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Justin coasting on East Coast

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Justin Trudeau campaigns at an event in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Labrador last month.

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Justin Trudeau campaigns at an event in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Labrador last month.

HALIFAX -- It's being called the first test of Justin Trudeau's leadership. But it may come to be remembered as a rebuke to the Harper government and its arrogant brand of politics.

Voters in Labrador head for the polls May 13 in a byelection that will have as much to say about the likely losers as about the clear favourites to win.

The Liberals are the favourites. Yvonne Jones, a former leader of the provincial party, was the choice of an astounding 63 per cent of respondents to an opinion poll released in mid-April, a lead so large that the four per cent margin of error is hardly worth mentioning.

Just one in five of those polled planned to vote for Conservative incumbent Peter Penashue, the former minister of intergovernmental affairs, leaving him a slight lead over NDP candidate Harry Borlase.

The byelection promises to be more of a cakewalk than a test for Trudeau. And it could not have come at a better time, and in a better place, for the newly crowned Liberal leader, who's facing a barrage of Tory ads questioning his experience and judgment.

Labrador is known as The Big Land. The vast riding is almost three times larger than Newfoundland but with fewer than 27,000 residents is also the country's smallest federal district in terms of population. It has been a Liberal stronghold since confederation in 1949.

The riding had fallen to the Tories only once before Penashue, Canada's first Innu cabinet minister, won it by 79 votes in 2011. Ironically, that was in 1968 when it rejected Trudeau's father in favour of Robert Stanfield's Progressive Conservatives.

Trudeau campaigned in the riding the week after he won the leadership and urged Labradorians to send a message to Prime Minister Stephen Harper by rejecting his politics of "division and attack."

"Stephen Harper isn't afraid of me," he told supporters in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. "They're afraid of every single Canadian across this country standing up and saying, 'You know what? We deserve better.' "

Labrador offers fertile ground for Trudeau's counterattack. The riding's disgraced incumbent has become an embarrassment for the Harper government.

Penashue resigned in March after admitting he had accepted illegal campaign contributions during the 2011 election -- 28 separate donations totaling almost $48,000. Adopting his party's strategy on the robocall scandal, he claimed ignorance and blamed an underling, "an inexperienced volunteer" he had previously considered experienced enough to serve as his official agent for the campaign.

Despite the possibility the illegal spending helped Penashue eke out his narrow victory last time, the Conservatives have forged ahead as if nothing happened. He's once again the party's candidate and the Harper government's snap byelection call ensures the race will be over long before Elections Canada completes its investigation into the tainted donations.

Harper himself not only commended Penashue for doing "the right thing under difficult circumstances," he declared him "the best member of Parliament Labrador has ever had."

The riding's best-ever is embroiled in a nasty fight to hold onto the Conservatives' only seat in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Penashue claims he blocked federal money earmarked for a project in Newfoundland for six months until he was able to secure $85 million for work on the Trans-Labrador Highway. He offered "no apologies for putting Labrador first."

But those remarks outraged his provincial counterparts. Progressive Conservative Premier Kathy Dunderdale said a federal minister must represent the entire province. A member of her cabinet who took a similar stance, she added, would be fired.

Ignoring his own dirty laundry, Penashue accused MLA Yvonne Jones of "robbing" taxpayers of "tens of thousands of dollars" and refusing to pay back the money. The truth is less damning -- she was one of dozens of provincial politicians from all three parties caught up in a spending scandal. Jones, who has represented a Labrador riding in the provincial legislature for 17 years, denies any wrongdoing and paid back $12,000 she double-billed taxpayers.

The desperation of Penashue's campaign took on a note of ineptitude when an advertisement in the Labradorian newspaper touting his efforts to scrap the long-gun registry referred instead to the "ineffective long-run registry."

Liberal support has surged in Atlantic Canada. The latest Nanos poll pegged party support at 43 per cent here, a dozen percentage points ahead of the Conservatives, and Penashue appears destined to become the first casualty of this rising red tide.

Harper, meanwhile, has said the people of Labrador will decide whether Penashue is fit to represent their interests in Ottawa. The message they send on May 13 will be heard far beyond the borders of The Big Land.

Dean Jobb, a professor of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, is the Winnipeg Free Press East Coast correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 J1

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