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The Globe and Mail , Saturday, Jun 5, 2004

Orchard sitting and watching from the sidelines

by Graeme Smith

NEAR BORDEN, SASK. -- A spray-painted poster hangs on a fence alongside Highway 16 northwest of Saskatoon: "Liberal culture of corruption," it says.

Off the highway, at the end of a dirt road, David Orchard sits in his farmhouse and frets about the many signs that point to voters' discontent with the Liberals.

"I'm worried," he said, sipping weak tea at his kitchen table.

The 53-year-old farmer would normally be seeding his fields at this time of year, but recent rains left them too muddy for a tractor. Instead, the former candidate for the leadership of the old federal Progressive Conservative Party spent an afternoon describing why he's so afraid that a protest vote could make Stephen Harper the next prime minister, and why that might tear the country apart.

The fact that Mr. Orchard bitterly opposes the new Conservative Leader won't surprise anybody; it has been almost exactly one year, after all, since he shook hands with fellow leadership contender Peter MacKay at a Progressive Conservative convention in Toronto and signed an agreement to prevent a merger with Mr. Harper's Canadian Alliance.

When Mr. MacKay broke his promise and united the parties, Mr. Orchard went to court and remains embroiled in a legal battle over who owns the Conservative name.

That experience makes Mr. Orchard question the trustworthiness of the new party, but it's not his biggest worry.

Rather, he argues that a party with its roots in the West could dangerously weaken Canadian unity by implementing divisive policies, decentralizing power from Ottawa to the provinces, and co-operating with the separatist Bloc Québécois.

"I think it speaks volumes when they [Conservatives] talk about an alliance with the Bloc, whose stated aim is to dismantle Canada," Mr. Orchard said, comparing the Bloc's defence of Quebec interests to Mr. Harper's suggestions that Alberta should have more autonomy.

"There's a certain symmetry there when Harper talks about building a firewall around the richest province in the country and protecting it from the ravages of the poor East or the predatory central government, and what you hear out of the Bloc.

"Those views are about dismantling Canada. They're both regional, and I would say, anti-Canadian views. I'm worried about what might happen if they get into a position where they could implement their ideas."

It was almost silent inside the farmhouse that Mr. Orchard's grandfather built nearly a century ago.

He took another sip of tea and continued talking in a soft voice.

"When Harper talks about being the heir to John A. Macdonald and Borden and Diefenbaker, it's complete nonsense," he said.

"Macdonald pulled together the colonies and made a country; he wants to, in essence, dismantle it."

For all his criticism, however, Mr. Orchard still hasn't decided how to vote.

Every political party has asked for his support, he says, but he hasn't put anybody's lawn sign beside the neatly painted white mailbox at the end of his lane. He's spending the election as a farmer, not a politician.

"But I can tell you this, I won't be voting for the Conservatives," he said.

Mr. Orchard believes in preserving history. A collection of vintage cars gathers dust in a shed behind his barn, and he has kept the rotting remains of the cabin where his father was born.*

Despite the other parties' flaws, what seems to offend him most are the policy points on which he sees the Conservatives breaking from tradition.

"We're going to get smaller, meaner, cut the taxes, cut the institutions, reduce our collective power as a nation," he said. "You know, kind of a Republican-of-the-North view."

"Historically, Canadians vote against a party rather than for somebody, and if there's sufficient anger and disillusionment with the Liberals maybe some of that vote will go to Mr. Harper and company by default, without knowing what they're voting for or what they're getting into.

"That, I think, is troubling," he said.

* Webmaster's Note: David Orchard is rebuilding this log cabin homestead to its original condition as a centennial project to mark this year's 100th anniversary of his farm.

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