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The StarPhoenix, Monday, January 14, 2008

Upset Liberals use funny bone

by Randy Burton

I'm not sure I've ever been to a political meeting where so many angry people had so much fun.

Unlike scores of similar gatherings I've attended where humourless white folks grimly tear their opponents to shreds, the Native people gathered here Saturday to protest Liberal paternalism brought a singular joy to their task.

They put the "gurus" of the Liberal Party of Canada on the spit and roasted them fully, there's no doubt about that.

But the 200 or so people from across the North never seemed to forget the toughest jobs are best tackled with a light touch.

The subject of the gathering was Stephane Dion's appointment of Joan Beatty to be the Liberal candidate in the March 17 by-election to replace former Liberal MP Gary Merasty who resigned last year.

I used to like Ken Dryden," said Duane Favel, mayor of Ile-a-la Crosse. "Now I'm not so sure."

Referring to Buffalo Narrows Mayor Bobby Woods, Favel said "Bobby here's a pretty good goalie too. I say we put Bobby in net at one end and Dryden in the other and we settle this with a shootout."

If only it were that easy.

Once having made the decision to appoint former NDP cabinet minister to the Liberal nomination in the sprawling northern riding of Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River, it will be very difficult for federal leader Stephane Dion to rescind the move without losing face.

However there is no question he and his Saskatchewan lieutenant Goodale badly misread public opinion here.

As Beauval mayor Alec Maurice put it, "this is not about Joan Beatty. This is not about David Orchard. This is not about John Dorion. This is about people coming in and telling us what's good for us."

This may have started with the Liberal braintrust looking for a way to stop David Orchard from winning the nomination, but the appointment has struck a much deeper nerve in the north.

This is one of the few ridings in Canada where aboriginal people make up the majority. The idea that the party should simply override the wishes of the party membership has conjured up memories of the days when First Nations people were not allowed to vote.

It was not until March 10, 1960 when they gained the franchise without having to give up their treaty rights.

In spite of the fact it was John Diefenbaker who gave them the vote, many aboriginals here still regard the Liberal Party as their natural home. This episode is shaking that loyalty.

There are many ways to measure the depth of feeling this issue has engendered. One is the fact that meeting attracted nearly 150 people.

Jim Sinclair, perhaps a little mellower now than in his glory days as a fire-breathing Metis leader, observed that "I don't think I've spoken to such a large group of people who weren't moving a motion of non-confidence against me."

Another yardstick of commitment is the sheer distances some of these people came to demonstrate their concern. One arrived all the way from Black Lake, close to the border of the Northwest Territories, nearly 800 kilometres north of Prince Albert. Almost every other community in between was also represented, either by a mayor or a First Nations chief or simply people who resent losing their right to vote.

Most speakers alternated between Cree and English and, some didn't bother speaking English at all. But you didn't need a translator to get the message.

On this day, the motion of non-confidence was in the federal Liberal party and particularly MP Ralph Goodale, who seems to have done more to unite northerners than any other single politician in years.

The problem is it's the Regina MP they are united against. Named by Maclean's magazine as Canada's Best MP little more than a year ago, it's doubtful Goodale could be elected dogcatcher in the North today.

Although he wasn't on hand to hear it, Goodale's ears had to be burning back in Regina. Seldom has one politician been the subject of so much creative cussing out in both official languages of the North. It only made me wish I could understand Cree.

Once the venting was complete, a number of options were discussed and discarded, including boycotting the election, ripping up Liberal memberships, electing an "independent Liberal" to contest the election and travelling to Regina to take Goodale "out behind the shed."

That might have been the emotional favourite, but in the end the crowd did the smart thing by moving to establish a properly constituted riding executive to formally pressure the leadership to respect its right to hold a nomination meeting.

It's impossible to predict where that will end, but already some Northerners are looking ahead. There will very likely be a general election this year, which means whoever wins the March 17 by-election will only be in office a short time.

This will start the nomination process all over again and certainly no one in Ottawa or Regina will be able to claim anything less than an open choice will satisfy Northerners.

Still, the question is worth pondering.

If by some mad chance Beatty should win the by-election, would Dion dare protect her against a nomination race in a general election?

Few Northerners would be able to see the humour in that.

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