Canadian elections: The unique challenges of running in a northern riding

The community of Tuktoyaktuk. The Northwest Territories is a 1.35-million square-kilometre riding with just one seat up for grabs. Its 44,500 residents are spread out in 33 communities — some of which are fly-in only. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)
Dennis Bevington still wonders if he might have lost an election because Canada dropped a bomb on its own soil.

Near the end of the 2004 federal campaign, Bevington, running for the NDP in the N.W.T., planned to fly to Fort Resolution for some last-minute canvassing. That is, until an F-16, coming in to land, accidentally dropped an unarmed missile that went skidding into the driving range of the nearby Yellowknife golf course.

“It just shut the whole airport down and I didn’t get to go to Fort Res,” he said. “I lost Fort Res quite badly and I lost the election by 50 votes.”

Stories like this come with the territory.

The Northwest Territories is a 1.35 million square-kilometre riding with just one seat up for grabs. (To contrast, in one hour, a runner could comfortably jog the contours of Toronto Centre’s 5.84 square-kilometre riding.) That’s a lot of ground to cover for the candidates running in the Oct. 21 federal election.

A file photo of Dennis Bevington. He ran in six elections for the NDP — three as a challenger, three as an incumbent — sleeping on porches and living out of the back of his truck during campaigns. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Bevington ran in six elections for the NDP — three as a challenger, three as an incumbent — sleeping on porches and living out of the back of his truck during campaigns. Late one night in 2011, he swerved into a ditch to avoid a herd of bison on the highway, heading home from a debate in Hay River. He said he lost 10 pounds during his first campaign. “And I’m not a big person.”

But it’s all part of trying to meet the N.W.T.’s 44,500 residents, spread out in 33 communities — some of which are fly-in only.

Road trips and air miles

Sketchy fall weather, prohibitive travel costs and a short election season mean candidates have to be resourceful.

“A lot of the candidates in the South are saying, ’40 days? That’s a lot of time.’ For us, it’s not,” said Liberal incumbent Michael McLeod, who’s hoping to visit 25 communities.

“It’s a little different than travelling in a riding in the South, where you can just walk across the street.”

Mary Beckett, a small business owner from Inuvik and NDP candidate, is making the most of any opportunity to get in front of people, particularly if she isn’t sure of their political leanings.

“I went and hung out at the bingo hall in Aklavik for a couple of hours and talked to the girls who were selling tickets,” she said.

Scheduling campaign stops is an art form.

All five candidates running to become the next MP of the Northwest Territories, from left to right, Conservative Yanik D’Aigle, New Democrat Mary Beckett, Liberal incumbent Michael McLeod, Green Paul Falvo, and People’s Party candidate Luke Quinlan. (CBC)

“It’s not totally practical to get to every single community so we try to make sure we get to every single region if we can,” Beckett said.

Still, showing up in a small town on a weekend when the weather’s nice can backfire, since everyone is out on the land.

“The chances of finding anybody at home are somewhere between slim and nil.”

Beckett planned her campaign around four debates in Yellowknife. Paul Falvo, a Yellowknife lawyer running for the Green Party, is surprised there haven’t been any debates outside of the capital; he chalks it up to fatigue from the recent territorial election.

This makes it a challenge to get out of the city.

It’s not totally practical to get to every single community.

Mary Beckett, NDP candidate

“If you’re out of Yellowknife too much, you miss things in Yellowknife. And of course, if you’re in Yellowknife all the time, you’re missing out on the communities,” Falvo said.

It’s not just time that works against candidates. The North ain’t cheap.

Bevington’s budgets ran between $40,000 and $50,000, which included all pamphlets, signs, advertising and opening an office. Plus flights.

“Then you have to stay somewhere and that stay can cost you $200 or $300 for a night,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, northern campaigns call on community volunteers to do groundwork for candidates wherever possible. Social media is useful too, said Jennifer Phillips in an email, campaign manager for Conservative candidate Yanik D’Aigle, who wasn’t available for comment.

“But there is a sense that campaigns in the North are still run in a more traditional manner than down south.”

The incumbent advantage?

With challengers fanning out across the N.W.T. to introduce themselves and their ideas to voters, incumbent Michael McLeod would appear to have a leg up in terms of profile.

“The advantage you have as an incumbent is that you go to the communities as part of your business,” said Bevington. “I mean, it’s part of the work that you’re doing.”

“An MP is pretty much living out of a suitcase,” said McLeod.

History also points to an incumbent edge. Before McLeod beat Bevington in the so-called “Red Tide” in 2015, just two MPs had represented the N.W.T. the previous 27 years.

Still, the Northwest Territories isn’t easy to predict. Perhaps owing to the absence of a party system in territorial politics, voters often care more about the person running than the colour of the shirt they wear.

The N.W.T. has elected Conservative, NDP and Liberal MPs.

“This seat has actually changed quite a bit,” said Bevington. “Try to run somewhere in Calgary or rural Alberta — if you’re not Conservative, you’re not going.”

What can we expect on Oct. 21? With upsets from the territorial election still sinking in, count on just about anything.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: North a low priority in Canada’s federal elections, CBC News

Finland: Sámi Parliament of Finland torn on local rights, urban influence, Yle News

Norway: Political earthquake shakes up Northern Norway, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Career diplomat to represent Murmansk region in Russian senate, The Independent Barents Observer

Herb Mathisen, CBC News

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