By Stephen Hendrie
The summer of 2021 cannot be described as a quiet one politically. Despite the global pandemic continuing to hammer the country – each province trying hard to vaccinate their population and slowly reopen their economies – a federal election was called less than two years after the 2019 election. The result was virtually the same, with another minority Liberal government.
In the Nunavik region, the outcome was the re-election of Bloc Québécois Member of Parliament (MP) Sylvie Bérubé. It highlighted, again, how the “Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou” riding is so big it’s virtually impossible for candidates to visit Nunavik communities during the campaign. Inuit are left once again with an MP who cannot communicate with them in English or Inuktitut, and has never visited the region.
Unlike 2019, there were no Inuit candidates for this election. Bérubé won with 37.9 per cent of the votes. The next closest was the Liberal Party with 26 per cent of the vote, and the Conservatives were in third with 15.9 per cent. On the night of the election Bérubé wasat her campaign office in Val d’Or. “There was a great atmosphere there,” she said. “But I had to follow the COVID protocols, so it was a small group, just the key people who helped me with my campaign. My family was there via FaceTime.” She knew she had won by 10:20 pm.
A week following the election Bérubé acknowledged she had never visited the Nunavik communities during her first term, or during the election campaign. But she said that she supports the issues of the region. “I’m here to listen to you, to understand you, and to help you. I have enormous compassion for the Indigenous community, especially considering all the trauma the community has experienced over time. So I am here during this second term to work with the community, and I want to listen to your needs so I can bring them to Ottawa. That is my goal as your MP.”
Makivvik President Pita Aatami was optimistic. In a press release he said, “I look forward to Sylvie Bérubé’s visit to Nunavik this time around. It’s very important to us that you visit the region that yourepresent and that we discuss how you can help us in our priorities. The reality of the communities across Nunavik is drastically different when compared to a city like Val d’Or, and the only way to truly understand the constituents that you serve in Nunavik is to come to the region and meet us in person. We look forward to your visit to Nunavik and the talks that follow.”
During the election Makivvik sent the same four questions to each candidate and received replies from everyone. The results are on the Makivvik website. Bérubé’s answers reveal her work on the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Committee regarding the first two questions about permanent changes needed as a result of the pandemic, and the high cost of living in Nunavik. She supports Indigenous self-government, the topic of question three, and for the last question, the most important issues for her she said this: “I must continue to fight for the federal government to do everything in its power to improve the quality of life of the communities of Nunavik, whether at the level of food security, housing, access to safe drinking water, internet access, infrastructure development and many more.”
Marie Poirier, the Liaison Officer for Elections Canada for the North and West Quebec Region says the pandemic meant extra measures during this election. Elections Canada used two Prop Air charters to send teams to all the Nunavik communities. They went in 10 days before the vote, and everyone had to pass a negative COVID test before the trip. They brought extra material this year such as Plexiglas shields for the voting stations, hand sanitizer, face shields, as well as all the regular equipment needed for the vote.
Because of the huge size of the riding, there is a main Elections Canada office in Val d’Or, and two satellite offices, one in Kuujjuaq, and another in Senneterre. Poirier says the size of the riding is an issue. “There are major logistical challenges to ensure that everything is in place in time for the vote on election day. We have legal imperatives to get materials to the communities at specific times, so we don’t have the choice, it has to be done!”
Asked what Inuit could do towards carving out a part of the immense riding to create one for Inuit, Cree, and Naskapi, Poirier gave a technical answer. “There is a revision of ridings every 10 years following every census. We just had a census held by Statistics Canada, so the revision is taking place between September 2021 and September 2023. There will be a process of redistribution and revision of the riding sizes throughout Canada.”
Makivvik is working on this issue. In Quebec City, Jean-François Arteau is Strategic Advisor to the president. He says there is a precedent on the provincial side for the Magdalen Islands. The population is about 18,000, but it does not make sense to lump them into a nearby riding such as Gaspé or the Lower North Shore. “The geographic, social, and economic situation in Nunavik is similar. Nunavik is like an island. There are no road links. It’s so different from the rest of the riding that a new riding should be created for Nunavik.”
Arteau says the legislation for redistribution includes a clause for “exceptional” circumstances, over and above the regulations based on population size. He says Makivvik is already in discussions with the Cree on the issue.
Asked about creating a riding uniquely for Inuit, Cree, and Naskapis from the huge “Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou” riding, Sylvie Bérubé said, “We’ll see what is possible and how we can do it. I’m very aware that one day we will really have to look at the riding, considering how huge it is. So we will look at it.”
Public hearings will be held on the redistribution of the federal electoral districts from April to October 2022. Members of the public will be able to make presentations on this issue.