Guest Commentary

Niki Ashton, MP

One Of The Largest Ridings On Earth

When I first ran for office in 2006 I was given one piece of advice: speak with voters where they live, door to door. That’s the Northern way.  However there are challenges.

My riding is comprised of 85,000 people in communities scattered over 440,000 square kilometres. We have two cities, four towns and 33 First Nations and Métis communities cast over a region bigger than Germany, with few roads and a single railway. Some villages are accessible only by air, boat, snowmobile or dog sled. Churchill is world famous for its polar bears, and with the challenges of climate change you could say I represent them, too.

My father Steve was MLA for Thompson for decades. As a child I’d drive with both my parents over the ice roads to visit constituents. The ice roads are typically open from January to March. My assistant Gord had a Dodge Ram pickup and we’d spend days at a time on the ice roads when Parliament isn’t in session, sleeping along the way at nursing stations and RCMP depots, at lodges or with friends along the trail. Travel is difficult, even perilous, but Northerners face these challenges on a daily basis and First Nations people have lived here for millennia. For me, it’s a privilege.

Southern Canadians take paved freeways for granted. My hometown, Thompson, has a single road south that runs eight hours through the bush, then Prairie farmland to Winnipeg. Farther north the distances between communities are vast and not all communities are connected by all-weather roads.

One ice road, between Red Sucker Lake and God’s Lake Narrows, is little better than a trail through the muskeg. It took us three hours to drive 120 kilometres.  The smoothest part of the trip is a path cleared across frozen lakes. No driver would make the trip without warm clothes, food, fire supplies and a break-down kit. Our team cracked through the ice in a swamp once, got a flat tire and had to wait for another driver to come by to get extra help.

In summertime we visit constituents by camper trailer. I’ll park in town and host barbecues, and go door to door to stop at as many homes as possible. These are communities that most Canadians have never heard of: Little Black River and Oxford House, York Landing and Beren’s River.

Occasionally I’ll travel by prop plane to the farthest-flung communities. Bush flyers have been reliable transportation in these areas since the 1920s. I recall one harrowing flight to Tadoule Lake, the most northerly First Nation in my riding, population 800. It was late spring, the weather was poor with wet snow, and the plane should never have flown. I was travelling with a First Nations elder and a young mother with two infants when the plane skidded off the runway. There were no injuries but it was a traumatic experience.

Travel is a key part of my job. Oddly perhaps, I don’t envy colleagues who live closer to Parliament Hill. I was born and raised in the north and call it home.

(Editor’s note: the author is three-term New Democrat MP for Churchill, Manitoba, one of the largest electoral districts on earth)

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