ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Pre-writ spending by the Conservatives ahead of a federal byelection in Labrador adds up to an unfair advantage, says the Liberal candidate.
"They can spend all the money they want right now and it doesn't go into the campaign," Yvonne Jones said from Happy Valley-Goose Bay. "I'm starting out, I don't have all that kind of money to spend."
Jones, a feisty breast cancer survivor who was back on the job as a provincial Liberal member while still under radiation treatment two years ago, will resign after 17 years in the legislature as soon as Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls the byelection.
She said she's getting organized and feels good about her chances to replace Conservative incumbent Peter Penashue whenever the race officially starts.
Harper can wait until mid-September under federal election laws but there are hints of an earlier move.
"They have four people on the ground here from Ottawa, from the (Conservative party) campaign office," Jones said. "We know that they have their office space up and ready to go. So that's all an indicator that something may be happening sooner rather than later."
Penashue pulled off a surprise victory in 2011, beating Liberal incumbent Todd Russell by just 79 votes in one of the safest Grit ridings in Canada. It was the only Conservative win in the province and Russell has decided not to run again.
Penashue made history as the first Innu named to the federal cabinet but quit as intergovernmental affairs minister last month and announced he'd run in a byelection. The former Innu leader blamed his former official agent for mistakenly accepting 28 separate illegal contributions during the 2011 campaign.
They included cash from 16 listed corporations and non-monetary contributions from airlines Innu Mikum Partnership and Provincial Airlines Ltd. which flew Penashue around the vast Labrador riding.
Penashue said in an interview that those mistakes, still under investigation by Elections Canada, won't be repeated in the byelection.
"This time around it's different. We're much more organized and I have a lot more support administratively."
Since he quit, Penashue has promoted his work as an MP in newspaper ads and on the website deliveringforlabrador.ca, which was registered three days before his resignation. He is also door-knocking around the riding and says the reception so far has been good.
Penashue said it's fair to showcase his declared achievements, including a federal loan guarantee for the $7.7-billion Muskrat Falls hydro project and funding for the Trans-Labrador Highway.
"Obviously we are spending money and we are advertising pre-writ, but that's all legitimate because it's important that we put out the information, the work that I've done in the last two years."
Elections Canada spokeswoman Diane Benson said the Canada Elections Act generally governs spending during an official campaign. Still, some pre-writ expenses will count toward a spending cap — calculated according to a formula based on the number of voters and the size of the riding — that will be released once the byelection is called, she said.
"For example, the cost of setting up a website, maybe printing signs or pamphlets. You're paying for things that are bought beforehand but if they are to be used during a campaign they have to be included as an election expense."
NDP candidate Harry Borlase has also been actively campaigning in recent days with the support of NDP MP Ryan Cleary, representing St. John's South - Mount Pearl.
Katie Rich, the former chief of the Innu community of Davis Inlet, now Natuashish, recalled the excitement over Penashue's election. She said he was well respected as an outspoken Innu leader who fought low-level military flights in the 1980s and helped win lucrative benefits from the Voisey's Bay and Muskrat Falls developments.
"There were a lot of people that were extremely proud that he got in and that he was sitting in the House of Commons representing the Innu of Labrador," she said in an interview. "And then he went quiet.
"I guess he got muzzled as well, like the rest of them."
News of the 2011 spending violations was a shocking disappointment, Rich said.
"With all the negative stuff that has been coming out, I believe he has no chance of winning this election."