Meet Mushkegowuk–James Bay, one of Ontario’s newest and most unusual ridings

Vast and sparsely populated, the constituency was created in 2017 to amplify the voices of francophone communities in the north
By Claude Sharma - Published on May 18, 2018
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The new majority francophone riding has a Cree name but local First Nations leaders say they weren’t properly consulted on that decision. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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SUDBURY — Last year, the Far North Electoral Boundaries Commission made recommendations to create more ridings in northern Ontario. The idea was to improve representation for those who live in remote communities, notably Indigenous and francophone people.

Thus were born two new ridings. Kiiwetenoong, a massive domain north of Kenora—Rainy River, is now the largest riding in the province. And for its part, Mushkegowuk—James Bay, carved from the old riding of Timmins—James Bay, represents a new opportunity for northeastern voices to have their say at Queen’s Park.  

As ridings go, Mushkegowuk—James Bay is vast and unusual. The new constituency is Ontario’s second-largest in geographic terms, stretching across nearly 255,000 square kilometres. Mushkegowuk—James Bay is larger than the United Kingdom. It occupies the Hudson Bay lowlands, an expanse of boreal forest north of Timmins rich in mineral and other resources. The population centres in the southern part of the riding form a string along Highway 11, including Hearst and Kapuskasing. Further north, a constellation of small First Nation communities dot the James Bay coast, all the way up to the isolated Cree community of Peawanuck.

The population, meanwhile, is tiny — slightly above 30,000. (For comparison, some ridings in the suburbs around Toronto have populations above 150,000.) And the demographics are quite different from ridings in the south: Mushkegowuk—James Bay is 60 per cent francophone and 27 per cent Indigenous.

While residents of the new riding generally applaud the idea of improving northern representation, they take issue with some of the details, including the level of Indigenous representation and the placement of the boundary lines themselves.

Sylvie Fontaine, who ran under the Liberal banner and placed second in the Timmins—James Bay riding in the 2014 provincial election, approves of the way the ridings of the far northeast have been reshaped.

“The people will have as stronger voice now,” says Fontaine, who works as director of economic development services in Hearst, one of the larger population centres in the region.

In the old Timmins—James Bay riding, she says, “Timmins’ weight was too heavy, it dictated too much of the vote.” (Timmins now stands alone as its own riding of close to 42,000 people.)

In 2014, it was New Democrat Gilles Bisson who defeated Fontaine. The NDP stalwart held Timmins—James Bay for its entire existence, starting in 1999. And before that, Bisson served as MPP for Cochrane South from 1990 to 1999. As he considers the new northern political rearrangement, Bisson says the Liberal government dropped the ball. He feels the old ridings ought to have been split up such that Indigenous people would have been the majority in one of the two new constituencies that were created from the former Timmins—James Bay riding.

First Nation Leaders have voiced similar concerns.

Jonathan Solomon, grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, criticizes the Far North Electoral Boundaries Commission (which the province appointed in 2016) for its limited consultation with First Nations. He also believes the change was rushed. “We protested how the decision was made, and even suggested to delay the process until the next election,” Solomon says.  

The Mushkegowuk Council, which advocates and represents member nations in northern Ontario, had never suggested the riding use the name “Mushkegowuk,” which the Cree people of the region use to refer to themselves. Solomon says using that name was the boundary commission’s idea, and its use implies a level of assent and agreement that wasn’t there. “I don’t want my people to be taken for granted. We consider ourselves the forgotten people in the province,” he says.

Overall, however, Solomon considers the riding split a good gesture, albeit one that was poorly executed. He hopes the change leads to more First Nation people at the polls.

Meet the candidates

As a new riding, Mushkegowuk—James Bay has no incumbent. When Timmins—James Bay was cleaved in two, MPP Bisson opted to run in his hometown of Timmins.

Bisson says running in the new, smaller riding of Timmins has been drastically less travel-intensive so far than what he’s used to. “Normally campaigning in the old riding [you would] have to split yourself between Timmins and Highway 11,” he says.  “Then fly up to James Bay several times. Scheduling-wise, it was havoc.”

Seven new candidates will inherit the onerous task of campaigning in the vastness of Mushkegowuk—James Bay. Some of the issues they’re talking about are the same as anywhere else in the province (hydro rates, job creation), while others are notably northern (such as restoring the Northlander train, protecting caribou, and issues particular to First Nations).

Progressive Conservative candidate Andre Robichaud appears to have the most political experience of the candidates. The 35-year-old from Kapuskasing, a former economic developer for the city turned consultant, ran in the 2015 federal election in the riding of Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing. He finished third, securing almost a quarter of the votes. Robichaud notes that Doug Ford and the PCs are at the top of the polls. If Mushkegowuk—James Bay votes PC and the party takes power, he says, the northeast will have a bigger say in the way the province is governed.

“Why are our regions lagging behind? And why we are not getting our fair share?” Robichaud asks. “It really comes down to us not having a voice in government, more importantly a voice at the decision-making table.”

In a recent meeting with Doug Ford, Robichaud says, “I told Doug, I want to be your expert when it comes to francophone issues and northern issues.”

His competitors may have made the same pitch to their own party leaders.

NDP hopeful Guy Bourgouin also lives and works in Kapuskasing. As the president of his United Steelworkers local, he doesn’t consider himself a political neophyte. “I’m in an elected position. You have to campaign to be elected. My job is very political,” Bourgouin says. “I’ve lobbied for softwood provincially, federally, even in the States.”

Bourgouin, 53, is of Métis descent. His campaign has taken him to remote First Nation communities by plane. “I went to Attawapiskat, I met with some of the chiefs and I will bring their issues forward. I have worked in the past with First Nations. We intend to be very involved with them,” he says.

Liberal candidate Gaetan Baillargeon is band member of Constance Lake First Nation. The 37-year-old is a business manager for a forestry and trucking corporation — a job that he says has involved a lot of travel around the riding — and he resides in Hearst. Baillargeon says the timing was right to run. “I think if Timmins was still in the riding, I would have waited a little longer.” As for political experience, he has worked in a number of different sectors and has represented his First Nation community by meeting with provincial ministers.

Baillargeon says the creation of a new riding has created an air of excitement amongst voters in the area.  “People will feel our seat is representative of our population.”

Being a member of the governing party puts Baillargeon on the defensive over major issues in the riding, including, for example, the quality of French language services provided in the northeast. He admits services could improve, but says:  “Everywhere I go, the store or a government building. I’m always greeted in French.”

All three parties’ candidates are fluent in French and English. Robichaud and Bourgouin both argue French language services need to improve, particularly in hospital and health-care environments.

Rounding out the list of candidates, Jacques Ouellette will represent the rebranded Northern Ontario Party. Libertarian Vanda Marshall, who lives in southwestern Ontario, is a “parachute/paper” candidate according to party leader, Allen Small. Sarah Hutchinson will represent the Green Party. And Fauzia Sadiq will carry the banner for the Ontario Provincial Confederation of Regions Party.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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