HAPPY VALLEY-GOOSE BAY, N.L. — Peter Penashue stares at a map of Labrador in his byelection campaign office and traces a line through Happy Valley-Goose Bay in the centre, north to Voisey’s Bay and remote Nain.
He figures communities in that vast swath of what’s called The Big Land represent his best shot at getting back to Ottawa as Labrador MP in a byelection May 13.
Penashue, who resigned last month over illegal donations accepted in the 2011 federal campaign, openly declares that southern shore towns, such as Cartwright and Red Bay, will go to Liberal challenger Yvonne Jones.
Farther west in Labrador City and Wabush, NDP candidate Harry Borlase may have an edge, he said.
But in an increasingly personal and nasty campaign, Penashue is certain that recent polls suggesting a wide lead for Jones don’t reflect what he hears from voters.
“There’s no question the polls are telling us one thing and the door-to-door visits are telling us another,” he said in an interview.
“There’s a lot of support at the door. People like what I’ve done for Labrador and people like the representation I’ve given Labrador.”
The former Innu Nation grand chief made history as the first Innu person to sit at the federal cabinet table, representing a riding that had carried Liberal colours in almost every election since 1949. Penashue has repeatedly touted benefits such as funding for the Trans-Labrador Highway and the retention of federal jobs — sometimes at Newfoundland’s expense — that he says were won with that influence.
Labradorians have a choice, he likes to say: a voice in government for the next two years or another loud but ineffectual opposition member.
Penashue concedes that many voters want to know how his campaign could have accepted 28 separate illegal donations in 2011. They were on top of non-monetary contributions from two airlines that flew him around the far-flung riding.
Labrador sprawls across a rocky stretch of the eastern Canadian Shield that’s more than twice the size of Newfoundland but has an estimated population of just 30,000.
Penashue blamed his former official agent for those mistakes, but says he took responsibility by stepping down as intergovernmental affairs minister. He now has a campaign manager separate from an official agent whose focus is on ensuring that all expenses “are on the up-and-up,” he said.
Penashue almost made it through an hour-long candidates’ debate earlier this week without having to rehash the spending issues that cost him his job. He himself raised the matter of ethics, accusing Jones of refusing to repay “tens of thousands of dollars.”
Jones, a 17-year legislature veteran, repaid in full by January 2009 just over $12,000 in double-billings, according to an auditor general’s report. They were among dozens of illegitimate expense claims caught in an earlier audit that revealed lax spending oversight in the provincial house of assembly.
Jones lambasted Penashue’s accusations as “lies.” She stressed that she was never criminally charged, as were other legislature members of all political stripes.
The former provincial Liberal leader has gone after Penashue for keeping quiet in the House of Commons as other ministers defended his election spending.
“What I’m hearing mostly from people is they want to have someone who’s going to serve them and not serve a government in Ottawa,” Jones, who campaigned in the riding this week with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, said in a recent interview.
“They want someone who’s going to speak up for them and for their issues that are important to them. They see a lot of progress that could be happening in Labrador but ... Labrador has not been the focus for Peter Penashue. Nor has it been the focus for the Harper government.”
NDP hopeful Borlase said it’s exactly this kind of mud-slinging “old-style politics” that he hopes to replace.
“We don’t play that game,” he said of an NDP Official Opposition that “will likely form the next government.”
Borlase doesn’t accept Penashue’s electoral geography assessments, either. Labrador West has traditionally been NDP-friendly, but he believes voters in other parts of the riding want a new political option.
“We’re not actually hearing much about Justin (Trudeau), to be honest,” he said of the charismatic new Liberal leader’s visit this week.
“Voters are more interested in actually hearing about the issues.”