Ahead of Quebec’s election October 3, the northernmost riding of Ungava is again shaping as one of the most competitive races in the province. In 2018, Coalition Avenir Québec candidate Denis Lamothe won by just 46 votes over the Parti Québécois candidate, with the Liberals and Québec solidaire not far behind.
Ungava represents almost half of Quebec’s total area, including all of Eeyou Istchee, the 14 Inuit communities of Nunavik, and the seven primarily non-Indigenous Jamesian towns.
It’s also the only Quebec riding with an Indigenous majority, but has never elected an Indigenous member of the National Assembly. That could change this year with the candidacies of Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash (Québec solidaire) and Tunu Napartuk (Liberal), who are both well known in their respective Cree and Inuit communities.
Both candidates spoke at the Cree Nation’s recent Annual General Assembly hoping to reverse the region’s traditionally low voter turnout – which was half the provincial average in 2018. They discussed the challenges of campaigning across the vast territory, where Nunavik’s communities can only be reached by costly flights.
“That’s keeping a lot of communities on the margins of democracy and public debate in Quebec and that’s just wrong,” asserted Labrecque-Saganash (who writes a column for the Nation). “People are mostly telling me about healthcare, housing and opportunities for people to come back and live in their communities. We were already in a housing crisis but now it’s impacting nearby towns.”
Labrecque-Saganash is opposed to the CAQ’s “divisive ideologies” – pointing to Bill 96, which restricts the use of languages other than French – and intends to fight to protect Indigenous languages. While Québec solidaire’s platform expands French-language protections, it also proposes increased funding for Indigenous-language initiatives and offers arguably the strongest support for self-determination of any party.
“[Québec solidaire] has this concept of territorial equity, so at least all the regions equally would have basic public services,” explained Labrecque-Saganash. “We plan on bringing back the government workforce within the region – most of the people working for Plan Nord are in Quebec [City], which makes no sense. The North is not a free for all. We want to establish a new social contract with companies that extract resources.”
Working with the Cree Health Board in Waswanipi gave her a better grasp of problems with healthcare resources and access in the North. In Nunavik, some communities have recently gone without emergency services, which both Labrecque-Saganash and Napartuk blame on neglect by the CAQ government.
“We have clinics that are closing, even for emergency situations, because there are not enough resources,” Napartuk told the Nation. “The health of our people in this riding is being put at risk, only because of the lack of support from the current government. Providing that meaningful representation is going to be crucial.”
As the former mayor of Kuujjuaq, Napartuk has extensive experience with key issues like food security and the high cost of northern living. With Nunavik often feeling ignored by provincial politicians, Napartuk wants to be that direct link between government and northern communities.
“One of the biggest complaints is [Lamothe] hardly visits our regions to see what our reality is,” said Napartuk. “I will be much better connected, reporting back what is happening at the government level. From the visit I had in Waskaganish, our concerns and challenges are very similar between the Inuit and the Cree.”
Napartuk said he chose the Liberals partly because he doesn’t want his region to separate from Canada. While the independence question has dominated Quebec politics for over 50 years, the rise of newer parties like the CAQ and Québec solidaire suggest Quebecers are less interested in this issue.
It remains the raison-d’être for the Parti Québécois, however. The PQ held the Ungava riding for 40 consecutive years before being unseated by the Liberals in 2014. Local PQ candidate Christine Moore believes building a new country would better address northern issues and encourage greater Indigenous involvement in politics.
“We will build that country together that answers our different needs, that understands the reality of the North, instead of having a Canada that ignored you for more than 100 years,” Moore told the Nation. “I think it’s exciting to say we’ll build something together instead of trying to correct all the errors made in the past.”
The former NDP MP for Abitibi-Témiscamingue worked as an oncology nurse after leaving federal politics in 2019 to focus on her four children. Moore is motivated to return to politics by healthcare staffing issues, asserting “we won’t be able to survive four more years in that situation.”
“Healthcare is also related to a lot of other issues,” said Moore. “Twelve in the same house would certainly have an impact on health. All nature is important. I’m fighting for people but also moose and all the other life in Ungava that do not vote.”
The two other candidates in the Ungava riding, incumbent MNA Denis Lamothe and the Conservative Party of Quebec’s Nancy Lalancette, did not respond to interview requests.
Lalancette is a 52-year-old nursing assistant from Chibougamau, who is primarily campaigning on the issue of healthcare system reform. Although currently holding only one seat at the National Assembly, the Conservatives has gained popularity by leveraging pandemic discontent and proposing to repeal Bill 96.
While polls suggest the CAQ is leading across the province by a large margin, much could change before October 3. The results of the Ungava riding will largely depend on whether the two Indigenous candidates can inspire more people to cast ballots.
Lamothe was criticized by the Cree Nation Government this summer after unilaterally announcing the closure of the moose sports hunt while placing blame on the community of Waswanipi. Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty alleged he had never participated in the Cree dialogue and blasted his “colonialist behaviour.”
Gull-Masty hopes to see a representative who understands the unique realities of the Cree, Inuit and Jamesian people in the region. She named the protection of the environment, the fight against racism and domestic violence, and the improvement of mental health support services as issues close to her heart.
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter