Mulcair, Trudeau cross swords in Newfoundland where NDP and Liberals are in battle

Both Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are in Newfoundland today, where the election is a battle between New Democrats and Liberals with Conservatives relegated to the sidelines.

The two leaders are appearing today in the riding of St. John's South–Mount Pearl

Tom Mulcair speaks to a large NDP crowd in the "friendliest" province and goes jigging for cod. 1:51

Both Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are in Newfoundland today, where the election is a battle between New Democrats and Liberals with Conservatives relegated to the sidelines.

The NDP holds the two St. John's ridings, which both include parts of the city and the surrounding area. The Liberals are expected to retain the other four on the island, and are also gunning to keep Labrador from Conservative Peter Penashue. The former Conservative cabinet minister lost the riding to Liberal Yvonne Jones in a 2013 byelection, but recently announced he would be running against her again in Labrador.

St. John's South-Mount Pearl is one of the few — maybe only — seats on the island up for grabs. Both leaders are holding events there today.

(Another volatile seat is nearby Avalon, where incumbent Scott Andrews is running as an independent after being kicked out of the Liberal caucus over allegations of sexual misconduct. He is up against Liberal Ken McDonald, Conservative Lorraine Barnett, who was chosen as the Tories' candidate after Ches Crosbie was rejected, and the NDP's Jeannie Baldwin. Krista Byrne-Puumala is the Green Party candidate and Jennifer McCreath is running here for the Quebec-based party Strength in Democracy.)

Both of the St. John's ridings used to be reliable seats for the Conservatives, held up until 2008 by former Progressive Conservatives Norman Doyle and Loyola Hearn.

A sign for St. John's South—Mount Pearl NDP candidate Ryan Cleary is seen in Petty Harbour, N.L. on Sunday. (Evan Dyer/CBC)

But in that year, Newfoundland's Conservative premier Danny Williams became embroiled in a bitter dispute with Stephen Harper over equalization payments, and launched his ABC campaign, asking Newfoundlanders to vote "Anything But Conservative." The party lost all three seats it held on the island and has never had a presence since.

St. John's South was won by Liberal Siobhán Coady, but in 2011 she went under as the orange wave swept over the province. The man who won the riding, Ryan Cleary, seemed like an unlikely New Democrat.

He was on the record for having described the party as having "losers," "granolas", and "artsy-fartsies". He also had a well-known penchant for talking about Newfoundland independence, and was editor-in-chief of The Independent, a newspaper published under the banner of the green-white-and-pink tricolour often known locally as the "Republic of Newfoundland" flag.

From journalists to politicians

In 2008, just months before his first run at winning the seat, he wrote: "I don't want to seem ungrateful, but now that we're rolling in the cash it may be time to consider breaking away from the country of Canada."

"If we're teetering on the edge of economic independence anyway, why not go all the way?"

Today, Cleary says his views on the topic have changed.

In the old Newfoundland tradition of electing journalists as politicians, the Liberal running to unseat Cleary spent many years as a broadcast journalist with CTV.

Seamus O'Regan was also a speechwriter for former Newfoundland premier Brian Tobin. He is the son of a well-known former judge of Newfoundland's Supreme Court, also called Seamus O'Regan.

As of today, O'Regan is slightly favoured to win the seat for the Liberals, but the NDP are mounting a stout defence.

So today, both Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau will cross paths here, with Trudeau speaking at a high school and Mulcair jigging for cod at Petty Harbour, as each leader tries to steer Newfoundland's only swing riding into their column.

'Tom cod' and an apology

Local supporter Brian Murphy came up with the idea to take Mulcair fishing, and the NDP leader joined the crew of the Southern Gale out of Petty Harbour, fishing for cod. 

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, centre, is joined by candidates Ryan Cleary, left and Jack Harris, right, as they jig for cod aboard the Southern Gale in Newfoundland on Sunday. (Evan Dyer/CBC)

Fishing with an old-fashioned hand jigger, Mulcair soon got a bite on his line. When he hauled it in it turned out to be what's known locally as a "tom cod," a smaller relative of the true codfish.

Also on board were Cleary and St John's East candidate Jack Harris.

Mulcair mentioned his Irish roots in a place where many voters share the same origins. And he flattered Newfoundlanders by calling them "the friendliest people in Canada" at a well-attended rally in the St. John's Sheraton. 

But his attempt to connect with Newfoundland voters may have been hurt when his Liberal rivals dredged up an old comment he once made in Quebec's National Assembly.

In a 1996 argument over the terms of a Quebec referendum, PQ member Léandre Dion said his party was following the example of the Newfoundland referendum on joining Canada, by insisting that 50 per cent plus one, was enough. 
Mulcair replied: "It's true that it's pretty 'Newfie,' your business. You're correct to say it like that."

St. John's East Liberal candidate Nick Whalen jumped on the remark. "Newfoundlanders are forgiving, but also smart enough to recognize that using 'Newfie' as a synonym for 'stupid' perpetuates cruel and baseless stereotypes against us," said Whalen.

"Someone with the base instinct to use 'Newfie' as term to denigrate his political opponents, needs to prove that he has changed his ways. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians need a prime minister who respects us."

When asked about the comments Sunday, Mulcair said his words had been poorly chosen, and that he "apologized unreservedly," again mentioning his Irish roots. 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the incumbent in Labrador is Conservative Peter Penashue. In fact, Yvonne Jones has held the riding for the Liberals since 2013.
    Sep 20, 2015 10:57 AM ET