At an all-candidates’ debate on Monday night in Burk’s Falls, a village of 1,000 in the Ontario riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka, Conservative MP Tony Clement stood at a small wooden podium, emphasizing the need for a “strong, stable majority government.” His promise to abolish the long-gun registry was, in this community of hunters, met with big cheers. Clement and three other candidates fielded questions on everything from CBC funding to industrial espionage, but things really heated up midway through the evening when local Liberal campaign manager Dan Waters stepped up to the microphone and asked Clement about news that was making headlines everywhere, it seems, but in Burk’s Falls.
Earlier that day, the Canadian Press had cited a draft report from Auditor General Sheila Fraser suggesting the Conservatives “misinformed” Parliament to win approval for $50 million invested in the riding for last June’s G8 summit, held at the Deerhurst Resort in nearby Huntsville. It suggested the process by which funding was approved may have been illegal. The story set off a firestorm, though by day’s end, a later, less damning draft was making the rounds—one that omitted suggestions of illegality or of misinforming Parliament, though it was still critical of the government.
At the candidates’ debate, Clement urged the crowd not to “jump the gun,” and to wait for Fraser’s final report. He then took a harder tack. “They’re suggesting that you or I have something to be ashamed of because we got infrastructure funding. Billions of dollars were spent across this country on roads, bridges, waterworks, you name it,” he said to loud applause. “We got our fair share, and I will never be ashamed of that.”
Campaigning across this riding in a minivan that shows a huge picture of his face—mocked as the “Tonymobile” by NDP candidate Dr. Wendy Wilson—Clement spends a lot of time “cake cutting and ribbon cutting,” says Bruce Hickey, who’s handling media for him. Clement, who claimed through Hickey to be too busy with local events to be interviewed for this story, has only spent two days outside the riding since the election was called. All this pounding the pavement has made an impression on people like Huntsville retiree Glen Vay. “Clement’s a Muskoka boy,” he says. “Who wouldn’t like having a high-profile minister in their riding?”
But critics have accused Clement—who won by only 28 votes in the 2006 federal election, and by about 10,000 in 2008—of using G8 money as his personal re-election fund. In the run-up to the G8 summit, the Tories were “spraying money around like drunken sailors in Tony Clement’s riding,” as Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff colourfully put it this week, spending on everything from beautifying Gravenhurst ($1.2 million) to “feature signage” at the Port Severn Gateway ($1 million). The draft report suggests that a team including Clement, Huntsville Mayor Claude Doughty and Deerhurst’s general manager picked the 32 projects that were funded without necessarily considering the summit’s needs, but Doughty and Clement have publicly denied anything improper. (Even so, it’s hard to imagine the visiting world leaders took advantage of new public toilets built, at a cost of $274,000, 20 km from the event site.)
Huntsville’s new Canada Summit Centre, which cost the federal government about $17 million, houses an Olympic-sized hockey arena, a fitness centre and a 14-person hot tub. Nearby Deerhurst Drive, a picturesque road that leads to the resort, was fixed up at a cost of about $1.9 million, and is dotted with signs boasting of G8 infrastructure investment. Before it was reconstructed, the road had some “Muskoka texture,” says Doughty. “It’s much smoother now, so limousines and motorcades could fly along there.”
Clement’s “done a lot for Huntsville, there’s no doubt about it,” says Debbie, who lives near the Deerhurst Resort. (She asked that her last name not be used.) “When I moved here 34 years ago, there wasn’t even a swimming pool,” she says, adding that the Canada Summit Centre will hopefully help attract more young professionals to the area.
Most residents don’t seem to be complaining, and investing in prominent infrastructure projects is a well-worn political tactic. Even so, the news catapulted ethics back to the forefront—after being mostly ignored during the first two weeks of campaigning—as the leaders headed into the debates. And despite last summer’s cash infusion, Clement hasn’t yet convinced everybody in his riding. Marcia Kuehnen, who attends a playgroup at the Summit Centre with her eight-month-old son Wolfgang, admits to feeling “conflicted.” The building is “a beautiful feather in Huntsville’s cap,” she says, but she’s troubled by such lavish spending while poverty plagues other parts of the community. And while that G8 spending was “nice to have,” says Keith Hurst, a retired farmer in Burk’s Falls, “I didn’t see any of it up here.”
Vay, who moved to Huntsville from Toronto four years ago, welcomes the improvements. In fact, this July, he’s hosting an event he jokingly calls the “G60” at the Deerhurst Resort—his 60th birthday party.