By Nick Pearce
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Longtime Athabasca NDP MLA Buckley Belanger is resigning his seat in the provincial legislature to seek the nomination for the federal Liberal Party.
If successful in his bid, Belanger will run in Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River, which is currently held by Conservative MP Gary Vidal.
In a surprise announcement, Belanger said switching parties reflects an opportunity to “get things done for the people of northern Saskatchewan.”
He will step down from his MLA role effective Aug. 15.
While the government has not yet requested that the governor general dissolve Parliament and send Canadians to the polls, that is widely expected to happen later this month, culminating in a September vote.
Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River has flipped parties regularly in the past and was held by former La Loche mayor Georgina Jolibois before Vidal won the seat in 2019.
The last time a Liberal held the seat was from 2006 to 2007 when Gary Merasty was the area’s MP.
In the last federal election, the Liberal Party attempted to steal the seat with a high profile candidacy from Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson. She finished third with 26.5 per cent of the votes behind Jolibois (28.4) and Vidal (42.3).
Belanger told Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili about his decision on Friday night, said a party spokesman said. Caucus was informed Saturday morning.
“We’re sorry to see Mr. Belanger leave our caucus and are grateful for his service as Saskatchewan’s longest-serving Indigenous MLA,” Meili said in a prepared statement. He pledged to focus “on making sure there is a strong voice” to take Belanger’s place.
On Twitter, Premier Scott Moe thanked Belanger for his time as an MLA, nodding to his “fiery speeches, his good nature (and) his sense of humour in the Assembly.”
Belanger was first elected as MLA in 1995 and has served as minister under the portfolios of northern affairs; environment; community resources; and highways and transportation under premiers Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert.
He previously served as mayor of Ile-a-la Crosse from 1988 to 1994.
Belanger cited the federal response to COVID-19 in northern communities as a key factor in joining the Liberals after years as an NDP MLA. Pointing to the three-way splits that have previously occurred in Desnethe_Missinippi_Churchill River, he asked voters to rally behind his candidacy and “stop the split.”
“Having a voice in Ottawa will certainly help alleviate some of the stresses and challenges that we face in northern Saskatchewan,” he said.
Nick Pearce is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of THE STARPHOENIX . The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.