Compared to the upheavals that have occurred in federal and provincial politics in other parts of Canada since the 2011 election, voters in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the northern territories seem relatively content with the political status quo and they are expected to mostly uphold it on October 19. Certainly there is little evidence of an impending earthquake like the NDP shockwave that rocked Alberta in the spring provincial election. Altogether, the Prairies-North region only accounts for 31 of the 338 seats in Parliament, but in a tight three-way national race, they could be the difference between a minority or majority government.
If there is going to be a big shift, it’s not foreshadowed at the sub-national level in the region. Premier Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party remains the dominant brand in its namesake province and the New Democrat government in Manitoba, while shaky, is in its 16th year. The Yukon Party has been in power since 2002. The Northwest Territories could see some changes in a general election set for this November, but consensus politics are the rule in both NWT and Nunavut, and the consensus rarely changes much.
Most polling in the region has indicated little erosion of Conservative support in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where the party won just over 50 percent of the popular vote in the 2011 election. A Nanos poll released September 11 pegged Tory support in the two provinces at 54 percent, with the Liberals and NDP at 22 percent and 18 percent respectively. But another post-Labour Day poll, by Forum Research, had the Conservatives tied with the NDP, with the Liberals well behind.
Neither Saskatchewan nor Manitoba nor the territories got any new ridings in the redistribution that created more seats for British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. But the two provinces did see significant redrawing of electoral boundaries that will affect vote distribution. Local economic and political concerns will also undoubtedly influence the vote, as will the departures of many familiar faces and the arrival of many new, unknown ones.
The Conservative Party has held the majority of Manitoba’s seats in the House of Commons over the past several elections. In 2011, the CPC took 11 of 14, the NDP two, and the LPC one. In a pair of by-elections in late 2013, the CPC secured another strong mandate in the southeastern rural riding of Provencher following the resignation of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, but only narrowly eked out a victory in the southwestern riding of Brandon-Souris. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was riding high in national polls at the time, and his candidate came within a whisker of beating the Conservative.
This year Trudeau got tangled up in a local nomination contest. Winnipeg South Centre was a long time Liberal bastion held by Lloyd Axworthy, among others, until the CPC’s Joyce Bateman won a squeaker there in 2011. So it’s winnable for the Liberals – or it was until the leader was accused of interfering in the riding’s nomination battle, supporting Jim Carr, the former President of the Business Council of Manitoba, against Karen Taraska-Alcock, a long-time party activist and co-chair of Trudeau’s own leadership campaign in the province. If that’s seen as a top-down betrayal, it could be demotivating for grassroots Liberals in South Centre and beyond.
The NDP has its own problems in Manitoba – chiefly the embattled provincial NDP government. This summer Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Manitoba’s credit rating for the first time in 20 years, and the Dominion Bond Rating Service chastised the government for its “weak fiscal discipline.” A balanced provincial budget is not projected until 2018 at the earliest, which undercuts Thomas Mulcair’s key message that NDP governments are invariably pillars of fiscal rectitude. This probably explains why Premier Greg Selinger was conspicuously absent from Mulcair’s Manitoba campaign launch on August 20.
There has been a significant turnover among CPC candidates in Manitoba. Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, is not seeking re-election in Saint Boniface while other long-time parliamentarians, like Joy Smith in Kildonan-St. Paul, are also sitting out this election. But, rather than a weakness, this might be a strength for the CPC campaign, which is battling a strong desire for change. Manitoba voters could appreciate some fresh faces, like Jim Bell, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers vice-president now running for the Tories in Kildonan-St. Paul.
Aside from the re-match in Brandon-Souris between the CPC and the LPC, the ridings to watch in Manitoba will be the urban areas of Winnipeg North, Winnipeg South Centre, and Elmwood-Transcona. In 2011, only 44 votes separated LPC MP Kevin Lamoureux from his NDP challenger in Winnipeg North, and the CPC’s Lawrence Toet beat the NDP incumbent by just one percentage point. Boundary redistributions may give the NDP a slight edge in Winnipeg North but are unlikely to tip the balance of Winnipeg’s other close races.
Once the storied homeland of the CCF-NDP, Saskatchewan was a great bastion of the CPC in the 2011 general election. It won 13 of 14 seats, losing only to Liberal warhorse Ralph Goodale in Regina-Wascana. Unlike Manitoba, there have been no by-elections held in Saskatchewan since 2011 from which to divine public opinion. Also unlike Manitoba, none of the national parties are particularly disadvantaged in Saskatchewan by association with unloved provincial counterparts. Aside from a public spat over equalization, the CPC and the Saskatchewan Party are two sides of the same conservative coin, and Premier Wall’s stratospheric popularity probably lifts all Conservative boats. Saskatchewan NDP leader Cam Broten has been rebuilding his party for two years, and should have at least some election infrastructure to lend to his federal cousins. Apart from Goodale’s fiefdom, the federal and provincial wings of the Liberal party are weak almost everywhere. Numerous federal candidacies remained unfilled even after the writ drop.
So far, the challenges facing the CPC are mostly self-inflicted. Lynne Yelich, Minister of State for Foreign and Consular Affairs in the last government, became only the second CPC incumbent in Canada to fail to secure a nomination (radioactive Calgary MP Rob Anders was the other), when veteran sports broadcaster Kevin Waugh supplanted her as the CPC candidate for Saskatoon-Grasswood. Ominously for the Conservatives, Yelich lost because her power base was in the rural part of a “rurban” riding. Redistribution did away with several of those, creating new all-urban ridings with high concentrations of Liberal and NDP voters. Also causing some discomfort for the Tories is the lingering odour of the Senate scandals, which locally is most pungently embodied in the person of Senator Pamela Wallin. The RCMP handed the results of their 18-month investigation into her expense claims to crown prosecutors on August 31. If charges are laid before election day, it may be harder for soft CPC supporters to hold their noses and vote Tory.
The most hotly contested Saskatchewan ridings will be Regina-Lewvan and Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River. Although the LPC is polling well in Regina, the newly constituted riding of Regina-Lewvan draws upon areas of Regina-Lumsden-Lake Centre and Palliser that slightly favoured the NDP over the CPC in the last election. Sensing the opportunity for a breakthrough here, the NDP has fielded Erin Weir, a former Saskatchewan NDP leadership contender and a high-profile left wing economist, as its candidate. In Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, only three percent of the vote separated CPC incumbent Rob Clarke from his NDP challenger in 2011. Clarke has held it for two terms but the riding has a long history of swinging back and forth between the three main parties. More than two thirds of voters are of aboriginal descent, as are the three major candidates, but Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has been lobbying hard for ridings like this to vote ‘anybody but Conservative’.
The Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon
No prime minister has courted the North more diligently than Stephen Harper, visiting every summer he’s been in power, salting it with infrastructure spending, and glorifying it in his rhetoric. The political return on his investment has been two of the three territorial seats – Yukon and Nunavut – but the Northwest Territories have resisted his charms and stuck with the NDP. This year’s trip north, which occurred early in the campaign, included some more infrastructure lolly, including a port facility for Iqaluit and asphalt for Highway 5 running through Wood Buffalo National Park into Fort Smith.
Harper’s strong support for northern resource development resonates with many people across the region who would like to see the territories develop their own economies and wean themselves off federal transfers. But the debate over development and environmental protection is still ongoing in the North, and the NWT government is currently preparing an Oil & Gas Strategy which is expected to be released prior to the end of the year and which will also likely address the controversial issue of hydraulic fracturing. A proposed moratorium on fracking was rejected by the territorial legislature in June 2015, but the release of this important document may return this issue to public debate before October 19. Thomas Mulcair has loudly supported moratoriums on fracking in other parts of the country, such as New Brunswick, and the re-emergence of this issue could aid the NDP incumbent in the NWT.
In Yukon, the territorial parties are not perfect proxies for the federal ones, but they’re at least somewhat indicative. Current polling suggests the more-or-less conservative Yukon Party and the Yukon NDP are running neck-in-neck, but that’s what the polls said prior to the 2011 territorial election when the Yukon Party won 10 of the legislature’s 19 seats and more than 40 percent of the vote. The federal Conservative incumbent, former RCMP officer and mixed martial arts fighter Ryan Leef, made headlines in the current campaign when he ambushed a woman who was destroying his lawn signs, leaping out of the darkness in camo gear, handcuffing her, and making a citizen’s arrest. She told a reporter that she vandalized his signs “so I could see the trees”. It is thought that Leef’s actions in this incident may be admired by enough Yukon voters to ensure his re-election, although his best bet is a three-way split of the centre-left vote between the Liberals, NDP and Green Party.
In Nunavut, two-term Conservative MP Leona Aglukkaq substantially increased her share of the vote in 2011 even when faced with her toughest opponent yet, LPC candidate and Nunavut’s founding Premier Paul Okalik. This year her Liberal opponent is former territorial MLA Hunter Tootoo, who publicly griped that Harper’s $63 million port announcement wasn’t enough. The NDP was a latecomer to the race, only nominating Jack Anawak as its candidate on August 23. Anawak had previously served as the LPC MP for Nunatsiaq, as the region was known before it became a territory in 1999. Previously, the NDP had been mulling the nomination bid of Jerry Natanine, Mayor of the community of Clyde River, but he was nixed because of his close relationship with Greenpeace, which is locally reviled for its opposition to traditional seal hunting and whaling. It remains to be seen whether Anawak’s baggage (including a 2013 impaired driving conviction) will prove any lighter than Natanine’s.
If it ain’t broke…
All in all, it would seem prairie and northern voters are content with the status quo. While major campaign developments such as bombshell testimony at the Duffy trial and the Syrian refugee crisis may have influenced polling patterns elsewhere, levels of support in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the territories appear to have remained fairly consistent with 2011. Boundary revisions on the prairies haven’t been favourable to the CPC, but it is still very likely that the region will elect far more Conservative parliamentarians than New Democrats or Liberals.
Paul Pryce is Political Advisor to the Consul-General of Japan in Calgary. He has also consulted for the Saskatchewan Institute at the Conference Board of Canada and serves on the Board of Directors at the Far North Association.