Conservatives cut into Liberal vote in Labrador .. but Grits still win handily

May 25th, 2005 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

With all polls now reporting, the Elections Canada preliminary results for yesterday’s federal by-election in Labrador show Liberal candidate Todd Russell with just under 52% of the vote, Conservative candidate Graham Letto with about 32%, and New Democrat Francis Fry with about 10%.

So Paul Martin was probably breathing easier when he went to bed last night. At the same time, Labrador City Mayor Graham Letto has taken a considerable bite out of the 62% of the vote by which the late Lawrence O’Brien won the seat for the Liberals last June.

Further comparison of the by-election results with last year’s general election results in Labrador suggests how the recent Canadian political turmoil has had some measurable impact, even in this traditionally quite safe Liberal seat. To start with, interest in the by-election among the electorate was greater than in the 2004 general election. More than 10,500 Labrador voters turned out on May 24, 2005, compared with just over 8,900 on June 28, 2004.

The Conservatives also managed to double their share of the vote – from 15.8% in 2004 to 32.3% in 2005. The Liberal share fell, from 62.2% in 2004 to 51.5% in 2005. The New Democrat share increased only slightly, from 9.6% in 2004 to 9.9% in 2005. Arguably enough, a fresh general election in 2005 that saw comparable movement in the numbers in ridings where the Conservatives are more competitive might prove more to the advantage of Stephen Harper and his party than some initial interpretations of the Labrador by-election results imply.

The bottom line of course remains that the Liberals have won Labrador again, and by a convincing enough margin, in spite of the explosive Gomery testimony on the sponsorship scandal in neighbouring Quebec. On this evidence, it does seem true enough that the scandal has hurt the Liberals – but not by at all enough to let the Tories win, in a riding where they have traditionally been weak.

At the same time again, it remains equally true enough that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have doubled their share of the vote in Labrador – in spite of the glamorous Belinda Stronach’s last-minute campaigning, and a recent Liberal promise that “a major international military exercise will take place at Canadian Forces Base Goose Bay next year.” Mr. Harper’s leadership may not be in quite as much trouble as some instant analyses have been suggesting. His new Conservative party (with the help of its Bloc Quebecois allies) is still making more potent waves in Canadian federal politics than any other conservative party has for a decade. And the Martin minority government’s grip on Parliament is still only a little less precarious than it was last week.


Canadian federal political parties have barely had time to catch their breath after the Liberal minority government’s razor-thin survival in Parliament last week. But already they are squaring off again, in a by-election to fill a vacant seat in Labrador (the part of Newfoundland and Labrador that is not an island, and that some people in Montreal still think really belongs to Quebec).

The Liberals have almost always held Labrador since Newfoundland and Labrador at last joined Canada in 1949. Ordinarily they would be expected to win this time too. But Conservative leader Stephen Harper was working hard in the riding this past Friday and Saturday. There have been subsequent visits by deputy leader Peter MacKay. And according to CTV News, there are at least some reports that “the Conservative Party could well snatch the seat from the Grits.”

Carrying on with the MP health sidebar from the past several weeks, Lawrence O’Brien, who won Labrador for the Liberals last June 28, 2004, died of cancer this past fall. He won in 2004 with just over 62% of all ballots cast, and the Liberal candidate who is succeeding him, Todd Russell, is apparently “well known and well liked.”

Liberal Todd Russell is also president of the Labrador Métis Nation – a particular attraction in a riding where aboriginal Canadians account for more than a third of the population. (And, in case you’ve forgotten, section 35 of Pierre Trudeau’s Constitution Act 1982 explains that the term “aboriginal peoples of Canada’ includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.”)

At the same time, Mr. Russell’s Conservative opponent, Graham Letto, is the mayor of Labrador City – a planned mining community established in the 1950s “of wide streets and a couple of malls in the middle of nowhere.” This is the riding’s main urban centre, so to speak, and accounts for more than a third of its population as well.

Mr. Letto has been promising that the Conservatives will dramatically rejuvenate the fading air force base in Goose Bay – once a great Labrador landmark but now almost abandoned – by staffing it with a rapid response force of 650 soldiers. In a riding that had over 19% unemployment in the 2001 census, offers of this sort are bound to be noticed.

The Conservatives of course would actually have to form a government in Ottawa to make good on this offer. But with the current razor-thin partisan allocation of seats in Parliament, it is arguable enough that winning the by-election in Labrador could bring them a lot closer to doing just that.

In a similar spirit, the Liberals’ latest largesse for Newfoundland and Labrador, via the provincial oil revenue guarantees in the Atlantic Accord, is locally thought to be good for Newfoundland, but not Labrador. At least some of the current typical social and economic woes of the northern hinterland of “rural Canada” are assembled tidily in Labrador. It might be a place where the Conservative appeal in the rural south can be pushed somewhat further north as well.

Also running in the by-election are Francis Fry of the New Democrats, Jason Crummey for the Green Party, and the Independent Ern Condon.

The ultimate best guess may still be that the Liberals will finally win yet again, as they typically have in the past. In some respects the best analogues for the riding of Labrador in the rest of Canada are the three ridings of the far northern territories – all of which are held by the Liberals now. Three Liberal cabinet ministers (including the glamorous new arrival Belinda Stronach) flew to Labrador to campaign on Sunday. And a win here would make the Martin government’s current very precarious grip on Parliament in Ottawa somewhat more stable.

But an upset victory for the Conservatives is apparently not altogether out of the question. And, whatever else, that would almost certainly make everything a bit more interesting – and render the prospects for any extended period of stable government from the 38 th Parliament of Canada that much dimmer.

In this case we will at least know the answer very soon, late this evening on May 24. (Unless the result is so close here too that there will have to be a recount, or something like that.)

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