Progressive Conservatives hoping for a breakthrough in northwestern Ontario

Could electricity prices end the provincial Tories’ three-decade shutout in the northwest?
By Jon Thompson - Published on Jul 21, 2017
Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown, seen here with Odena Foods owner Kent Maijala, visits Kakabeka Falls, 30 minutes west of Thunder Bay. (Jon Thompson)

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KAKABEKA FALLS — The roaring Kaministiquia River crossing the crest of the 40-metre-high Kakabeka Falls is among northwestern Ontario’s premier tourist attractions. While most visitors come for the sights, Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown stopped by this week because he sees political opportunity.

The waterfall — one of Ontario’s tallest — is located 30 minutes west of Thunder Bay and is directly below a 25-megawatt hydroelectric generation project. In town, the grocery store has seen its June hydro bill increase 20 per cent over last year.

With his shirt’s top button undone and his sleeves rolled up, Brown walked through Odena Foods on Monday, offering northwestern Ontarians a narrative he believes will win his party its first seat in the region in three decades.

Brown used the term “hydro crisis” to combine northern frustration with rising energy costs and accusations of Liberal mismanagement under the Green Energy Act. As friends of the Liberal party have benefited from lucrative contracts, he alleged, Ontario has given away $6 billion in surplus energy to other jurisdictions since 2009 — all while “spilling” (or not using the electricity generated from) the fruits of green hydroelectric dams in the north. Families, he concluded, are left to pick up the tab.

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It’s the same message that won Ross Romano a June by-election in Sault Ste. Marie in northeastern Ontario, making him that riding’s first Progressive Conservative MPP since 1981.

“I think what we saw in Sault Ste. Marie is the tip of the iceberg,” Brown told reporters. 

“People asked me why we connected with voters in Sault Ste. Marie — in northern Ontario — where the party hasn’t before. I said, ‘Because we fought for issues that will make life easier for families.’”

This was Brown’s seventh stop in the Thunder Bay area and his 25th visit to northern Ontario since becoming party leader in May 2015. The attention is buoying hopes among regional PC organizers that Brown’s leadership will finally tap into northwestern Ontario’s political culture and break the party’s persistent regional shutout.

The last time the PCs represented Kakabeka Falls was between 1977 and 1987 under former Olympic boxer and Montreal Canadiens scout Michael “Mickey” Hennessy, who served the Fort William riding. 

John Henderson was 26 years old when he became president of Hennessy’s riding association. When Henderson ran under Mike Harris in 1999, the party had departed from the red Tory message that had defined its local popularity. Henderson garnered only 19 per cent of the Thunder Bay–Atikokan vote, losing to former Liberal leader Lyn McLeod, who had unseated Hennessy 12 years earlier.

Henderson sees fertile ground for the PC message in Thunder Bay’s changing employment landscape. Investments the Harris government made — including the regional hospital and medical school — have accompanied reduced industrial employment in the traditionally blue-collar city. Manufacturing sector workers, who have been a base for the NDP, now earn far above the median income.

The Thunder Bay–Superior North PC Riding Association president believes Brown can speak to the interests of workers in a way the urban PC party apparatus has failed to in the past.

“Patrick gets the north and I think part of the machine in Toronto underappreciated us,” Henderson said. “They’d come up and say things, and I’d put my hands over my eyes and say, ‘No, that’s not correct, and if you’d talked to some of us in the north, we could have given you better information than what you had out of Toronto.’ I don’t see that with Patrick.”

The PCs haven’t represented any of northwestern Ontario’s three ridings since Hennessy and Rainy River MPP Jack Pierce were defeated in 1987. The NDP has held the changing configurations of the Kenora–Rainy River riding for 30 years under Howard Hampton and later Sarah Campbell. The Thunder Bay area has sent Liberal MPPs Michael Gravelle and Bill Mauro to Queen’s Park every election since 1995 and 2003, respectively. Both men plan to seek re-election in 2018, while Campbell has yet to declare.

Laure Paquette is a professor in Lakehead University's political science department. She's not convinced Brown's leadership will tilt the playing field enough for the PCs to capture the long-sought seats of the northwest, even with the energy message front and centre.

"Until Gravelle retires, he has a lock on it. There's no question. I've always thought Thunder Bay–Atikokan is vulnerable for the Liberals, but they're vulnerable to the NDP," Paquette said.

"With hydro, [Brown] is pushing on the right issue, but I don't know if it will be enough. He'll have to speak to the regional concerns, and let's just say I can't remember him talking about northwestern Ontario issues."

Fort Frances-based Tannis Drysdale has been involved in every conservative campaign since 1995. The PC northern region past vice-president saw “real efforts” made to design detailed northern policy under Mike Harris (who represented the northeastern Ontario riding of Nipissing) and again under Tim Hudak in 2011. However, when Hudak ran again in 2014 on a platform of cutting public-sector jobs, she saw a policy “whiplash” that abandoned northern planning. In contrast, she said, “Patrick invests heavily in victory.

“We saw in Sault Ste. Marie, he understands the dynamics of crafting messages for northern Ontario. He attends ridings with enormous regularity. He’s not just a fictional character who shows up at election time. ”

When retired Lakehead  president Fred Gilbert ran for the Tories in 2011 and collected 22 per cent of the Thunder Bay–Atikokan vote, it was the highest vote percentage of any PC candidate in the region since the ridings were realigned in 1999. He recalled his candidacy was hampered by steadfast anti-elitism in the political culture, along with anger toward the federal Conservatives led by Stephen Harper and the legacy of the provincial Harris government. He believes there’s a timeless quality to that skepticism.

“There was a lot of residual resentment to the Harris years — particularly what he did to the teachers — and I got a lot of that at the door … People don’t forget in Thunder Bay.”

Derek Parks has vowed the PCs wouldn’t forget northern Ontario in 2018. In the absence of a local PC candidate, the Cambridge-based environmental consultant ran in Thunder Bay–Superior North in 2014, despite his not having lived in the north for more than two decades.

Parks felt alone in an election without a sincere northern focus. He heard Hudak speaking about issues and positions on which northern candidates hadn’t been briefed. When Hudak refused to participate in the northern leaders’ debate, Parks said he’d learned about it from the news. At that moment, he knew his campaign was finished, and he started planning for 2018.

“Most of the people surrounding Tim Hudak needed to go,” he said. “We’d lost three elections and Patrick Brown brought a fresh face to provincial politics coming from the federal level. I was there to upset the apple cart.”

Parks accepted the regional vice-presidency torch from Drysdale and was one of the first to endorse Brown as leader. He has since moved home to Thunder Bay, and as he builds his bid for his party’s 2018 nomination, he sees Brown and the PCs as having crafted a political message that will resonate with northwestern voters at last.

“People feel upset with the current government and they’re willing to look at alternatives. Governments aren’t voted in — they’re voted out,” he said.

“The debacle of the Green Energy Act and this adjustment fee is a bleak void that all the mistakes of this government get sucked into.”

Energy will likely be a central campaign plank for all the major parties in next year’s election. In just under a year, Ontarians will see whether Brown’s message on this file will be enough to end the cold shoulder his party’s received from northwestern Ontario for most of his life.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

CORRECTION: This piece originally stated that Lyn McLeod was leader of the Liberal Party in 1999. In reality, by that time she had stepped down as leader and been replaced by Dalton McGuinty. TVO regrets the error. 

Related: The countdown to Ontario election 2018

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