Earlier this week, voters across Saskatchewan were shocked when the SaskParty won a seat in the legislative assembly in a riding they have never held before.

The SaskParty’s Jim Lemaigre defeated the NDP’s Georgina Jolibois in a by-election for the Athabasca constituency to take the seat and paint the constituency green for the first time in the party’s history.

The result was shocking for many and now charts a new course for the northwest for the next couple of years.

The by-election was called after long-time NDP MLA Buckley Belanger resigned his seat this past summer to pursue federal politics and a seat in parliament. A pursuit that would ultimately come up short. Belanger originally won the seat for the Liberal party in 1995 before switching to the NDP in 1998.

For one expert in northern governance, a ballot without Belanger’s name on it may have been one of the keys to the SaskParty victory.

Dr. Ken Coates, is a University of Saskatchewan professor who specializes in Indigenous relations and northern governance.  Like many people, Coates says he was “gobsmacked” by the result.

“It was not what people expected and really came out of the fog,” Coates told MBC News. “This result shows there is not much safe in Saskatchewan, especially for the NDP, and that was a bit of a surprise.”

Coates, who has been nationally recognized for his work, believes there were two main driving factors in the Lemaigre victory; the lack of Buckley Belanger on the ballot and a chance for northwest constituents to give the sitting government a chance.

Voters in the by-election didn’t come out in huge numbers with just under 25 percent of eligible voters turning up to a ballot box.  According to the numbers, the NDP received around half as many votes as they did in the last election and the SaskParty actually got fewer votes this time around as well.

“So this is not a groundswell of people rising up to put Scott Moe on their shoulders and march him around Beauval talking about what a wonderful and marvellous premier he is,” said Coates. “It is kind of a resignation and frustration with the last couple of years.”

The university professor pointed to the differences in northern politics compared to other jurisdictions. He says there is a personal aspect in northern ridings that isn’t found elsewhere.

A personal connection that Buckley Belanger was able to tap into for over twenty years.

“I think the (vote) was more indication that the riding was more Belanger’s than the NDP’s and when it came to it they would have voted for Buckley, but he’s not here, so voters clearly decided to try the government side of the house for a change,” said Coates.

Now that voters have given the SaskParty the ball, Coates says it’s up to Premier Scott Moe and Jim Lemaigre to respond.

“If they can bring the goods home for northwest Saskatchewan, voters in the northeast may start paying attention.”

However, Coates says this isn’t going to be an easy task.

“You better deliver. People have given you a chance and you have a relatively short period of time to do so,” he said. “Northwest Saskatchewan has a very long list of urgent needs and the province has not been supportive or sympathetic…they have to come to the table now and I think that is going to determine if this is a minor blip in the process or the start of something very important.”

While Coates predicts the government may not dive headfirst into specific Métis and First Nations related issues he believes the SaskParty could start investing in infrastructure projects like highways, which is something Jim Lemaigre indicated would be a priority in an interview with MBC News earlier this week.

When asked why Georgina Jolibois, who spent time as an MP for the Desnethe-Missinipe-Churchill River riding and many years as the mayor of La Loche, couldn’t grab the vote – Coates says it may have been difficult to move from federal politics to provincial.

“Georgina Jolibois had a good record in the area and is a wonderful person, but clearly she lost some support,” said Coates. “She didn’t do as well in her home community and usually you expect someone to sweep their home community, but she didn’t do that.”

Now that the election is over and the northwest is painted green for the foreseeable future Coates again re-iterated the responsibility of the government to respond in a good way.

“They have written off these areas for a very long time and now hopefully they see an opening and maybe they will grab it.”

(PHOTO: Dr. Ken Coates)