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ridings to watch

From left, NDP candidate Sarah Campbell, Northern Ontario Heritage Party Charmaine Romaniuk and Liberal Anthony Leek watch Progressive Conservative candidate Rod McKay speak in Kenora on Sept. 20, 2011.

As the province's political leaders plowed for votes in Southern Ontario, a more bare-knuckled version of democracy was breaking out in the North.

For the first time in 12 years, someone other than former NDP leader Howard Hampton will be sent to Queen's Park to represent the sprawling 250,000-square-kilometre riding of Kenora–Rainy River. And the candidates are desperate to persuade voters they'll find a way to bring jobs to a region that's struggled to diversify from a forestry-based economy to one driven by both mining and tourism.

In a chalet-like conference room at a Super 8 motel, candidates argued fiercely over the fine details of northern development. But they agreed on one theme – the North and its wealth of natural resources are on the rise, and the south had best not stand in the way.

"There have been great ideas in the past," said the Green Party's Jo Jo Holiday, setting the tone in the opening minutes of the debate. "But they are Toronto people who think they know the North and think it goes no further than Sudbury. We are unique and we need to be treated as such."

With Mr. Hampton out of the picture, NDP candidate (and former Hampton staffer) Sarah Campbell is in a tight fight with Liberal Anthony Leek and Progressive Conservative Rod McKay. The Northern Heritage Party – which dissolved decades ago but was recently resurrected in a bid to raise awareness of northern issues – is running Charmaine Romaniuk, an anthropology student from Lakehead University.

The party's leaders have made northern development key portions of their platforms so far in the campaign, despite its relatively few legislative seats. Both the Liberals and NDP have visited already on campaign stops, and PC Leader Tim Hudak will face NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in a debate Friday night in Thunder Bay in what is being hailed as the first "northern" debate in recent history. (Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty had previously declined to participate.)

It's a long way from the plowing matches in Eastern Ontario that the leaders took part in Tuesday, but both the NDP and Conservatives are promising to reduce the cost of electricity – a key issue in the North. And while they are likely to argue about the best way to develop northern resources, the 100 residents who braved the rain in Kenora and the candidates who want to represent them are more focused on local issues.

Campaign managers are working from a single truth: You don't win over the riding's 78,000 citizens with platforms, you win them over by campaigning against Toronto.

"It worked for Hampton for years and that's what you're seeing here tonight," one manager said afterward.

While the candidates started out amicably, the debate quickly degenerated into a series of anecdotes and personal attacks the candidates said were borne out of a sense of frustration and a desire to move beyond planning to create jobs for the region.

Mr. McKay, for example, said he knew of specific examples of companies that considered bringing jobs to the region, but didn't because of the amount of paperwork involved. He didn't name names.

"Every day I got to work and I sit at an idle sawmill," said Mr. McKay, who is the mill manager at Kenora Forest Products. "There is a lack of regard by Mr. McGuinty for the people and issues of Northern Ontario. I know our quality of life could be so much better and our economic security could be so much better with the right policies that reflect our northern way of life."

While the mainstream parties have different policies, the end goals are largely the same – to keep more of the region's wealth in the area by increasing its processing and refinement capabilities so materials are shipped elsewhere for value-added work.

There are also calls to widen highways and lower the cost of electricity to attract larger companies to set up in the region.

The NDP's Ms. Campbell name-dropped Mr. Hampton several times during her remarks as she talked about how he tried to get a regional pricing structure introduced to lower hydro prices in the North. She also relied heavily on examples of how Manitoba managed to keep hydro rates low by ensuring the system is kept in public hands.

But her casual references riled Mr. McKay, whose attack against the former NDP leader set the tone for the rest of the night.

"She says how Howard has been talking about this for 12 years," he said. "Well, that's what you get when you don't form a government and sit in opposition. All they can do is talk ... we need to fix thing so they make sense instead of sitting down with environmentalists from Southern Ontario who don't have any stake in our livelihoods in the North."

As Mr. Hudak and Ms. Horwath prepare for their northern showdown, they may want to read over Ms. Romaniuk's notes. After the other candidates bickered about each party's record in office, she took to the lectern and shrugged her shoulders.

"I'm sure glad not to be involved in any of the actual arguments here," she said. "There's not a lot to fight with me about – I just want to see more jobs."