The Northern Village of Air Ronge has elected its second leader in history since the municipality was founded.
Having won the election by just five votes, mayor-elect Julie Baschuk is the first to succeed in dethroning Gordon Stomp, who was instrumental in incorporating the municipality in 1977 and was the only mayor the village had ever known. She said that brings a special kind of pressure.
“I don’t take that win lightly. I absolutely recognize it’s big. I’m not the first person that’s gone against Gord,” Baschuk told the Prince Albert Daily Herald in an interview.
“With the vote being as close as it was, it absolutely does bring a little bit of pressure, because it shows that people really paid attention to both of our campaigns and how we see the community going forward. But I also feel comfortable. I like that people are going to hold me accountable and hold me to task on what I delivered throughout that campaign.”
Baschuk has served on the Air Ronge village council for the past two terms.
Her campaign focused on engaging directly with residents on community projects and she promised to work on a long-term strategic plan to stimulate growth, upgrade infrastructure and increase community safety.
“I think a big one is always maintaining that affordability. Crime definitely was, I would say, the most consistent message that I had heard on the doorsteps, and I visited hundreds of doorsteps throughout that campaign. The community wants to be consulted and engaged in where we’re moving,” Baschuk said.
“I think the need for healthy change was something that resonated amongst many people.”
Baschuk’s new village council has gender parity, which is a change from the previous term. Tabitha Burr, Terry DesRoches, Corey Hardcastle, and Kristy McDougall were elected as councillors with McDougall replacing Baschuk in her role as deputy mayor.
“Last election, I was the only woman amongst the town (of La Ronge) and the village that was elected. I think people this time realized that there wasn’t that inclusion, and there wasn’t that diversity, and saw the value of having women at that table that we are as a society, we’re moving forward,” Baschuk said.
“I absolutely think it’s a big thing that I’m a mom, I’m a community member and now I am the mayor. I think it’s encouraging to younger generations of little girls and of teenagers that we are breaking down those barriers. It’s for the better of our society. I don’t like it to primarily be just because I am a woman but I do recognize that we are underrepresented within government and in society as a whole. I think it is very important.”
Stomp acknowledged Baschuk’s win and said that while the results surprised him, he didn’t put as much energy into campaigning as he should have.
“We’ve always had a good turnout for our voting process here. I’ve been challenged many times and I’ve survived up until now. There have been a lot of promises made and there will be a lot of challenges that’s for sure,” Stomp told the Daily Herald.
“I don’t understand some of the things she’s saying. I guess the younger generation have ideas that they’re going to change things in a different direction. But I think we’ve been doing that. So let’s hope that things work out the very best.”
Stomp, now 73 years of age, moved to northern Saskatchewan as a young man and started his own business in commercial fishing.
“Our community began with a co-op Housing Authority, which built about 12 homes over here because people didn’t have a lot of money, and so that’s how they got housing at that time,” Stomp said.
“It was sort of a hands-off approach. The community and the people weren’t that involved in the development and the running of the community.
“We started out as just a northern authority and then we moved into more of an organized municipal governance structure. My vision of Air Ronge has always been to develop the community and to work with the people here to have a community that people are proud to live in and raise a family.”
Stomp said money has been a consistent issue when it comes to getting projects off the ground and improving quality of life for residents of Air Ronge.
He also sees difficulties that residents face in the context of inequalities between the north and the rest of province.
“We never have enough revenue to have the things that we really need and to get parity with some of the necessities of the North. We take the backseat in northern Saskatchewan when it comes to those kinds of services. Things like health issues; like drugs and alcohol, addictions and treatment facilities. We just have a continuous battle to try and get some kind of parity here. And systems that work for the people of the North,” Stomp said.
“I don’t know how many years and how many ministers we’ve talked to, and I have personally talked to… Sending people away even to Prince Albert and further south for treatment. It just doesn’t work for the people of northern Saskatchewan. It’s a huge burden. Let’s hope it will improve.”
Stomp is very concerned about the spread of coronavirus in the region.
He said he has wanted to implement mandatory masking in Air Ronge since “three months ago at least” but wasn’t taken seriously by his council at the time.
“I went to my council and we were having meetings with the health authorities. And I talked about mandatory masks… I’m glad that the province finally woke up enough to make it mandatory across the province. I think there needs to be some more work done yet,” Stomp said.
The village is part of a tri-community that shares municipal services and infrastructure like waterworks and waste disposal with the town of La Ronge and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.
Relationships between the three communities are at times complex and the idea of amalgamating with the Town of La Ronge has been a thorn in Stomp’s side.
“A very important thing for me all the time in all my years of service here in the community was that we retain our own identity. If you talk about amalgamation, if you talk about becoming a city, there’s so many ramifications. And I think people should keep that in mind,” Stomp said.
“We do have a very good record of administration and I think our village is sort of looked up to as a good community in northern Saskatchewan, and I hope that will remain.”
Stomp said now that he’s no longer mayor he will be spending more time outdoors with his great-grandchildren and focusing on his fishing business.
“It’s a full-time job and the demand out there right now for fish, it’s just unbelievable,” Stomp said.
One of Baschuk’s first actions as mayor was to get onboard with the Town of La Ronge and Lac La Ronge Indian Band to request the province mandate wearing a mask in public spaces.
She called the move, “just another way of us trying to be supportive of our residents.”
“I think there’s a very big difference between what regional cooperation and amalgamation look like. And while I’m committed to strengthening those regional relations with our tri-community leadership, I am willing to still work respectively with them. But I am looking at maintaining the identity of Air Ronge,” Baschuk said.
“I respected my time with Gord. he has a heart for the community and I think that’s what kept him in that role for as long as we have seen. But with that, I think that people were ready to see some change, not in a bold way, but in a healthy direction.”
Michael Bramadat-Willcock, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Northern Advocate