Northern Saskatchewan riding up for grabs as federal election nears

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Northern Saskatchewan up for grabs in federal election
WATCH: Saskatchewan's northernmost riding may also be its closest race – Oct 3, 2019

Three people with extensive political experience are vying for one of Saskatchewan’s most coveted seats in the 2019 federal election.

The Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River race includes Conservative candidate Gary Vidal, Liberal candidate Tammy Cook-Searson and New Democrat incumbent Georgina Jolibois.

Vidal is the former mayor of Meadow Lake, while Cook-Searson has taken a leave from her position as chief of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.

READ MORE: 2019 Canada election results: Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River

All three were in La Ronge, Sask., this week for an MBC Radio debate, which also included Green Party candidate Sarah Kraynick, a cybersecurity expert from Christopher Lake.

Since 2004, the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives have all been elected on multiple occasions in the riding. In 2015, the NDP candidate won by a margin of less than 100 votes.

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Gary Vidal

Vidal is a chartered professional account with 30 years of experience. He said his time working with clients has shaped who he is as a person and informed his political decisions.

He also said those skills will translate to politics, as he criticized the Liberal government’s money management. A re-elected Liberal Party has committed to $57 billion in new spending over the next four years.

“Our kids, our grandkids [and] their grandkids are still going to be paying for these debts and deficits someday, and I just don’t think that’s the right thing to do fiscally,” Vidal said.

Vidal is a self-described fiscal and social conservative. He rejects continued Liberal attacks on Andrew Scheer regarding topics like same-sex marriage and abortion.

“The Conservative party is not going to re-open any of these issues. That ship has sailed,” he said, adding he hasn’t heard about those issues while door-knocking in the north.

Unlike Cook-Searson and Jolibois, Vidal is not Indigenous.

As the former mayor of Meadow Lake and a hockey coach, he said he’s made relationships with members of nearby Flying Dust First Nation. He noted his daughter-in-law is a member of a First Nation, and son-in-law is from Congo, both of whom he said gives him credibility when it comes to accepting others.

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Tammy Cook-Searson

Cook-Searson grew up on a family trapline near Brabant Lake, later living in Stanley Mission and Otter Lake. She attended residential school and graduated high school in La Ronge.

She was first elected chief of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band in 2005, and was a prominent voice as thousands were evacuated during raging wildfires in 2015.

After being chief under Conservative and Liberal governments, Cook-Searson decided the latter best represented Indigenous people.

Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River also includes farmland, which means she will need to defend the Liberal carbon tax that many Saskatchewan producers oppose.

She acknowledged there is opposition, but said the policy will change behaviour to help the environment.

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As a person who has experienced racism, Cook-Searson told Global News she accepts Justin Trudeau’s apology after his brownface and blackface images surfaced.

Cook-Searson also credited the Liberals for “not just saying it, but building on [reconciliation].”

READ MORE: Federal leaders continue to miss Regina on Saskatchewan visits

Georgina Jolibois

Jolibois was born and raised in La Loche, also spending time on a trapline near Clearwater River Dene Nation.

By 16 years old, she knew she wanted to be a public servant — a dream she fulfilled as La Loche’s mayor for 12 years. She was elected as the Member of Parliament for Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River in 2015.

Her top priorities include housing affordability.

“There are people who live in a house with sewer backup and the husband is really sick … this is happening in northern Saskatchewan,” Jolibois said.

The Saskatchewan government’s move to cut its provincial bus company is another problem, according to the NDP candidate. She said the federal government should invest in its people and fill the transportation gap.

Asked whether she’s concerned about the NDP’s national polling numbers, Jolibois said she doesn’t pay attention to national numbers.

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“I hear on the ground, there are people that need help. The communities are really happy when I show up and visit them,” she said.

Economic development and job creation

Two uranium mine closures in 2018 were a blow to a region already dealing with a disproportionately high unemployment rate. The area’s median income of $18,910 is the second-lowest in Canada.

Jolibois wants to see opportunities for young people around post-secondary education. Conditions need to be favourable for young northern people to return if they choose to leave and seek a degree or diploma, she said.

She also wants to see a “shift” toward a green economy that would combat climate change.

Vidal sees a need for partnership between government, First Nations and industry. Without giving specific details, he said those relationships would respect the environment while benefiting the overall economy.

Cook-Searson said job creation and economic development were priorities for her, but didn’t elaborate.

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Mental Health

According to Statistics Canada, the First Nations suicide rate is three times higher than for non-Indigenous people. Roughly 70 per cent of the northern riding is Indigenous.

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Cook-Searson’s sister died by suicide. Mental health teams and maintaining treatment centres are pivotal going forward, she said.

“It’s not only treatment, but it’s the after-care and also the community,” she said. “Making sure that the community helps the person that’s struggling and that we’re better prepared.”

Vidal said there’s a “significant lack of hope” among young people in northern Saskatchewan. He sees increasing employment as part of the solution, as young people can see family members succeed and model that behaviour.

“The Conservatives have been there. We want to be there, but we want to invest in things that are going to make real differences,” he said.

The province and federal government “always fall short” of addressing mental health problems, Jolibois said. She credited work done in Montreal Lake Cree Nation that includes a crisis hotline and addictions treatment program.

Gunnar mine cleanup

The next representative for Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River will be central in the remediation future of the abandoned Gunnar mine.

The expected cleanup price tag for the mine west of Fond du Lac has ballooned from about $24 million to around $280 million.

The provincial and federal governments were to split the $24 million equally, but the sides dispute how to divide the new figure.

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Jolibois feels since it was a 50-50 split before, it should be a 50-50 split going forward.

As for Vidal, he said he would meet with Conservatives to find a resolution. He called it “foolish” to make a commitment before he’s elected.

Cook-Searson said the cleanup costs need to be negotiated, but wouldn’t say what portion each party should pay.

Election day is Oct. 21.

— With files Dave Giles, Kyle Benning and Abigail Bimman

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