For Prince Edward Island Premier Joe Ghiz, seeking to extend the life of his three-year-old Liberal government into a second term, some of the economic indicators were threatening. On April 27, just four days before he called last week’s election, the federal government announced that the military base at Summerside would close, taking with it 1,300 jobs and depriving the Island’s secondlargest community of an annual cash infusion of $35 million. Then, in the midst of the 26-day campaign, Statistics Canada reported that the Island’s unemployment rate in April had soared above 14 per cent compared with 11.9 in January, with nearly a quarter of those under age 25 unable to find work. As well, some farmers accused Ghiz of mishandling promotion of the Island’s famous potatoes.
But voters’ confidence in Ghiz and his Liberals was apparently unshaken. On May 29, they gave the 44-year-old premier 30 of the 32 seats in the legislature—the largest P.E.I. majority since the Liberals swept every seat on the Island in 1935. Declared one Ghiz supporter, Lawrence MacLean,
39, a heavy-equipment operator in Belfast: “If we are in trouble, this government is the one to get us out of it. For my money, Joe Ghiz is the smartest man on the Island.”
Certainly, Ghiz had conducted a skilful campaign. It took place at a time when flotillas of lobster boats had begun bobbing offshore, farmers were seeding the brick-red soil, and ferries brought the new season’s first tourists across the Northumberland Strait from the mainland. Ghiz himself, whether dispensing strawberry ice cream in downtown Charlottetown or bouncing across the tiny province in a burgundy van paying personal calls on many of its 89,000 voters, clearly offset the image of remoteness and arrogance that Conservative Leader Melbourne Gass tried to attach to the premier. In fact, Ghiz said, he spent so many hours chatting in Island kitchens over coffee and homemade pastries that “I gained five pounds; I’ve had to let out a couple of notches on my belt.” As for the rising unemployment rate, Ghiz said that the figure was “inflated” by the seasonal nature of Island jobs and by 6,000 more people joining the workforce in the past two years.
Outside of Summerside and Charlottetown—the largest city—there was actually some basis for optimism in the province known as “The Garden of the Gulf.” According to the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, a
Halifax-based nonprofit economic study group, potato farmers can expect better prices for their crop this year than last. The agency also predicted that this year’s tourist season will at least equal last year’s, when a record 700,000 visitors arrived on the Island. In contrast to other parts of Atlantic Canada, the P.E.I. fishery—which relies heavily on the lucrative lobster catch—is also buoyant. Said lobster fisher-
man James Acorn last week as he unloaded a day’s catch—600 lb. of lobster and rock crab— at Wood Islands, 40 km east of Charlottetown: “Fishermen on this side of the Island have done well for years. Right now, you can make a good living here.”
That view was echoed in the north coast Cavendish area, where beaches draw large numbers of summer tourists. Said Errol Nicholson, resident professional at Green Gables Golf course for the past 31 years and owner of a 14-cottage resort that is already fully booked for July and August: “Sure, the Summerside base closing is going to hurt, and I think the government has to do something. But we have clean air and water and beaches. You can lose industry but you can’t lose the beauty here. That stays.”
Still, the Summerside issue hovered like a black cloud over the campaign. For his part, Ghiz seldom deviated from his optimistic cam-
paign by attacking the federal government for the planned closure. Said University of P.E.I. political scientist John Crossley: “It was an interesting strategy that seems to have worked.” The Conservatives, who won the remaining two seats, clearly were hurt by the action of the federal government: while the Liberals attracted 60 per cent of the popular vote, the Tories managed to poll just 36 per cent, with the third-place New Democrats receiving barely four per cent. After the results were announced, many Tories expressed bitterness over Ottawa’s Summerside decision. Said defeated Summerside-area Conservative MLA Andrew Walker: “Unless the federal government starts thinking about Prince Edward Island, there is going to be a significant decline [in Tory support] even from the vote
we have now.” The outlook for the NDP, which has never won a seat in the P.E.I. legislature, was even bleaker after the election.
But with victory in hand, a jubilant Ghiz swiftly began working to save Summerside. One day after the election, he said that he would take the findings of a task force that has been studying the budget’s effects on the Island to Ottawa, probably this month. Declared the re-elected premier: “The deficit cannot be cut on the backs of the have-not provinces.” It was a case that 450 Islanders also plan to make later this month. They will deliver a petition to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in Ottawa on June 19, demanding that the base be kept open. The strongest expression of Island anger at the Conservatives, however, may already have been voiced—at the ballot box last week.
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