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The StarPhoenix, Friday, January 11, 2008

His side of the story
Orchard claims Dion made him assurances

by Janet French

David Orchard says he was told by federal party leader Stephane Dion and other senior Liberals that Dion would not hand-pick a candidate to run in a March 17 federal byelection in northern Saskatchewan.

Orchard, who began campaigning for the Liberal nomination in the Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River riding three months ago, said there's no truth to the party's assertions he knew it wanted an aboriginal woman to run in the sprawling northern riding.

"Mr. (Ralph) Goodale never breathed a word to me of any appointment," Orchard said, referring to comments by the Regina Liberal MP.

"In fact, I was assured there would be no appointment," Orchard said.

Asked who told him there would be no appointment, Orchard repeated that Goodale never said anything about it, and he was also assured by a national Liberal campaign co-chair.

"Of course, the leader told me there would be no appointment," Orchard added.

Last week, Dion appointed NDP MLA and former provincial cabinet minister Joan Beatty to represent the Liberals in the byelection. Orchard was a vocal Dion supporter during the Liberal leadership race.

A spokesperson for the federal Liberals says Orchard should have known better. The party's constitution, and a declaration form candidates sign, state the leader has the right to appoint another candidate in an election, Liberal spokesperson Elizabeth Whiting said.

Orchard said he has "never quibbled" with the leader's right to appoint candidates.

"There's probably a place for appointments, at the beginning, maybe, of the process, before people have been asked to run and have been campaigning for three months," Orchard said. "In this case, I worked hard to win the riding."

On Thursday, Orchard was returning from a dinner with Dion in Ottawa, at which he asked the leader to attend a meeting in Prince Albert on Saturday of aboriginal chiefs and Liberal members upset with Beatty's appointment.

At the meeting, the disgruntled members will establish a riding association executive and set a date to appoint a Liberal candidate for the Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River riding, he said.

Whiting said that's not possible -- the Liberals already have a riding association executive and a candidate chosen, she said.

"It's not a Liberal Party of Canada event," she said.

Dion won't be there, she added.

The party wants to keep Orchard on as a candidate in another riding, Whiting said.

"Mr. Dion has repeated several times, including as recently as this morning, that he has a lot of respect and high regard for Mr. Orchard and he hopes he will continue to play a role in the Liberal party," she said Thursday.

Orchard said the current riding association is not legitimate.

"This is an effort to rebuild the Liberal party," he said. "This is a constituency association that's moribund, that does not exist. This is an effort to reconstitute a constituency association."

Orchard revealed little about his meeting with Dion, other than the menu.

"There was a lovely meal," he said. "The entree was crab. The main course was lamb. There was a beautiful dessert of bananas and blueberries, and we had a chance to talk."

He was equally taciturn about his future with the Liberals. When asked what his next political move was, Orchard repeatedly said, "out to his car and (to) go home."

Meanwhile, John Dorion, who was also vying for the Liberal nomination in the northern riding, says he would likely have been the candidate elected, not Orchard, if the riding's regular nomination process had gone ahead.

In a media release Thursday, Doiron said the riding association had just 10 members when he entered the race. By the time Orchard declared his candidacy, Dorion had signed up another 200 members, and has sold more since then, he said. As of Jan. 3, the association had 566 members, he says.

"I believe the press is overplaying the support Orchard has in northern Saskatchewan," Dorion said.

Once a Progressive Conservative, anti-free trade activist Orchard left that party after a failed leadership bid in 2003. During the January 2006 federal election, the Borden-area farmer announced his new relationship with the Liberals while throwing his support behind Saskatoon-Wanuskewin Liberal candidate Chris Axworthy.

The seat in the northern riding became vacant when Liberal MP Gary Merasty resigned in September. He had squeaked past incumbent Conservative MP Jeremy Harrison by just 67 votes in the 2006 federal election.

jfrench@sp.canwest.com


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