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The StarPhoenix, Saturday, September 20, 2008

Orchard seeks elusive win in Sask.'s North

Rod Nickel

MONTREAL LAKE -- For a few hours, David Orchard's four-pound northern pike was the biggest catch in the Montreal Lake Cree Nation's fishing derby. By the time the derby ended, one bigger fish had been reeled in and Orchard was left out of the winner's circle.


The man Stephane Dion didn't want, Peter McKay betrayed and Joe Clark called a "tourist" in the Tory party has scratched out a surprisingly long career of being blindsided and left for dead. Where does he keep finding new political life?

"I'm not bitter," Orchard said, looking a bit like Clint Eastwood squinting into the sun as he strolled the shore of Montreal Lake, about 100 kilometres north of Prince Albert. "I'm a farmer. You have good years, bad years and you stick with it."

Eight months after Dion snubbed Orchard by appointing Joan Beatty for an ill-fated run as the Liberal in the March byelection in Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River, Orchard's prospects are bright again.

The northern riding held for six months by Conservative Rob Clarke is considered winnable by the Liberals. And unlike the byelection campaign, when many northern Liberals resented Beatty for her appointment, there's party unity, at least publicly, behind Orchard.

The tortured political past of the crusader against free trade, uranium and war has always seen the deepest cuts inflicted from within.

Orchard, 58, says Dion and other senior Liberals had assured him they wouldn't appoint a candidate in Desnethe, although some Liberals later insisted he knew Dion wanted to appoint an aboriginal woman.

Dion's rejection stung all the more because Orchard had helped crown him Liberal leader in 2006 by delivering his signed-up members to Dion.

There was also speculation that Saskatchewan's lone Liberal MP, Ralph Goodale, actively worked against Orchard from the inside, not wanting an unpredictable politician like him within caucus.

Dion tried to patch it all up by hosting Orchard for dinner in January at his Ottawa residence. Orchard said he left "not too much the wiser for it.

"I'm still not exactly sure what took place there," Orchard said. "The leader asked me to run several times. Then there was the appointment of Beatty."

The way Orchard sees it, it wasn't the party itself that rejected him. He said he called John Turner, an ally from the 1980s free-trade debate, and Jean Chretien for advice after Dion appointed Beatty.

"They said, 'Stay with it.' 'Fight on' was Mr. Chretien's phrase."

After Beatty's defeat, national campaign co-chair Mark Marissen called him.

"He told me he was speaking for Mr. Dion and that, 'We'd be overjoyed if you'd run again.' "

The riding is roughly the size of Germany, spreading 40,000 electors across 347,000 square kilometres. It wouldn't be unrealistic to cover the riding with an airplane, but Orchard gets around in his 1981 Oldsmobile Holiday 88. The paint is peeling. The odometer has rolled seven times.

"It's a joke across the North," Orchard laughs. "They call it a res car."

It's also at times a moving Motel 6.

On a recent visit to a reserve near Loon Lake, a councillor asked him if he sleeps in the car.

"I said, 'As a matter of fact I do sometimes, ' " Orchard said.

"He said, 'You're a real Indian' and he took a membership."

Orchard said his roots run deeper than the aborted byelection campaign. In 1992, he was among 32 people arrested for a blockade at Canoe Lake Cree Nation to protest clearcutting. The charges were later dropped.

Irene Durocher, a pregnant woman among those arrested by RCMP, later named her son Tyrone David -- the second name after Orchard -- and made him his godfather.

Campaigning in this riding is more personal than door-knocking in southern urban ridings. In Montreal Lake, he is toured by a few supporters who fill him in on family connections as much as local issues. Orchard approached a row of women in lawn chairs at the fishing derby, correctly guessing the family ties of some and consoling others. To a woman whose husband recently died, he shares his own grief at losing his parents.

Getting elected here requires acute political balance to walk a tightrope between the riding's main groups -- relatively affluent non-aboriginal farmers and cottagers in the south and Cree, Dene and Metis communities -- some of them appallingly poor -- farther north.

"This is one of the richest parts of the world and we've got people living in Third World conditions," Orchard said. "I want to be a strong voice for them."

Some of Orchard's other positions are more politically problematic. He's critical of the war in Afghanistan, despite the fact that a Liberal government was in power when Canada joined the fight.

For all of Orchard's headlines and national profile, he has never been elected to public office. Along with losing PC leadership contests in 1998 and 2003, he lost a PC nomination race in Prince Albert in 2000.

This time his supporters think the conditions are right for Orchard to reel in the big prize.

"Last time because of Dion and the arrogance he showed, a lot of people were ticked off (and voted Conservative)," said Leonard Hardlotte of Stanley Mission. "Now that they're doing it in a democratic way, he's going to have lots of people voting for him."

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