Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/10/2011 (3590 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
I took some heat for predicting in the pages of the Free Press another clean northern sweep for the New Democrats. One critic went so far as to remind me of Republican Scott Brown's unprecedented 2010 snatching of the Massachusetts Senate seat that had for decades been held by liberal icon Ted Kennedy.
The history lesson was not lost on me. Of course political upsets happen. And, yes, even deeply entrenched voting trends shift over time. Just not in northern Manitoba, just not in 2011.
En route to its historic fourth consecutive majority mandate, the NDP easily retained Thompson, The Pas and Flin Flon. Things weren't even remotely close. Kewatinook (formerly Rupertsland) was a narrower victory of 628 votes, but this still translated into an 18-point spread between the NDP and PCs.
The NDP did it largely by, well, being the NDP. This marked the ninth straight election in which orange blanketed the entire North, though the campaign did not always feel so uncompetitive on the ground.
Thompson saw the re-election of MLA and cabinet minister Steve Ashton, the province's longest-serving member of the legislature. He has been in office since 1981. The biggest problem Ashton faced this time around was the pending closure of the nickel smelter and refinery in his riding's namesake community -- a move that will shed some 500 jobs.
Though Ashton has been unsuccessful in halting the closures, once going so far as to threaten the main employer, Vale, with disciplinary legislation, his efforts have earned him acclaim. Even a strong female candidate in Progressive Conservative Anita Campbell, who touted the need for "change in Thompson," barely dented the popularity of Ashton, who is as legendary as they come in northern politics.
In Kewatinook, the excitement around PC Michael Birch's campaign was palpable. An award-winning aboriginal entrepreneur from Garden Hill First Nation, he was perceived as the most formidable non-NDP candidate the riding has seen in quite some time.
Birch spoke passionately and knowingly about improving the quality of life on the reserves that comprise the riding. His supporters chided incumbent Eric Robinson for the Third World conditions that persist after a dozen years of New Democratic rule.
But in the end, the time-tested Robinson, a respected aboriginal leader in his own right, not to mention Greg Selinger's deputy premier in the last legislature, claimed the win. The margin of victory was not as wide as it used to be, but it's doubtful the NDP hierarchy is overly concerned.
It was more of the same for the NDP in Flin Flon and The Pas.
In the former, retired teacher Clarence Pettersen bulldozed the competition despite lingering concerns over health care; in the latter, incumbent Frank Whitehead easily won his first general election (he came to the legislature following a 2009 byelection) on the strength of party brand and personal reputation.
Observers in southern Manitoba may wonder why the north is exempt from the sharp rural-urban split that divides the province's two main parties. Why does the PC dominance outside Winnipeg not stretch up to these parts?
The NDP's support of First Nations is perhaps the single biggest factor. All four northern ridings have significant aboriginal populations that are rapidly growing as non-aboriginal demographics age and decline.
While some see the conservative mantra of personal responsibility as at least part of the solution to the challenges on reserves, voters in those communities continue to prefer the gentler, more government-centric NDP approach. The New Democrats have been wise to target aboriginal voters, for they represent both the political present and future of the north.
NDP-friendly organized labour also has a strong presence in the three major northern communities, all of which rely on unionized resource-sector industries. All three communities have seen, or in the coming years will see, in the case of Thompson, cutbacks in those industries. But that has been rightly viewed as more a function of economic reality than of government ineptitude.
If there is one question that surfaces from the minority of NDP opponents in the north, it is this: Is it healthy to have an entire region of the province so utterly predictable each and every election?
If we are honest and objective, the answer would have to be no. Northern seats are so far removed from the action in Winnipeg that they can be easy to forget. The situation becomes exacerbated when those seats are ultra-safe for any one party.
But as they say in elections, the people are always right. A Scott Brown victory may have worked for the fine folks of Massachusetts, but for northern Manitobans, it's all about the tried and true.
Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.