Melissa Atkinson: the prosecutor

Melissa Atkinson is orange right down to the tips of her fingers. Literally. The federal NDP candidate has painted her fingernails orange for this election.

Melissa Atkinson is orange right down to the tips of her fingers. Literally. The federal NDP candidate has painted her fingernails orange for this election.

The political newcomer has worked hard to brand herself during this campaign, bringing up Thomas Mulcair and the need for change whenever possible.

“I just thought something has to change,” she said of her reason for seeking the NDP nomination this summer. “The real vision of change in looking to the future would be an NDP vote.”

Atkinson is big on catchphrases – she’s been “thrown under the omnibus” countless times, and regularly bemoans the “Un-Fair Elections Act.”

Her campaign faces one big challenge in differentiating her party’s platform from that of the Liberals. To that end, she’s spent a lot of time plugging her party’s plan for $15-a-day child care and a $15 minimum wage for federal workers.

But on key issues that have come up again and again during campaign debates, she and Liberal candidate Larry Bagnell have said essentially the same thing. They would both repeal the four offending clauses of Bill S-6. They would both launch an inquiry for missing and murdered aboriginal women. Both parties have promised electoral reform and to move the retirement age back from 67 to 65.

And when Northwest Territories NDP MP Dennis Bevington released the party’s plan for the North last week, Atkinson did little to promote it. The plan is one of the NDP’s only commitments that is specific to the territories. It promises $200 million for northern roads, bridges and ports, $100 million for renewable energy development in northern and remote communities, and improvements to the Nutrition North food subsidy program.

Atkinson has said $54 million is earmarked for infrastructure spending in the Yukon over the first four years of an NDP government, but she hasn’t been very vocal about it.

She’s had to come up to speed quickly as a political contender. Atkinson is the only one of the four candidates with no prior political experience, and she was nominated months after Bagnell and Green candidate Frank de Jong. Even as the campaign draws to a close, she still seems to be growing into the role. “Just being recognized is… a weird thing for me,” she said, referring to kids approaching her and asking for selfies.

During the first campaign debate at Yukon College, Atkinson came out swinging at Conservative candidate Ryan Leef. She maintains that a man in her position would not have been accused of being too angry.

“If a man does that, well, he’s the boss, he’s assertive, he’s getting the job done,” she said.

Atkinson is no stranger to overcoming hurdles. Born and raised in Whitehorse, she is a member of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation and became the Yukon’s first aboriginal Crown prosecutor in 2002.

She said she was inspired to pursue law in high school after watching tanks roll on to Mohawk territory during the Oka crisis in Quebec.

“I was just flabbergasted when I saw that,” she said. “And I knew the best way to combat that would be education.”

She worked as chair of the Yukon Human Rights Commission from 2004 to 2010, when she decided to switch from Crown prosecution to legal aid.

That history of representing Yukoners, she said, is what gives her the experience she needs to be an MP. “I never picked who I got to act for…. Knowing what it means to advocate on behalf of a client is a very powerful tool.”

Recently, Atkinson’s team has tried to position her as the logical choice for strategic voters. And a recent poll showed her with 29 per cent support, a large increase over her party’s results in 2011.

Still, she trailed Bagnell by 10 points in the poll. Strategic voting websites are recommending the Liberal party as the best choice for the Yukon, and the territory’s chiefs are calling for their citizens to vote accordingly to oust the Conservatives.

But Atkinson maintains that she’s “in it to win it.” And even if she doesn’t, she said, she’ll consider running again next time around.

“What are they going to do with all the signs with my giant head on them?” she joked.

“I’m going to be living in the Yukon. I’ll die in the Yukon. I’m not going anywhere.”

Contact Maura Forrest at