EBB AND FLOW FIRST NATION -- If the political tide in Manitoba is going to turn on Oct. 4, the current will have to sweep over the sprawling Interlake, a riding held by the New Democratic Party since 1981.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/9/2011 (3682 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Conservative candidate Steve Lupky sees the aboriginal vote as up for grabs this election.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Conservative candidate Steve Lupky sees the aboriginal vote as up for grabs this election.

EBB AND FLOW FIRST NATION -- If the political tide in Manitoba is going to turn on Oct. 4, the current will have to sweep over the sprawling Interlake, a riding held by the New Democratic Party since 1981.

Long regarded as a constituency where Progressive Conservatives go to die, Interlake is in play this year due to a combination of boundary redistribution, the devastating 2011 flood and a game-changing gaffe by three-term NDP incumbent Tom Nevakshonoff at a meeting of flood-affected property owners in June.

"I'm sorry that everybody is being inconvenienced, but this is Mother Nature at her worst and it could be worse," Nevakshonoff told an assembly in Lundar, referring to the fatalities caused by natural disasters in Japan and the Mississippi River corridor.

The 12-year MLA apologized, but the Tories have played up the comment ever since in the hope MPI adjuster and former Arborg councillor Steve Lupky can capitalize on widespread resentment over the provincial response to this year's flood.

Much of the riding is affected, from the shores of Lake Manitoba to the Shoal lakes, Lake St. Martin, the Fisher and Icelandic rivers and thousands of hectares of flooded Interlake cattle ranches. Interlake flood evacuees are so numerous this fall, they have their own advance polling stations in Winnipeg, Gimli and other communities.

"I don't think people blame the NDP for the water. But from what I hear, they don't like the way they've handled it," Lupky said earlier this week in the Interlake town of Eriksdale, where Tory leader Hugh McFadyen made a campaign stop. "I don't think they've really listened or treated people with respect."

photos by MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 
NDP incumbent Tom Nevakshonoff made comments during a meeting of property owners that upset some of his constituents in the Interlake riding.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

photos by MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS NDP incumbent Tom Nevakshonoff made comments during a meeting of property owners that upset some of his constituents in the Interlake riding.

Manitoba's New Democrats expected the flood to hurt them this year. But the party didn't envision a close battle in Interlake, a riding that played a prominent role in their defeat of Gary Filmon's Progressive Conservatives in 1999.

The Interlake, where more than half the population is aboriginal, was the site of both a failed Tory plot to split the First Nations vote in 1995 and an equally fruitless Tory smear campaign against Nevakshonoff in 1999.

The incumbent said he believes his Ojibway, Cree and Métis constituents will never forget these dirty tricks. "It was despicable. It was the absolute low point in the Manitoba electoral history," said Nevakshonoff outside the band office at Ebb and Flow First Nation, where NDP volunteers were pulling votes.

The Tories see the passage of time differently. "It's 2011. People are different. I'm different," Lupky said.

Several Interlake aboriginal communities are also heavily flood-affected, including Peguis, Ebb and Flow and Lake St. Martin First Nations. Last week, Peguis and Ebb and Flow launched flood-related lawsuits against Ottawa, the province and Manitoba Hydro.

"I think First Nations are wide open this election, as far as who they're looking at voting for," Lupky said.

But Nevakshonoff cautioned against the assumption all flood-affected voters will turn their backs on the NDP. "People are fairly sophisticated. They know this was a complex disaster," he said before turning the tables on the Tories. "They were out of the loop on the flood from the beginning. If you remember back in January, when we were preparing to spend money to fight the flood, Conservatives said we were grandstanding."

Tory and NDP strategists both say they're having trouble getting a bead on Interlake, given the sparse population density in a riding that stretches from Twin Lakes Beach to Matheson Island to Gypsumville. But the closeness of the race was betrayed by visits this week by both McFadyen and NDP Leader Greg Selinger.

If the flood does affect the ballot result, the NDP won't blame it on Nevakshonoff's comments.

"The effect is minimal," said NDP strategist Michael Balagus. "It's more the legacy of five years under water. There are people in the Interlake who have not been able to get a crop in this year."

Also running in the Interlake are Liberal Albert Ratt and independent John Zasitko, who held the Tory nomination for the riding until he was dismissed by the party in February.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Battleground: Interlake

2007 election results

-- Tom Nevakshonoff (NDP): 4,047

-- Garry Wasylowski (PC): 2,445

-- Franklin Swark (Liberal): 309