The federal election race in the Nickel Belt riding is shaping up to be a close on.
Incumbent MP Marc G. Serré and NDP candidate Andréane Chenier are toe to toe in national opinion polls, and experts predict the New Democrat has a serious chance of unseating the Liberal candidate.
The NDP’s recently released northern Ontario platform is giving the party an edge on the competition, and many voters in the riding are unhappy with the Liberal government’s decision to call an election during the fourth wave of the pandemic.
But the Liberal party’s odds of winning nationally remain strong as voters prepare to head to the polls on Monday, experts say.
“It’s a surprisingly close election. When the election was called, I would have thought Marc Serré, who is fairly well-liked and has good organization on the ground, would be a shoo-in,” said Nipissing University political scientist David Tabachnick.
“But it looks like the NDP candidate has a pretty darn good chance. Depending on where you look, it may even be that she is in the lead.”
The Nickel Belt riding is one of two federal electoral districts serving the City of Greater Sudbury.
Covering 30,490 square kilometres, the riding includes parts of Greater Sudbury and the Sudbury district in addition to small portions of Timiskaming, Manitoulin Island, West Nipissing and Parry Sound.
Census subdivisions within the riding include Cartier, Gogama, Killarney, St. Charles, Markstay-Warren, and Whitefish Lake.
Nickel Belt has been represented in the House of Commons since 1953. According to Statistics Canada, it has a population of 90,962 with 72,134 people registered on the elector’s list.
The riding historically flip flops between the Liberal Party of Canada and the NDP.
The riding’s incumbent beat NDP candidate Stéphane Paquette in the 2019 election by 3,390 votes. Serré has been the Liberal MP for Nickel Belt since 2015.
Latest projections on 338Canada.com are predicting that the Nickel Belt riding will see one of the closest races in northern Ontario and is considered a toss up.
Serré and Chenier are in the lead running against Green party candidate Craig Gravelle, Conservative party candidate Charles Humphrey, and People’s Party candidate David Hobbs.
Tabachnick said the NDP’s odds of gaining a pickup in the Nickel Belt riding were bolstered, in part, by its platform targeted to Northern Ontario.
“I think the NDP leadership has done a good job, and that’s why the seemingly safe riding in the Nickel Belt has become quite competitive,” he said.
“The Northern Ontario platform, which I think is pretty well-written for a regional platform, recognizes that the north has specific needs that are different from other regions. The NDP is the only party that mentions, for example, bringing back the Northlander rail service to our region.”
The platform also touches on out-migration and the Laurentian University insolvency crisis.
“We want people born here to get educated here at universities, and then find gainful employment and raise their families here, and also to attract new people to the region as well,” said Tabachnick.
“There are various programs mentioned in the northern platform as well as specific mention around some of the troubles around LU. Of course, that’s a provincial jurisdiction, but there are things they can do.”
Preserving French-language postsecondary education – whether at the University of Sudbury or elsewhere – will be of particular concern in the Nickel Belt riding, he added.
According to Statistics Canada, 38 per cent of the riding’s population speaks French as their primary language.
Additionally, just over half of Nickel Belt households speak both French and English at home, compared to 11.2 per cent of households in Ontario.
“There are also very specific concerns around things like infrastructure, roads, services, and access to broadband internet that are significant to more rural and northern areas of the riding,” said Tabachnick.
Nickel Belt NDP MPP France Gelinas said the stories you hear in the riding depend on which area you visit. Because of the riding’s immense size, voters tend to have vastly different experiences.
“If you visit the malls in areas like Hanmer, Walden, and Chelmsford, you will see that many small businesses were forced to close because they couldn’t make it through the pandemic,” she said.
“They are not happy. They are very stressed out. Not only was the pandemic hard on all of us, but they’ve lost the ability to make a living. I can’t say that I blame them.”
Voters who live south of Sudbury in communities like the French River, St. Charles, and Sturgeon Falls aren’t very happy right now, either, she added.
“They depend on tourism an awful lot. Because of the pandemic, last year was a complete washout and the year before, there was a big fire in the region that closed many of those businesses down,” she said.
“These are outfitters. They are people who own campgrounds, hotels, and restaurants. They make a living out of the people that visit the region during the summertime.”
On the other hand, there are other parts of the Nickel Belt riding that fared relatively well during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Most of the mines are in Nickel Belt in areas like Garson and Onaping, for example. Mining was an essential service during the pandemic, so most of the people who work in mining kept their jobs,” she said.
“For these voters, there seems to be more of a mix. The ones who used to be Liberals are happy and the ones who used to be NDP want them back in office.”
The northernmost part of the riding, which includes communities like Mattagami and Gogama, tend to be happier as well.
“There is a brand-new gold mine opening across the street from them – IAMGOLD’s Cote Gold Project,” she said.
“IAMGOLD has hired hundreds of people and is still looking to hire hundreds of people. A lot of people who come from the watershed see the opportunity to go back. I would say that this part of the riding is happier.”
Although attitudes vary, Gelinas said there are a few issues that are raised across the board.
“Access to health care is a huge one. Those who live close to Sudbury gain access to Sudbury’s services, but if you go a little bit outside Sudbury, access to health care is always an issue,” she said.
“Another issue that you hear everywhere is the price of gas.”
The price of gas fluctuates a lot in certain parts of Nickel Belt, said Gelinas.
“There is no public transit in many of these communities. There is no alternative but to drive, and the distances are often long. They would like the federal government to regulate the price of gas,” she said.
Voters in the Nickel Belt riding are also concerned about the government’s decision to call an election in the middle of the pandemic.
“The Liberals will pay a price in Nickel Belt for calling an election right now,” said Gelinas, who has campaigned door to door with Chenier, the federal NDP candidate.
“People are really afraid of COVID-19, and a lot of people have asked for help to get a mail-in ballot because they do not want to be exposed.”
She added that every time she knocks on a door, she hears the same thing.
“They say, I can’t believe Justin Trudeau spent $800 million of our tax dollars so he could try to get a handful more Liberal MPs,” she said.
“People think that this is not the right time, and he could have accomplished his goals with a minority government.”
Tabachnick said he’s surprised this has been such a big issue in this federal election.
“Maybe because I am a political scientist, I know that no minority government really lasts more than two and a half years. To me, just historically, calling the election right now is not too soon,” he said.
“But this fourth wave has kind of thrown a monkey wrench into that scenario, and I think people are just hunkered down.”
Having to switch gears and start paying attention to the election has been frustrating for some, he added.
“They just want to get their lives back to normal. They don’t want what might be viewed by some as an unnecessary distraction from getting back to work or getting the kids back to school,” he said.
“I can understand the frustration, but for me, it’s not an issue. What we want to hear from our politicians is how they would govern, what policies they have, and how this post-pandemic economy and country is going to function.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.
Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star