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Toronto Star, December 1, 2006

David Orchard is in the house -- once again

By Thomas Walkom

MONTREAL -- Could David Orchard end up deciding who gets to be the next Liberal leader? At first glance, the idea seems bizarre. But the Saskatchewan organic farmer and anti-free trade agitator -- who twice came close to capturing the Progressive Conservative crown -- has surfaced at the nail-biting Liberal leadership convention at the head of a band of 175 fiercely loyal delegates, most of whom are determined to support whatever candidate he chooses.

Right now, says Orchard, that is Quebec MP Stéphane Dion.

"He has more cabinet experience than all of the rest put together," Orchard says over tea, at the cavernous convention centre where this leadership extravaganza is being held.

"If Stephen Harper is going to be stopped, he has to be stopped in Quebec. And Dion can do that. Besides, I like his environmental agenda."

Canada's political elites don't have much time for Orchard. He's a zealot, in an age when zealotry is viewed with suspicion. He's a perennial outsider in a game dominated by those desperate to be inside players.

Journalists, while they may find him intriguing at first, soon weary of his single-mindedness. He has no talent for small talk. He doesn't schmooze.

Worst of all, he keeps going on about the issues that consume him -- such as the problems caused by the North American free trade agreement or the need to protect Canadian sovereignty -- even after the media begin to find these topics boring.

But to his followers, he is an almost Messianic figure.

Joan Tomblin-Morris, a B.C. physician waiting to be bumped up from alternate to delegate status, says she first encountered Orchard in 1987 when, out of curiosity, she attended one of his meetings on free trade.

His ability to master the complicated details of the Canada U.S. Free Trade Agreement amazed her, she says. He could not only reveal their internal contradictions but explain them in clear language.

So, like most Orchardites, she's been with him since. In 1998, she followed him into the Tories when he took on Joe Clark for the leadership -- and came close to winning. "I didn't really want to be a Conservative," she admits. But she soldiered on, becoming president of her riding association. When Orchard made his second leadership bid in 2003, she followed.

That was the contest in which Orchard threw his support to Peter MacKay, thereby allowing the Nova Scotia MP to win. In return, MacKay promised never to merge with Harper's hard-right Alliance party.

When MacKay reneged, Orchard fought the merger -- unsuccessfully -- in the courts. Eventually, he and his supporters abandoned the Conservatives. Last January, he quietly joined the Liberals. His followers, as always, followed.

And so the fabled Orchard organization went to work. In mid-August, he announced his support for Dion. By the end of September, Orchardites had captured a solid bloc of Liberal riding associations -- mainly in Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. -- for the Quebec contender.

Their speciality was to focus on ridings with no sitting Liberal MP, where the party organization was thin. So now Team Orchard is in Montreal. They are bunked in at an apartment hotel in a seedier part of town. Each evening, they hold a pep rally.

Orchard is coy about who he would support if Dion is eliminated during the voting tomorrow. "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," he said, smiling.

But in an election that promises to be perilously close, his 175 or so delegates could play a significant role.

Technically, about 5,500 Liberals are entitled to vote for their leader. But the convention costs are so steep (a delegate has to pay $995 just to register) that not all are expected to show up.

Orchard already has more committed delegates than last-place contender Martha Hall Findlay. By the time registration closes today, Orchardites here could easily outnumber those committed to other faint-hope candidates such as MPs Scott Brison and Joe Volpe.

As Orchard sips his tea, a Saskatoon delegate wearing a Michael Ignatieff scarf stops to talk. He is committed to the Toronto MP on the first ballot. But he does not plan to stay there. Ralph Goodale, the Liberal godfather in his province, has been urging him to switch to Bob Rae. But the delegate ("Please don't use my name") thinks he'll probably go to Dion.

That's what he wanted to tell David Orchard.

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