‘We are not enemies’: Northern Liberal candidate defends leaving Sask. New Democrats ahead of federal election

“Shouldn't he be wondering why he jumped over to the Liberals if he doesn't want to split the vote?” NDP candidate Harmonie King

Buckley Belanger defended resigning from his long-held position as NDP MLA for the provincial riding of Athabasca in order to run for the federal Liberals in northern Saskatchewan. 

He responded after being confronted with comments made by federal NDP candidate Harmonie King criticizing his decision to ‘buck’ the provincial riding for Team Trudeau.

“I won’t disparage my former colleagues in any way. I think it is really important that as I left the NDP caucus the maturity and the appreciation of all the caucus members was tremendous,”  Belanger said. 

“They thanked me for my 24 years of service as an NDP MLA, and they wished me very well. So there was no animosity in the separation. Every single caucus member there knew the reason why we’re doing this, and that they thought that my ambition was honourable.” 

Buckley Belanger, pictured here during the 2019 NDP convention in Prince Albert. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Belanger said vote splitting between Liberals and NDP supporters is keeping a left-leaning riding Conservative and asked residents to show a united front under the Liberal banner.  

“Two thirds of the riding are Indigenous people and Indigenous people do not support Conservatives. Conservatives want us to fight. This only helps the Conservatives,” Belanger said. 

“I’m just asking folks within the NDP to please lend me your vote. We’ve got the experience and we’ve got the ability to hit the ground running. We will really make a difference in northern Saskatchewan and I think a lot of New Democrats understand that.”

But King said Belanger is the one splitting the vote by running for the Liberals. She said northern Saskatchewan is traditionally NDP and that despite Belanger’s assertions, grassroots New Democrats were disappointed by his flip to the grits. She also noted that Athabasca residents don’t currently have a voice in the Saskatchewan legislature because Belanger left.

“Quite frankly, a lot of people are very disappointed and there have been a lot of strong NDP supporters (who have) voiced their concerns about Buckley switching over to the Liberals when he was a NDP MLA for Saskatchewan’s northwest residents,” King said. 

“Shouldn’t he be wondering why he jumped over to the Liberals if he doesn’t want to split the vote?”

Federal NDP candidate for northern Saskatchewan Harmonie King. Photo courtesy of Harmonie King

King was also critical of Belanger’s assertion that there’s “significant opportunity” to bring prosperity to the north by working within the federal Liberal government instead of against it — as he contends the Conservatives are doing.

She said that an NDP MP would be just as effective as a Liberal one in Ottawa and that the Liberals are running on a platform the NDP developed. 

“How is Buckley going to the Liberal Party going to be able to bring those issues forward even more than what people have been saying for the past 20 years?” King asked.

“It’s not that I am incapable or that the NDP is incapable of advocating for these services. We’re the ones that are coming up with this stuff. We’re the ones promoting health care. We’ve been promoting a whole bunch of different things.” 

King also criticized the Liberals for not delivering on past campaign promises and questioned whether the party of Justin Trudeau can be trusted when it makes commitments. 

“They know about these issues, they’ve heard about these issues. What have they done?” King asked.  “You have people giving out promises but are they delivering? They promised to solve the water issue for First Nations, but did they do that? No, they didn’t.”

King said that if elected the NDP would make good on its campaign promises and would advocate “just like any party” on behalf of the riding.

Belanger compared switching to the Liberals with making a friendly trade in ice hockey.

“It’s like being part of a hockey team. I asked for a trade and I got the trade. I’m going to work hard for my team and I haven’t changed my values or my principles,” Belanger said.

“My new team certainly has proven that they are putting significant resources into northern communities — including First Nations communities. We see that evident through things like housing.”

Belanger said the unkept promise to end drinking water advisories in the region are “being worked on as we speak ” but acknowledged there’s more work to be done.  

Justin Trudeau speaks at a campaign rally turned town hall in Saskatoon 2019. (Jason Kerr/Prince Albert Daily Herald)

The veteran politician, who started his career as Liberal and then switched to NDP 24 years ago, has never lost an election. He said he gave up the job as MLA for Athabasca at great personal risk to make his pitch for a Liberal north. 

“I’m leaving three years of a good job on the table. I gave up my dream to be the longest serving MLA ever — that I was looking at accomplishing,” Belanger said. “So, it’s a huge risk, but the risk is worth it. If not, then at the very least we’re giving people that choice.”

Belanger said it will be up to Premier Scott Moe to call a bi-election within a matter of months for the Athabasca riding and that he’s running federally on the behalf of those same constituents. 

“It’s for the people. We’re trying to pay it forward for the folks that gave us all that support over the years. I think they deserve this opportunity,” Belanger said.

“The federal Liberals are making some significant investments into northern Saskatchewan.”

He said Liberals and the NDP have more in common than not and promised that New Democrats should take a strategic approach to oust Conservative incumbent Gary Vidal.

“Philosophically, the NDP and liberals are not that far apart. They can on occasion strategically support each other. You and I know that there are a lot of federal Liberals who will vote NDP provincially. There’s a lot of provincial New Democrats who vote Liberal federally,” Belanger said. 

“So my point to the people within NDP circles is to lend me your vote because we fully intend to pay you back on that loan. Let’s unite. Let’s get together and let’s bring some solutions and opportunities for the people. Because we are not enemies.”