Brian Mulroney flew home to Baie Comeau last week, intending, he said, “to be just another MP.” Accompanied by his wife, Mila, and their 11-month-old son, Nicolas, the Prime Minister was armed with a lighter-than-usual agenda—meeting with constituents of his far-flung Quebec riding, opening a new port in SeptIles and relaxing in preparation for next month’s return of Parliament. Asked to state the purpose of his visit, Mulroney said, “I’m hoping to get reelected in Manicouagan.” But the Prime Minister’s Challenger aircraft had barely touched down before his plans for leisurely down-home politicking ran afoul of crude political reality.
In Baie Comeau, Mulroney confronted a new Gallup poll that showed his Conservative government trailing the Opposition Liberals in popularity by eight percentage points. In SeptIles he faced charges from Alberta Premier Don Getty that Ottawa was ignoring the West. And in every town and village along Quebec’s North Shore he found hard-pressed residents looking for new injections of job-creating federal aid. “Business is not what it once was, ” said Ernie Hamel, a 26year employee of Cargill Ltd., a grain storage and handling company located in Baie Comeau’s natural deepwater port. “We are counting on Brian to help us.”
But the Conservatives have already directed $150 million—including a $60million penitentiary at Port-Cartier— into Manicouagan since the Tories won the Sept. 4, 1984, federal election. And apart from opening a new wharf at Pointe Noire near Sept-Iles, the Prime Minister had no new offers of federal assistance. Besides, Mulroney could not escape the constant tempest of national politics. A Gallup poll taken in mid-August showed the Tories trailing the Liberals 41 to 33 per cent (the New Democrats were at 24 per cent). The gap between the government and the opposition was even wider in Quebec, where the Conservatives won 58 seats in 1984. Although Mulroney predicted he would improve on that total in the next election, party organizers have privately told Maclean’s that they would be satisfied with between 30 and 35 Quebec ridings.
The decline in popular support was even evident in Baie Comeau. Despite good weather, local radio advertising and the offer of 3,000 ears of free corn imported from southern Quebec, a Mulroney corn roast attracted only 300 residents. Later, a more appreciative crowd
greeted the Prime Minister in Sept-Iles, a city with an unemployment rate of 32 per cent, when he arrived for the official opening of the $36-million Pointe Noire wharf, a controversial project initiated by the Liberals in 1983. Critics claim that the area is well served by port facilities in Sept-Iles. But supporters say that the new facility will allow the city to decrease its dependence on shipping iron ore—which faces declining global demand.
Mulroney was also under attack from
another defender of Conservative ideology: Alberta’s Getty. In a speech to the Canadian Bar Association in Edmonton, the premier said separatism was again becoming a force on the prairies, because Westerners perceived that federal policies were tilted against them—and in favor of Central Canada. In response, Mulroney conceded that “this is a difficult country to govern.” But he added, “Leadership requires a determination to resist the easy temptation to blame the neighbors.”
Both Alberta and Quebec will be critical testing grounds for Mulroney later this month. Midway through the traditional four-year mandate for a government, the Tories face Sept. 29 byelections in Alberta’s Pembina and Quebec’s St-Maurice. Partly to gain support in Quebec, Mulroney last week agreed to provide Toronto’s Spar Aerospace Ltd. with $53 million to build satellite components at a plant in suburban Montre-
al. He also scheduled a high-profile cabinet meeting in Montreal and vigorously defended his record of federal spending in Manicouagan. “Some people seem to think it’s funny that I would spend money on airports,” he said Friday in St-Augustin. He maintained that the lack of sophisticated airport equipment—later installed by his government-had actually cost lives. “I’ll show you,” Mulroney said. “I’ll introduce you to some widows in this village.” The widow the Prime Minister referred to,
Karen Maurice, lost her husband, Jake, last year when he was injured driving a recreational vehicle and fog kept a rescue plane off the St-Augustin runway. Said the widow: “If the airport was done, probably my husband would have been saved.”
But the Tories are not expected to win in St-Maurice. The riding is a longtime Liberal stronghold formerly held by Jean Chrétien. Recent polls have shown the NDP at a historic high in Quebec of 27 per cent—and some observers say the Tories might run third. Late last week the entire Quebec Tory caucus met in St-Georges-deBeauce, 85 km south of Quebec City, where a combative Mulroney again declared that Conservative strength in the province was undiminished. The St-Maurice vote may measure the accuracy of that claim.
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