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Canada Apathy Valley: Why this Ottawa-area riding is dreading election day

Emerson Charitable of Eganville, Ont., in the riding of Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, says he won’t bother voting in the Ontario election.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Finally, someone in Ontario not upset over hydro costs …

That, of course, would be because David Hoover doesn’t use any. Nor do any of the dozen or so Mennonite families that, four years ago, relocated to the Ottawa Valley from Southwestern Ontario and dramatically transformed several rundown and neglected farms around the village of Douglas into thriving, electricity-free operations.

“We have no problem with the government,” Mr. Hoover says. “We pray for the government every day.”

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The small Mennonite community will pray – but not vote – on June 7. Others not voting are more likely to curse.

The young in the riding of Renfrew−Nipissing−Pembroke are far from engaged in this strange provincial election that will ultimately be decided by those who are against rather than those who are for.

“If you’re going to make promises,” 22-year-old Emerson Charitable of Eganville says, “at least live up to them.”

Mr. Charitable will not bother voting. He sees no point in it, trusts no politician. As for 19-year-old Nathan Lindsay, also of Eganville, he intends to pass on his first opportunity to cast a ballot.

“I’ll probably go fishing,” he says.

Nathan Lindsay, 19, doesn’t plan to vote on June 7.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A sign points the way to Eganville, Ont., which lies in Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, a riding four times the size of PEI.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In Burnstown, Ont., at the corner of Calabogie Road and Burnstown Road, election signs jockey for attention alongside signs promoting plant and bake sales.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The riding of Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke runs through the stark, beautiful and unyielding Canadian Shield from the Ottawa River to the eastern boundary of Algonquin Park. It is four times the size of Prince Edward Island, a vast constituency of forestry and farms, villages, small towns and two significant population centres, Pembroke and Renfrew.

It has such a deep conservative streak that it was here in Eastern Ontario that the Canadian Alliance broke through federally in 2000. Cheryl Gallant has been re-elected, as a Conservative, five times since.

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Provincially, the riding has been held by John Yakabuski since 2003. The 60-year-old Conservative is so entrenched and liked in the riding – he not only attends most social events, he sings at them – that he is, once again, the heavy favourite.

As more than one local put it during a Globe and Mail trek through the riding last week, “If God was running here, he’d be runner-up.”

“I never take anything for granted,” Mr. Yakabuski says. “But the response I’ve been getting has been very positive.”

Since 2003, Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke has been held provincially by John Yakabuski of the Progressive Conservatives.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

If Mr. Yakabuski has any problem here, it may be with his leader, Doug Ford. Though Mr. Ford came to Renfrew early in the campaign and packed a hall with roughly 1,000 supporters, many say the crowd turned out to support Mr. Yakabuski and to take their own measure of this unknown man from distant, in more ways than one, Toronto.

“He was tremendously gracious,” Mr. Yakabuski says of Mr. Ford. “He stayed until he’d shaken every hand in the place.”

Jackie Agnew of the Renfrew County Housing Corporation will carry the Liberal banner into the election. She says she hears one constant refrain when going door to door: “They don’t want Doug Ford.”

It also appears that they don’t want Kathleen Wynne, and Ms. Agnew is quick to acknowledge a general unhappiness with the Liberal Leader and current Premier.

“I just try to explain the facts to them,” Ms Agnew says. The Liberal government, she says, has had to pay for infrastructure, hydro included, that was neglected or slashed during a previous Conservative government. That the Liberals have held power for 15 years, not surprisingly, makes this a difficult argument.

Election signs for Ms. Agnew’s Liberal campaign.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ethel LaValley, a former mayor for the village of Whitney, is running for the New Democratic Party, and says, “The people I talk to have nothing against John Yakabuski, but they want change.” And that change, she is convinced, does not involve Mr. Ford. “This guy’s scary,” she says.

Ish Theilheimer, a local musician and writer who ran in four previous provincial elections for the NDP, believes that Ms. LaValley, a member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan, is a “great candidate. It’s great to have an aboriginal woman running for us and such an effective person. She’s overcome a lot of adversity.”

The question is, of course, can she overcome the local popularity of Mr. Yakabuski and get the provincial desire for change to go to her side rather than the Conservatives?

There are undecided voters in Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke. Sam Coulas, a 26-year-old teacher’s assistant who lives in Renfrew, says she is determined to vote but uncertain as to where that vote might go.

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“I’ll have to do some research,” she says.

There are multiple local issues – mental-health care, seniors care, dead zones for WiFi that affect businesses, the continued widening of Highway 17 to four lanes – but leadership remains the one constant. Will Ontario choose to go with Mr. Ford, stick with Ms. Wynne – or shift to the NDP leadership of Andrea Horwath?

Sean Conway, who held part of this riding (Renfrew North, before it was redrawn) for the Liberals for 28 years and served as education minister in the David Peterson government, believes Mr. Yakabuski, his cousin, has nothing to worry about. He also thinks it’s entirely possible that Mr. Ford’s populist personality might “play well” in places such as Wilno and Killaloe and Round Lake Centre.

“They like their politicians colourful and a bit independent,” says Mr. Conway, now a university lecturer. “John’s dad, Paul Yakabuski, Jim Dempsey and the legendary Jimmy Maloney were three very popular and – in their own ways – very colourful politicians from that area.”

The senior Mr. Yakabuski held his seat for 24 years, 1963-1987, Mr. Dempsey from 1945-1955 and Mr. Maloney from 1956-1961. All were Conservatives.

Jim Bennett, 75, a semi-retired trucker who lives in Eganville, says he’ll be voting Conservative because he always does. And besides, his wife, Merna, grew up near John Yakabuski’s wife, Vicky, in nearby Augsburg, a tiny community not far from the Bonnechere River.

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“Any time you’ve got a problem,” he says, “John’s always there to help. I think we’ve been well-blessed around here.”

Jim Bennett, shown outside his Eganville home, plans to vote PC again.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A few miles along Highway 60, at a baseball diamond on the outskirts of Renfrew, Frank Belanger is putting his team of Special Olympians through a softball practice. The 69-year-old has spent his life working and volunteering with those with special needs. He considers himself a natural NDP supporter, as his father was, but he also has great admiration for Mr. Yakabuski.

“He’s never lost an election, you know,” Mr. Belanger says. “I’d vote for him myself – if Doug Ford wasn’t involved.”

Frank Belanger, 69, after softball practice near Renfrew.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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