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Energy and Resources Trudeau to announce funding for aluminum project ahead of by-election call in Quebec region

Justin Trudeau stands during question period in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is heading to Saguenay on Thursday to make a funding announcement with Rio Tinto, the aluminum producer located in the Quebec region where there will soon be a by-election, federal officials said.

Federal officials said Mr. Trudeau will make the announcement alongside Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and executives from Rio Tinto, which has promised to expand its aluminum production capacity in Canada. Details of the project have yet to be publicly released.

Opposition critics are accusing the Liberal Party of playing politics to influence the outcome of the impending vote in Chicoutimi-Le Fjord, a riding that has been vacant since Dec. 1, 2017.

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The Conservatives have been calling for months for the by-election to be called, and now accuse Mr. Trudeau of having deliberately delayed the vote.

“If Mr. Trudeau thinks that he can buy votes with these big announcements before calling the by-election … it’s up to him. I think people are smart enough and we can’t wait for the actual campaign to start,” Conservative MP Alain Rayes said.

NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice said his party agrees with giving federal help to the aluminum industry in the context of the renegotiation of the NAFTA deal. The White House has given Canada and Mexico a temporary exemption from its steel and aluminum tariffs, which expires on June 1.

However, Mr. Boulerice added the upcoming announcement with Rio Tinto “has the pungent smell of electoral opportunism.”

The Liberals won Chicoutimi-Le Fjord in the 2015 general election, taking the riding from the hands of the NDP. However, Denis Lemieux quit in 2017 after only two years as a Liberal MP.

Mr. Trudeau must call the by-election to replace Mr. Lemieux before June 2, although he is expected to drop the writ sometime this month.

The Liberal Party announced this week that it had selected businesswoman Lina Boivin as its candidate. She will run against Conservative candidate Richard Martel, who used to coach the local junior hockey team and has a high public profile in the area. The NDP is expected to nominate union official Eric Dubois as its candidate.

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The federal Liberals are well positioned in Quebec, according to recent public-opinion polls. The party won a surprise victory in a by-election over the Conservatives last year in the nearby riding of Lac-Saint-Jean, fuelled in large part by Mr. Trudeau’s personal popularity.

Still, the federal government announced shortly before that by-election call that it would provide more than $10-million in funding to expand the cell-phone coverage and internet access in the region.

Liberal MP Richard Hébert, who won the Lac-Saint-Jean by-election, said Ms. Boivin is exactly what Chicoutimi-Le Fjord needs. She leads a firm called Boivin Management that provides planning and strategic advice to companies.

“For people in the Saguenay, the fact that she is known for her business acumen will be a huge boost,” he said.

International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne, who represents a riding located south of the Lac-Saint-Jean, said the federal government will continue to support Canada’s aluminum industry. He said he will campaign alongside Ms. Boivin during the by-election.

“I look forward to working with her, to being on the ground with her, to tell people that they already have many voices in Ottawa, and that adding another voice will serve their interests,” he said.

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Rio Tinto Aluminium chief executive Alfredo Barrios has said the company is looking to add another 250,000 tonnes of production capacity at its Alma, Que., smelter and 400,000 tonnes at its leading-edge AP60 facility in Saguenay.

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