The Canadian election is coming around the corner on May 2, 2011. With that, here is an update on where things stand, including the surprising results of two recent polls, showing the NDP catching up to the Conservatives.

Forum Research Poll:

  • Canada: Con 36% | NDP 25% | Lib 23% | BQ 6% | Grn 6%
  • Quebec: NDP 36% | BQ 25% | Lib 18% | Con 16% | Grn 4%

EKOS Poll:

  • Canada: Con 34.5% | Lib 25.8% | NDP 24.9% |
  • Quebec: NDP 31.4% | BQ 27.2% | Con 18.4% | Lib 15.5%

Conservatives still ahead in polls, but is it enough to give them a majority?

Recent polls show that the incumbent Conservative party is still ahead. But whether it will be able to form a strong majority government or have to settle for a minority government, or worse, a coalition amongst the other three parties, is unclear. The recent surge of the New Democratic Party (NDP) thanks to leader Jack Layton’s strong performance in two televised debates could either help or hurt the Conservatives. In some places, the NDP is the second choice of many Liberal voters. Thus, a vote for the NDP would be a vote against the Liberals, effectively bolstering the Conservatives’ position in Parliament. However, in other places, such as ridings in British Columbia and Ontario, the NDP is the fallback party for Conservative voters. In these places, Harper and his fellow party members are campaigning hard to ensure their party wins in the local elections. Most surprisingly, some polls show the NDP coming in first in Quebec, where the Bloc Quebecois party is usually the obvious choice. What does this all mean for the Arctic?

Conservative Majority: A continued focus on Arctic sovereignty

A Conservative majority in Parliament would likely foresee a continuation of the Northern Strategy. Canada would still emphasize the importance of a strong foreign policy in the Arctic, underscoring issues of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security. Harper has done a good job of bringing the Arctic to the attention of all Canadians, and the region would probably still be on the front burner, at least in rhetorically. A website for a Conservative candidate in the Skeena-Bulkley Valley in northwest British Columbia, Clay Harmon, warns:

“Canadians have a clear choice between Stephen Harper’s low-tax plan for jobs and growth to strengthen Canada’s North and sovereignty, and Michael Ignatieff’s high-tax agenda that will stall our economic recovery, kill jobs, set back Canada’s north and diminish our sovereignty.”

With the use of the word “sovereignty” twice in one sentence, it’s clear that this has become a buzzword for Conservatives used without much attention to its real meaning. I doubt that the Russians and Americans are waiting on the sidelines to invade the Canadian Archipelago should the Liberals form a government. But to Conservatives, the potential of less funding for military activities in the Arctic, like the recent Operation Nunalivut, means that the country’s sovereignty could be dealt a blow. Don’t tell that to Costa Rica, which still manages to be a member of the UN, issue its own currency, and fly its own flag despite disbanding its army over 60 years ago.

The Proposed Mackenzie Valley Highway

With a Conservative majority, less attention would likely be paid to the day-to-day needs of Northerners in areas like housing, schooling, healthcare, and employment. However, if reelected, the Conservative Party plans to finish constructing the Dempster Highway, linking Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk in the NWT. This would fulfill the vision of John Diefenbaker, Canada’s prime minister from 1957 to 1963 and a major voice for the Arctic. He sought a highway that would link Canada “from coast to coast to coast.” Liberals and the NDP, however, opposed the construction of the 140-km road between the two towns in part because they do not think it goes far enough in addressing the economic and infrastructural needs of Northerners. Instead, they believe construction a much longer highway linking the Dempster Highway in the North with the Mackenzie Valley Highway farther south as a more vital and far-reaching piece of infrastructure, tagged at $400 million. While the Conservatives used the plan for the Dempster Highway to champion their commitment to Northern development in the 2011 budget, Dennis Bevington, Member of Parliament for the NWT and a member of the NDP, said that his party’s analysis of the proposed budget actually found $311 million in cuts for the North. An article from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation points out the following facts:

  • <<Nearly $220 million slashed from the Indian and Northern Affairs Department’s northern land, resources and environmental management programs.
  • A $57-million funding cut for programs that promote the conservation of northern natural resources.
  • $17 million in community development funds cut from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor), a federal agency established in 2009 to promote economic development in the territories.
  • $15.6 million cut from programs that promote regional development in the territories.
  • $1.3 million cut from programs that promote political, social and scientific development in the territories.>>

These areas would probably suffer fewer cuts were the Liberals, NDP, and BQ to form a coalition.

NDP-Liberal-Bloq Quebecois Coalition (and a Conservative Minority): Concern for quality of life in the High North

If Harper’s party still wins the most seats in Parliament, but does not win a clear majority, then the other three parties could very well attempt to form a coalition. Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal leader, affirmed that if the Conservatives were unable to win a vote of confidence from the House, and the Governor General asked the other three parties to try to form a working government, that would certainly be his goal. Jack Layton, head of the NDP party, echoed that sentiment.

While campaigning in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Harper stated:

“If we win a minority — I think all the signals are clear — the other three parties are going to get together in some form…They may not call it a coalition, but they’re going to get together in some form — Mr. Layton confirmed it again last night — to run the country instead. So there will either be a Conservative majority or it will be a majority cobbled together between the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois.”

Thunder Bay has been ground zero lately for campaign stops. An economist from the town on the shores of Lake Superior played up the importance of Northern Ontario and Thunder Bay with regard to Arctic sovereignty, which may seem somewhat far-fetched given that Minnesota is just a short drive away. He wrote in an article:

“In addition, given that Northern Ontario borders on Hudson and James Bay and the Arctic regions of Canada, what role can we in Northwestern Ontario play with respect to Arctic sovereignty? It may sound far-fetched but Thunder Bay is at the east-west cross-roads of the country, is a link between road, water, air and rail transportation and is a logical staging point for a rapid deployment force that can quickly access the Arctic region as well as move east or west in times of a national emergency. Given the low-cost of land and housing in the region, it would be easy to build the military infrastructure as well as be a reasonable place to live for the forces stationed in the region. This is a vision that needs a champion and it would be ideal for the federal parties to consider how Thunder Bay’s role as a security linchpin in Canada’s military and rapid response infrastructure could be built.”

The NDP has even released a specific platform for Northern Ontario, called “Fighting for Northern Ontario” (PDF). Their plan would contribute $1 billion to improving K-12 schooling for First Nations peoples. The party would also seek an increase in the Northern Tax Deduction, which has only increased 10% since it was set at $5,400 in 1988. This deduction helps Northern residents deal with the high cost of living.

As such, we see a contrast between the NDP and Liberal focus on quality of life for Northerners, whereas the Conservatives emphasize sovereignty and security in the region. Adding the BQ to the mix for a potential coalition government between three parties would likely bring more issues facing Northern Quebec to the mix with regard to Canada’s High North. Often perceived as only consisting of the three territories, the northern regions of many other provinces, like Ontario and Quebec, also face similar problems such as infrastructure deficits worsened by climate change, high costs of living, and  poor transportation networks.

Northwest Territories Race Still Tight

The candidates discuss. © Katherine Hudson/NNSL photo

On the more regional level, as I mentioned a few days ago, there is a tight three-way race between the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP in the NWT, so that will be interesting to watch unfold come May 2. NDP incumbent Dennis Bevington is defending his seat against Joe Handley (Liberal) and Sandy Lee (Conservative), with Eli Purchase (Green) and Bonnie Dawson (Animal Alliance Environment Voters Party) also in the running. In a forum held last week in Yellowknife by the NWT Chamber of Commerce, the first four candidates listed above debated the issues facing their territory. Handley and Bevington agreed that more needs to be done in the North than the construction of just one road, while Lee supported her party’s plans for the Dempster Highway.

Handley stated,

“We don’t need to get $150 million as a little gift for one group and nothing said about the rest…We need a 10-year-plan and I’m going to work on it to build the Mackenzie Valley Highway, to create jobs for people in those communities, so that they have productive lives.”

The Northern News Service provides a great summary of the participants’ comments and even includes mp3s of all the proceedings, available for free.

If you got this far, I’ll be on vacation next week and back on May 3 with a look at the outcome of the Canadian election.

News Links

“Ignatieff says law allows him chance to form government if Harper defeated in Commons,” The Montreal Gazette

“NDP unveil ‘Plan for the North,”

“Layton to visit Yellowknife next week,” CBC

“Federal budget had northern program cuts: NDP,” CBC News

Categories: Canada

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