Both victor Michael McLeod and second-placed Kelvin Kotchilea suggested Monday night’s election would have been a different story without Covid-19 in the Northwest Territories.
By Tuesday afternoon, the final mail-in ballots were still being counted but McLeod, 678 votes ahead with 13,143 votes tallied, had declared himself the victor and Kotchilea had settled for second place.
Each of the candidates, examining at the numbers, said their performance would have been stronger in a pandemic-free election.
“We haven’t really crunched the numbers to see why the numbers are what they are,” said McLeod, the Liberal, shortly after claiming victory and a third term as the NWT’s MP.
“I suspect we had lots of people in some of the communities that are my supporters that didn’t come out because of Covid,” he told Cabin Radio.
“I think we had some supporters from the Conservative Party that didn’t really want to vote for the missing-in-action Conservative candidate, who probably went to the NDP.”
McLeod had 38 percent of the vote to Kotchilea’s 33 percent. McLeod’s margin of victory was nine percentage points slimmer than in 2019.
Lea Mollison, the Conservative candidate in the NWT, lives in Thunder Bay and has never visited the territory. Though she still received more than 1,800 votes, a 14-percent vote share with mail-in ballots still to come, that represented a 12-percentage-point drop on the party’s NWT performance in 2019.
Yet New Democrat Kotchilea, too, argued the pandemic had hobbled his attempt to introduce himself to NWT voters.
“I’m actually very proud of how close we were,” he told Cabin Radio on Tuesday morning.
“It was very difficult to reach as many northerners as we could. We made do with the situation that we are in. It shows that a lot of people that do get to know me, and meet me, see a bright future in politics for me.”
Rookie candidate Kotchilea’s share of the vote was the NDP’s highest in the territory since Dennis Bevington last won election for the party in 2011. His performance represented a gain of 11 percentage points on the NDP’s 2019 result.
“There are still a lot of people reaching out, telling me to keep my head up,” he said.
“There are always going to be other opportunities. I’ll definitely continue advocating for people and trying to make positive changes in the North.
“I definitely see myself in another election, I just don’t know when and where.”
Would-be voters ‘went moose hunting’
McLeod praised Kotchilea, the only other Indigenous candidate on the NWT’s ballot, for a campaign in which he “worked hard and did a good job.”
But the Liberal wondered whether some of his voters had been too apathetic. Turnout stood at 43.6 percent with mail-in ballot results to come, a drop from 54 percent two years ago.
“A lot of people were calling me and saying, ‘We know you’re going to do well, you don’t need our vote, we’re going moose hunting.’ A lot of people took it for granted that the Liberals and myself were going to win by a large margin,” said McLeod.
“The results show that we were pretty close.”
A Facebook page for Mollison had, by Tuesday, disappeared as quickly as it appeared. Facebook was the sole means by which Mollison appealed to NWT voters. No reporter in the NWT ever heard her voice.
Independent Jane Groenewegen, 167 votes behind Mollison with mail-in ballots to come, said the determination of some NWT residents to vote Conservative despite the party’s silent, parachute candidate had surprised her.
“In running as an independent, and as someone who has generally voted for the candidate more than the party, I seriously underestimated how strong party loyalties and allegiances are,” Groenewegen wrote on her since-deleted campaign Facebook page, “as indicated by the votes received by the Conservative candidate.”
Groenewegen continued: “I stand by my desire to see our leaders work together with less adversarial antics, keeping the well-being of Canadians and our country as their focus.”
Green candidate Roland Laufer, who polled three percent in the NWT, wrote: “We have much work to do to slow catastrophic climate change, so don’t give up. As northerners, we will continue to work with community groups, put pressure on elected officials, and work to reduce our own consumption.”
NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane congratulated McLeod, saying he “cares deeply about our territory and has been a strong and vocal advocate for the North since being elected in 2015.”
“The gap between the North and southern Canada has existed for decades but has been made more apparent as a result of Covid-19,” said the premier, acknowledging the return of a Liberal minority government.
“We need a supportive federal government partner that acknowledges our residents as important members of Canadian society, who should experience the same level of services and opportunities compared to the rest of Canada.”
Asked if he hoped for a cabinet position in that government, McLeod – just as he had following the last election – said he was ready for the call.
“I’m always hoping that I’m going to get in cabinet,” he said. “I’m ready. If there’s an indication that they need my help and they ask me? For sure.”
Emily Blake and Sarah Sibley contributed reporting.