Then-minister Wally Schumann at a press conference in 2019. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
If MLAs don’t approve a recommendation to delay territorial elections by a month, voting in districts affected by evacuation orders could be postponed into December.
This scenario was outlined by Stephen Dunbar, the NWT’s chief electoral officer, in an email to Cabin Radio on Wednesday that outlined a complex set of conditions governing how the election is run.
“Given the state of emergency and the evacuations of multiple communities, I would, immediately after issuing the writs, inform the Commissioner that the writs of election for any electoral district under a state of emergency should be withdrawn, under section 42 of the Elections and Plebiscites Act,” said Dunbar.
“Under that section, any withdrawn writ must be published in the Gazette and re-issued within three months of that publication. The spread in the timing of the elections would then be potentially from October 3 to the end of December.”
It’s an unlikely outcome, however, as the caucus of all 19 members is reported to agree with Dunbar’s recommendation to Speaker of the House Frederick Blake Jr that the election be delayed by one month.
“Members of caucus considered the chief electoral officer’s recommendation, and there was clear support,” said caucus chair Frieda Martselos earlier this week.
The Legislative Assembly will convene on Monday, August 28 to debate the recommendation and consider whether to pass extraordinary funding for this season’s rapidly escalating firefighting and evacuation costs.
Members will meet in Inuvik – virtually, if they can’t be there in person – assuming Yellowknife is still under evacuation order, as is almost certain to be the case.
“The logistics and people required to run an election are significant and, in the current circumstances, there are a number of ridings where we would not be in a position to safely proceed on September 4,” Dunbar stated.
He told Cabin Radio delaying until November is not without precedent. Territorial elections have previously been held in late November (2003 and 2015) and December (1999).
“A further consideration was the weather and temperatures later in November and December, as weather can cause logistical challenges for getting election materials into communities, or when campaigning,” he said.
Candidates differ on suggested delay
Two candidates in the upcoming elections offered differing views on whether a one-month delay is the right thing to do.
Wally Schumann, who has already declared he wants to win back his Hay River South seat, said a November election is “realistic” given members still have a heavy late-term agenda to clear. But he added some sobering qualifiers.
“The real question is, what’s the fire going to do? This will be top of mind – how it’s being handled … people are going nuts on Facebook,” he said on Tuesday, expecting the fire crisis will be a major distraction.
“Campaigning will change for all of us, particularly the ones affected by relocation.”
Schumann predicted the wildfire crisis will dominate all other issues at the door.
Bruce Valpy, the former newspaper publisher who has said he will run in Yellowknife but has yet to announce a district, said postponing by only one month would be a big mistake.
“It would be foolhardy to pick a day now, when we don’t know what’s coming with the fires,” he said.
“We don’t know how long it will take to unwind what’s been sprung on us with this evacuation.
“We need the voters cool, calm and collected when we go to the polls … there’s greater damage in moving too quickly on an election, as opposed to delaying.”