Peter Penashue did not expect to be in the federal cabinet, but the Labrador MP may be one to watch in Ottawa’s political firmament.
Peter Penashue did not expect to be here. Even after two decades in leadership roles with the Innu Nation, he acknowledges he didn’t know if Labrador was ready for him as a federal politician. Courted by the Harper Conservatives, Penashue finally agreed to throw his hat in the ring. “Here I am, I’m 47 years old, if I’m going to do it, or give it a go, this is the best time to do it,” he recalls.
Penashue knew it would be an uphill battle. Federally, Labrador has been painted Liberal red in all but four of the 62 years since Confederation. In fact, the sole time a Conservative won the seat was all the way back in the 1960s. Penashue thought he may not win the first time out, but the campaign would allow people to get comfortable with him, giving him a better chance whenever the next election rolled around. But halfway through the campaign, something changed. Penashue realized he was electable. On the night of May 2, the CBC decision desk declared him defeated. But the last polls counted pushed him over the top (the subsequent recount reduced his margin of victory to a razor-thin 79 votes).
He was the only Conservative left standing in the province, with all six of the party’s candidates defeated on the island of Newfoundland. Those included a bevy of party heavyweights — a federal ambassador, a senator, a coterie of former provincial cabinet ministers. Instead of becoming a backbencher looking for assistance from a regional cabinet minister, Penashue is the one at the table, appointed to the intergovernmental affairs portfolio. “Every morning I get up and I ask myself was that a dream,” he says. “Am I still the minister (in) the federal government?”
It’s been a long journey from his early days in Innu politics. But times change. In years past, he helped lead the fight against low-level f lying in Labrador. Today, he cites the continued existence of the local military base, 5 Wing Goose Bay, as a key priority. But he sees no contradiction in the two positions. “In my younger days I opposed low-level f lying. Low-level f lying is not a program within the military these days, it’s much more high level.”
Penashue does acknowledge that he did not foresee his shift from Innu politics to the federal realm, given the activism of his younger days. “When you’re representing an aboriginal group, you’re obviously very focused on promoting one sector of a cultural group, and most of that time is spent on opposing and taking the positions that are contrary to what other people are looking to do, until your issues are addressed from an aboriginal perspective. That’s what I did for 20 years … But I think I’ve done that part, and I’ve completed a lot.”
The list of accomplishments over those two decades is significant. There were successful lobbying efforts that convinced the government to relocate Innu from primitive conditions at Davis Inlet to the newly-constructed settlement of Natuashish. There were negotiations that led to the Innu Nation inking an industrial benefits agreement, including royalties, with the owners of the Voisey’s Bay mine. And Penashue has also developed business interests in Labrador.
But the crowning achievement was the Tshash Petapen agreement, or New Dawn, negotiated with the provincial government. New Dawn saw the Innu and the province settle three crucial issues — redress for the Upper Churchill hydroelectric project; an impacts and benefits agreement for the pending Lower Churchill development; and a land claims agreement-in-principle. “That was a very big accomplishment for us,” Penashue says. “Many of us spent our lives working on it … I think 200 years from now people will say it’s a good agreement.” After a series of delays, the Innu ratified New Dawn this summer. The vote was 90 per cent in favour, according to Penashue.
Ed Martin sat across from the negotiating table from Penashue hammering out the details of New Dawn. Martin — CEO of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Crown-owned energy corporation, Nalcor — says Penashue was a “tough but fair” negotiator.
“He was tough to read initially,” Martin recalls. “He was quiet and thoughtful, but had the ability to be very forceful. So I was trying to read him at the outset. But he’s the type of person, I think, you want to take your time and get to know Peter. I’ve grown to have immense respect for him.”
Martin says Penashue took time to understand issues in detail, absorbing and listening. When he finally spoke, he knew what he was talking about. “He stood his ground, but he was also open to different perspectives. He didn’t close his mind. And then when he felt he had the information, he’s not afraid to make a decision …
“He has the ability to see the big picture. Don’t ever underestimate Peter Penashue. He’s a sharp guy.”
Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia have been pressing for a federal loan guarantee to aid the Muskrat Falls hydro development on the Lower Churchill river — a request the prime minister agreed to during the recent election campaign. Penashue is now Newfoundland and Labrador’s federal cabinet representative as work continues to implement that promise. Ironically enough, he is opposed on that issue by his own mother, Elizabeth Penashue, who has publicly said she is proud of her son’s victory but believes he is wrong to push for the river’s development. (For the latest on the status of the federal loan guarantee, go to our website — www.atlanticbusinessmagazine.com — and click on the “update” in the online version of this story.)
Tim Powers — a Conservative commentator and vice-president of Ottawabased government relations, research and communications firm Summa — says Penashue is the right person in the right place at the right time. “I think from a Newfoundland perspective, and a pan-Atlantic perspective, having a minister from the province, first of all, at the federal cabinet table at a time when there are some significant industrial projects in play was crucial. I think the unique thing about Peter coming in is, first of all, he’s from Labrador where the Lower Churchill project is — we all know the significance of the Lower Churchill project to the province and the country. Even more important, Peter has a long history with economic development and economic opportunity in Labrador. He knows the project, knows the players, knows the importance.”
Powers first met Penashue about two decades ago, as an opponent of low-level flying. “He’s very good at turning adversaries into allies,” Powers says. “He has a very persuasive ability about him. People who deal with him tend to have great respect for him, see him as a person of good character, and somebody never to be underestimated.” In fact, Powers says, Penashue later became business partners with many of those he once fought on such issues.
Meanwhile, Penashue himself acknowledges he has much to learn in Ottawa. “My job now has been trying to understand the process, trying to understand government, trying to understand who’s who,” he says. “I’m trying to get a feel for who has the responsibility for what, and who all the players are. Over a period of time, obviously, I’ll get better at this job and (start) feeling more comfortable.”
He adds: “It’s been one hell of a ride.” And this part of the journey has just begun.