Boundary changes bring NDP enthusiasm back to Sask.

by David Fraser


By the time Ontario NDP MP and long-time musician Charlie Angus was finishing his second set at the federal NDP’s fundraiser party at Amigos on Sept. 10, it sure felt like the party might have a chance to kick some Conservative ass in this province.

Surrounded by a sea of supporters, leader Thomas Mulcair and the 100 NDP MPs who rolled into Saskatoon for caucus meetings last week got a Justin Trudeau-like reception.

Which must have been a big relief: along with discussions on policy, this caucus retreat was all about making an impression on a province where the NDP have tanked over the last decade-plus — they haven’t won a seat here since 2000.

According to Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, changing that situation means listening to the people that live here.

“That’s a campaign that needs to be developed here in Saskatchewan, and is being developed [as we speak],” she says.

Part of that campaign includes focusing on issues like growing inequality, housing, day-to-day affordability, poverty amongst First Nations and insecure employment stemming from the province’s boom-and-bust economy, says Ashton.

But beyond the issues, the NDP are clearly hoping that new federal electoral boundaries — which provide for two urban-only seats in Regina and three in Saskatoon — will work in their favour.

Despite much squawking from the majority of Saskatchewan’s Conservative MPs (and a slew of robocalls trying to sway public support away from the redrawn boundaries), the new electoral map will be in place for the next federal election.

“They were split off in a somewhat bizarre way over the last 10 years,” says caucus chair Peter Julian. “It was more difficult for us to win the seats. [Now], we’re going to find very competitive races between the NDP and Conservatives right across Saskatchewan.”

Bizarre is a diplomatic way of putting it: here’s betting what he really wanted to say was more along the lines of “an absolute slap in the face to democracy.” In the last election, almost a third of the people who voted in Saskatchewan marked an “X” next to an NDP candidate — and not a single one was elected. The Conservatives won 13 of the province’s 14 seats with just a bit over half (56 per cent) of the popular vote.

The main reason for this is Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, but that’s a story for another day (or you can turn to page nine when you finish this and read more). Either way, the boundary changes should provide at least part of the antidote to this electoral oddity.

Case in point: Regina lawyer and NDP candidate Noah Evanchuk, who lost by less than 800 votes in the 2011 federal election. He would have won the seat if the Palliser riding he ran in — which includes Regina’s left-leaning Cathedral neighbourhood — didn’t include the rural area between Moose Jaw and Regina. With the boundary changes, Evanchuk has indicated he’ll run in the urban-only riding of Regina-Lewvan.

(His chances of winning in 2015 were improved even more when his most-recent federal opponent, popular and likeable Conservative MP Ray Boughen, announced his retirement from politics. Many living in Cathedral toasted this announcement; Boughen’s political career climaxed as two-time mayor of Moose Jaw and his two terms as an MP were mostly a honeymoon tour featuring funding announcements with little lasting impact on Canada.)

The NDP’s decision to host its 2013 caucus meetings in Saskatchewan is indicative of its importance heading into 2015.

“We’re going to work very hard under the new map to make sure we get back to having the seats here. Because it’s an important place, but it’s also an important region,” says Mulcair.

Some MPs have boldly suggested an NDP majority in Saskatchewan is possible.

In order to make that happen, many party members are predicting higher-profile candidates offering fresh faces will seek nominations in ridings where a 2015 NDP win seems doable.

Nettie Wiebe has announced she will run again, this time in the urban-only riding of Saskatoon West. Much like Evanchuk, Wiebe won the urban portion of the riding (Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar) that she ran in during the last election. Kelly Block, who narrowly defeated Wiebe, announced she is running in a rural riding in 2015 — so much like Regina-Lewvan, Saskatoon West will not have a Conservative incumbent running.

Evanchuk is much younger and newer to the political sphere, holding a 0-1 record when it comes to getting elected. Wiebe is a long-time party activist and a prominent community member, but is 0-4.

That leads one to wonder whether the party will be actively recruiting more prominent Saskatchewan faces — or anyone at all — to run against Wiebe for the nomination.

Canadian author Yann Martel lives in Saskatoon, but recently ruled out any potential run. Former provincial NDP candidate Dr. Ryan Meili is considered by some party members to be an intriguing option for Saskatoon West, though he’s made no moves to suggest he’s interested — and party sources indicate he’ll defer to Wiebe.

Julian seems satisfied with the quality of candidates the party is attracting.

“We’re getting an unparalleled level of interest, but people like Noah Evanchuk and Nettie Wiebe are very strong folks from Saskatchewan who articulate very strongly Saskatchewan interests,” he said.

But boundary changes, the poor track record of Saskatchewan Conservatives who’ve had little impact in government, and prominent candidates will only get the NDP so far.

They’ll also have to do something about all that listening they say they’re planning.