It's hard to spot one of the largest ridings in Canada from Ottawa.
The race to get more federal attention for Desnethé — Missinippi — Churchill River is shaping up as a showdown over whether longtime northern NDP MLA turned Liberal Buckley Belanger can translate his name into a win over incumbent Conservative Gary Vidal and NDP challenger Harmonie King.
Joining the competition is the Green Party's Nasser Dean Chalifoux, the People’s Party of Canada's Dezirae Reddekopp and Independent candidate Stephen King.
"It's always been a challenging riding to represent, and it's one that is quite sharply divided along Indigenous and non-Indigenous lines," said Ken Coates, who is a Munk senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a professor at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.
"It's an important riding to look at, but it's also a riding that has not really attracted a lot of federal attention."
The riding accounts for roughly half of the geography of Saskatchewan, stretching from agriculture in its south to remote and Indigenous communities in its north. It's roughly 70 per cent Indigenous and has a median total income of $23,281, according to the 2016 census.
It's also rarely partisan. Since its creation in 1996, the Conservatives have elected three MPs, while the Liberals and NDP have each elected two. Belanger's fellow NDP-to-Liberal convert Rick Laliberte has served under both party banners.
"What will make a big difference here is a simple thing. I think it's really uncertain how the Liberal Party will get its vote in 2021," Coates said.
"This is a 'cover your mouth and your nose and vote' election."
Vidal previously served as mayor of Meadow Lake — a key stronghold. Area polls including Flying Dust First Nation supplied about 2,000 of the roughly 11,000 votes that landed him his seat in 2019.
He's confident about running on his record on Indigenous and northern affairs, pointing to his advocacy "from east to west, north to south" on the northern cost of living, mental health support and the softwood lumber industry.
However, King — who previously ran in the area for the provincial NDP — is quick to point out she's also from Meadow Lake. If she's able to mobilize NDP voters there, she could counter some of Vidal's support.
As a social worker, she argues that her experience on the front lines gives her a unique voice to speak to northern challenges compared to career politicians.
"You typically deal with things that most politicians wouldn't even set foot in. They don't go into the communities and work with the people like I do. That would be the difference," she said.
It's left to be seen how that connects with voters. Romping through the south as the NDP and Liberals duelled proved a successful strategy for Vidal in 2019 — and Coates expects those conservatives to vote in droves.
That's an issue for Belanger, who needs to do well in far northern and Indigenous communities.
However, Coates doesn't expect a surge in Indigenous voter turnout during this election.
Both King and Belanger are Indigenous, but on-reserve turnout in Saskatchewan fell by roughly 10 points from 67.1 per cent in 2015 to 56.9 per cent in 2019.
Similarly, a 2012 study of North Saskatchewan voting found high rates of participation in local politics like band elections, but lower turnout among Indigenous voters when electing candidates to more distant governments in Regina and Ottawa.
Recent history also suggests a lower turnout. Saskatchewan's provincial pandemic election saw a slight drop in the overall turnout to 52.86 per cent from 53.5.
"(Belanger's) real challenge is to get it so people in the southern part of the riding see him as being a real contributor to their issues and their concerns, and at the same time making sure the other folks turn out to vote," Coates said.
Southern support is also on Belanger's mind. In a recent interview, he called the agriculture on the southern edge of the riding a "vital part of the provincial economy," advised against north-versus-south divisions, and added he was hoping to attracting disaffected conservatives as well his former NDP teammates.
"We want to assure people in the southern part of the riding that we will be fair and consistent in how we treat the entire riding," he said.
Running a high-profile candidate from the northwest like Belanger has worked in the past, but that's no guarantee. The Liberals ran a notable leader out of the northeast with Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson in 2019, but struggled to pull ahead when facing off against Vidal and then-NDP incumbent Georgina Jolibois, who has a strong base of support in the northwest as mayor of La Loche.
Cook-Searson finished third with 26.5 per cent of the votes, behind Jolibois (28.4) and Vidal (42.3).
Coates sees this round differently. He suggests the federal NDP have struggled to gain traction in Western Canada, despite Leader Jagmeet Singh's efforts to build support with Indigenous voters. That may weaken the challenge from Belanger's left flank.
"More importantly, national parties don't matter in the north like they do elsewhere," Coates said. "It really is a situation where the local person counts an awful lot."
Coates said it's not so much about partisan loyalty, but delivering for an overlooked swath of the province. In his eyes, neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals delivered much to the region with their respective terms in government.
"The political party doesn't matter all that much. (It's) which party is going to deliver."
Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix