THUNDER BAY — Thunder Bay’s north side used to be a place where Ontario’s big three political parties all had a shot at winning elections. Since the end of the Second World War, the Liberals, the NDP, and the Progressive Conservatives all won at least a few times in the former riding of Port Arthur (which became Thunder Bay—Superior North in 1999).
Then, in 1995, Michael Gravelle put his name on a ballot and has kept the riding for the Liberal Party ever since.
Thunder Bay—Superior North voters have sent him to Queen’s Park in six consecutive elections. The 69-year-old has endured battles with his physical and mental health during his time in office. He fought those battles while an economic downturn uprooted the forestry sector that many communities in his riding have depended on for generations.
And even when critics said his government seemed unable or unwilling to help those affected by northern Ontario’s forestry collapse, Gravelle’s personal popularity has seen him through.
Many speculated Gravelle’s career was finished after he took a five-month leave in 2017 to manage his clinical depression. When he returned last July 31, he came armed with a list of unfinished projects and announced he would run for a seventh term as an MPP.
“I’m still working through it, but as I was working my way through my depression, I realized I love this job a great deal,” Gravelle says. “I love representing the people I represent, I want to keep doing that job, and I hope I have an opportunity to do it again.”
Province-wide polls haven’t given the Liberals much hope for re-election. Even the safest Liberal seats seem up for grabs with a little more than two weeks to go until the June 7 vote.
After all Gravelle has overcome already — surviving despite northwestern Ontario’s economic hardships, and unpopularity of the policies of the government he represents — can he lose Thunder Bay—Superior North?
Laure Paquette, a Lakehead University political science professor, says Gravelle’s personal qualities might help him survive once again.
“Michael Gravelle is invincible,” she says. “He’s very likeable. He’s very approachable. He’s not full of himself. He’s a good party foot soldier and I think likeability is underrated in politics.”
“I think a lot of people who are active in politics think you have to have as big of a megaphone as possible to win an election but in ridings that aren’t densely populated like ours, it’s just putting in hard work, crisscrossing the riding all the time.”
For his part, Gravelle says “nobody’s invincible.”
“I walk into every campaign feeling like I’m 20 points behind and I have to work incredibly hard to get re-elected,” he says. “This is going to be a very tough election. It’s a very different time. I’m going on the basis that Michael Gravelle is certainly not invincible.”
Nearly felled by recession
Gravelle has faced difficult electoral prospects before. The forestry industry had already begun to struggle when the Liberals took power from the Progressive Conservatives in 2003. He became the face of the new government in a riding where 500 out of 5,500 mill jobs had disappeared since 2001.
Then in 2005, mills began shutting down. Machines and plants idled across the riding. By the summer of 2006, 2,000 mill jobs had disappeared in towns across Thunder Bay—Superior North, some of which had depended on forestry as their only industry for generations. As many as 1,000 more workers lost their jobs in harvesting. The riding’s food banks reported the highest usage in a generation.
“It was a really hard time — but I was there,” Gravelle recalls. “I made sure I was there in the communities and I was fighting as hard as I could to keep the operations going and looking for ways to bring economic development.”
In the 2007 election, the majority of voters in the towns that had lost their mills supported the NDP candidate, Jim Foulds. Despite that shift, Gravelle clinched a fourth term — albeit with a vote share that dropped to 47 per cent from the comfortable 72 per cent he had received in 2003.
“What was happening wasn’t only happening in northern Ontario. It was happening all around the province,” Gravelle says. “They [constituents] certainly continued to hold their trust in me, which was incredibly important to me — because I realized I had to be a stronger representative for them.”
Upon returning to Queen’s Park, Gravelle was named the minister of Northern Development and Mines, where he had worked as a public servant 20 years earlier. The high-profile position also made him the chair of the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation — the provincial government’s regional economic development fund — and he used that position to make private companies throughout the north eligible for grants. The Liberals increased the NOHFC’s funding from $60 million to $100 million annually. Gravelle argues those changes kept Thunder Bay’s economy afloat.
Despite these efforts, the effects of the global economic crisis worsened in Thunder Bay—Superior North. Small-town populations plummeted as the rest of the riding’s mills were shuttered over the next legislative term.
Even a $42-million provincial investment to keep 180 jobs at Thunder Bay Fine Papers couldn’t hold back the tide.
Liabilities of the Liberal banner
At times, Gravelle has seemed to enjoy political longevity in spite of, rather than because of, his party banner. For instance, the Liberals’ unveiled the Northern Growth Plan in 2011, which aimed to move away the region’s resource-based economy, create more educational and employment opportunities for Indigenous people, and become an environmental leader. Few of its priorities have yet been achieved.
The Liberals’ 2010 Far North Act, which protected half the remote region from development, was panned across the political spectrum, and the region’s municipal and First Nations leaders joined in the criticism.
In 2009, the country’s smallest pulp mill closed, and 230 employees in the town of Marathon lost their jobs. Residents posted an effigy of then-premier Dalton McGuinty in a noose on a highway billboard and lined the streets with red-lettered signs that read, “Missing Politicians.” Ontario had recently committed $1.3 billion to sustaining jobs in southern Ontario’s auto industry, but couldn’t — or wouldn’t — save Marathon’s mill.
Small-town voters in particular looked to the New Democrats as an alternative to Gravelle and the Liberals, but those communities didn’t have enough votes to swing the riding. “There were a couple of elections when the NDP was sneaking in and it was close,” says Rick Dumas, mayor of Marathon. If the election had been up to those living outside of Thunder Bay, the NDP’s Steve Mantis would have beaten Gravelle by a slender 22 votes. In Marathon, Gravelle won 34 per cent of the votes compared to the NDP’s 49 per cent.
However, Dumas says, the small towns “only represent a small percentage of the voters.” Thanks to another strong showing in the city of Thunder Bay, Gravelle defeated Mantis by about 2,500 votes — his narrowest margin yet.
Gravelle returned to cabinet with the forestry portfolio as minister of Natural Resources. The industry wouldn’t recover to its former glory in Thunder Bay—Superior North but a new strategy for forest management allowed forestry to rebound. For instance, the mill in Terrace Bay got a new owner. Thanks to $24 million in forgiven loans to owner Buchanan, the Longlac mill has reopened and the company’s facility in Nakina is expected to start up again this year.
While these positive developments were happening, Gravelle was diagnosed with “a form of aggressive lymphoma” in November 2012. However, he completed his cancer treatment in the next year. And Gravelle was once again named the minister of Northern Development and Mines in February 2013.
By the 2014 election, meanwhile, Thunder Bay’s economy was recovering, showing growth in manufacturing, retail, and real estate. Gravelle recovered at the polls as well. Not only did he win in every town that had lost its mill over the past six years, he won the popular vote in every municipality and all but two of the riding’s First Nations. His 15,519 votes nearly doubled the turnout for his NDP challenger, Andrew Foulds.
With the worst of the forestry crisis behind the riding, Gravelle had not only survived once again but his support was getting stronger.
The New Democrats won most of the seats in northern Ontario in the 2014 election and hope to take Thunder Bay—Superior North this time around, too. NDP candidate Lise Vaugeois says after 15 years of Liberal rule, it’s time for change. She points to the local hospital, which accepted 20 per cent more patients than its capacity during a surge in April.
Vaugeois notes that she likes and respects Gravelle personally. “I’m not just fighting Michael Gravelle. It’s not about him. It’s about the record of the party,” says Vaugeois, a small-business owner in Thunder Bay.
Progressive Conservative candidate Derek Parks, who garnered seven per cent of the vote when he ran against Gravelle in 2014, also goes out of his way to say his campaign holds nothing personal against the incumbent. “This has nothing to do about Michael Gravelle,” Parks says. “This is about Kathleen Wynne and that’s what it has to be.”
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. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.
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