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NDP MP Paul Dewar speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 14, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
NDP MP Paul Dewar speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 14, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Leadership Race

Dewar adds Northern Ontario to his NDP debate itinerary Add to ...

So far it’s a debate of five – maybe six – and counting.

Paul Dewar was the first to accept. He had no choice given he’s been beating the drum for the NDP to hold more than six leadership debates.

The Ottawa Centre MP is one of nine candidates running to succeed the late Jack Layton as leader. He wasted no time in signing on to a debate in Northern Ontario on Feb. 5 after the invitation was sent out late Tuesday afternoon.

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Montreal's Thomas Mulcair is in. And Toronto MP Peggy Nash said she’s “prepared” to join as well.

Quebec’s Romeo Saganash and Manitoba’s Niki Ashton, both of whom represent northern ridings, have also accepted the Sudbury invitation.

Last week, Mr. Dewar objected to the fact the party had scheduled only six debates in advance of the March leadership vote. The first is scheduled for Ottawa on Dec. 4 and Mr. Dewar has proposed increasing the number of debates in each region.

There’s been some controversy over the party’s decision. There were no debates scheduled for Newfoundland, Alberta or Ontario (till now).

Richard Eberhardt, president of the federal NDP riding association in Sudbury, is organizing the Northern Ontario event. He said he is not backing one candidate over another but wants to hear from each of them about how they would handle issues pertinent to their region.

“I do hope to hear from all camps within the next few days,” Mr. Eberhardt told The Globe. “So far, we are happy that Paul Dewar’s team has accepted.”

There are 10 Northern Ontario ridings, six of which are represented by the NDP and four are Conservative. Mr. Eberhardt notes that in 2006 seven of the ridings were held by Liberals, two by the NDP and one by the Conservatives.

Poverty and homelessness are issues that resonate in the cities across the region. There are also a number of first-nation communities with problems that need to be addressed.

In addition, Mr. Eberhardt says the region is rich in resources and of course there are concerns over mining and foreign ownership of resources. How would a leader handle this?

But one issue, he said, that is not so much on the radar is the long-gun registry. Glenn Thibeault, who represents Sudbury for the NDP, supported the long-gun registry before the last election and was returned to Ottawa with an even stronger mandate than in the 2008 federal vote. His Conservative opponent campaigned against the registry.

The gun registry is, however, divisive for New Democrats seeking the top job. According to Postmedia News, Mr. Dewar, Ms. Nash and former party president Brian Topp support reinstating the program should the NDP form government. B.C. MP Nathan Cullen and three others said doing so would be unwise.

There is a precedent for controversy around debates in Northern Ontario. In the fall’s provincial election, Dalton McGuinty declined an invitation to debate local issues with Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and the NDP’s Andrea Horwath.

In the end, the two debated alone and the Premier was accused of not respecting the region. The Liberals were returned to government but were reduced to a minority in part because of losses sustained in Northern Ontario.

Mr. Topp, the perceived front-runner in the federal NDP race, told The Globe he is waiting to hear from the party if it is changing the debate schedule.

“I'll show up to all of them – although I encourage the party to maintain the rough linguistic balance of the current schedule, and urge other candidates to do so as well,” he said in an email.

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