Byelection candidates in northern Manitoba riding hope to bring prosperity, renewal to communities

A northern Manitoba constituency that has historically leaned New Democrat only has two challengers vying for the seat in this week’s byelection.

Progressive Conservative Charlotte Larocque said people in the Thompson riding would be better represented by her, a voice within government. 

But Eric Redhead said the PCs have left the health-care system “dilapidated” and only the NDP will prioritize the North.

On Tuesday, voters will decide.

The byelection between Larocque, the former president of the Thompson Chamber of Commerce, and Redhead, the former chief of Shamattawa First Nation, will fill the seat left vacant following the death of the NDP’s Danielle Adams, who died in a highway crash last December. The Liberals decided against contesting the race in tribute to Adams. 

Danielle Adams served as the NDP’s critic for child care, housing, disability and poverty matters. (Submitted by Manitoba NDP)

The NDP has won the seat in all but two elections since 1969. Steve Ashton was the riding’s MLA for more than 30 years until he was defeated in 2016 by Kelly Bindle of the PCs. Bindle lasted one term in the office. In 2019, Adams won the race with a margin of victory of 19 percentage points. 

Both candidates say they’ve experienced the ups and downs of life in northern Manitoba, and they’re the best equipped to advance the region. 

Hauling water was way of life: Redhead

Growing up in Shamattawa, a remote fly-in community, Redhead said he was surrounded by social and family issues. He remembers hauling buckets of water from the river because he lived without running water.

“At the time, you don’t realize that what you’re living through isn’t normal,” Redhead said.

He said he’s long worked to make life better for people, whether it was through jobs in health care or in crisis response.

It prepared him for becoming chief of Shamattawa First Nation when he pleaded for military help — and got it — for a crisis in which roughly a third of the on-reserve population of 1,300 had COVID-19.

He said he learned to negotiate with other levels of government to get what’s needed. He pressed for military help, built  28 homes with federal funding and advocated for a water treatment plant that’ll permanently end the boil water advisories running on and off for years.

Eric Redhead, centre right, with his children. The NDP candidate in the Thompson byelection said the legislature would be well represented with his voice. (Submitted by Manitoba NDP)

“I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish as chief. All the promises I’ve made, I’ve set out and completed those,” Redhead said.

“I thought it was time to move on to a higher level and advocate on a whole different level.”

Redhead said health care is top of mind after speaking with voters in every community during his campaign.

“They feel as though it’s dilapidated,” he said, and lamented a high nurse vacancy rate and the story of a woman who needed to pay $2,000 out of pocket to get to Winnipeg and access an abortion. 

He said highway safety and the cost of living are other top priorities. 

“I know under a new NDP government that the North will get what it deserves.”

Learning from the past

Redhead said he is a changed man since he was charged in 2006 with assault against his former partner, in which he was granted an absolute discharge (a finding of guilt but no conviction is registered). Several months later, he was again charged with assault but those charges were stayed.

All provincial election candidates in Manitoba are required to disclose if they have committed an offence under the Criminal Code.

“I do not have a criminal record. I did seek restorative justice and I took counselling for many, many months. Through that process, I gained skills, I’ve learned things that I should have learned growing up, but I didn’t. And since then, I’ve been better for it.”

Redhead said he and his former partner now have a good relationship.

Larocque said voters should decide for themselves if Redhead’s past matters to them.

She wants voters to consider which candidate can make an immediate difference in their lives, she said.

“This is a byelection; it’s not going to change the party in power. It would be better to have a voice at the decision-making table rather than having somebody across the room fighting against them.”

She’s been impressed by the PC government’s approach to getting projects done through inclusivity. She cited a Lynn Lake mining project in which the community, First Nation partners and other government levels all have a say. 

Charlotte Larocque, bottom right, alongside members of her family. Her pitch to voters in the Thompson byelection is their voice will be better represented with herself at the caucus table, rather than another MLA in the Opposition. (Charlotte Larocque/Facebook)

One day before the byelection was called, the PCs joined other levels of government in pledging $15 million for a new aquatic centre for Thompson.

A business owner with experience in human resources and team empowerment, Larocque said she has noticed that economic development, health care and road improvements have all fallen behind.

She wouldn’t cast blame on any one individual or government, but said she’s running to “create the prosperity that I know is there,” citing mining as one example.

Seeing the challenges first-hand

Larocque, who ran for the federal Conservatives in the 2021 election in northern Manitoba, said government ministers have made a point of visiting the North and she would be eager, as MLA, to show them around.

“I want them to know what I’m talking about when I say, ‘This community has no drinking water. This community needs housing.’ 

“When you see somebody with two toddlers and a big hole in their door and it’s –40 C and the snow coming, that’s no way to live … I have my fingers crossed and I’m hoping voters make an intelligent choice, and that we can actually create that positive change.”

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