks, she sometimes flips into the Cree language.

Tammy Cook-Searson with her mom Miriam and her dad Charlie at her campaign launch in La Ronge. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Cook-Searson grew up in the area and has been Chief of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band council for 14 years. 

"I remember when I first got elected I didn't have a voice," she told the crowd during her speech.

"You have to step out of your comfort zone to try something new, but there's always people that believe in you and you, people that are here, you're believing in me."

Cook-Searson was born and raised around the cluster of communities that surround La Ronge. 

She learned to snare rabbits on the traplines with her mother while her dad, who worked in mining exploration, was gone for months at a time. 

Part of her schooling took place at residential school, where her parents and grandparents had gone before her, but she also went to high school in La Ronge — transported by boat or snowmobile — and had some home-schooling from her mother.  

She worked for a while with Indian Child and Family Services for the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, before taking her uncle's advice to run for a seat on the band council in 1997. 

Since then, Cook-Searson has been a political success story. She was elected for three consecutive terms as a councillor and then, when her predecessor Senator Harry Cook decided to step down after 18 years, she ran to become the band's first female chief. 

She faced a tough decision when she realized, after deciding to run, that she was pregnant. She said some people criticized her for taking the role, saying she would immediately take maternity leave. 

Knowing she was breaking new ground as the band's first female chief, she had her child on Friday and went back to her duties as Chief on Monday. 

Since 2006, the riding has had Liberal, Conservative and NDP MPs. (CBC News Graphics)

As chief, she was the voice of northern communities in the midst of a wildfire that led to the evacuation of 13,000 people. When six young girls aged between 10 and 14 took their own lives in the North in less than two months, Cook-Searson became the face of the community's heartbreak.  

As a federal candidate, her campaign message is that she wants to strike a balance between economic and social development, saying northerners need both jobs and access to health and education. 

Since 2016, Cameco has shut down northern uranium mines at Rabbit Lake, McArthur and Key Lake, leading to 810 job losses. Another 86 Cameco employees in Beauval, also in the northern riding, lost their jobs in 2018.

Cook-Searson said she plans to bring more economic development to the region but did not name any specific projects or strategies. 

"It all depends on the economy and just, you know, I don't know everything," she said. 

"I have a lot to learn but I know there are the different issues like making sure that we have employment for people."

She said she wants to run as a Liberal candidate because she has seen the difference in governance that took place when the party took over from the Conservatives in 2015. 

Cook-Searson referred to the Liberal's Bill C-91, designed to protect Indigenous languages, as an example of what she admires.

She said the Liberal party has a stronger focus on reconciliation and makes it easier for Indigenous communities to access funding for locally-driven projects.

Asked to respond to criticism that the Liberal government has failed to live up to its promises when it comes to reconciliation, she said it takes time to deliver those promises. 

"No government is perfect," she said. 

Cook-Searson praised the Liberals' handling of education and an improvement in access to clean drinking water in Indigenous communities. She also said the party has improved access to mental health and addictions services in the North. 

Tammy Cook-Searson launches her campaign in La Ronge in early September. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Asked what mistakes she feels the party made in the past year, Cook-Searson did not identify any shortfalls. 

The closest she came to criticism of the party's work to date was to say there is "still a lot of work to be done" on the Wollaston Lake road. 

After pictures emerged of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing blackface on three occasions, including a gala in 2001, CBC asked Cook-Searson to respond.  

She said she accepts the Prime Minister's apology.  

"It impacts all of us because we've all faced discrimination or racism," said Cook-Searson.

She said the government's actions over the past four years have shown it is not racist.

Asked if the SNC Lavalin affair made her reconsider her affiliation with the party, she said the Prime Minister was standing up for jobs. She emphaszied her allegiance to her community.   

"That's why I am running is to represent the people of this riding." 

Aboriginal rights, cultural lines among factors at play

John Lagimodiere said Jolibois and Cook-Searson are the strongest candidates he has seen for the NDP and Liberal governments in the riding in the past 20 years.

He said Aboriginal rights will be a key issue at the election.

"The duty to consult and accommodate is a huge factor when it comes to development up there," Lagimodiere said.

"So I think that may play in when we're talking about which party is in charge."

According to Elections Canada, voter turnout at First Nations across Canada increased by 14 per cent from 2011 to 2015, compared with six per cent for the general population.

Which demographics decide not to vote in 2019 could be a major factor in the outcome. 

"When there is a high voter turnout from the Indigenous community they got their person in," said Lagimodiere. 

"Now with the NDP and the Liberals you have two very strong capable Indigenous women that are leaders in their community already fighting it out."

The riding of Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River has a history of close election results. (CBC News Graphics)

Lagimodiere said there are also cultural lines to consider, with largely Cree and Métis populations in the west and Dene in the east. He said he does not think this will play a major role, but that allegiances between bands with strong relationships, and the positions of band councils on certain candidates, will.

"They have business relations and whatnot that go beyond just politics, and their kids are marrying each other and they're playing in the same hockey teams football teams," he said. 

The ebbs and flows in party support over the years seem to suggest voters can be swayed to change their party allegiances.

Gary Vidal

In the rural land around Leoville, about 200 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, dust from combines fogs up the horizon at dusk. Only the lights from the machines pierce through the haze. 

Gary Vidal was born and raised in a similar rural area around Meadow Lake. 

His mother did the books for the family farming and trucking businesses. Vidal went on to make a living doing the books for businesses in the area as co-owner of the Pliska, Vidal and Co. accounting firm in Meadow Lake. He sold his share of the business at the end of July. 

The 54-year-old has also resigned from his role as Mayor of Meadow Lake, a small city with a population of about 5,300 that borders on the Flying Dust First Nation. 

Gary Vidal campaigns in the small community of Leoville, Sask. in early September. Vidal is the former mayor of Meadow Lake. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

On a sunny day in September, Vidal is travelling between communities in the Chitek and Leoville area to talk to constituents. He also had a meeting with the Pelican Lake First Nation.

Vidal comes off as methodical and researched. He carries a folder as he greets people in the village.

He used a farming analogy to describe how he decided to run for the seat. He said the idea started as a seedling but when it sprouted, he would stomp it back into the ground.

Finally, he could no longer ignore it.

"I'm quite frustrated with some of the direction of our country, some of the policy, some of the things going on. I mean, as an accountant, some of the fiscal stuff is really important to me."

Vidal said he and his wife Lori talked the idea over during a long conversation on the way to the 2018 Labor Day Classic in Regina.  

They took a trip to Ottawa to soak up the surroundings and try to picture a life in federal politics.  

Gary Vidal, the former mayor of Meadow Lake, meets constituents in Leoville, Sask. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Vidal said he is aware of the challenge he faces trying to get elected in a vast riding with a 70 per cent Indigenous population. 

He said frustrations with how things have gone in his riding will help sway voters to his side. He urges voters to assess his record as mayor and his contributions as a community member. 

The last Conservative to represent the riding was Rob Clarke, a member of the Muskeg Lake First Nation who served three terms as MP for the same riding from 2008 to 2015.

Vidal said his strategy for representing a riding in which he cannot fully understand the Indigenous experience or perspective held by of the majority of his constituents is to shut up and listen.  

He also stressed that he shared his Meadow Lake upbringing with young people from the Flying Dust First Nation. Only a road separates the two communities. 

"We grew up, we went to school together, we played hockey together, we did everything together," he said. 

He added that he has built connections with First Nations communities through his role as a hockey coach.

"When you coach those kids at the level I did you also build significant relationships with their families," he said.

Vidal's first endorsement for the riding came from Flying Dust Chief Jeremy Norman. 

"I think that shows that I have the ability to build relationships with not only the white folks in my community but also people of other cultures or, you know, the First Nations folks is a big one in our community," said Vidal.  

"But I mean in our community there's also lots of Filipino people. There's lots of other cultures and so I think ... look at my history and look at my ability to build relationships and look for partnerships."

He said he would represent the riding's Indigenous population by fighting for jobs and that work opportunities are the solution to a lot of the challenges faced by Indigenous residents. 

Vidal said he believes there are "vast" opportunities that are not being developed in resources, forestry and other sectors, and that his approach to changing that would be to partner with First Nations, industry and various levels of government. Together they would need to find "economic models" to take advantage of opportunities. 

"Maybe government has a role to play to kick it off to get it started," said Vidal. 

"But I personally wouldn't see government being long term partners in these things."

Vidal said the current government is fiscally irresponsible. 

"I get there's times, I get there's circumstances where some deficit spending makes sense in a longer, bigger term picture but the pattern we're on now is, there's no end to this," said Vidal.  

The road leaving Weyakwin, Sask., one of dozens of small communities dispersed across the vast Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, which covers more than half of of Saskatchewan. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

He said he will not shy away from discussing sensitive social issues if they come up in his talks with constituents. 

In August, the Liberal government resurfaced a 2005 video of Conservative candidate Andrew Scheer expressing his opposition to same-sex marriage. 

Vidal said nobody has asked him about his views on same-sex marriage during his door-knocking in communities.

"I think everybody is entitled to their rights this way," said Vidal when asked about his views on the matter.

"Those matters have been settled. I'm fine. I'm fine with that." 

Vidal said he has not made it a secret that he is opposed to abortion. 

"Everybody knows who I am and what I stand for," said Vidal.  

"At the end of the day, from a national policy perspective, those ships have sailed."

He said some industries in his riding — tourism, agriculture, oil and gas — have been under-represented by the NDP. 

"I'm not sure I've ever heard a peep from our representation on any of that stuff."

Rallying the vote

Back in Weyakwin, Cachene Lavallee's grandchildren listen as she speaks about why she believes it's important to vote — to have a voice in the future of not only the country but in policies that can affect her family's quality of life.  

"I've been pushing people to vote just because of some of what some of the platforms that others have said and I don't agree with a lot of it," said Cachene Lavallee. 

"I'm really going to push for Indigenous people to get up to their voting."