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Canadian Press, Friday, January, 4, 2008

Rift opens in Liberal party over appointment of NDP MLA to run in Saskatchewan

by Joan Bryden

OTTAWA - Irate supporters of David Orchard are warning that Liberals will lose a coming byelection in northern Saskatchewan now that Leader Stephane Dion has chosen to appoint an NDP defector as the party's candidate.

And even though Dion's chosen candidate, Joan Beatty, is an aboriginal woman, some native leaders are suggesting it's racist to bypass the democratic nomination contest in the heavily aboriginal riding.

"There is an Indian Affairs mindset and this is it to the core, the old Indian agent mentality we all know too much about," Metis leader Jim Durocher says in an angry letter to Dion, obtained by The Canadian Press.

"The idea that 'we' know better than 'you' the people, what is good for you."

Durocher says his people "know in their bones about colonialism" and adds: "The central point is that the people of this riding resent, and I personally resent mightily, the attitude of certain southerners that they know what's best for our riding."

Orchard, an anti-free-trade activist and two-time contender for the Progressive Conservative leadership, was instrumental in helping Dion stage a come-from-behind victory in the 2006 Liberal leadership contest. In an interview Friday, Durocher estimated that Orchard's organization delivered at least 150 delegates for Dion, without which he likely couldn't have won.

Dion, who initially appeared to give his blessing to Orchard seeking the nomination in Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River, appointed former Saskatchewan cabinet minister Beatty late Thursday. The byelection in the riding will be held March 17.

Durocher said he's disappointed that Dion has shafted Orchard after all the Saskatchewan farmer did to help him in the leadership race. "It's not very principled. It's not very fair."

Orchard's supporters sent out e-mail messages Friday urging Liberals to pressure Dion to change his mind. Letters from Durocher and another native supporter, sent last month in bid to forestall Beatty's appointment, were also being circulated.

Joseph Iron writes that Orchard is popular and well-known among aboriginal voters, having joined a 1992 native blockade in the riding to prevent clear-cutting of a forest. As a result, he says native voters have been joining the Liberal party in droves to support Orchard's bid to become the candidate in Desnethe.

"If they do this (appoint Beatty) and hurt Dave, I won't bother with the Liberals any more. I will go with the NDP and my family too," Iron writes. "I think the chiefs will have something to say about this too. And that is without even talking about democracy."

Durocher, a two-time former Liberal candidate himself, predicts the Liberals will lose Desnethe with Beatty.

"Let me tell you something bluntly," he says in his letter to Dion. "If you impose Joan Beatty, the Liberals will lose this riding."

Moreover, he says he and many other aboriginals in the riding won't vote Liberal.

"If this travesty occurs in Desnethe, if you sir lose sight of the basic proposition that the people of the north, be they my people, white or First Nation, have the basic right to select their own candidate, unless some emergency, I personally will not vote Liberal ... I suspect many others will in fact vote Conservative or stay home."

In an e-mail urging Orchard supporters to exert public pressure on Dion to change his mind, Rose-Marie Larsson says a "prominent chief" in the riding has asked Orchard to tell Dion that "as far as I am concerned, if he makes an appointment, our people won't even bother to show up to vote.

"He may as well hand the riding to the Tories."

Gary Merasty won the riding for the Liberals in 2006 by a mere 67 votes over his Tory competitor. Merasty resigned abruptly last summer.

David Smith, co-chairman of the national Liberal campaign, on Friday defended Dion's decision to appoint Beatty. He noted that Dion has made it a priority to get more women involved in politics, and said Beatty - the first aboriginal woman to be elected to the Saskatchewan legislature - is exactly the type of candidate the Liberals need.

"Sometimes politics and leadership are all about making tough decisions, and Stephane decided that this was the right decision so he made it," Smith said in a telephone interview from Toronto.

"We're prepared to bite the bullet to demonstrate that our commitment to increasing our number of women candidates - particularly well-qualified ones - is very real."

Dion was not available for comment.

As a provincial politician, Beatty represented the large northern Saskatchewan constituency of Cumberland, which falls within the boundaries of the federal riding.

Beatty, who was a CBC journalist before entering politics, was first elected to the provincial legislature in 2003 and served as minister of culture, youth and recreation in the NDP government. She was re-elected two months ago when the NDP was forced into Opposition by the Saskatchewan Party.

Beatty said she was approached last summer to run federally, but kept her name on the provincial ballot because she was hopeful the NDP would return to power.

When it didn't, Beatty said she decided to pursue a seat in Ottawa because the Liberals have a shot at forming government federally.

"That is the one thing that I have found out that you have to be in government to have say when it comes to policy or budget decisions or raising issues at that level," she said in an interview Friday.

"To me that's the key - that is where you are going to have voice and that is where you are going to have say in terms of representing the issues of northern Saskatchewan."

NDP Leader Lorne Calvert figured Beatty will face an uphill battle winning the seat as a defector.

"I think Joan is making a mistake," Calvert said. "That said, I wish her well. She remains a friend."

Orchard did not return phone calls to both his home and office Friday.

Smith said Dion did talk with Orchard before the Beatty announcement was made, but the senator wasn't aware of any deals being struck with Orchard. "He may be frustrated, I just can't speak for him."

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said he will start looking at dates for a provincial byelection. Provincial law dictates one must be held within six months of a seat becoming vacant.

Beatty's departure so soon after the provincial election raises a lot of concerns, Wall said.

"It's true that circumstances change. MLAs mid-term move on or there can be illnesses, there are all manner of reasons for potential changes," Wall said.

"But we're just over a month from when the returns came in. It's hard to fathom that this wasn't a possibility known to others long before the decision she made here in the new year."

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