Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Pas, Manitoba provincial by-election today

While the Alberta and PEI provincial election campaigns are well under way, voters in the Manitoba riding of The Pas are heading to the polls today in a provincial by-election. The northern Manitoba riding has been vacant for over 11 months, following the resignation of New Democrat Frank Whitehead who resigned for health reasons. Whitehead himself was first elected in a by-election in 2009.

The Pas is considered a safe riding for the NDP. Whitehead won both of his elections (2009 by-election and 2011 provincial election) with three-quarters of the vote. The seat has also been held by the NDP continuously since 1969. NDP strength in the riding is helped by its large Aboriginal population, as about two-thirds of the riding's population is First Nations. Whitehead himself was chief of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation before being elected.

The Greg Selinger-led NDP government in Manitoba has had a habit of waiting as long as possible to call provincial by-elections. The last provincial by-elections held last year saw the riding of Morris also go vacant for over 11 months. Legally, the Premier is compelled to call by-elections within 12 months of a seat becoming vacant, and Selinger waited as long as possible for both Morris and now The Pas. The fact that The Pas is considered a safe seat did nothing to speed the process. To Selinger's credit, he was involved in a challenge to his leadership race for much of the last year, which concluded with him narrowly winning a leadership election last month.


The riding of The Pas is located in Northern Manitoba and is geographically immense. It runs from the Saskatchewan border in the west, almost to the Ontario border in the east. In the south, the riding extends to the northern shores of Lake Winnipeg, and in the north it goes as far as Cross Lake. The remote Town of The Pas (pronounced “Paw”) is the largest community in the riding, located close to the Saskatchewan border. Most of the population of the riding lives in the western part of the riding, located close to The Pas. Other communities in this area include Wanless, Cormorant, Moose Lake, Carrot Valley and the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. The eastern half of the riding includes the remote Aboriginal communities of Cross Lake and Norway House. About a quarter of the population lives within the Town of The Pas itself.


With about two thirds of the riding being First Nations, the riding is the second most Aboriginal riding in Manitoba, and most of the Aboriginal population is Cree. While the Town of The Pas and the surrounding area (Carrot Valley, Clearwater Lake area, Wanless) is a majority White, Aboriginals still make up a sizable percentage in the region. 47% of the Town of The Pas is Aboriginal, while the surrounding Rural Municipality of Kelsey is 44% Aboriginal. This part of the riding is the only area with a significant White population. The rest of the riding is dotted with Cree-majority communities. Much of the White population in the riding is of British Isles, French and Ukrainian ancestry. Catholicism and Anglicanism are the main religions. Despite the French pronunciation of the riding's name, French is not the first language of very many people in the riding. After English, Cree is the second most widely-spoken language.


The Pas has existed as a riding since Manitoba's northern boundary was extended northward in 1912. The NDP and its predecessor the CCF has held the riding for half of its history. In 1912, a by-election was held held in the newly annexed territory with Conservative Robert Orok becoming its first MLA. He held the riding until the Liberals swept into power in 1915. In 1922, the United Farmers of Manitoba won the provincial election, and the leader-less party asked the seat-less John Bracken to lead them in the legislature. At the time, due to its remoteness, The Pas held its elections weeks after the general election. This allowed Bracken to run for a seat in the Assembly and be Premier without having had to run in the general election. When Bracken resigned to enter federal politics in 1943, the CCF won the seat in a by-election. The Liberals took back the riding when they won the 1949 election, and the Tories won it back when they won in 1958. When the NDP won their first ever election in the province in 1969, they won The Pas and have held the riding ever since. Since then, the NDP nearly lost the seat in 1990 and in 1999, but have won the seat easily the rest of the time.


1) R.D. Orok, Cons. (1912-1915)
2) E. Brown, Liberal (1915-1922)
3) Jn. Bracken, Prog./Liberal-Prog. (1922-1943)
4) B. Richards, C.C.F./Ind. C.C.F. (1943-1949)
5) F.L. Jobin, Liberal-Prog. (1949-1958)
6) J.B. Carroll, Prog. Cons. (1958-1969)
7) S.R. McBryde, N.D.P. (1969-1977)
8) H.M. Harapiak, N.D.P. (1977-1990)
9) Oscar Lathlin, N.D.P. (1990-2008)
10) F. Whitehead, N.D.P. (2009-2014)

Source: Elections Manitoba

Political geography

In both federal and provincial elections, the main political cleavage in the riding is usually between Aboriginal voters and White voters. First Nations communities almost always vote NDP on the provincial level. Federally, some Aboriginal communities occasionally back the Liberals, as was the case in 1997, 2004 and 2006. The Town of The Pas usually always backs the NDP, but some of the surrounding communities are often prone to backing the Tories. In the 2011 provincial election, the Tories won just one poll (near Clearwater Lake), while every other poll was won by the NDP. In most First Nations communities the NDP won over 90% of the vote, while they performed more poorly in Whiter communities. Even in the White majority communities, the NDP still won a majority of the vote in every community except for the Clearwater Lake area. The best community for the NDP was Cross Lake, where they won 96% of the vote. The Liberals were a non factor in 2011 across the riding, not winning more than 4% of the vote in any community.

2011 provincial election results by community


The NDP has the biggest name of the ballot of the three candidates running. They are running Amanda Lathlin, the daughter of former MLA and cabinet minister Oscar Lathlin. She defeated former The Pas mayor Al McLaughlin for the NDP nomination that was decided by a coin toss after a tie vote (the disgruntled McLaughlin is considering backing another party in the race). The Tories are running former Moose Lake band councillor and social worker Jacob Nasekapow. The Liberals, who are still in the political wilderness in Manitoba (but seeing a small resurgence) are running Inez Vystrcil-Spence, the health director for Manitoba Keewatinkowi Okimakanak. She is being criticized as she is the only candidate who does not live in the riding. All three candidates have Cree ancestry. Candidate strength will play a large factor in who wins the race, as the riding does not always follow province wide voting trends.

The recent NDP leadership race in Manitoba was hugely divisive, and may have badly hurt the reputation of the New Democrats, which was already languishing in the polls. The party had a chance at renewal, but narrowly (re)-elected Selinger when his popularity among Manitobans was at an all time low. Could this hurt the NDP in one of its safest seats? The NDP has had some close calls here in the past. While the NDP won a majority government in 1999, it almost lost this seat to the Tories. If First Nations voters don't come out to vote for the NDP, or switch to the Tories, it could mean a surprise victory for the PCs, and a huge blow for the NDP. Having said that, the safe bet is to pick the NDP to win. Owing to the highly contested nomination race, the NDP has sold a lot of memberships in the riding, and it is now the riding with the most NDP members in the entire province (it had the most delegates in the NDP leadership race). While the riding backed one of Selinger's opponents in the leadership election, it would still be a huge surprise if the Tories won it. Another factor in the riding is it had the lowest voter turnout out of any riding in 2011 (meaning a lot of voters, especially First Nations voters did note vote). Despite this, the NDP still won the seat by a large margin. They can afford the kind of depressed turnout that comes with by-elections. While I still think the NDP will win, I believe it will be much closer than the landslide that happened in the provincial election. We'll know for sure when the polls close at 8:00pm tonight (9:00pm Eastern).

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