The province’s northwest will soon have its first Saskatchewan Party representative, but one public policy expert cautions against reading too deeply into the surprising outcome in Athabasca.
The Sask. Party’s Jim Lemaigre garnered 1146 or 51.4 per cent of the vote in Tuesday’s Athabasca byelection, defeating former NDP member of parliament and five-time mayor of La Loche Georgina Jolibois, who received 900 votes or 40.4 per cent, according to Elections Saskatchewan’s preliminary results.
“I was not predicting this result at all, and it’s quite dramatically different. It’s not as though it was a squeaker with one or two votes,” said Ken Coates, professor of public policy at the University of Saskatchewan’s Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.
The constituency was held by the NDP dating back to 1998. It became up for grabs after the NDP’s Buckley Belanger resigned to run for the federal Liberals in northern Saskatchewan.
Making Lemaigre’s win more surprising, according to Coates, is that the reigning Sask. Party government “has not been very supportive of northern issues for quite some time” and hasn’t consistently reached out to Indigenous people.
What exactly led to result remains unclear. Elections Saskatchewan won’t have poll-by-poll results published until roughly mid-March, a spokesperson said. Only 40 vote-by-mail kits were sent out, meaning there aren’t nearly enough to reverse the outcome.
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“I think this shows the really serious failure of the NDP to understand the province of Saskatchewan outside Regina and Saskatoon,” Coates said.
Coates noted how the odds were also stacked against Premier Scott Moe’s party, given criticism around his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and Moe’s declining popularity.
Ultimately, Coates thinks regional politics may have played a greater role than provincial politics. He said in the north, personal relationships matter, while community loyalties and rivalries should be expected.
“I don’t think either of the leaders played a critical role in this at all, but the NDP as a whole really does not have a terribly good handle on Indigenous or rural issues,” Coates said.
In an interview, Lemaigre recalled meeting an Indigenous elder on the campaign trail who said that for decades, the area hadn’t been represented by the governing party. The elder asked why voters would choose to go back to that dynamic.
Read more: Saskatchewan’s Official Opposition calls on provincial government to improve northern highways
“This is about building partnerships and how we could be represented properly in government,” Lemaigre said.
The MLA-elect is a retired police officer, having spent 14 years with the RCMP. He also spent just under two years on the Clearwater River Dene Nation’s band council.
Moe called Lemaigre’s win “a historic victory for the Saskatchewan Party,” highlighting a difference in political approaches. He denounced Ryan Meili’s use of “divisive, hateful language” toward protestors of COVID-19 mandates.
Global News requested an interview with Meili, but received a statement that didn’t respond to Moe’s comments.
Meili said in order to properly represent Athabasca, Lemaigre will be required to be “a dissenting voice within his own government.”
“Whether it’s lack of cell coverage, lack of available health services, or crumbling roads, Northerners need a strong advocate in the legislature to bring their voice to Regina,” Meili said.
A final count of the Athabasca byelection’s ballots is scheduled for Feb. 28.