Stephen Harper is heading to Northern Canada in the days after his former chief of staff Nigel Wright begins testifying at the Mike Duffy trial, a campaign itinerary that will take the Conservative Leader far from the story as it begins unfolding in an Ottawa courtroom.
Mr. Harper’s chartered election plane is expected to fly to the Northwest Territories Thursday and Nunavut on Friday before heading south again.
The Conservative Leader has made a habit of touring the North for about one week each summer as part of an effort to cement a legacy in the region – from defending sovereignty to promoting development – and he cancelled this year’s trip in favour of an early election call. His campaign stumping in the territories by comparison will be brief.
Campaign spokesman Kory Teneycke declined to discuss Mr. Harper’s itinerary this week, saying the Tories will “probably spend a couple of days” in Northern Canada along the way.
He dismissed the notion the Harper campaign is setting its travel itinerary by the Duffy case.
“The trial’s going to be going on for three weeks during the middle of the campaign. We’re going to go to every corner of the country while the trial is on. And everywhere we go, we’re going to have a bus or plane full of media and [we’ll be] taking questions from them,” Mr. Teneycke said.
The Conservative campaign has consistently played down the likelihood of political blowback from the Duffy case, reasoning that Mr. Wright, a former stalwart in the Tory party – who helped manage its fundraising arm and repeatedly encouraged Mr. Harper to run for leader –– will take any blame upon himself rather than shift it to others.
Nonetheless, the Duffy scandal is expected to generate fodder for the NDP and Liberals when the PEI senator’s trial resumes Wednesday and Mr. Wright, once the senior-most aide to Mr. Harper, testifies for the prosecution.
Mr. Duffy, who was appointed to the Senate by Mr. Harper, faces 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery and has pleaded not guilty.
The Crown is not expected to spend much time examining Mr. Wright, a wealthy businessman who quit the Prime Minister’s Office in May, 2013, after it was revealed he gave Mr. Duffy $90,000 to reimburse taxpayers for questionable expenses claimed by the PEI senator.
The RCMP dropped its criminal investigation into Mr. Wright 16 months ago and prosecutors are solely focused on Mr. Duffy.
Donald Bayne, defence lawyer for Mr. Duffy, is expected to keep Mr. Wright in the witness box. Mr. Bayne has shown an appetite for long and gruelling cross-examinations of the prosecution’s star witnesses and sources have told The Globe and Mail he’s planned days of questioning to make his case that Mr. Duffy did not break the rules of the Senate with his claims for living allowances.
Of the three northern territorial ridings in Canada, the Conservatives are currently incumbents in two: Yukon and Nunavut. They’re trying to wrest the Northwest Territories from the NDP’s Dennis Bevington.
To that end, Mr. Harper is travelling to Hay River, NWT, on Thursday. Former territorial premier Floyd Roland is running for the Tories in this riding. Michael McLeod, a former NWT MLA, is running for the Liberals in the riding.
On Friday, Mr. Harper will head to Nunavut, where Conservative candidate Leona Aglukkaq is defending her seat. Mr. Harper is expected to visit Iqaluit. Hunter Tootoo, the former speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut, is representing the Liberals in the territory. The NDP has yet to nominate a candidate there.
Earlier this week, the Harper plane will head to B.C. and then stop elsewhere in Western Canada before turning north.
Mr. Harper has made security the focus of his campaign in recent days, with a proposal to make it a criminal offence to travel to regions within foreign countries where terrorist groups such as Islamic State are engaged in hostile activities – with exceptions for journalists and aid workers.
On Monday, the Conservative Leader promised a re-elected government would welcome 10,000 additional refugees from Syria and Iraq to Canada – making a home here for more people displaced by Islamic State militants in the Mideast.
He also pledged to spend $9-million over three years to help the Office of Religious Freedom, an entity created in 2012 by the Conservatives, to protect places of worship and religious artifacts targeted by the Islamic State.
The Conservative campaign is the only one that has so far launched a campaign plane, although in this case the Tories are using a Flair Airlines jet temporarily before switching to an Air Canada aircraft in the weeks ahead.
With reports from The Canadian PressReport Typo/Error