The riding covers all of Labrador and with just 26,000 people located in the riding it is the least populous in Canada. From 2005 to 2011, the riding was represented by Liberal MP Todd Russell. He was defeated by ConservativePeter Penashue in the 2011 federal election. Following allegations of irregularities in his campaign spending, Penashue announced on March 14, 2013 that he would resign his seat and run again as a candidate in a new by-election. Penashue subsequently lost the by-election to Liberal candidate Yvonne Jones.
This riding is the least populous in Canada. Citing the region's highly distinct identity and seeing it as a community of interest they have the legal duty to respect, successive electoral boundary commissions have used their ability to make exceptions to the general electoral quotient to maintain Labrador as a separate riding.
The electoral district was created in 1949 upon the admission of Newfoundland to Canada. Between 1949 and 1988, this district was attached to the Island of Newfoundland, where more than half of its electorate resided. Liberal MP Bill Rompkey held the seat from 1972 till his appointment to the Canadian Senate in 1995. Lawrence O'Brien was later elected in a by-election and held the district until his death in 2004.
A by-election was held on May 24, 2005, with the result tipping the balance of the evenly split 38th Parliament. The Liberal candidate, Todd Russell, who was heavily favoured, ended up winning, but with a reduced percentage from the 2004 election.
On December 16, 2004, MP Lawrence O'Brien died of cancer, the next year Prime Minister Paul Martin called a by-election for May 24, 2005. There was a possibility the by-election would not be held because of a non-confidence vote the week prior. The non-confidence vote would have toppled the government sending Canadians to the polls, which would have superseded the by-election. However, the motion failed by one vote, ensuring the by-election.
The seat has traditionally been a Liberal stronghold, and O'Brien always carried the riding with comfortable pluralities. However, the federal Liberals had lost popularity in Atlantic Canada since the 2004 federal election largely due to disputes with the Progressive Conservative provincial governments of these provinces, especially that of Newfoundland and Labrador over the relationship between offshore oil revenues and equalization payments.
Historically, governing parties fare poorly in federal by-elections. However, this by-election was especially significant due to the make-up of the 38th Canadian Parliament. Following the 2004 election, the Liberals and the New Democratic Party held 154 seats together, or exactly half of the 308-seat House of Commons. After Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish was expelled from that party, the two parties' combined total (prior to O'Brien's death) had been reduced to 153 (or 152 who are eligible to vote since the Speaker was elected as a Liberal). The Liberals were anxious to retain the seat, as its loss would have left the opposition Conservative Party of Canada or the Bloc Québécois as the only viable partners for the Liberals to get legislation passed in the House. Former Liberal MP David Kilgour had left the party, further reducing its strength.
Since the general election, it had been suggested that the New Democratic Party refrain from contesting by-elections in seats where the Liberals were strong but the NDP are not, to avoid splitting the vote and thus help improve the chances securing a better position for the NDP in the House. Labrador would certainly be a prime example of such a seat — the NDP finished a distant fourth in the 2004 election. However, historically the NDP has been adamant in contesting all by-elections, and NDP leader Jack Layton showed little interest in any such proposal. The NDP nominated Frances Fry on April 23 feeling it had a chance in this seat due to the Liberal fall in polls and the fact that the provincial NDP had one of its two seats in Labrador.
Called on the death of Lawrence O'Brien, 16 December 2004
In the end, the Liberals picked up an easy victory, as expected, but while their actual vote total did not go down by much, their percentage of the vote went down over 10 points from the previous election as turnout was over 9% more than in the 2004 election. This high turnout is virtually unheard of for by-elections which normally have extremely poor turnouts. The additional voters appear to have been brought out by the tense national political situation and mostly voted for the Conservatives who picked up nearly 17 percentage points and the New Democrats who also increased their vote total.