For more than three years, Yvonne Jones has battled to keep the fortunes of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Liberal Party alive, leading her tiny caucus against the Conservative juggernaut in the House of Assembly, her speeches often drowned out by cries from the better-stocked government benches.
For the last year, she has performed the job while fighting breast cancer, juggling radiation treatments with Question Period and insisting she would lead her troops into October’s provincial election.
But on Tuesday, her immune system weakened in the wake of the illness, Ms. Jones said she would reluctantly step down, leaving her party leaderless just two months before the vote.
“I am sad and I’m a little angry,” she told a roomful of supporters at a St. John’s hotel. “I am feeling cheated by cancer from doing something I have dreamed of doing my entire political life.”
Ms. Jones, who fought back tears and spoke with a voice made raspy by a throat infection, indicated her cancer was under control but that her white cell count was still low. Over the last month, she had been experiencing fatigue and was increasingly susceptible to viruses and other ailments, she said.
The announcement echoed that of another politician, federal NDP Leader Jack Layton, who two weeks ago took a leave of absence to battle cancer.
And like Mr. Layton, who said he would return to work in the fall, Ms. Jones was emphatic that she was not done with politics, saying she will stand for re-election in her Labrador riding.
Ms. Jones’s resignation will take effect once a new leader is named. With so little time left before the election, however, it is unclear how a leadership vote will be held.
The party executive was scheduled to meet Tuesday night to decide what to do; one official described the situation as “uncharted territory.”
Premier Kathy Dunderdale issued a brief statement wishing her opponent well: “In her role as leader of the Official Opposition, Ms. Jones has made a significant contribution to provincial politics. I commend her for continuing to serve in that role during the period of her diagnosis and treatments for cancer.”
Ms. Jones is a caucus stalwart, first elected in 1996 and serving in the cabinet of Roger Grimes, the Liberals’ last premier. She became interim leader in late 2007 and was the only candidate for the permanent job last year.
While she initially took time off to undergo cancer treatments, she worked full-time through the spring legislative session.
The Liberal Party has struggled in the eight years since it was swept from office by the popular Conservatives. It currently holds just four seats to the Tories’ 43. The NDP has one.
Opinion polls have consistently suggested the governing party will win a strong majority of the popular vote, with the Grits registering less than 25-per-cent support.
But while such a gloomy forecast may dispirit her party, Ms. Jones gave no sign she was troubled by the Liberals’ prospects. The only reason she had waited until so close to the election to step down, she said, was because she had hoped she could stay on.
“Those who know me know I wanted this more than anything in the entire world,” she said, referring to her job as leader. “This was not a decision I took lightly.”