By Tim Querengesser -- Federal elections in the North turn established norms on their head. Here, in the cities at least, you don’t try to get to know the candidates, you try to avoid knowing them too much. They’re everywhere you go: the grocery store, the gym, the coffee shop. Simply leaving your house becomes political. Most people have some sort of connection to the candidates that makes it hard not to vote for each of them. One is a friend of a friend. The other used to teach their daughter at school. And the others share some defining quality with voters – from their ethnicity, gender, ideology or even the brand of truck they loyally drive. In this cocoon, the conflicting ends of democracy and social networking can begin to suffocate.
But when it comes to party leaders, closeness has never been a problem up here. With three MPs, the total vote from the geographically vast territories is dwarfed, politically speaking, by the space between Lakeshore Boulevard and the 401 in Toronto. Most of Canada’s 308 ridings weigh in around 85,000 people, making the North’s three ridings, sadly, quite generous – considering our voting population of about 93,000. Not seeing a prime minister or leader from the opposition parties is the norm: the flight here is a waste of time in the time-restricted game of winning votes, compared to holding babies in suburban shopping malls along the 48th parallel.
Or maybe it isn’t. Campaigning in the North is symbolic, after all, something Conservative leader Stephen Harper is aware of. Since he became prime minister in 2006, Harper has used the North to his advantage, arriving to make announcements that subtly thump patriotic drums in tones cynical voters haven’t anticipated. He’s been here several times since then, speaking about what people want in the North rather than what they don’t want in it. When he comes, he makes the front page of the papers simply for his apparent derring-do, the Ottawa-centric national press corps evidently too spellbound by their first sniff of Tuktoyaktuk or Iqaluit to critique his recycled announcements with much rigour.
And the North, historically starved of such attention, has gladly played along. You’d think climate change would be a decisive issue with most Northern voters in this election but, thanks to Harper’s attention, you’d be wrong. Talk about jobs, resources and sovereignty now resonates louder than a million Toyota Priuses idling beside the Beaufort Sea.
But there’s bigger plotting at work here. On Monday September 22, the PMO homepage was dominated by references to the North – from promises to extend jurisdiction over Arctic waters to a commitment to building a new polar class icebreaker to plans to “identify and defend” Northern resources. If this were a ploy for the North’s vote, he’d be foolish to waste such valuable real estate. It’s not. What Harper is doing is making the North an easily understood every-riding for the average Canadian – a vast, underdog landscape that potential swing voters can identify with. Harper’s here and the others aren’t. Which way do you think they’ll swing?
This should sound familiar. It’s similar to what Republican strategists shrewdly predicted would garner massive support for Sarah Palin – a backwater Alaskan governor yesterday, a vice-presidential candidate today – amongst middle-of-the-road America. Palin is perceived as coming from the underclass. Thus, people who identify with her image of invisibility, prom-queen-pretty as it may have been, are guilt-free in lavishing her with positive feelings.
Canadians are being presented with the North during the election as an ignored place suddenly given attention by the country’s new governing party. Though many Canadians already know how they’re voting, the majority of us sit on the fence, deciding late in the game what box to check. If Mordecai Richler’s observation that Canada is “still more geography than nation” holds true, the North could indeed become Harper’s Sarah Palin. Sure, it’s not as pretty, but it’s way more intriguing.
In moulding the North in this way in the 2008 election, Harper has pulled a double coup. He’s also stolen the moral high ground on climate change from Stephane Dion, Jack Layton and Elizabeth May – all of whom have the issue at the core of their campaigns. None have dared to come here. This is Harper land now. Just two years ago it was global-warming central.
The North has always wanted to matter more in elections. It isn’t clear if this is what we dreamed about, though.