Progressive Conservative candidate Jim Lester won a clear victory on Tuesday night, November 21, in Mount Pearl North riding, a district left vacant when MHA Steve Kent resigned in October.
Lester will now join the PCs in Newfoundland and Labrador’s House of Assembly in St. John’s. He beat Liberal candidate Jim Burton, NDP candidate Nicole Kieley, and independent candidate Hudson Stratton.
Kent, a minister serving in the cabinets of Paul Davis, Kathy Dunderdale and Tom Marshall, was also a former contender for the PC leadership and resigned to become Mount Pearl's chief administrative officer.
Lester's victory is not altogether surprising — he secured the support of Kent, who has long been personally popular in the riding, having previously served as mayor.
A leaked email from Kent, though, obtained by CBC NL, drew some public scrutiny and even open concern from current Mayor Dave Aker. Kent, according to a piece by CBC NL's Terry Roberts and Rob Antle, sent an email to Lester's supporters which makes reference to notes authored by himself and Andrew Ledwell, a current city councillor. The article, which includes comment from Lester's campaign spokesperson, frames the email as one which "paints a portrait of someone who is playing an advisory role in the campaign."
An interview request made to Lester on November 19 was not acknowledged. Liberal candidate Jim Burton's campaign responded to request for comment, but the candidate could not be reached for press time.
Lester spoke with the media following his victory and highlighted the issues of resettlement and outmigration, calling events of the past two years "nothing short of tragic." Falling oil prices and overspending from Newfoundland's Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, compounded by a quickly aging population, have imperiled the province's short-term finances and helped created a dismal longer-term picture.
"In the past two years, we've seen one of the biggest resettlements in the last decade. We've seen young families have to leave once again for their futures", Lester, a farmer and agritourism operator, told CBC NL, NTV and radio station VOCM.
Tiny communities in Newfoundland continue to occasionally vote for resettlement, a practice that extends back to the 1960s. Under the provincial government's current community relocation policy, individual households may receive over $250,000 if the community votes by a margin of 90 percent to approve resettlement. The practice is meant to save money through withdrawal of services by the provincial government.
Nicole Kieley, the race's NDP candidate and director of the NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre, also highlighted the province's compounding demographic challenges, including outmigration, tying them to economic factors.
"Absolutely, I did," Kieley told rabble.ca, when asked about how much she had heard about Newfoundland's outmigration problem, bleak financial situation and renewed discussion of outmigration. Kieley described the impact of provincial government budgets that make Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, "feel like there's nothing here for us."
"[Outmigration's] the impact of that,” Kieley continued.
“From seniors that have lived here their whole life (to) say, 'I'm going to retire but not live in Newfoundland', to young families or individuals that are saying 'I'm going to have to find jobs elsewhere and better places that are taking care of our families.'
“That is, unfortunately, something that is a reality — and happening all too often in Mount Pearl North."
Kieley emphasized particular policies that are needed to reverse the province's demographic challenges, such as increases to the minimum wage, increasing child-care affordability, and ending regressive taxation.
Newfoundland and Labrador currently ties with New Brunswick for the lowest minimum wage in Canada ($11.00 per hour).
Kieley came in third place after Lester and Burton, unsurprising overall given the NDP's position provincially — but her showing of 24.7 per cent is nonetheless significant, given the small number of districts in Newfoundland where NDP support has been able to coalesce.
Cory Collins writes for rabble.ca and other publications. He lives in St. John's.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Lester would be joining the ruling party in Newfoundland. Lester will be joining the Progressive Conservatives, who are in opposition.
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