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THUNDER BAY – For most of his political career, Michael Gravelle has been seen as a fighter for his hometown of Thunder Bay – a little guy, literally and figuratively, standing up to those who would neglect Ontario’s Far North.
This fall, he’s fighting charges that he’s the one doing the neglecting.
Such is the mixed blessing of spending the past four years as Northern Development Minister for a government perceived not to have done enough to develop the region. So what was once one of the safest Liberal seats in the province is now up for grabs, with Mr. Gravelle one of several northern Liberal MPPs fighting for their political lives.
But who the real contenders are in Thunder Bay-Superior North, a sprawling riding that includes half of northwest Ontario’s largest city and some more far-flung communities, is less clear.
Historically, this part of the province has swung between Liberals and New Democrats. And the NDP’s candidate, Steve Mantis, has an impressive personal story: Since losing his arm in a 1978 construction accident, he has devoted much of his life to advocating on behalf of injured workers. But he does not have a high profile in the riding, and has little political experience.
In an interview, Mr. Mantis appeared unfamiliar with his party’s platform – incorrectly implying the NDP is calling for personal tax increases for high-income earners. And on the subject of “change,” the bread and butter of opposition politicians, Mr. Mantis struck an unusual (if admirably candid) tone. “If you elect me, and expect me to make the change, you’re fooling yourself,” he said. “The way we make change is we work with our elected officials.”
The Progressive Conservatives are offering no such qualifiers. And despite their dismal history here, there’s a chance northern alienation will drive voters toward the right this time.
“Special-interest groups have the ear of government in Toronto,” Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs, a self-identified conservative, said in an interview. “We don’t want some bureaucrat in Toronto telling us how we should develop the North.”
The victory last year by Mr. Hobbs, a former police commander, suggests the political winds might be shifting. If so, PC candidate Anthony LeBlanc seems well-suited to take advantage.
A former Research in Motion executive who heads Ice Edge, the group that tried to bring the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes back to Canada, the 41-year-old cuts an impressive figure. If he wins, he would be a lock for cabinet – which raises the question of why, having grown up in Thunder Bay but lived most of his adult life elsewhere, he’s not running somewhere he could win more easily.
Mr. LeBlanc framed it as a matter of trying to ensure that others don’t have to find work elsewhere. “My niece is 16 years old,” he said, “and she’s already worried that when she graduates Lakehead she’ll have to leave.”
He was buoyant about his prospects. “At the beginning, I would’ve said it was a long shot,” he acknowledged. “Now, I can honestly tell you that I think a worst case for us is a three-way race. It may even boil down to a two-way race between us and the NDP.”
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