France Gélinas is a most unusual politician.
She openly admits to turning 180s, boasts about 360s and is determined this summer, once the June 12 Ontario provincial election is over and done with, to master her flips. She is, of course, talking about wakeboarding, not politics. The grandmother of six will also talk about being a bush pilot, rowing competitively and snowboarding – where she has already landed a perfect flip.
She will, as well, happily talk about her political campaign, though there may not be much point to it given that her seat, Nickel Belt, may be the safest NDP seat in the province. Previously known as Sudbury East, the Northern Ontario riding was held for 20 years, 1967-87, by Eli Martel, and 20 more by his daughter Shelley.
Ms. Gélinas had served as executive director of Sudbury’s Community Health Centre and was the party’s choice in 2007 to represent this working-class riding that fits like a horseshoe around the city and stretches both north and southwest. She held the seat in a tough 2007 battle with the Liberals, but more than tripled her lead in 2011.
Neither the lacklustre showing so far of NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, nor the “deeply distressed” letter of concern from 34 NDP heavyweights, appears to have affected her standing in the race against Progressive Conservative Marck Blay and Liberal James Tregonning. She and staff say that, if they knock on 10 doors, nine are supporters and eight will even offer to take a lawn sign. An exaggeration, surely, but the lawn sign battle is, so far, no contest in Nickel Belt.
And yet, worry remains. “Support is strong at the door when they talk to us,” says Ms. Gélinas, “but will they vote? The biggest problem here is complacency. They feel, ‘France is doing well, I’m not going to bother to vote.’ That’s a real fear.”
In a comment that she fears may come across as “sexist,” Ms. Gélinas adds that her personal fear has to do with women voters. At many doors, there is not even an awareness of an election – and she believes she knows why.
“A lot of women tune politics out completely,” she says. “My workplace [Queen’s Park] is a group of old rich white guys screaming at the top of their lungs, saying things to each other you wouldn’t say to your dog.”
She knows politicians are not highly regarded these days – “We bring it on ourselves” – but she also knows that people, particularly those in need, look to politicians for help. Her riding, fortunately, is far better off than most in the North. Because of the high price for base metals, mine production is near capacity and work is abundant.
“People are happy when they have a job,” Ms. Gélinas says.
That said, there are serious to critical issues in this election that are particular to Northern Ontario. First, says the candidate, is the price of electricity. There is outrage over rising energy costs due to poor strategy and the government’s $1.1-billion gas plants scandal.
The second hot issue is the price of gasoline. On a drive from the South, gas prices were $1.29 per litre and jumped to $1.41 a litre in Sudbury, barely 90 kilometres farther along Highway 17.
“There is simply no logical explanation except for gouging,” says Ms. Gélinas. “They know people here have jobs and money, so they will pay.”
If enough voters show up at the polling booth to keep Nickel Belt in the party that has held it for 47 years, she promises to work for, at the very least, a weekly gas-price cap to take away wild fluctuations at the pumps.
Third is mine safety. Two recent deaths at the nearby Lockerby Mine brings to six the number of such tragedies over the past two years. “You can only attend so many funerals,” she says.
And finally, there is the singular issue that binds all of Northern and Northwestern Ontario regardless of whether there are local jobs to be had or not: Toronto.
“We cannot even get a proper debate in the North,” Ms. Gélinas says dismissively.
If the mineral-rich Ring of Fire were located in Southern Ontario, she says, a blue-ribbon panel would have long ago been struck, special tax breaks and subsidies would be in place and development would be under way. Because it’s far to the north, it remains in limbo, future uncertain.
“I hate it when people in Toronto tell us how to do things,” she says. “We live here. People live in the Ring of Fire. We have mineral wealth that can help everyone – it could be a real game changer.”