THUNDER BAY — Sleet and snow prevented Caroline Mulroney’s plane from landing in Kapuskasing on the afternoon of February 20. As she touched down in Thunder Bay for an evening rally at a local brewery, Parry Sound Progressive Conservative MPP Norm Miller was somewhere east of there, driving the 600 kilometres between Kapuskasing and Thunder Bay along the dark, boreal Highway 11 through the storm to hand Mulroney the luggage and computers he had promised to give her at the afternoon’s cancelled stop.
Campaigning on schedule through northern Ontario is precarious in the best of weather and with the deepest political organization. In northwestern Ontario, during this short, winter leadership race, no one in the PC party has the luxury of either.
But thanks to an alliance with a prominent regional name seeking to make a political comeback, Mulroney hopes to build on growing conservative momentum in the northwest. As she stepped onto the Sleeping Giant Brewery’s shop floor, she walked shoulder-to-shoulder with Greg Rickford.
Rickford represented the Kenora riding in Ottawa between 2008 and 2015, when he lost his seat in the federal election that brought Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to power. During his time on Parliament Hill, Rickford — who had worked as a nurse and a lawyer — rose to minister of natural resources in Stephen Harper’s cabinet.
Three years after being unseated, Rickford has reinvested his political capital into running for the Kenora-Rainy River seat that will be left vacant by departing incumbent NDP MPP Sarah Campbell. And in the PC leadership race, he’s putting all his influence behind Mulroney.
The political newcomer doesn’t feign expertise in the province’s higher latitudes to the same degree as former leader Patrick Brown, who made nearly monthly visits to northern Ontario trying to rebuild the party. It’s difficult to see what connection to the northwest Mulroney has as a Montreal-born, Harvard University-educated, former Bay Street lawyer. But she's relying on the region’s lone elected conservative voice in a generation to guide her.
Mulroney and Rickford knew each other only by reputation before they declared their candidacies. But when he reached out to her campaign, she offered him a co-chair position to organize the north.
Rickford said it was “a no-brainer” to back Mulroney’s leadership. “I felt very strongly that Caroline represented what I think of the future of political leadership should be in Ontario — a woman around the same age as me, raising a family, success in the private sector … [someone who has] taken on incredible responsibilities and should have a voice in the legislature.”
Porter Bailey, president of the Thunder Bay-Superior North PC riding association, said Rickford’s endorsement should prove valuable. “You’d almost call him the standard bearer for the PCs in northern Ontario,” he said.
John Henderson, who led the riding association until the previous week, agreed. “Greg is owed a lot of loyalty from a lot of us and he’s extremely well respected,” he said. Rickford’s endorsement is “a good indication the north is embracing Caroline,” and Henderson is warming up to her, too. “I’ll hold my final judgment until the end, but she’s the most impressive candidate I’ve seen in 30 years.”
Candidates in the Mulroney-Rickford camp
The PC candidates vying for both new seats in the province’s far north are plugged into the Mulroney-Rickford machine.
André Robichaud, PC candidate in Mushkegowuk-James Bay, publicly pledged his support for Mulroney the day before the brewery event. Rickford had been Robichaud’s mentor during the latter’s 2015 federal run in Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing, when he finished third with 24 per cent of the vote.
Having sold 100 memberships in the first week after forming the new provincial riding association, Robichaud, an economic development consultant, hopes his base can lead the same kind of breakthrough Rickford was able to make at the federal level a decade ago.
“He took northwestern Ontario by storm and came out of the dark to win that election,” said Robichaud of Rickford’s 2008 federal win. “We haven’t elected a conservative here at the provincial level for close to 30 years. When you see that Greg pulled it off in the northwest, it gives you some optimism that it can be done here.”
In the new Kiiwetinoong riding, Brown was courting Clifford Bull, six-term chief of Lac Seul First Nation, to run for the PCs last fall. Much of the riding is comprised of First Nations communities without road access.
Flying from nearby Sioux Lookout over the three communities that make up Lac Seul, Bull showed Brown the roads that had been constructed to connect them since he was first elected in 2006. Also under Bull’s leadership, Lac Seul began managing the area’s forestry planning while it negotiated deals and settlements with mining and energy companies that brought jobs to its members and attracted millions of dollars in revenue.
The PC party established its Kiiwetinoong riding association five days before the Mulroney event, naming former Rickford staffer Anne Ayotte as its secretary. Bull's time as chief gives him a generation of political connections across the entire riding, but he’s new to provincial politics. He refers to Ayotte as his “right-hand person” and, behind his “good friend” Rickford, has shifted his allegiance in the PC leadership race from Brown to Mulroney.
“I listen to [Ayotte] and Greg. I’m a new kid on the block,” Bull said. “Right now, I’m sort of confused as a young candidate, not knowing the ropes of how politics works in this new political realm. I have a tendency to listen to people — listen and learn.”
The holdout: Thunder Bay candidate doesn’t back Mulroney
At the Sleeping Giant Brewery event, Mulroney, Rickford, and Bull all spoke from behind a wooden beer keg that was serving as a podium.
But the PC candidate in the riding of Thunder Bay-Superior North, in which the brewery is located, did not.
In the 2014 election, Derek Parks moved home from southern Ontario to replace Tamara Johnson as the PC candidate, less than a month before the writ was drawn up. Johnson had posted on social media that First Nations businesses have an “unfair advantage,” and the party expelled her in response. On Election Day, Parks took just seven per cent of the vote.
Parks became Brown’s first ally in the region, and after being named to the PC provincial executive, he remained loyal to the end. After allegations of sexual impropriety caused Brown to resign as leader on January 25, Parks shifted his support to Christine Elliott, then immediately switched back on February 16 when Brown filed to run for leader again. Ten days later, Brown dropped out a second time (while continuing to deny the allegations) and Parks went back to Elliott’s camp.
This race marks the third time in as many years that Parks and Rickford have found themselves on opposite sides of nomination contests.
Parks backed Brown in the 2015 PC leadership race while Rickford supported Elliott. In that contest, Brown resoundingly beat Elliott in all but one of northern Ontario’s 11 ridings.
During federal election nominations in Thunder Bay-Superior North later that year, Rickford backed former Sioux Lookout economic development officer Florence Bailey; Parks favoured Nipigon Mayor Richard Harvey. The party’s membership backed Harvey but his run attracted just 17 per cent of vote.
“He tried to put in a candidate that wasn’t from here,” Parks said of Rickford’s Bailey campaign. “Rickford came into the north riding and tried to upset the apple cart with a candidate — and the local conservatives are well aware of what he tried to do to Richard Harvey.”
While Mulroney may appear to have the momentum in the contest for northwestern candidate support, the lead Thunder Bay organizer for Elliott’s 2015 leadership run said she’s not to be discounted.
Thunder Bay-Atikokan riding association president Brandon Posthuma claims membership has increased sixfold since 2015, which suggests an increase to nearly 1,500. (The PC membership list is under review at the request of interim leader Vic Fedeli.)
Especially after Brown bowed out of the campaign, Posthuma became confident that more northwestern Ontario PC members will help Elliott’s chances.
“What it will do is bring more people on our team,” Posthuma said. “Going through the list and talking to people, we were already confident Christine was getting good support.”
Still, Elliott appeared at a restaurant on the south side of Thunder Bay two days after Mulroney’s brewery event and she drew an audience half the size of Mulroney’s.
PC leadership candidate Tanya Granic Allen has yet to visit the northwest.
Candidate endorsements are good publicity, but the party’s next leader will be elected by the PC membership.
On his first-ever trip to Thunder Bay on March 3, Doug Ford spoke to a crowd roughly the same size as Elliott’s. “I relate to these folks, even though I’m in the 416 and 905,” he said, referring to the Toronto area’s main area codes. “I connect with these people because I’m real. I’m not some phony politician. These people are real here.”
Ford played up his lack of support from the party brass. He implied he would listen to constituents better than Elliott or Mulroney, whom he portrayed as the establishment’s preferred choices for PC leader. “It’s the insiders and the political elites that have been running this province for years. The people of the north haven’t had a voice and I’ll tell you 100 per cent, they won’t have a voice under the two other leaders.”
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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