#EveryElectionProject: The North
Capsules on Canada's territorial elections from The Weekly Writ
Every installment of The Weekly Writ includes a short history of one of Canada’s elections. Here are the ones I have written about elections and leadership races in Canada’s three territories.
This and other #EveryElectionProject hubs will be updated as more historical capsules are written.
1992 Yukon election
Yukon Party wins Yukon
October 19, 1992
The New Democrats had been in power in Yukon for seven years by 1992 under Tony Penikett, the first Yukoner to adopt the title “premier” as a signal of the territory’s ambitions to one day become a province.
In the run-up to the territorial election that year, Penikett had spent a great deal of time outside Yukon on the national stage. This was the age of constitutional debates, and Penikett wasn’t too pleased with what was on the table in the Meech Lake negotiations that, in his view, would limit Yukon’s potential of achieving its ambitions.
Closer to home, though, politics was in flux. The PCs under Brian Mulroney had grown deeply unpopular, and the Yukon Progressive Conservatives decided it was time for a re-branding. The result was the new Yukon Party, which itself became divided when in 1991 it elected a 21-year-old named Chris Young as its new leader.
By the following year, Young was out and 56-year-old John Ostashek was in. The former outfitter didn’t hold a seat in the legislature and his party’s caucus had been reduced by three MLAs who quit to form the Independent Alliance Party.
These dynamics might have improved Penikett’s chances, but Yukon’s sluggish economy and the baggage of seven years in office weighed against the New Democrats. It didn’t help matters that Penikett was in the south so often.
The result was a rebuke for Penikett and the NDP, as they dropped 9.9 percentage points to 35.1% of the vote and lost three seats, finishing with six. The Yukon Party also under-performed its PC predecessor with just 35.9% of the vote, down eight points, but Ostashek was able to win seven seats — just enough to put his party in first place.
"We've come a long way in one year," Ostashek said on election night. "It looks like Yukoners have told us tonight they want a change."
The Liberals got themselves back into the legislature after being shutout in 1989, but they were still outnumbered by the Independents. Though the Independence Alliance Party didn’t officially nominate candidates in time for the election, its three former-PC MLAs were all elected as unaffiliated Independents. While it was unclear at first who would form government, the three would back the Yukon Party and Ostashek would head-up a minority government for the next four years, re-adopting the traditional title of “government leader”.
Yukon wasn’t a province, after all. “I’m not for big titles anyway,” Ostashek said.
2004 Nunavut election
Nunavut holds its second election
February 16, 2004
When Nunavut became a separate territory in 1999, Paul Okalik was voted its first premier by Nunavut’s legislative assembly. By 2004, it was time for Nunavut to hold its first election in which members were going back to voters for another mandate.
There are no political parties in Nunavut — candidates all run as independents. Once the members of the new assembly have their seats, those members then vote to choose who among them will become premier and who will make up the cabinet.
So, when Okalik sent the territory to the polls in 2004 he wasn’t necessarily going to voters to ask for his own re-election. That decision would not be up to him.
Turnout was high, as it had been in 1999, at over 80%. Okalik was re-elected in his riding of Iqaluit West, capturing 77% of the vote — more than any other candidate in Nunavut, a solid mandate from his own constituents. Not all incumbents were so lucky, however, as only eight of the 13 MLAs who ran for re-election were successful. Among the winning candidates were future federal cabinet ministers Leona Aglukkaq and Hunter Tootoo.
When the new assembly gathered, the race to become premier was between Okalik and Tagak Curley, who had been acclaimed in Rankin Inlet North. Okalik prevailed, but would only be narrowly re-elected in Iqaluit West in the next election in 2008. After more than nine years in office, MLAs decided not to install Okalik as premier again for a third term and turned instead to Eva Aariak — one of only 14 women to ever serve as a provincial or territorial premier in Canada.
2015 Northwest Territories election
Continuity with change in the Northwest
November 23, 2015
The Northwest Territories, like Nunavut, operate under the so-called “consensus” model. There are no parties in their legislative assemblies. Instead, voters send Independents to their legislatures and let them figure out who should be premier and who should be in cabinet.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t pass along a message of change.
Change was in the brisk air of the Northwest Territories in November 2015. The territorial election set for November 23 of that year came just about a month after the 2015 federal election (which forced the set date for the territorial vote to be pushed back).
With Stephen Harper’s Conservatives out and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in, it had certainly been a change election across Canada. That was also the case in the Northwest Territories, as the NDP incumbent went down to defeat against the Liberal candidate, Michael McLeod.
There were plenty of good reasons for change in the territory — a CBC analysis listed 18 of the challenges that the incoming territorial government would face — and voters (or, at least, the 44% of Northwesterners who cast a ballot) delivered that change in what were some very tight local races.
Three of the 19 seats up for grabs were won by candidates who captured less than 30% of the vote: Kevin O’Reilly in Frame Lake (28.6%), Shane Thompson in Nahendeh (29.4%) and Daniel McNeely in Sahtu (29.6%).
Five races were decided by less than 20 ballots, including the contest in Range Lake where (current premier) Caroline Cochrane defeated incumbent Daryl Dolynny.
Dolynny was one of eight incumbents who went down to defeat out of the 16 who stood for re-election — a message for change if there ever was one. Even the finance minister was sent packing.
But the premier wasn’t. Bob McLeod, brother of the new Liberal MP, was re-elected in his own riding and the new legislature would keep him on as the premier, the job he first got after the 2011 election.
That, in and of itself, represented some change for the Northwest Territories — never before had a premier served two terms. Continuity with change, then.
The Writ is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
NOTE ON SOURCES: When available, election results are sourced from the electoral authorities in Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Historical newspapers are also an important source, and I’ve attempted to cite the newspapers quoted from.