Media Coverage
Contacts Schedule What You Can Do Home Page Français

The Globe and Mail, Thursday, February 7, 2008

The riding where nearly any result is possible
Forget party allegiances - in a Saskatchewan district the size of Germany, it's tough to keep track of who's running for which party

by Roy MacGregor

PRINCE ALBERT, SASK. -- The political history of Canada holds some strange tales, but perhaps none so convoluted and confusing as the federal by-election under way in the northern Saskatchewan riding of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River.

The Liberal candidate, who on Nov. 7 was elected a New Democratic member of the provincial legislature, is out there somewhere, but no one seems quite sure where. The New Democratic candidate is nowhere to be found and the riding association president listed on the party website says she is no longer in charge and, as a matter of fact, has no idea who is now in charge. The Conservative candidate is too busy campaigning to respond to his calls.

Mind you, it may the easiest riding in Canada in which to vanish - a vast landscape of mostly bush and lakes almost exactly the size of Germany.

The Liberals, who held the seat until Gary Merasty resigned to take a job in the private sector, are so fractured over various matters that there was at one point talk about creating a new riding executive and nominating their own "Liberal" candidate for the March 17 vote.

In Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, virtually anything is possible. One man, Rick Laliberte, won the seat as an NDP candidate in 1997, won it as a Liberal in 2000 and lost it as an Independent in 2004.

"I'm still a Liberal," says Jim ("Jimmy D") Durocher, who ran twice himself for the party, "but I'm a pissed-off Liberal."

He's hardly alone since federal Leader Stéphane Dion used his leader's prerogative and tapped sitting provincial NDPer Joan Beatty to run under the Liberal banner.

David Orchard, who ran to become leader of the federal Conservatives and then ran to become leader of the federal Liberals, had already been campaigning in the riding for months. Orchard and his followers - whose loyalty makes Gurkha soldiers look rather flakey - figured the nomination was a given, in that Dion owed some of his victory in the 2006 leadership race to Orchard delivering 120 votes when Dion most needed support.

John Dorion, on the other hand, figured the Liberal nomination should be his and figured to put a quick end to Orchard, whom he calls a "political gadfly," once the riding association met to choose its candidate. When it turned out there would be no vote, Dorion initially joined the disenchanted Liberals calling for a new executive and their own candidate - but then last week came right back around to embrace the Dion-appointed candidate and declare the whole thing nothing more "than a tempest in a teacup."

Some tempest, some teacup.

In Dion's defence, appointing Beatty was living up to his commitment to have more women running for office. That she had just been elected to the legislature for another party wasn't much of an issue in a riding that has been as much over the electoral map as it spreads over more than half the Saskatchewan map.

Beatty has cabinet experience at the provincial level and, importantly, is an aboriginal running in a riding where nearly two-thirds of eligible voters are aboriginal.

What brought Dorion around to embracing Beatty is uncertain. It's unlikely, however, that Orchard will have a change of heart. He insists he had all along been more than willing "to step aside" should the party wish an aboriginal woman to be the candidate. When none stepped forward and Beatty was campaigning hard for her NDP seat, which she won, he presumed the way was clear for him.

Orchard says he was asked 14 times by the Liberals to stand as a candidate - including one plea from Dion himself delivered at a meeting in Stornoway. By the time Dion got around to persuading Beatty to stand, Orchard had been campaigning for three months and had put 20,000 back-road kilometres on his car.

Ralph Goodale, the former finance minister in Paul Martin's government and Liberal kingpin for Saskatchewan, claims Orchard was fully aware, at all times, of the party thinking.

Other long-time area Liberals - Merasty jokes they amount to about "a baker's dozen" - say the real story is bad communications. They also say Orchard may have been their best chance to hold the seat, as Merasty won by only 67 votes in 2006 in an election that still seeps bad blood.

They say Orchard, who also farms land in the riding, could have tapped into the white, conservative farm belt in the southern part of the riding. He also had, and continues to have, support from several aboriginal leaders, having once stood with them during a blockade to protest clear-cutting.

Back east, the story has been played out two ways: one, Dion insisted on his admirable stand to promote women candidates, and two, the Liberal Party was desperate to keep Orchard away from a Parliament Hill podium.

Out here, however, the issue is seen quite differently. "This is not a David Orchard thing," says Jim Durocher.

Instead, they say, the issue is "Big Brother" - Ottawa once again telling aboriginals what to do.

"It's not a gender thing, either," says Durocher. "It's not against Joan. But I'd like to think that if she's really that good, then she would have thrown her hat into the ring and won it fair and square."

"Once again," says Chief Marcel Head of Shoal Lake, "they're treating us as if we can't decide on our own.

"I am telling everybody I can that, come March 17, I am just staying home."

Back Top