The Globe and Mail, Thursday, February 7,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Out here, however, the issue is seen quite
differently. "This is not a David Orchard thing," says
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."