Her experience as a Liberal MLA and finding our firsthand how difficult it was to get the province to do anything for the Keewatinook riding made deciding to switch into federal politics easy for Churchill-Keewationook Aski Liberal candidate Judy Klassen.
“I took care of 14 First Nations in my riding and then Churchill and Gillam and trying to get anything from the province was really hard,” Klassen said Sept. 17 in Thompson.
Infrastructure improvements that did occur were funded by the federal government.
“We’ve got eight schools coming into the provincial riding of Keewatinook and that’s not all like a last-minute promise,” Klassen said. “They delivered four packages this past winter road season and the next one will be coming up again in the upcoming winter road season.”
The prospect of taking on the NDP candidate Niki Ashton, who has represented Churchill-Keewatinook Aski since it was created in 2015 and before that, its predecessor riding of Churchill since 2008, doesn’t faze Klassen either, as her political career got started with a big upset.
“Our riding was NDP ever since we got the right to vote, for Keewatinook, [and its predecessor] Rupertsland,” Klassen says. “I was the first-ever Liberal to hold that seat and I took it away from somebody that had 23 years under his belt and was actually a sitting minister.”
Klassen, who is from St. Theresa Point, said she also has an advantage that 2015 Liberal candidate Rebecca Chartrand, who came close to unseating Ashton, didn’t.
“She wasn’t from the riding,” Klassen says. “I’m an Island Laker. I grew up in that. Grew up hauling my own water and no flushing toilets and mouldy schools and stuff like that. Just knowing these issues were there, growing up in them not realizing they weren’t actually being addressed.”
Klassen has started her campaign with door-knocking in First Nations – Churchill-Keewatinook Aski is 75 per cent Indigenous – and in Thompson and surrounding communities. She is participating in the Assembly of Manitoba Chief’s I’m First Nation & I Vote candidates’ forum in Thompson Sept. 19.
“I can go to any door and I’m able to sit at those kitchen tables and rather than trying to give out handouts I try to empower people,” Klassen says. “I’ve lived and breathed and gone through what my fellow relations have gone through and there is a bit of an automatic trust in that they know that I will do my best for them.”
Part of the challenge for any candidate in a riding like Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, which has the highest child poverty rate of any of Canada’s 338 ridings and is one of the largest ridings in the country, is encouraging residents to vote, since turnout is usually low.
Klassen says this is partly due to ignorance about the electoral system, something she experienced upon entering politics.
“When I was asked to run as an MLA I said yes right away to the person who called me and then I hung up the phone and Google searched what an MLA was,” Klassen recalls. “We’re not taught this in school. It’s not part of the curriculum. The right to vote, the need to vote and that each vote matters and so I was working with [PC MLA] Ian [Wishart] when he was education minister to try and see if he could add that into the curriculum but of course there’s certain people that like to keep ignorance alive. My way of working around that is … I tell them again, teach them personally every door, door-to-door in the First Nations communities. It’s not so much pronounced in Thompson. People know that their vote matters, they know that they can vote and all that, but we’ve got to definitely get out of the status quo.”
Although the Liberals having been the government for the past four years has led some who supported them in 2015 to become disillusioned by their performance, Klassen says she doesn’t feel the party’s brand is tarnished.
“A lot of the doors I’ve been knocking on they’re pro Liberal and still pro Liberal which is very reassuring,” she says.
The federal election is Oct. 21.