POLITICS

NDP Sees 'Window Of Opportunity' In Saskatchewan With New Riding Map

08/31/2015 08:03 EDT | Updated 08/31/2016 05:59 EDT
SASKATOON — When a judge, a professor and a farmer with a long history of service in local government sat down to redraw Saskatchewan's federal electoral battle lines, they disagreed so strongly they couldn't put all three names on the final recommendations.

In recent elections, Saskatchewan didn't have a true urban seat. Regina and Saskatoon were divided in quarters which included rural areas outside city limits. Conservatives have pretty much owned the province, taking 13 of 14 total seats in the last two federal votes.  

The three-member electoral boundaries commission proposed creating three urban ridings in Saskatoon and two in Regina. 

Justice Ron Mills and Prof. John Courtney, who literally wrote the book on election boundaries in Canada, backed the idea, saying many city dwellers "no longer have any connection to rural or agricultural life."

But Dave Marit, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, protested. 

"Saskatchewan is a unique province," he wrote in his dissenting view. "Our cities are connected in many ways to rural Saskatchewan and agriculture."

The majority view held and, as voters prepare to head to the polls in October, political watchers say federal politics in Saskatchewan is interesting again.  

"A window of opportunity has opened up for the NDP," says Joe Garcea, head of political studies at the University of Saskatoon. "The stars are aligned better than they have been in many years."

Tracey Mitchell, 33, lives in Saskatoon's trendy Nutana neighbourhood and help found the transit lobby group Bus Riders of Saskatoon. She and her partner don't own a car. She doesn't expect a sea change with the new seats, but says it might be easier to push urban issues federally.

"It's a growing city and it is a pretty young city and I think a lot of people here are paying attention to what is happening in other cities and there is a lot of excitement about possibilities," Mitchell says.  "I think people here will feel more represented and see more opportunity to raise different issues with elected representatives."

Conservatives pushed hard against the new map. The party was fined $78,000 for not identifying itself in a robocall on the issue.

"Let's be incredibly blunt," says Brad Trost, the Conservative incumbent running in the new riding of Saskatoon University. "The only reason this was done is because the Conservatives have dominated ... for the last 15 years."

Trost thinks the change will play a role in only one race — Saskatoon West. There is no incumbent running in that seat — a mix of two old ridings, one of which the NDP lost by fewer than 1,000 votes in 2008 and 2011. 

New Democrats trace their roots to Saskatchewan and once consistently won federal seats there. That hasn't happened in the last four elections.

Erin Weir, the NDP candidate in Regina Lewvan — another seat with no incumbent — notes the party took more than 32 per cent of the popular vote in Saskatchewan in 2011.

"I think a big part of the reason that the Conservatives have been so successful in Saskatchewan is that both Regina and Saskatoon were divided up ... and the Conservatives have been strong in rural areas," Weir says. "Having a more fair set of riding boundaries is definitely an improvement."

Liberal Ralph Goodale, the only non-Conservative to hold his seat consistently in recent years, says the new map — combined with the lack of some incumbents — changes the game in Saskatchewan.

"A lot of seats come into play," he says, "or they are at least not as slam-dunk predictable as they used to be."

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