Hidden amongst the British Columbia election coverage is another election of significance on the other side of the country. The federal riding of Labrador, voters will be going to the polls today to elect a new MP (or to re-elect the same one). You see, back in March the sitting MP and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Conservative Peter Penashue, resigned his seat due to conflict of interest allegations and election campaign irregularities associated with his election in 2011. However, Penashue resigned under the condition he could run again, so he could win the seat fair and square.
|Map of Labrador showing municipalities and unincorporated communities and unorganized areas.|
The 2011 election Labrador was one of the closest races in the country. Penashue defeated the sitting incumbent, Liberal Todd Russell by just 74 votes. Penashue's election was a huge surprise, considering the fact that Labrador was one of the safest Liberal seats in the country. It had only elected a Tory once (in 1968) since Newfoundland joined confederation in 1949. Plus, the Russell had won the seat in 2008 with 70% of the vote, while the Tory candidate finished third with just 8%. Penashue's election thus came with a swing of a massive 31.5% from the Liberals to Conservatives.
At just 27,000 people, Labrador is the least populated riding in Canada. It is even less populated then any of Canada's three territories. Its existence as a riding is protected by extraordinary circumstances clause in the redistribution act which allows for ridings to exceed provincial averages if it is deemed as an extraordinary riding. Labrador is seen as a cohesive unit in of itself, and is very isolated from the rest of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. However, the riding was not always deemed extraordinary. It has only existed as a riding consisting of itself since 1988. Before that it was lumped with part of the Island of Newfoundland and was known as “Grand Falls—White Bay—Labrador” from 1953 to 1988. Before that, the word “Labrador” wasn't even in the riding name, and the riding was named just “Grand Falls—White Bay”.
Former Members of Parliament:
- T.G.W. Ashbourne, Liberal (1949-1958)
- C.R.M. Granger, Liberal (1958-1966)
- Andrew Chatwood, Liberal (1966-1968)
- A.H. Peddle, Prog. Cons. (1968-1972)
- W.H. Rompkey, Liberal (1972-1996)
- L.D. O'Brien, Liberal (1996-2005)
- T.N. Russell, Liberal (2005-2011)
- Peter Penashue, Conservative (2011-2013)
For most of its history, the riding has mostly experienced Liberal blowouts (1949, 1953, 1957, 1958, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1974, 1980, 1993, 2000, 2004 and 2008) and the occasionally semi competitive races that turned out to be fool's gold for the Tories (1972, 1984, 1988, 1996 by-election with the Reform Party, 2005 by-election and 2006). The NDP has had some history in this riding to, due to the mining industry in Labrador City. The party nearly won the seat in 1979, and had a strong campaign in 1997. The NDP has held the riding of Labrador West provincially in the past.
Despite its remoteness, Labrador is a rather diverse riding. Along the south coast on the Strait of Belle Isle, there are a number of Anglo-Irish fishing villages that are more similar to the rest of Newfoundland than the rest of Labrador. Further north along the coast you have more fishing villages, but the people there are a mix of Metis, Inuit and Anglo descent. Then you have the two largest cities in Labrador; the mining city of Labrador City in the far west (and its suburb of Wabush) and the more military oriented city of Happy Valley-Goose Bay (home to CFB Goose Bay). North of Happy Valley Goose Bay is the Innu village of Sheshatshiu where Penashue is from. Sheshatshiu is one of two Innu villages in the riding, the other is Natuashish, and is located on the coast, further north. Finally, northeastern Labrador is home of the Inuit territory of Nunatsiavut, which is a self governing autonomous area made up of five Inuit villages.
One of the most Liberal parts of the county is the Southern and Eastern Labrador coast where the Liberals often get results of more than 90% of the vote in many polls. I have a feeling that in the past that some polls have had results of 100% for the Liberals, but were merged with other polls to protect voter secrecy. While the south and east coasts are made up of extremely partisan Liberals, other parts of the riding are very non-partisan. This is especially true for the Inuit and Innu. These groups tend to support the candidate over the party (and it's not just Labrador where they do this). Penashue, an Innu, can thank his 74 vote victory to massive margins in the two Innu villages of the riding. Without them, he would have lost. Voters in Labrador City and Happy Valley-Goose Bay also tend to back the candidate over the party. Neither region has uniformly voted Liberal the way the coastal villages have. When the Tories have run good campaigns in the riding, it is usually in these two cities where they find much support.
Let's take a look at the poll maps since 2004 for a better look of the riding's political geography:
2004 was a landslide victory for the Liberals in Labrador. The party won every single poll in the riding, which is not abnormal for the riding. Incumbent MP Lawrence O'Brien won 62% of the vote, compared to the Conservative candidate, Merrill Strachan who won 10% of the vote. Former New Democrat Ern Condon ran as an independent, but representing the “Labrador Party” and finished ahead of the NDP at 10%. The NDP candidate Shawn Crann won just under 10% and the Greens won 2%. O'Brien's strongest area was the traditionally Liberal east and south coast of Labrador. His best poll came in the village of Lodge Bay in this region where he won 34 of 35 votes. His weakest region was in West Labrador, where the Tories, NDP and Condon all had strong showings. But the split of the vote between Strachan, Condon and Crann meant that O'Brien still won all the polls there. His worst showing was poll 27 in Wabush, which is in the west part of town on Jean Lake. He still won 33% of the vote there. Condon finished 2nd there with 28% of the vote.
O'Brien passed away in December 2004, resulting in a by-election in May 2005 (there was also a by-election in 1996 which first elected O'Brien, meaning there will have been 3 by-elections in just 17 years!). It was the first by-election of Paul Martin's fragile minority government, and would be very important in terms of the balance of power in Parliament. Therefore, the Tories poured a lot of effort into the riding in hopes they would win it. However, most observers thought it was a hopeless cause because of the riding's Liberal history. The Tories ended up losing the election, with 32% of the vote, but it would be their best showing since 1988. Liberal candidate, Todd Russell, President of the Labrador Metis Nation won with 51%. It was the worst showing for the Liberals since 1997. Russell saw his best showing on the east coast as usual, especially in the Metis dominated fishing villages. West Labrador was again the Liberal's worst area, and this time they lost nearly all the polls in the region. The Conservative candidate in the riding was Graham Letto, who was the mayor of Labrador City at the time. This really helped him win the region, but was not enough to help him outside. He only won 5 polls outside of the Labrador City-Wabush area. One of these polls however was the best poll for Letto, poll 34 in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. This poll is located on CFB Goose Bay. Russell's top poll was the Metis village of Port Hope Simpson, a poll which also included the smaller village of William's Harbour, where Russell was born.
With their impressive showing in the 2005 by-election, the Tories kept up the pressure in 2006 with another strong campaign. They ran a star candidate in Joe Goudie, a former provincial cabinet minister, and another high profile Metis to go up against Russell. Russell however beat Goudie, but in a closer race than the by-election. Russell maintained his 51% share of the vote, but Goudie made inroads on the Tory by-election result, by getting the party up to 40%. Goudie was able to get this number by making in roads in the Happy Valley-Goose Bay area, where he was from. However, the Tories continue to do the best in West Labrador where they won all but two polls. However, Goudie lost all of the northern Aboriginal communities and the communities on the east and south coast which was the best area for the Liberals again. The village of Pinsent Arm in this region gave Russell his best poll, where he secured 40 of 42 votes. The strongest poll for Goudie was in in poll 34 in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the same poll where the Tories saw their strongest showing in the by-election.
By 2008, the Tories had given up on trying to win Labrador, as the riding reverted to its landslide-Liberal status. Russell won his largest share of the vote in his career, getting 70%. The Conservatives could not find a local candidate to run, and so had to pick an Office Assistant from St. John's to run. The NDP would end up finishing 2nd in the race, despite them also running a candidate from St. John's. Even so, the NDP won 18% of the vote as the default anti-Liberal party in a region that hated the Tories thanks to Premier Danny Williams' ABC (Anything But Conservative) campaign. It would be the NDP's best showing in Labrador since 1997, and the Conservative's worst showing (8%) since that same election. Once again, the Liberals would win every single poll in the riding. Similar voting patterns persisted with the Liberals doing the best in the east, and worst in the west. However, the Liberals would score a majority of the vote in all but 2 polls (both in Labrador City). Their worst showing was in poll 23 in the south end of town on the western end of Little Wabush Lake. Russell won 44% of the vote. The NDP finished 2nd there, losing the poll by 5 votes. The strongest Liberal poll was in Lodge Bay again where Russell secured 37 of 38 votes. Lodge Bay was also the best poll for the Liberals the last time they won every poll in the riding in 2004.
2011 threw a wrench in the normal voting patterns of Labrador. The race would end up being the closest in the riding's history. Innu businessman Peter Penashue won the seat for the Conservatives for the first time since 1968. He won the seat with 39.8% of the vote to Russell's 39.1%. It would be the worst showing ever for the Liberals in the riding. The NDP also had a strong performance running school principal Jake Larkin. He won 20% of the vote, the party's best showing since 1997. Also, the NDP won a number of polls, the first time they would win a poll since 1997. Liberal support was relegated to their traditional base in the riding, in the east and south coasts. Outside this region, they had only won 5 polls. Conservative support was strongest in the Inuit and Innu communities in the northern part of the riding. Also key to Penashue's victory was winning all but 4 polls in the Happy Valley-Goose Bay area. The NDP were only present in West Labrador, where they won all but seven polls, and tied in two of those seven. The strongest poll for the Conservatives was Penashue's home town of Sheshasheits where he won 89% of the vote. The strongest Liberal poll this time was the Metis village of Charlottetown on the east coast where Russell won 86% of the vote. The NDP's strongest poll was poll 14 in central Labrador City (between Stirling Cres and Field St) where they won 47% of the vote.
Last Wednesday, Statistics Canada released the first wave of results of the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), also known as the “long form census”. Among the data released was religion and ethnicity, and I figured those two categories would be the most interesting in terms of mapping Labrador. It should be noted that the NHS was not mandatory like in previous censuses, so there are concerns about the accuracy of the data. In fact, some communities had such a low response rate, that their data was not even released by Statistics Canada. In Labrador, these communities include Division No. 10, Subd. D (Churchill Falls), L'Anse au Loup, Wabush and West St. Modeste.
As mentioned, Labrador is a rather ethnically diverse riding. The south coast, along the Strait of Belle Isle is home to communities with high percentages of people of English, Irish and “Canadian” backgrounds. This is true from L'Anse au Clair on the Quebec border until the village of Mary's Harbour. Then you get into Metis territory. From the next town, St. Lewis until Charlottetown is Metis territory. Metis in this area usually refers to people of partial Inuit heritage. Once you cross Hamilton Inlet, you get into full on Inuit territory, in the region of Nunatsiavut. There are six coastal communities north of Hamilton Inlet. Five are Inuit in Nunatsiavut and the sixth, Natuashish is a First Nation (Innu) community. Further inland and the head of Hamilton Inlet is the Happy Valley-Goose Bay area. The leading ethnicity in the region is Inuit, although in Happy Valley-Goose Bay proper it is only a plurality. “Canadian” and English were also leading ethnicities in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. The village of Sheshatshiu is the lone community in the area without Inuit being the leading ethnicity, as it is a First Nations (Innu) community. West of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, only Labrador City has proper data. In Labrador City, the leading ethnicity was “Canadian”, followed by English and Irish.
Labrador is as religiously diverse as it is ethnically, that is when it comes to Christian denominations. Labrador is overwhelmingly Christian, with 93% of inhabitants reporting as one form of Christianity or another. For the most part, in Labrador what denomination one is depends on what community they live in. While an area may be ethnically homogenous, it may not be in regards to religion. For example, the Inuit-Metis east coast is home to Anglican, Pentecostal or Catholic communities. The Anglo-Irish cosat coast is home to Anglican and Catholic communities as well as a couple of villages with no dominant denomination. The Happy Valley-Goose Bay area is diverse as well. Anglicanism is the leading denomination in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, but it is also home to many Catholics and Uniteds. Labrador City is also diverse. Catholicism is the leading denomination, but there are many Uniteds, Anglicans and Pentecostals as well. Three of the five Inuit villages saw “Other Christian” as their leading denomination. This actually refers to Moravians, as those villages had been founded by Moravian missionaries in the 18th Century. The other two Inuit villages are not Moravian however, one is Pentecostal and the other is Anglican. If there is one ethnic group in Labrador that is religiously homogenous, it is the Innu who are very, very Catholic according to the NHS. Both Innu villages are about 87% Catholic.
Even though the 2011 election in Labrador was so close, the 2013 by-election will not be a rematch between Russell and Penashue. Instead, the Liberals are running Yvonne Jones as their candidate. Jones is the former leader of the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal Party, and represented the riding of Cartwright-L'Anse au Clair in the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly from 1996 to 2013. That provincial riding takes in the east and south coast of Labrador, the strongest Liberal part of the riding. The NDP have also chosen a new candidate in Harry Borlase, an analyst from Happy Valley-Goose Bay. The Greens, who have never got more than 4% in the riding will not be fielding a candidate, as they do not wish to split the anti-Conservative vote. However, the Libertarians will be running a candidate for the first time ever in Labrador.
Because of the closeness of the last election, one might expect this by-election to be close as well. However, a number of factors are at work. First of all, Penashue- whether innocent or not, has been disgraced, and his reputation has been tarnished. That is as good as any excuse for voters not to back him. Secondly, we are at the beginning of a new “Trudeaumania” in Canada, with the Liberals surging to the top of the polls since their election of Justin Trudeau as leader. Labrador, a traditional Liberal riding has no reason to be not immune from this surge. Thirdly, the Liberals are running a pretty high profile candidate in Yvonne Jones. Only problem for her is that there is little growth to be had in her already Liberal saturated stomping grounds in Cartwright-L'Anse au Clair. And of course, polls are showing another Liberal landslide in the riding. The most recent Forum Research poll released yesterday put the Liberals at 45% (down from 60% in a previous poll), the Tories at 31% (up from 29%) and the NDP at 24% (Up from 10%). Given all these factors, I am pretty confident Jones will win.
Polls close at 8pm Atlantic (8:30 Newfoundland time) or 7pm Eastern. Don't forget to follow me on Twitter for live commentary!