Liberals to fund high-speed Internet in Lac-Saint-Jean ahead of key by-election

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Courtesy of Globe and Mail

The federal government is set to announce more than $10-million in funding for improved high-speed Internet service and cellular coverage in Quebec’s Lac-Saint-Jean region, just before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls a by-election in the area, Liberal sources said.

The previously Conservative riding of Lac-Saint-Jean is vacant, and the Liberals are hoping their popularity in the polls in Quebec could help them cause an upset. Since 1958, the riding has elected a Liberal MP on only one occasion, in 1980.

The Liberals are leaving nothing to chance in the riding, with a number of campaign-style activities ahead of the official by-election call.

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Mr. Trudeau spent two days boosting support for his party in the riding in late July, attending a large street festival and meeting local politicians and union officials. The Liberal Party’s Quebec caucus is also holding its summer meeting this week in the city of Alma, which is in the riding, to showcase its 40-member contingent from the province in the House.

The high-speed Internet and cellular-coverage announcement will be made on Thursday in the riding by Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains and International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne. The funding will come from a $500-million program called Connect to Innovate, which aims to help 300 rural and remote communities “to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the digital age.”

The Lac-Saint-Jean announcement will be the first under the federal program.

According to local officials, the Lac-Saint-Jean area and the neighbouring Saguenay region suffer from a chronic lack of modern technologies, especially in smaller municipalities and heavily wooded areas.

“When you’re trying to attract companies to invest in the area, the first thing they ask is whether you have high-speed Internet and cellular-phone coverage,” said André Paradis, who is mayor of Saint-Henri-de-Taillon, which is in the riding.

Mr. Paradis added that local and regional authorities have put together an $8.5-million plan, including a request for $2-million in federal funding, to improve Internet and cellphone access in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean. He said he will be closely monitoring Thursday’s announcement.

“This is a big deal in terms of our economic development,” he said.

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There are gaping holes in cellular coverage along key roads in the area, causing safety concerns among local residents. A federal official said the funding will start to address the problem.

According to a Léger poll released last week, the Liberal Party of Canada is the dominant political force in Quebec with 43-per-cent support, well ahead of the NDP (19 per cent), the Bloc Québécois (16 per cent) and the Conservative Party (15 per cent). The poll of 1,002 Quebeckers has a margin of error of three percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Pollster Jean-Marc Léger said that Lac-Saint-Jean is within the Liberal Party’s grasp, despite its traditionally poor showings in the riding. Since 1980, the riding that is currently known as Lac-Saint-Jean has voted twice for Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives, five times for the Bloc Québécois and four times for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

“In a riding like Lac-Saint-Jean, things are becoming tight. There are few seats in Quebec that are not within the reach of the Liberal Party right now,” Mr. Léger said in a recent interview.

The Conservatives are bracing for a fight to hold on to the riding, which they took over from the Bloc Québécois in 2007, when former Roberval mayor Denis Lebel made the jump into federal politics. Mr. Lebel announced in June that he was leaving politics and joining the Québec Forest Industry Council.

The Conservatives plan to fight the Liberals on a few key issues: the softwood dispute with the United States, the recent influx of asylum seekers in Quebec, agricultural policy and the decision to legalize marijuana by next July.

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