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This article was published 29/9/2011 (3597 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
FLIN FLON -- The New Democrats are not known for their dominance in rural Canada. With values that are sometimes seen as too liberal, too "big city," the NDP is commonly viewed as an urban party catering to the latte crowd.
But in Manitoba, the provincial rendering of the party is a different breed of bison. While the Progressive Conservatives tend to be most competitive outside Winnipeg, the four northernmost ridings -- those farthest from the capital city -- are solidly orange.
Just call them the Northern Dominance Party. Since 1969, the NDP has owned The Pas, Rupertsland and Flin Flon.
In Thompson, it has been the party of choice since 1981. And despite some grumblings that tangible improvements are too few and far between, there is little chance northerners are about to abandon the governing party in Tuesday's election.
Not to say there aren't debate-worthy issues up north.
Thompson is bracing for the uncertainty attached to nickel giant Vale's plan to close its Manitoba smelter and refinery, both located in the riding's namesake community, by 2015. That will wipe out roughly 500 jobs, or one-third of the mineral sector positions in the province's third-largest city.
Steve Ashton, running for re-election after three decades as the riding's MLA, has tried to play the role of a knight in shining armour. He has repeatedly insisted there are ways to keep the smelter and refinery open, either through negotiation with Vale or the use of legislative force.
But Ashton seems to be the only one keeping that dream alive as Thompson's United Steelworkers recently ratified a new three-year contract. Union leadership called the deal bittersweet given the job reductions to come, but there was no mention of the once-vaunted "save the smelter" campaign.
He may have overreached on the Vale closures, but Ashton remains untouchable. Despite excitement among the PCs, who surprisingly required a membership vote to name Anita Campbell as their Thompson candidate, Manitoba's longest-serving MLA should return to the legislature with ease.
In Eric Robinson's vast riding of Rupertsland, the issues remain pretty consistent from past elections. Poverty, lack of all-weather roads, joblessness and crime, much of it violent, remain rampant across a riding consisting of small, remote First Nations.
Even though reserves fall under federal jurisdiction, the NDP often speaks of its desire to improve what many inside and outside of their ranks call the "Third World" conditions in these communities. Their plan, like others before it from parties of all stripes, has been far from a stellar success as reserve life is just as tragic, unhealthy and violent today as it was a dozen years ago when the NDP claimed power.
As much as Bipole III has turned into a provincewide election issue, the controversy really began in Rupertsland.
The NDP has long said the First Nations on the east side of Lake Winnipeg do not want the transmission line, but many along the route beg to differ. This election will give those communities a chance to either reward or punish the NDP for going with the longer, costlier west-side route.
Flin Flon is arguably the most interesting northern riding. For the first time since 1995, an incumbent is not on the ballot as Clarence Pettersen attempts to maintain the tradition of New Democratic representation.
Health care, specifically its perceived mismanagement, has emerged as a sleeper issue. Even the province could not deny the severity of the concerns, last year appointing an independent review panel to examine the NOR-MAN Regional Health Authority.
Beyond health care, there is a sense on the ground in Flin Flon that the riding, or at least its namesake community, has taken a back seat to The Pas and Thompson.
As one example, while the NDP has in recent years invested nearly $100 million to upgrade University College of the North in the communities of Thompson, The Pas and Flin Flon, only a tiny fraction -- some $3 million -- has found its way to UCN Flin Flon.
But Pettersen, a retired teacher, would be a formidable candidate for any party. The fact that he is a New Democrat in a New Democratic stronghold makes his campaign all the more formidable.
In The Pas, things appear to have been humming along since MLA Frank Whitehead succeeded the late Oscar Lathlin in a March 2009 byelection. While Whitehead was not appointed to cabinet as supporters had hoped, he has forged a fine reputation.
Sure, The Pas has its difficulties, including ever-present concerns surrounding the forestry industry. Like Thompson, The Pas is also dealing with more than its fair share of crime, some of it gang-related. The safety of the streets is in question.
But few voters see the NDP as the problem and, just as importantly, lack confidence in the other parties to step in and do things any better. Whitehead should be re-elected and, maybe just maybe, get a shot at a portfolio.
The sense among many across the province, the North included, is that while the NDP has pulled the levers of power imperfectly, it has not done something so obscene as to warrant a wholesale change in government.
Bipole III, the continuing reality of hallway medicine, high rates of violent crime -- none of these issues has gained the traction of the sponsorship scandal that finally ended the federal Liberals' run after 13 years.
Just another reason why the NDP stands to remain the Northern Dominance Party.
Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.