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Canada ‘The power of the north actually declined’: Ontario’s newest ridings in the north bring some election hope amid harsh realities

From his office window, Chief Paul Burke can see the vast, clear sky and the ice breaking up across the Severn River. On a May afternoon, it is -3 degrees Celsius outside and the ground is clear of snow. Many of Mr. Burke’s community members are out on the land, hunting caribou and harvesting geese that are migrating north.

Mr. Burke has ambitious plans for his remote northern Ontario community of Fort Severn, located near the edge of Hudson Bay. He is anticipating the completion this fall of a 300-kW solar farm to reduce residents’ dependence on diesel and firewood, he wants to encourage mineral and gas exploration in the area, and he hopes to develop a tourism industry that draws visitors to see the plentiful polar bears that spend their time on land between mid-July and December.

His vision for this fly-in community has been independent of input from Queen’s Park. In fact, he says, in the two years he has been chief, he has never had any interaction with his MPP, nor any elected provincial official.

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“There’s never any presence here from anyone,” Mr. Burke says. “You never hear from them. You never hear of them either.”

With its population of around 780 (463 of whom live on-reserve), Fort Severn is the northernmost community in the province. It is also part of the predominantly Indigenous Kiitwetinoong electoral district, one of two new ridings in the coming June 7 Ontario election that have been carved out of the far north. The other is Mushkegowuk-James Bay, directly east of Kiitwetinoong. Together, these two ridings – which sit side by side such as a pair of drawn curtains – make up slightly more than half of the geographical area of Ontario and about 0.4 per cent of the province’s population.

MANITOBA

Hudson Bay

Fort

Severn

0

150

KM

MUSHKEGOWUK

-JAMES BAY

Area: 254,894 km2

Population: 30,037

KIIWETINOONG

Area: 294,083 km2

Population: 32,987

Red

Lake

Moose

Factory

Sioux

Lookout

ONTARIO

Kapuskasing

Timmins

U.S.

Lake Superior

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCES: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; ELECTIONS ONTARIO

MANITOBA

Fort

Severn

Hudson Bay

0

150

KM

MUSHKEGOWUK

-JAMES BAY

Area: 254,894 km2

Population: 30,037

KIIWETINOONG

Area: 294,083 km2

Population: 32,987

Red Lake

Moose Factory

ONTARIO

Sioux Lookout

Kapuskasing

Timmins

U.S.

Lake Superior

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; ELECTIONS ONTARIO

Fort

Severn

MANITOBA

Hudson Bay

0

150

KM

KIIWETINOONG

Area: 294,083 km2

Population: 32,987

MUSHKEGOWUK

-JAMES BAY

Area: 254,894 km2

Population: 30,037

Red Lake

Moose Factory

ONTARIO

Sioux Lookout

Kapuskasing

Timmins

U.S.

Lake Superior

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; ELECTIONS ONTARIO

The creation of these ridings, passed into law in October, was based on the recommendations of the Far North Electoral Boundaries Commission to improve electoral representation for the region.

But while some residents say they are hopeful this election will bring them more attention from Queen’s Park, their optimism is also tempered by the challenging reality of governing such a sparse population scattered across a vast and sometimes inaccessible land.

In Moose Factory, an island community near James Bay, resident and development officer Jean Pierre Chabot, 38, says he believes it will be a positive step to have someone in the Legislative Assembly representing the small, remote and semi-remote northern communities. Previously, when Moose Factory was lumped into the larger Timmins-James Bay riding, the issues and concerns of his community and the neighbouring ones tended to be “smothered by Timmins,” the urban mining hub to their south, Mr. Chabot says.

Yet candidates in previous elections have tended not to make appearances in Moose Factory, he says, and many people in his area still see the provincial election as involving “somebody else’s issues, not ours.”

This sense of disconnection may be one reason why voter turnout in many of the northern communities has been low in previous provincial elections, Mr. Chabot suggests. (While 269 Moose Factory residents out of 590 listed voters cast their ballots in 2014, only 93 out of 449 listed voters turned out in Attawapiskat. In Fort Severn, 58 out of 147 listed voters came to the polling station.)

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Even with the creation of the new ridings, northern MPPs will still find themselves outnumbered by their southern counterparts, says Dr. David Tabachnick, professor of political science at Nipissing University. When the electoral boundaries were redrawn in the far north, he points out, 15 new ridings were also created in the south, mostly around the Greater Toronto Area, to reflect the growing populations there.

“The power of the north actually declined in this round of boundary changes,” Dr. Tabachnick says.

Moreover, he says, the MPPs from the new northern ridings face very different challenges. For instance, a representative of the Toronto Centre riding would need only to travel within six square kilometres to listen to the concerns of its 103,805 constituents. By comparison, the MPP for Kiitwetinoong would be representing less than one-third that number of constituents and would have to travel thousands of kilometres to meet them.

Campaign promises, such as improving public infrastructure, can also be far more difficult to deliver when dealing with extreme distances, harsh climates and challenging terrain, such as muskeg, Dr. Tabachnick says. “Think about just building a road in the north. This is a massive undertaking.”

Doug Lawrance, the mayor of Sioux Lookout who is running as the Liberal Party candidate for Kiiwetinoong, says it has been challenging, both in terms of time and money, trying to reach all the different communities in his riding before the end of the campaign period.

There is also a great deal of diversity in the issues and concerns of each part of the riding, he adds. “When you look at the map, don’t assume all the dots on the map of the municipalities and First Nations are the same.”

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In the town of Kapuskasing, Guy Bourgouin, the New Democratic Party candidate for Mushkegowuk-James Bay, says his priorities for his riding include reducing hydro costs with the party’s plans to buy back Hydro One, and to develop the economy with the party’s promise to invest $1-billion in the mineral-rich area known as the Ring of Fire, about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.

In the same riding, which is about 60 per cent francophone, the Progressive Conservative Party candidate André Robichaud says his priorities include what he calls “pocket book issues,” which also means promising to lower hydro rates and the price of gas, and giving his riding a stronger voice at Queen’s Park.

But in the Kiiwetinoong municipality of Red Lake, Tanna Rusk, 53, says she is unimpressed by her choices in this election.

“As far as which way I’m leaning, I have no idea because I’m not happy with anybody,” she says.

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