With 102 of 103 polls reporting, Liberal incumbent Michael McLeod declared he had overcome a surprisingly strong challenge from New Democrat Kelvin Kotchilea to earn a third term as NWT MP.
McLeod appears certain to resume his seat in a Liberal minority government. By Tuesday morning, with only mail-in ballots remaining to be counted, he held 38 percent of the vote to Kotchilea’s 33 percent.
National news networks called the riding’s result overnight. Shortly after midnight, McLeod decided a margin of more than 600 votes was sufficient to claim victory in a Facebook live stream.
“I would have liked them to be a little more in my favour,” he said of the results, a thought he echoed regarding the national picture.
“We were hoping we would have a majority,” said McLeod. “If we ever needed a new mandate it is now, during a pandemic. I’m hoping we will be able to move forward the many issues that are in our platform.”
Nearly 2,000 NWT residents voted for Conservative parachute candidate Lea Mollison, who lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and has never visited the territory. McLeod and Liberal aides laughed aloud as they mentioned her place of residence during his live stream.
Mollison held 14 percent of the vote, just ahead of independent Jane Groenewegen on 13 percent. Groenewegen passed the 1,600-vote mark to become the most successful independent ever to run in the Northwest Territories at federal level.
A fifth candidate, Green Roland Laufer, trailed on three percent.
“It looks like we’ll be a strong second,” Kotchilea told Cabin Radio as he watched results come in. He felt the outcome had rested on how people chose to vote in the larger centres. Kotchilea expected smaller communities to have voted largely for McLeod, owing to their familiarity with him.
“Sometimes you don’t win on the first or second try, but I think they see a bright future in politics for me,” he told Cabin Radio.
Kotchilea failed to win a by-election to become the new Monfwi MLA earlier in the summer. In his federal campaign, he positioned himself as a young, Indigenous candidate looking out for the interests of the territory’s working families.
While Kotchilea was understood to have headed to bed shortly before midnight, McLeod – holding a small event for reporters at a Yellowknife hotel – hesitated before eventually declaring victory. He paid tribute to Kotchilea’s campaign in his speech.
McLeod had the strongest starting position at the election’s outset. The Fort Providence resident had a head start on his challengers as a member of the party calling the election, an announcement that left the Conservatives and Greens, in particular, scrambling to find candidates. He has enjoyed years as the face of Liberal funding announcements in the territory and has made few gaffes of note since being first elected in 2015.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do and some of the things are starting to become very urgent,” he said in his live stream.
“We want to finish the fight against Covid. We want to make sure the economy is healthy and jobs are available. We want to see training attached to those jobs.
“We want to continue the fight on climate change and move forward with the Indigenous issues that are always front and centre.”
Silent Mollison attracts some votes
Mollison conducted not one interview during the campaign, telling APTN she had been instructed to decline them by her team.
A story of the night was how the Conservatives would perform in the territory despite running a candidate who lives elsewhere and declared herself to have been barred from talking.
In 2019, Conservative candidate Yanik D’Aigle – a Yellowknife resident – placed second behind McLeod, taking 26 percent of the vote to McLeod’s 40 percent. Though the NWT has not been represented by a Conservative since 1988, the 2019 result suggests a return at some point is not beyond the realm of possibility.
McLeod dropped a couple of percentage points on his 2019 performance. Though Mollison’s result represents a plunge from D’Aigle’s 2019 result, more than one in 10 NWT voters still chose a candidate they had neither seen nor heard.
Green candidate Laufer had hoped to emulate Paul Falvo, who received more than 10 percent of the NWT’s vote as the Green representative in 2019. However, the Greens ordinarily struggle to reach five percent in the territory and the federal party made little to no impression on voters during this campaign. Laufer, affected by illness, attended only one of three major all-candidate forums ahead of polling day.
Groenewegen – the first independent to run in the territory since 1997 and a veteran former MLA and minister at territorial level – took some time to announce her candidacy and advertised herself primarily as an alternative to the major parties rather than a candidate with a distinct platform of her own.
Her views on same-sex parenting were scrutinized after some residents shared a 2018 newspaper editorial alluding to her decision to walk out of a 2002 legislative debate on the matter.
While there were reports of long lines at some polling places in southern Canada, few residents in the NWT’s 33 communities expressed complaints on Monday.
However, some isolating residents were denied the right to vote with no alternative to in-person voting in place for anyone who did not vote in advance, or by mail, and was subsequently exposed to Covid-19.
How the threat of the pandemic affected NWT turnout remained to be confirmed. Turnout in the territory was 54 percent in 2019. Turnout looks to have dipped below 50 percent this time around, though it wasn’t clear how many mail-in ballots remained to be counted on Tuesday.
Emily Blake and Sarah Sibley contributed reporting.