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Residents arrive by snowmobile to cast their ballots in the federal election at the arena in Clyde River, Nunavut, on the east coast of Baffin Island, Tuesday, Oct.14, 2008. (Deborah Tobin/Deborah Tobin/The Canadian Press)
Residents arrive by snowmobile to cast their ballots in the federal election at the arena in Clyde River, Nunavut, on the east coast of Baffin Island, Tuesday, Oct.14, 2008. (Deborah Tobin/Deborah Tobin/The Canadian Press)

Ridings to Watch

In Nunavut, all politics is geographical Add to ...

If newly minted NDP candidate Jack Hicks wants to go door knocking in his riding, he'll need to charter a plane.

With the federal election campaign a week old, the researcher and suicide-prevention activist is scrambling to put together a strategy to upset Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq after committing on Monday to run.

It's difficult enough to take down a well-liked cabinet minister in the best circumstances, but the geographic challenges make it especially daunting to run a campaign in Nunavut, Canada's largest riding. There are 16,916 voters sprinkled across a land mass the size of Western Europe, although 20 per cent of them are in Iqaluit.

"You can run a traditional campaign in Iqaluit," said Mr. Hicks, who was approached by party representatives to be a candidate late last week and surprised himself by accepting. "But the other places are more difficult to deal with. We're asking ourselves if we know anyone in each community, whether we can do bulk mail drops through Canada Post, that sort of thing."

He's not the only one trying to piece together a campaign at the last minute. The Green Party announced late on Monday it would field Toronto real estate agent Paul Azzarello after its search for a local candidate fizzled. The Liberals, meanwhile, are without a candidate although they promise to have one by next Monday's deadline.

It's no wonder that potential candidates are loath to line up against the incumbent. Ms. Aglukkaq won the riding in 2008 in a tight race, but has since leveraged her role as Health Minister into a considerable advantage over her rivals.

Since the last election, she has used weeks away from the House of Commons to visit every community in the riding, no small feat considering that it covers three time zones.

This week, she's back in those communities trying to add to her support ahead of the May 2 election. Her staffers can't be sure where she is from moment to moment, and media outlets don't follow the day-to-day campaign twists because they don't have the budgets or bodies to cover the vast northern expanse.

"There are basically 25 communities candidates can visit and whatever they do when they are out there we can't cover," said Jim Bell, editor of the weekly Nunatsiaq News.

In tight races - Ms. Aglukkaq won the last election by fewer than 500 votes - that face-to-face contact can be enough to swing the riding. But candidates are wary of travelling, even if they can find the money. A bad storm could keep a candidate grounded in a remote community for days, taking vital time away from the campaign.

"People will visit here during the campaign and think it's quiet and nothing is going on, but in reality everything is happening on a door-to-door basis," Mr. Bell said.

Campaigning against an incumbent is also difficult because there are few opportunities for rivals to run advertising campaigns and raise their profile. Two weekly newspapers cover the territory, and the CBC North radio service is a crucial source of news for most residents.

"In the South, there are any number of private radio and television stations where you can buy advertising," Mr. Bell said. "But CBC doesn't sell advertising on the radio, and that's the main electronic medium for many people. It makes it very difficult to raise your profile."

One way to boost vote counts without putting in the kilometres is social media. Ms. Aglukkaq has a Twitter feed, although she doesn't update it often. Mr. Hicks is trying to organize the riding's NDP supporters into Facebook groups where they can discuss ideas and feel a sense of community.

"We know we can't compete door-to-door," said Mr. Hicks. "They have resources we don't. But we will make maximum use of e-mail and organize ourselves online. We have a Facebook page with 90 friends already from different communities - we hope to use that to identify people in other communities who may become supporters."

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