Where does a prime minister run?

MICHAEL ROSE August 8 1988

Where does a prime minister run?

MICHAEL ROSE August 8 1988

Where does a prime minister run?

During the 1984 federal election campaign, a giant banner fluttered over Laure Avenue in SeptIles, the largest city in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s sprawling riding of Manicouagan, on Quebec’s North Shore. The banner read “Hope has a name— Brian Mulroney.” The slogan captured the sentiments of the city —devastated by a worldwide decline in resource prices—and its voters overwhelmingly supported Mulroney.

Now, with another election anticipated soon,

Mulroney will probably run in the adjacent riding of Charlevoix, where new electoral boundaries have placed his home town of Baie-Comeau, formerly part of Manicouagan riding. And some residents of SeptIles say that they are disappointed with their experience of having a prime minister as their MP. Said Denis Miousse, host of a popular SeptIles radio open-line show:

“People say on my program that he hasn’t delivered the goods. People don’t believe in Mulroney anymore.”

The riding redistribution leaves Mulroney with a difficult choice. Despite signs of voter dissatisfaction, his supporters say that he would have no difficulty winning in either riding; he won 71.5 per cent of the vote in 1984.

But if he moves to Charlevoix, as expected, for the home-town connection, it will be Mulroney’s third riding in as many contests. And he could leave a legacy of bitterness in Sept-Iles that would improve the chances of the Liberals reasserting their traditional hold on Manicouagan riding.

Mulroney is unlikely to make his choice known until after he calls an election—although the Tory MP in Charlevoix has offered to step aside, and many people there say that they are eager for a chance to have a prime minister as their MP. Baie-Comeau Mayor Roger Theriault and the Chamber of Commerce have already sent telegrams to Mulroney urging him to run in Char-

levoix. Said the Conservative riding president, Pierre Rocque: “We are waiting for him with open arms.”

Many residents of smaller communities in Manicouagan—particularly the isolated fishing villages on the St. Lawrence River, where Ottawa has spent millions of dollars building wharves and

improving airports—say that Mulroney has done a good job for the riding. Indeed, the government’s decision to locate a $60-million maximum-security prison in Port-Cartier rather than in Drummondville will provide a $13-million yearly economic boost to the riding when the facility opens this fall. But the anti-Mulroney sentiments emerging in SeptIles are also apparent among the few people still living in Schefferville, the isolated former mining town in Manicouagan that Mulroney himself doomed in 1982 when, as president of the Iron Ore Co. of Canada, he closed operations there. Despite that record, Mulroney won 56 per cent of the town’s vote in the 1984 federal election. Mulroney first had to choose a riding when he became leader of the Progressive Conservatives in June, 1983, without a seat in the House of Commons. Veteran MP Elmer MacKay cleared the way for a byelection by stepping aside in Central Nova. Mulroney swept to victory that August.

But then he decided to run in Manicouagan in the 1984 general election, calling himself the “boy from Baie-Comeau.” Since then, he has returned to Central Nova twice to assure voters there that he has not forgotten them.

Residents of Sept-Iles, 900 km northeast of Montreal on the windswept

North Shore, experienced a postwar economic boom that lasted until the late 1970s. Then, in the early 1980s, its largest employers—Iron Ore Co. and Wabush Mines—laid off hundreds of workers when ore prices dropped, and the town’s population declined from 29,000 to about 24,000. Many local residents say that Mulroney’s 1984 campaign promises generated the expectation that an MP who was also prime minister would find ways to restore the local economy. By last October, frustration over lack of progress inspired a politically embarrassing protest march by roughly onethird of the city’s residents. Said lawyer and former Sept-Iles city councillor Raymond Nepveu: “A lot of people believed Mulroney’s promises but then realized they had been sold a bill of goods.”

The protest, organized by Mayor Jean-Marc Dion and other community leaders, was primarily aimed at persuading Ottawa to include Sept-Iles in a program that allows economically depressed regions to offer tax credits to new industries. That has not happened, but the march may have contributed to other action. When plans for the protest became public, Fisheries Minister Thomas Siddon went to Sept-Iles on Oct. 24, 1987, to announce a $9.5-million fishing-harbor project. The frustrations that are evident in Sept-Iles are also shared by residents in Schefferville— 500 km north of Sept-Iles on the Labrador border and accessible only by plane or a once-weekly train. Since the early 1950s, it was a thriving company town of about 4,000 surrounded by spruce-covered hills in one of the richest iron-ore deposits in the province. Now, Schefferville is a virtual ghost town. Most of the 150 people who are still in Schefferville are waiting for relocation allowances from the provincial government. Many of the small pastel-colored bungalows and row houses where miners and their families lived for 25 years are boarded up. The hospital, recreation centre, movie house and all but one hotel, one gas station and one restaurant are closed. Last week, Indians from the nearby Naskapi and Montagnais reserves, many of them obviously drunk, wandered through deserted streets that were covered with glass from smashed windows and discarded bottles, or roared through town in dilapidated pickup trucks and all-terrain vehicles.

Many of the residents say that Mulroney should have used his influence to ensure better resettlement support from Quebec.

Gilles Porier, who is a local grocery store owner, told Maclean's last week: “Mulroney says it is a provincial matter. He does not want to get involved.” In fact, Mulroney did not stop in Schefferville during the 1984 cam-

paign and has not visited there since then, although he has travelled to equally isolated communities during his frequent tours of Manicouagan. Said former Schefferville mayor Lina Fortier: “He was the one who closed this town, so I guess it is too much to expect that

he would do anything for us now.” Still, Baie-Comeau Mayor Theriault said last week that the significant dissatisfaction with Mulroney is limited to militants in Sept-Iles. Marc Lefebvre, president of

the Baie - Comeau Chamber of Commerce, echoed that view, saying, “It is impossible for Mulroney to satisfy everyone, and in Sept-Iles the expectations were too high.”

Meanwhile, the decks are being cleared for Mulroney to continue to represent Baie-Comeau, as the member for Charlevoix. The riding’s sitting member, Charles Hamelin, who was first elected by a comfortable majority during the Tory sweep of Quebec in 1984, has already said that he would step aside if Mulroney decided to run there.

The Prime Minister is expected to visit Sept-Iles and Baie-Comeau in mid-August, but according to senior advisers to Mulroney, he is unlikely to announce his riding decision until after he calls an election. For Mayor Dion of Sept-Iles, the choice facing Mulroney is whether he will stay in Manicouagan to finish what he promised to do. Said Dion: “The challenge for him is in Manicouagan, not Charlevoix.” But Mulroney’s roots in Baie-Comeau may prove to be more compelling—and politically attractive. Said Baie-Comeau’s Mayor Theriault: “The affection of people for a native son always outweighs other political considerations.” As the date approaches for the next election, Mulroney’s advisers are counting on that prediction to hold true.

— MICHAEL ROSE in Sept-Iles with LISA VAN DUSEN and MAUREEN ARGON in Montreal