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The StarPhoenix, Friday, February 22, 2008

Dion, Beatty tour northern riding
No apology offered for appointing candidate

by Darren Bernhardt

PRINCE ALBERT -- Liberal Leader Stephane Dion was in Saskatchewan Thursday to drum up party support, but he was won over instead.

He flew north to tour Sturgeon Lake First Nation, part of the riding for the upcoming March 17 federal byelection in Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River. While driving up from Prince Albert, Dion had his first experience with free-roaming northern plains bison and couldn't help but share his glee with reporters.

"I never saw anything so big. I was very impressed," he said, following an afternoon meeting with the Prince Albert Grand Council and community leaders.

Dion made the trip with Joan Beatty, the former provincial NDP cabinet minister who he appointed in early January as the Liberal candidate for the byelection.

That decision has rankled many party members, who held a protest meeting in Prince Albert on Jan. 12 to decide how to reclaim their right to choose a candidate. They blamed Ralph Goodale, the Regina-Wascana Liberal MP and former federal finance minister, accusing him of courting Beatty and influencing Dion's decision.

The group has since splintered off, forming its own executive committee and campaigning for Dion to rescind the appointment and set a voting date for party members to select a candidate. Beatty is welcome to run, and is even supported by several of the protesting members who say they simply want the process done democratically.

Appointing a candidate is paternalistic and colonialist, group members, many of whom are aboriginal, have argued.

On Thursday, Goodale and Beatty flanked Dion as he spoke about the situation but made no apologies for his appointment.

"When you have the opportunity to have someone so experienced (run for the party) you don't pass up that opportunity," Dion said, praising Beatty's knowledge of the issues in northern Saskatchewan and her popularity.

"She is welcomed everywhere."

Dion dismissed suggestions made by some of those opposed to the appointment that it will hurt the party's chances, considering the riding was last won by Liberal Gary Merasty by just 67 votes.

Two would-be candidates, John Dorion and David Orchard, were campaigning in anticipation of the Liberal nomination long before Beatty came along. Orchard has commended the splinter group for "taking the steps to reinstate democracy." Dorion, who spoke at the Jan. 12 gathering to oppose Dion's decision, has since jumped behind Beatty.

"I am supporting our leader's decision," he said at the January meeting. "All these meetings and fighting in the public are not the right way to go."

Orchard, who backed Dion in the 2006 Liberal leadership race, was not in Prince Albert to greet the Liberal leader on Thursday. Dion said he would have liked if that had happened.

"David is a friend of mine. I wish he were here today to fight for Joan, for the party and for Canada," Dion said. "We need the help of everyone."

Some supporters of Beatty stood by with buttons bearing her name pinned on their lapels. Beatty said she was thankful Dion took the time to see a small part of the province but hoped he could have seen more.

"I wished he'd have went farther north. I wanted him to see the housing conditions and lack of roads in those communities because that's why I'm doing this (running as a federal candidate)," she said, as Dion's handlers urged her to keep up with the convoy, which was preparing to head to Regina for a party fundraising dinner.

Dion's next stop will be in Winnipeg today.

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