By Connor Lynch
BARRY’S BAY — Talk to someone from his hometown, a small town south of it, or another an hour east. Odds are, they know John Yakabuski and they like him.
PC MPP John Yakabuski (Renfrew-Pembroke-Nipissing) crushed the competition in the provincial election earlier this year, winning by a staggering margin of 25,000 votes, almost 70 per cent of the vote. He won by the highest margin of any politician, making him the most popular candidate out of more than 600 in the province who ran in the last election. How did he do it?
Affectionately nicknamed the Yak, the 61-year-old has long had the gift of the gab and a knack for drawing people in. Long-time golf partner Gerry Bloom always marvels at Yakabuski’s ability to work a room. “He never forgets anybody’s name. He’ll meet 25 or 30 people when you’re out with him, and he’ll remember everybody.”
Growing up in Barry’s Bay, a small community of about 1,300 two hours northwest of Ottawa, was a chance for young Yakabuski to refine a natural talent with people. Ottawa Hospital President and CEO Jack Kitts, who grew up with Yakabuski, saw it from an early age. The middle child of 13 siblings, Yakabuski could’ve easily blended in, but stood out. A gifted storyteller with a knack for making an interesting story out of two ubiquitous subjects, fishing and walking the railroad tracks, he always had something interesting to say. He followed the news, perhaps because his father was away doing his duty as an MPP at Queen’s Park for so long. Said Kitts: “He always seemed to know what was going on.”
Growing up, Yakabuski shared a room with five brothers. He now shares it with his wife, Vicky. Back in the day “there were a few bloody noses, pillow fights and fistfights,” Yakabuski said. “But when it came down to it, we were always there for each other. When you come from a big family, you have to learn how to compromise and get along.”
Sports and politics were two dominant influences in Barry’s Bay. People picked teams with the same fervour. Yakabuski could always resolve a dispute in a game of pick-up hockey. Said Kitts: “If there was any confusion about who was going to end up on what side or about getting things going, John would say: ‘This is how this is going to work.’ ”
A straight shooter with a knack for making people feel listened to, Kitts wasn’t at all surprised at Yakabuski’s success in politics. “What you see is what you get,” she said.
Yakabuski was an aggressive hockey player: Tall, lanky, but a hard skater, hard shooter, and solid. Opposing players would bounce off him and Yakabuski certainly had no issues bouncing another player to protect a teammate.
As a student, his teachers would say he “had a lot of aptitude and a lot of attitude,” Yakabuski said. “I wouldn’t call myself a studious person. I liked to rabble-rouse and have fun.”
Politics is often a popularity contest. So, if you didn’t already know Yakabuski from school or down at the rink, you met him at the hardware store. Yakabuski took over the store in town that his grandfather started and ran it for 20 years. He benefited from the double effect of increasing his profile and further improving his people skills. “Managing a business, once you know the basics, is an issue of managing people,” Yakabuski said.
He brought a personal touch to the store, said local resident Holly Skuce. “He was always in the store. Always greeted people by name.” It made a big difference to the residents of a small town, she said. “You go to a box store and they don’t know you from a hole in the ground.” So, if people could find what they were looking for at Yakabuski’s, that’s where they went.
Yakabuski sold the business, which later became an outdoor equipment store, in 2001.
He considered becoming a Church minister at a Lutheran church east of Barry’s Bay. A father of four, the ministry turned out not to be a good fit. But it was a natural extension of the people-loving man, raised with values of community, charity and getting along in a place where those traditional values go a long way. He got his real estate licence, as did his wife, in 2002. Then came the big break in 2003. Longtime incumbent MPP Sean Conway announced he wouldn’t run for re-election. Yakabuski had said he would never run against his cousin Sean. Then PC MPP Norm Sterling called and told him, “You have no excuse now.”
Conway’s 30 years at Queen’s Park as Liberal MPP busts the myth that this is a Progressive Conservative stronghold. Personality is king. Yakabuski squeaked in as an opposition MPP in 2003, winning by 645. It was the only new riding the Tories picked up. His father’s legacy was a huge part of that success. Yakabuski lost the urban centre of the riding, Pembroke, but took his father’s old riding. Once he was in, he moved quickly. At the next election, in 2007, he won by a little over 15,000 votes.
He brought his good-natured aggression to Queen’s Park. Even in opposition, he scored local points when he managed to convince the government to give almost $10 million to the Renfrew Victoria Hospital for its dialysis project. Madawaska Valley Township Mayor Kim Love said Yakabuski was instrumental in helping secure funding to deal with the regional flooding last year.
Said Kitts: “He’s always been a very good speaker. He speaks from knowledge, and from the heart, and doesn’t seem to ever have notes.”
The Yak has also had the good fortune of representing a riding that has a history of retiring politicians rather than voting them out. Once they pick a candidate, they tend to stick with them. That included Yakabuski’s father, Paul Yakabuski, who held the now-dissolved riding of Renfrew South for 24 years. He died the very same day that he was to retire, at age 65.
To get into politics successfully in that vast swathe of the Ottawa Valley, a 12,584 square kilometre stretch, means having the hometown touch. Attending events, shaking hands, being known and being seen in all the small communities that dot the region. It’s gotten him his first shot at making policy as well; after 14 years in opposition, he’s now Minister of Transportation.
Being somewhat of a celebrity singer doesn’t hurt either. Yakabuski can be found singing O Canada to open games for the Pembroke Lumber Kings Junior “A” hockey team and he sang a few Irish tunes at a St. Patrick’s Day parade. He also sings in the office, said constituency assistant Nikki Berry, as well as at birthday parties and holds sing-alongs at nursing homes. “He sings from the truck to the office. He sings every time he has a mike in his hand. He sings all the time.”
Yakabuski’s recorded and released two CDs to raise money for local hospitals and long-term care homes. The first CD, To Your Health, raised over $50,000 for five local hospitals in Renfrew County. Both were mostly country songs, with a few spiritual pieces mixed in. One tune, The Far Side Banks of Jordan from the second CD, was sung in a duet with Ottawa Valley entertainer Gail Gavan. I t was the most requested song on Valley Heritage Radio in Renfrew for a year.
No matter where you go in his home riding, there are people that know Yakabuski and remember seeing him in town. Gary Smaglinski, who runs the G&S farm equipment store at Cobden, has seen Yakabuski at more local events than he can remember. “It doesn’t matter what the hell you go to; a retirement, a wake, he’s there.”
Yakabuski thinks he’s nailed down the secret of being popular as a politician. “Make sure they know you don’t put yourself in any special place. You’re just one of them, with a different job to do.”