Sudbury's bribery trial was a crisis for the Ontario government — but local voters may not care

A Liberal backroom deal made national headlines last year, but many Sudbury residents say the Election Act trial is old news in the city
By Claude Sharma - Published on June 4, 2018
a large nickel on top of a building in Sudbury
Liberal MPPs have represented the city with an iconic Big Nickel for 23 years with only one brief interruption. (Mark Spowart/CP)

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SUDBURY — Over the last four years, a series of unusual events have made the riding of Sudbury an interesting one to watch, and not just for locals: headlines about behind-the-scenes politics — and a resulting trial — have reached across the province.

Sudbury has the third-largest population of northern Ontario’s 13 ridings. It has been Liberal red for the past 23 years, minus a brief (but consequential) interruption by the NDP. Recent polls suggest that the New Democrats are leading in northern Ontario with days to go until the June 7 election; Sudbury looks to be a riding in play.

What makes the contest for Sudbury so heated? Some background (which is available in more detail here): in 2014, Rick Bartolucci retired after serving nearly 20 years as Liberal MPP for Sudbury. Voters elected New Democrat Joe Cimino to the seat in the general election later that year. Cimino then stepped down after just five months, citing personal health and family reasons.

A byelection had to be called. Glenn Thibeault, who had represented Sudbury federally as an NDP MP, defected to the provincial Liberals and was the party’s star candidate in its attempt to win back the riding. The gambit succeeded: Thibeault defeated the second-place New Democrat in a February 2015 byelection, 41 per cent to 35.

The victory brought unintended consequences for the Liberals, however. Andrew Olivier, who had been the Liberal candidate in the 2014 general election, alleged that two party organizers had offered him a job or political appointment in exchange for stepping aside in the nomination contest to make way for Thibeault. Businessman Gerry Lougheed Jr and Pat Sorbara, deputy chief of staff to the premier, were charged with bribery under the Election Act. A number of high-profile witnesses testified at a trial last September, including Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne. The following month, a judge acquitted Lougheed and Sorbara, citing a lack of evidence.

Todd Robson, a strategic communications consultant in Sudbury, says the trial left a bad taste in the mouths of local voters, which could hurt the Liberals’ chances in the riding.

"The mess that led to the nomination scandal really pulled back the curtain on the ugly side of politics [that] few are ever truly exposed to,” Robson says. “It can be downright cruel. Everyone says that politics is dirty and is a true blood sport and that backroom deals occur in every party; and it's true, I've seen it.”

But that doesn’t mean the public likes it.

“I think the scandal resonates across the province and the country. People are sick and tired of lying politicians, backdoor deals and all the corruption,” says Troy Crowder, the Progressive Conservative candidate for Sudbury.

A political rookie who is known to the public as a former NHL tough guy, Crowder hopes to turn the riding blue for the first time in three decades. And while he is happy to talk about last year’s trial, creating jobs and boosting the local economy are at the top of his list of priorities. “I’m frustrated we don’t have more — we don’t have more jobs in tech, more in the IT world, more development,” says Crowder, who is now a businessman and entrepreneur. “We are not using our assets. We are built around lakes [but] we don’t have hotels or restaurants or connected bike paths.”

When talk turns to the trial that focused the province’s attention on Sudbury last fall, Thibeault says everyone involved was vindicated, especially Sorbara and Lougheed. “I think the judge was very clear that this should never have gone to trial,” says the Liberal candidate.

Nadia Verrelli, a political science professor at Laurentian University in Sudbury, also plays down the controversy. “It’s not uncommon for party leaders to choose who runs in what riding,” Verrelli says. “The trial was pretty low-key here in Sudbury. It didn’t necessarily have the media attention the byelection or [Thibeault’s] party-switching had. So I’m not sure if that would affect the opinion of the electorate in this particular election.”

Thibeault says the issues he’s actually hearing about while campaigning are health care, jobs in the mining sector, and developing the Ring of Fire.

“I still have the enthusiasm and still have the energy to do this job. I’m walking 15 kilometres a day. We are knocking on about 1,100 doors every day because of the fact that I am still so engaged to make our community and province better places.”

Greens, NDP talking about other issues

The local Green and NDP candidates say they’re not emphasizing the recent controversy when talking with voters.

New Democrat Jamie West knows the topic can’t be avoided entirely. “I’ve had the opportunity to travel the province and everybody knows Sudbury, everybody knows it because of the byelection scandal.

“I don’t really focus on it,” West says. “It seems to be over now and the dust has settled.”

The 46-year-old health and safety rep at Vale and labour activist says voters are talking about other concerns. They want to discuss the selloff of Hydro One, hydro costs, and overcrowding at hospitals.

West, who is running in his first election, decided to put his name forward after 28 jobs were lost when Sudbury’s hospital outsourced laundry services.

The Green Party candidate, David Robinson, has run for the party in Sudbury twice before: in the 2015 byelection, and also in the federal general election the same year. An economics professor at Laurentian for the last 30 years, Robinson’s main pitch to voters is the Greens’ promise to take climate change more seriously, something he feels only his party is doing.

“If voters want to promote action on climate change, the only signal they can give is to vote Green,” he says.

To Robinson, the byelection trial is a far less important issue. “I think it has been enormously blown out of proportion.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

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

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