Inuit elder running as independent hopes to challenge party politics in N.L.

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Jim Learning voted in a provincial election for the first time in his life Thursday, and the 80-year-old says he cast his advance ballot for the only candidate he was confident supporting: himself.

"I've never voted in a Newfoundland election before, because I've never agreed with the government," Learning said by phone, laughing. "But this time I voted, because I'm voting for me."

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The Inuit elder, well-known for his opposition to the Muskrat Falls hydro project, has thrown his hat in the ring for a seat in Newfoundland and Labrador's May 16 provincial election. He's running as an independent candidate in Labrador's Lake Melville district, facing off against Tory hopeful Shannon Tobin and Liberal incumbent Perry Trimper, who has been Speaker since 2017. Learning never saw himself running for office, but he says bringing the region's concerns directly to the legislature is one way to break the cycle of party politics.

The established parties haven't invested in strengthening Labrador's communities, he argues, despite years of extracting its resources. He considers his run for office a natural extension of his advocacy. "It's kind of like, you got into one part, it led you to another part, so now you have to finish the fight," he said. "And it seems to me it winds up back on the floor of the House of Assembly."

Learning said an independent candidate who doesn't have to toe the party line is best suited to advocate for a region with a small population. "Here in Labrador, we're the periphery," he said. "Nobody pays attention to us because it's extraction, extraction, extraction, not building us. We need to be built, and that's my fight, and our fight." If elected, Learning hopes to improve access to health care and improve transportation and infrastructure to build up tourism opportunities. And he plans to continue to take the government to task over Muskrat Falls. He's a longtime opponent of the project, which has drawn strong opposition and protests over the threat of flooding and methylmercury poisoning in local wild food sources. The project's excessive cost and schedule overruns are now the subject of an ongoing public inquiry. Learning has been arrested and jailed for his opposition to the project. Last May, he was detained in Ottawa after a demonstration on Parliament Hill.

Despite all this, Learning said running for office within a system he has fought is easy to explain. "We have to make ourselves felt. Not just heard — felt," he said. "That's what we've done fighting Muskrat Falls. If you're not going to talk to my people, they're going to come here and talk to you." It's never easy for an independent going up against established parties, but Learning said he has been fielding phone calls from people excited to have him on the ballot. He said he's sensing enthusiasm from "disaffected voters" ready for change. Learning's anti-party sentiment has been echoed across the province in the lead-up to this provincial election, as voters express frustrations with the status quo and a poor economic outlook. There are nine independent candidates running this spring, and the new NL Alliance party is also on the ballot in nine ridings. Formed by former Progressive Conservative party president Graydon Pelley, the NL Alliance party has presented itself as a collaborative alternative to old-style party politics. Learning acknowledged it would be a challenge to make his constituents' voices heard on the House floor within the established party system. "Change has to come from without," he said. "I'm the without part, I think, and every other independent is as well." He never imagined entering politics at 80, but living alone with his family grown and moved away, Learning said the time is right.

"All of a sudden, I just became the person with nothing to lose," he said. "That's my power as an individual, but real power comes from the people."

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