Kiiwetinoong: Vast new northern Ontario riding fledges wings as vote looms


SIOUX LOOKOUT, Ont. — From the shadows of the hill in the south on which the Ojibwa once watched for the invading Sioux, to the frozen mouth of the almost 1,000-kilometre-long majestic Severn River in the north, the noisy partisan tussle that is the looming Ontario election seems largely irrelevant.

Welcome to Kiiwetinoong, home to about 32,000 people in four municipalities and more than three dozen remote Indigenous communities. Spread across two time zones, the riding — the only one with an Indigenous majority — is also home to four major languages and numerous dialects.

Kiiwetinoong — Ojibwa for North — is one of two new ridings aimed at giving residents of the often-ignored vast region a stronger voice at the legislature in Toronto. Whether anyone cares to listen is an open question for Lola Goodwind, a teacher at the Obishikokaang elementary school in Lac Seul First Nation, about 40 minutes from Sioux Lookout.

“What worries me sometimes is that when people voice their opinion, does it really matter, does it really carry over, is it heard?” Goodwind says as her students play at a table or vroom toy trucks along the carpet.

Hundreds of kilometres to the north, Kathleen Koostachin, 44, a native language instructor at Keewaytinook Internet High School in Fort Severn, talks about suicides, land claims and the need for a healing lodge. She, too, wonders who is listening.

“They talk about it, but there’s no action,” Koostachin says. “In our communities, health services are very lacking.”

Koostachin and Goodwind have yet to take a deeper dive into what the various parties might be offering. But for Goodwind at least, in a region comprising almost one-third the area of the province, she only has to walk across the gravel road to the Lac Seul band office in Frenchman’s Head to find one of the candidates.

Chief Clifford Bull, who is carrying the flag for the Progressive Conservatives under Doug Ford, admits the logistics of campaigning in a riding where most communities are accessible only by an expensive plane ride — are daunting. The complexities are exacerbated by the apparent indifference — or even hostility — many First Nations voters feel toward government, he says.

“There’s still some anger,” Bull says. “Being left out, not being heard at Queen’s Park; and being adversarial at times and court cases, even jail for that matter.”

About 40 minutes from Bull’s office, one of his rivals settles into a chair at his home in Sioux Lookout overlooking a still-frozen Pelican Lake and makes it clear he has no interest in the kind of partisan nastiness that has become part and parcel of election battles.

Instead, Liberal candidate Doug Lawrance emphasizes what he sees as the increasingly intertwined relationships between the area’s non-Indigenous and Indigenous residents. Sioux Lookout and Lac Seul, he notes, have a friendship accord — a reflection of common interests.

“I’m not opposing Clifford Bull. I’m proposing Liberal values that I’ve always held,” says Lawrance, the town’s mayor. “Our interests are so interrelated.”

Indeed, the relative metropolis of Sioux Lookout — population about 8,300 of which more than half is Indigenous — is the hub in the province’s northwest. It’s a frequent destination for those in need of its modern hospital, its schools, and other services.

Kiiwetinoong has been carved out from a larger riding dominated by the NDP for decades. Sioux Lookout, most agree, is in urgent need of 200 long-term care beds but has just 20. Additionally, Lawrance says, services such as a detox centre and treatment facilities for substance abuse are essentially non-existent. There’s also a perennial shortage of mental health supports.

“The NDP has sadly let us down,” Lawrance says in his most biting partisan comment.

At Obishikokaang elementary, teacher Allan Mark Kendle says serving in the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan a decade ago has left him familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder and the difficulties of finding help.

“If I can’t find help in the North, how are the kids and the families here going to?” says Kendle, 49, who comes from southern Ontario. “The Liberals have had an incredible run at failing the First Nations in the mental health area.”

Charles Cirtwill, who heads the Northern Policy Institute, says northern programs often end up getting cut because they don’t resonate in the voter-rich south. The myopia is a mistake, particularly when it comes to First Nations, he says.

“These people are provincial residents as well: provincial citizens, provincial voters,” Cirtwill says. “Despite the important federal role, the province can’t ignore its responsibilities.”

Sioux Lookout resident Sol Mamakwa, a member of the Kingfisher Lake First Nation who works with the politically influential Nishnawbe Aski Nation, planned to announce his intention on Monday of vying to become the first New Democrat to represent the brand new riding. He declined an interview.

Jeremy Capay, 33, manager of the Lac Seul events centre, cited the high cost of food as well as services for seniors as key issues. At the same time, he says, provincial politics barely register in the community of about 1,000.

“We see it on the news, we see it on our social media pages when it comes to stuff about our federal government, but what about our provincial government?” Capay says. “It’s something that needs to be talked about more often.”

For Anne Ayotte, who is helping run Bull’s campaign, the dominant election issues tend to be of the pocketbook variety: the high cost of living that includes pricey fuel, electricity and groceries.

As a small business co-owner and a former aide to a cabinet minister in then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, Ayotte says economic development is critical. Ford understands that even if he’s still a bit hazy on how the North works, she says.

“We shouldn’t be priced out of anyone living here,” says Ayotte, as she sits in a small diner in Hudson, a hamlet between Sioux Lookout and Lac Seul.

Still, the idea that Bull is running for the Conservatives doesn’t sit well with Garnet Angeconeb, 62, an Order of Canada recipient for his work on Indigenous rights.

“Many Conservatives, whether federal or provincial, don’t yet fully understand the true impacts of cultural genocide inflicted upon our people,” Angeconeb said in a letter to Bull. “As a proponent for resource development — mining, hydro electrification, logging — how do you plan to re-address long-standing environmental and devastating health issue caused upon our brothers and sisters?”

Back in his office, Bull ponders the missive. He’s painfully aware of the strains between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, and the sometimes large divide between the province’s north and south.

“Relationships in the past have not always been very beneficial for both sides. There’s been tension, animosity,” Bull says. “I guess a lot of it has to do with not knowing each other.”

Ford’s message of lower taxes doesn’t resonate with First Nations, Bull admits. But the chief plans to campaign hard. At the same time, he says, the mud-slinging typical of elections down south isn’t expected.

“Kiiwetinoong is going to have the friendliest campaign in all of Ontario,” he says laughing. “You need to build relationships.”

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press