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The StarPhoenix, Thursday, January 10, 2008

Northern Liberals fighting mad

Randy Burton

Things are going from bad to worse for the Liberals in the north.

In the space of less than a week, they have somehow managed to alienate a large number of significant community representatives that could have helped them hang on to what should be a winnable riding in Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River.

If there's one thing that unites a disparate northern population, it's the notion that people from outside the community should feel obliged to tell them what's good for them.

And nothing could do that in a more prominent way than telling them their voices do not count when it comes to choosing who they want to represent them in a federal election. It's safe to say at this point that when federal leader Stephane Dion decided to appoint former NDP cabinet minister Joan Beatty to become the Liberal candidate in the northern riding, he had no idea he would be provoking such a backlash.

After all, the Liberals have appointed candidates before to fulfil gender and ethnic parity goals without arousing much opposition. Dion likely felt this case would be no different, particularly since he was acting on the advice of MP Ralph Goodale, his knowledgeable Saskatchewan lieutenant.

He couldn't have been more wrong. In the space of a few days, the appointment issue has gone from being perceived as mere political paternalism to a scenario that is being described as the dominant white race dictating terms to the Native minority.

Jim Durocher, a Metis leader and a former Liberal candidate in provincial and federal elections, describes it as just another example of "Indian Act mentality."

"That is one of the only constituencies where aboriginal people have a big role to play in Saskatchewan. They're not going to give up that right to select their own candidate to represent them. They're going to cause a big problem. They're going to lose that seat unless Dion at the last moment sees the light and decides they better not do this," Durocher said.

"If Ralph Goodale is that concerned about having an aboriginal woman in the caucus, what he should do is resign his Wascana seat and allow an aboriginal woman to run there," Durocher said.

Accused of meddling in local affairs, the federal Liberals' response was to pile on yet more outside intervention and fly in a planeload of party heavyweights to La Ronge on Wednesday.

The emergency damage control mission included former cabinet minister and hockey great Ken Dryden, former Liberal leadership candidate and NDP premier Bob Rae, Liberal Senator Bob Peterson and Goodale.

The arrival of such a star-studded cast would normally be preceded by a flurry of media advisories and perhaps even newspaper advertising aimed at maximizing exposure. Such a show of force from the federal party in the remote outpost of Saskatchewan is almost unprecedented in connection with what should have been a relatively minor piece of party business.

Dryden says this "campaign launch" for Beatty has been on his calendar for four or five days, but local Liberals didn't hear about it until Wednesday morning, too late to allow a lot of chiefs or community leaders to attend.

One of those was Durocher, who was at his desk at SaskNative Rentals in Saskatoon when he was told they were in La Ronge. If his response is any guide, the mission is receiving a mixed reaction, at best.

"Not one of those people knows anything about the north," Durocher said. "They're all from Central Canada and southern Saskatchewan, and that's very offensive."

However, the fact that the Liberals felt it was necessary to make the trip shows just how high the stakes are for the Liberals here, not only for Dion, but for Goodale, too. If the Liberals go on to lose this seat in the byelection vote March 17, it's going to be put down to Goodale's intervention with Dion.

Of course, the Liberals are far from the only party that has had problems with a nomination. Four years ago, the federal Conservatives decided former premier Grant Devine would not be allowed to run for a party nomination in southeast Saskatchewan. He ran as an Independent but lost to Conservative nominee Ed Komarnicki.

Former provincial Conservative Grant Schmidt met the same fate when he sought the Saskatchewan Party nomination in Melville and he, too, lost as an Independent in the provincial election of '03.

The difference in this case is Churchill River is not necessarily a safe seat for the Liberals, given that they won it by just 67 votes in the last election with a stronger candidate than Beatty.

The Liberal hierarchy may not be pleased with the prospect of David Orchard, who was challenging for the seat, sitting in their caucus, but the question they have to ask themselves is whether they would be happier with a Conservative in that seat.

If the answer to that question is yes, then they're on the right track.

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