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Labrador by-election pits Penashue against Liberal, NDP challengers

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 after he acknowledged his campaign received ineligible donations in the 2011 general election.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The federal by-election in Labrador boils down to a choice: a former cabinet minister who says he'll wield influence in Ottawa, versus Liberal and NDP challengers who say they'll chart a new course for political change.

It has also been cast as the first test of how fledgling Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair stack up on the campaign trail.

Henry White, who runs Bert's Barber Shop in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, knows how he'll vote.

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"Everybody makes mistakes," he said of Conservative incumbent Peter Penashue, who stepped down as intergovernmental affairs minister over ineligible campaign donations accepted in 2011. "I didn't vote for him before but this time I'm going to give him a chance.

"I think he did a lot for Labrador," White said during a break from trimming hair. He said his male clients in Labrador's largest town overwhelmingly agree with him.

"What are we going to do with a backbencher? Yvonne or Harry? We're not going to get nothing."

Liberal candidate Yvonne Jones is a former provincial Liberal party leader and 17-year veteran of the legislature, while Harry Borlase is a political newcomer and NDP hopeful.

Penashue has unabashedly declared that his re-election would mean a spot back in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet. The implied advantage of such inclusion in the government's inner circle was underscored last week by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, the Conservative Party's deputy leader.

He said last Monday while campaigning in Happy Valley-Goose Bay that Penashue's cabinet reappointment is "a guarantee" that's the difference between yelling at Harper in Parliament or sitting across the table from him.

Jones dismisses such tactics as "fear mongering."

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"You know it's the rhetoric of fear that they try and penetrate the voters with and most people don't buy into it," she said in an interview. "Most people are sick and tired of it.

"People have had enough of it and they want a change."

It's a message echoed by Borlase, a northern issues analyst and researcher, who said voters around the vast and often isolated riding have repeatedly said they want action on housing, social issues, the environment and pension concerns.

"People are warming up to us and liking the idea that it's not just a two-horse race in Labrador politics anymore," he said in an interview.

Penashue did not respond to interview requests but has said he stepped down to acknowledge campaign overspending in 2011 and regain the trust of voters.

Elections Canada records show he exceeded his campaign spending limit of $84,468.09 by $5,529.76 while also accepting tens of thousands of dollars in off-limits donations. They included cash from 16 listed corporations and non-monetary contributions from two airlines that flew him around the riding.

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Elections Canada now says Penashue's 2011 campaign return is final after repayments of almost $48,000, but it's not known if files were referred to the Commissioner of Elections. The commissioner can issue compliance orders or seek criminal charges through the Office of the Public Prosecutor.

Spokeswoman Diane Benson said Elections Canada does not comment on individual files. Any charges stemming from investigations are made public when the commissioner issues a news release, she said.

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