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Former cabinet minister Peter Penashue is pictured at a news conference in November, 2012. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced a by-election for the seat vacated by Mr. Penashue last month, after he acknowledged his campaign received ineligible donations in the 2011 general election. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
Former cabinet minister Peter Penashue is pictured at a news conference in November, 2012. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced a by-election for the seat vacated by Mr. Penashue last month, after he acknowledged his campaign received ineligible donations in the 2011 general election. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Today's Labrador by-election a test for Conservative ex-cabinet minister and Trudeau Add to ...

The voters of Labrador are being told they must elect a former Conservative cabinet minister who broke election spending rules or settle for someone who will not have the same kind of clout around the cabinet table of the Harper government.

The polls are open Monday in the least populous riding in Canada, ending a five-week race that will determine whether Peter Penashue, a former Innu Nation grand chief, has convinced the people of his riding that he deserves a second chance.

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Mr. Penashue resigned from Parliament in March after an Elections Canada investigation found his 2011 campaign accepted 28 illegal donations, including $18,710 from Provincial Airlines and $27,850 from other corporate donors. He has since repaid the money with the help of the Conservative party.

The contest has been characterized as the first test of Justin Trudeau’s ability to draw the kind of support his Liberals need to begin the climb back from third place in the House of Commons.

But, even before Mr. Trudeau was elected as his party’s leader on April 14, polls were suggesting that Mr. Penashue faced an uphill climb. One survey conducted in early April indicated that Mr. Penashue was trailing badly behind Liberal candidate Yvonne Jones, a former leader of the provincial Liberals in Newfoundland and Labrador.

And although NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair visited the riding more than once in support of his candidate Harry Borlase, it seemed from the outset that it was the Liberals to lose – perhaps because Todd Russell, the well-liked Liberal incumbent, lost by just 79 votes two years ago to a competitor who had spent more than he was allowed.

Mr. Penashue’s response has been to assert that, without him as their MP, the riding would be represented by an inconsequential opposition backbencher – and the grace from Ottawa that been extended Labrador’s way would come to an abrupt end.

To emphasize his sway with the Conservative government, he told The Labradorian newspaper that he had withheld federal funding from Newfoundland projects in order to convince the province to pay for the paving of the Trans-Labrador Highway.

Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, his former caucus colleagues were regularly singing his praises in the House of Commons.

“Peter Penashue delivered on the Muskrat Falls project to deliver jobs for his constituents,” Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre replied when questioned by Liberal Scott Simms about Mr. Penashue’s use of a taxpayer-funded flight on the same day he launched his campaign website. Mr. Penashue helped get rid of the long-gun registry and defended the seal hunt, said Mr. Poilievre.

The opposition responded by suggesting the Conservative party was trying to skew the by-election in Mr. Penashue’s favour.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who decided against running one of her own candidates in the race to prevent vote-splitting on the left, asked for the federal Ethics Commissioner to investigate a $1.4-million spending announcement Mr. Penashue made his riding just four days before he resigned over the illegal donations to his 2011 campaign.

The request was refused. But, in the early weeks, that sort of message seemed to be resonating with the people of Labrador.

One poll suggested 57 per cent of voters would not consider supporting Mr. Penashue and a majority of respondents said they did not believe he had brought major investments to the riding during his two-year tenure.

Ms. Jones has told reporters that the people of Labrador are fed up and want a change.

But Mr. Penashue says he does not believe the results of the public-opinion surveys. “There’s a lot of support at the door,” he told the Canadian Press in late April. “People like what I’ve done for Labrador and people like the representation I’ve given Labrador.”

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