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