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Michael Gravelle, middle, is the Liberal incumbent in the riding of Thunder Bay-Superior North. (Brent Linton for The Globe and Mail)
Michael Gravelle, middle, is the Liberal incumbent in the riding of Thunder Bay-Superior North. (Brent Linton for The Globe and Mail)

Ridings to watch

Shoe on the other foot for Thunder Bay's Gravelle Add to ...

For most of his political career, Michael Gravelle has been seen as a fighter for his hometown of Thunder Bay – a little guy, literally and figuratively, standing up to those who would neglect Ontario’s Far North.

This fall, he’s fighting charges that he’s the one doing the neglecting.

Such is the mixed blessing of spending the past four years as Northern Development Minister for a government perceived not to have done enough to develop the region. So what was once one of the safest Liberal seats in the province is now up for grabs, with Mr. Gravelle one of several northern Liberal MPPs fighting for their political lives.

But who the real contenders are in Thunder Bay-Superior North, a sprawling riding that includes half of northwest Ontario’s largest city and some more far-flung communities, is less clear.

Historically, this part of the province has swung between Liberals and New Democrats. And the NDP’s candidate, Steve Mantis, has an impressive personal story: Since losing his arm in a 1978 construction accident, he has devoted much of his life to advocating on behalf of injured workers. But he does not have a high profile in the riding, and has little political experience.

In an interview, Mr. Mantis appeared unfamiliar with his party’s platform – incorrectly implying the NDP is calling for personal tax increases for high-income earners. And on the subject of “change,” the bread and butter of opposition politicians, Mr. Mantis struck an unusual (if admirably candid) tone. “If you elect me, and expect me to make the change, you’re fooling yourself,” he said. “The way we make change is we work with our elected officials.”

The Progressive Conservatives are offering no such qualifiers. And despite their dismal history here, there’s a chance northern alienation will drive voters toward the right this time.

“Special-interest groups have the ear of government in Toronto,” Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs, a self-identified conservative, said in an interview. “We don’t want some bureaucrat in Toronto telling us how we should develop the North.”

The victory last year by Mr. Hobbs, a former police commander, suggests the political winds might be shifting. If so, PC candidate Anthony LeBlanc seems well-suited to take advantage.

A former Research in Motion executive who heads Ice Edge, the group that tried to bring the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes back to Canada, the 41-year-old cuts an impressive figure. If he wins, he would be a lock for cabinet – which raises the question of why, having grown up in Thunder Bay but lived most of his adult life elsewhere, he’s not running somewhere he could win more easily.

Mr. LeBlanc framed it as a matter of trying to ensure that others don’t have to find work elsewhere. “My niece is 16 years old,” he said, “and she’s already worried that when she graduates Lakehead she’ll have to leave.”

He was buoyant about his prospects. “At the beginning, I would’ve said it was a long shot,” he acknowledged. “Now, I can honestly tell you that I think a worst case for us is a three-way race. It may even boil down to a two-way race between us and the NDP.”

If the Liberals really are in that rough shape in Thunder Bay, it’s because a familiar sense of northern alienation from the provincial government has hardened into acute resentment toward Dalton McGuinty.

In his first term as Premier, by many accounts, Mr. McGuinty didn’t take much interest in the North – the mill and factory closings, the job losses, the declining population. Mr. Gravelle, who won by more than 17,000 votes when the Liberals swept to power in 2003, edged the local NDP candidate by fewer than 2,500 in 2007.

Since then, critics claim, the Liberal Leader’s policies have hurt the area. Rising energy prices are alleged to have contributed to the woes of the manufacturing industry. And the Far North Act, which protects half the resource-rich region from development, has proved controversial legislation.

Mr. Gravelle counters that the government has made major investments in the forestry sector, partnered with Ottawa on capital investments and committed to a new law school at Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University. He calls the Far North Act “misunderstood.”

Still, he concedes life was easier back when he was an opposition MPP.

Standing up for his riding is a challenge in a cabinet post that requires him to represent an entire region, as shown by a recent debate about how to maximize the economic potential of chromite mining. “We are very committed to the processing facility for the ‘Ring of Fire’ being located in Northern Ontario,” Mr. Gravelle said, “and I’ll acknowledge that I came under a little pressure because I wasn’t, as the local member, insisting that it be in my riding.”

But a popularity contest among candidates, rather than leaders, remains Mr. Gravelle’s best shot. On a day trip through the riding in July, from the unveiling of a refurbished town plaza in tiny Terrace Bay to dinner with the Pays Plat First Nation, he was greeted like a local boy made good.

His opponents will say he’s become part of the establishment, fighting for Mr. McGuinty instead of the people who elected him. It’s an argument that will be echoed against Mr. Gravelle’s Liberal colleagues in Northern Ontario, and if the little guy can’t escape it then it’s unlikely many of them will either.

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