'Nothing short of disappointing': North a low priority in federal election

Lawrence Ruben sighs as he wraps his hands around his coffee mug. He takes his time to think about what he's going to say about this month's federal election campaign.

"I think they're more concerned about the elections, getting elected rather than the issues," he said. "They'll make more promises, more pledges, [rather] than actually understanding the issues." 

Ruben is a hunter and leader in Paulatuk, a fly-in community of about 300 people in the Northwest Territories. From his kitchen table, he can see the Arctic Ocean.

People in Paulatuk struggle with the high cost of living, a stagnant economy, an unpredictable climate, chronic housing shortages and the lingering social issues caused by the legacy of residential schools. 

This isn't unique. These same issues are present in communities across the North. But during the campaign, national leaders haven't put a big focus on the North's problems and how to solve them. 

Ruben has been working with officials at all levels of government, advocating for his community. After a decade of seeing good ideas get stuck in the mud, he says he's skeptical about promises from politicians — from any party. 

"It's getting to the point where [I'll say]: 'You make this promise, you make it work or I'm going to ignore you. I'm going to talk to somebody else,'" he said. "That's why I try to talk to ministers every chance I get." 

Alex Brockman/CBC

Though Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer visited Iqaluit and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May visited Yellowknife this summer, on Tuesday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was the first leader to come to the North since the campaign began. 

During his three hours in Iqaluit, Trudeau defended his record in the North, pitched voters on the Liberal climate change plan and spoke about the party's proposal to expand access to Northern travel benefits, while acknowledging the challenges many face.  

"Northerners still face unacceptably high prices and cost of living and we will do more," Trudeau said.  

But he did not announce any plans for a drastically new or different direction for the North. 

Within party platforms, the Liberals, Greens and NDP say they will assist communities in reducing reliance on diesel and help them adapt to climate change.  

The NDP also commits to improving the food subsidy program Nutrition North, investing in search and rescue and creating a Northern Infrastructure Fund to "fast track investment."

The Conservatives, meanwhile, vow to revisit resource revenue formulas, promising the three territories will be entitled to 100 per cent of resource revenues by 2027. Currently, the N.W.T. receives just 50 per cent, and Yukon and Nunavut are limited to lesser amounts.

Parties may feel there isn't much payoff in spending time and money addressing the North, considering there are fewer than 120,000 people and only three seats in Parliament spread across Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon.  

Alex Brockman/CBC

Missed opportunity? 

Rob Huebert, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, sees this as a missed opportunity to have a national debate on critical topics related to the Arctic. 

To him, there are a number of unresolved questions in the North that need serious discussion. 

He listed a few he'd have liked to see tackled, such as: 

  • How will leaders address the political and economic fallout from a warming Arctic?
  • What's the best way to respond to advances from Russia, China and other countries in the Arctic?
  • How can we effectively balance environmental protection with mining? 
  • How can we build healthy communities and address lingering social and health issues in Northern communities? 

"You pick any one of these issues, they're important. And the politicians just attack each other," Huebert said. "It's nothing short of disappointing. 

"I suspect part of the reason we don't see parties coming up with an answer to these kinds of questions is [they are] very difficult answers to provide," he said. 

"But isn't that what elections are supposed to be about?" 

You pick any one of these issues, they're important. And the politicians just attack each other.  - Rob Huebert, University of Calgary

Though he's disappointed the campaign is focusing so much on the individual leaders, he's not surprised, seeing how the campaign has shaped up so far. 

"It's frustrating, I wish we could count for more and see some form of discourse," he said. 

Yellowknife focuses on local candidates 

In Yellowknife, Mayor Rebecca Alty said she too isn't seeing much discourse about the North, though she expected that from the beginning. 

"Politics is at play," she said. "They're catering their message to garner as much interest as possible." 

Instead of focusing on the leaders, Alty's parsed the the party platforms to find out where northern programs are mentioned and looked to see how national policy changes would apply to people in Yellowknife. 

City officials have sent out questionnaires to the five candidates for the N.W.T. to see how they would address issues like addictions, housing, community infrastructure and climate change. 

"That's their opportunity to go through their 200-page platforms and pull out the stuff that's of interest to Yellowknifers."  

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press

Back in Paulatuk, Bill Kudlak's building himself a shelter out of whatever wood he can salvage, and canvas tent material. It's getting cold, but he doesn't have another option. 

"I stay in a dome tent, a shack, [I'm] building another one. It's kind of hard," he said. 

He's been on the housing waitlist for three years, and doesn't see any sign of getting a home anytime soon. He wants decision-makers to listen. To help the thousands of people on wait lists like him get into a home of their own. 

Until then, he'll continue to make it work, however he can. 

"I'm just staying positive, going to stay on the waiting list, and maybe one day they'll consider me soon."