Canada

Chissy's Challenge

Can Robert Chisholm’s NDP unseat the Nova Scotia Liberals?

John DeMont July 19 1999
Canada

Chissy's Challenge

Can Robert Chisholm’s NDP unseat the Nova Scotia Liberals?

John DeMont July 19 1999

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Chissy's Challenge

Canada

John DeMont

Can Robert Chisholm’s NDP unseat the Nova Scotia Liberals?

Back in 1976, when Robert Chisholm was known as a rugged right-winger rather than the star of Nova Scotia’s political left, he used to sit in his rented mobile home on the slope of North Mountain in the Annapolis Valley and wonder what he was going to do with his life. “Chissy,” as his friends called him, had never had a life’s plan, never needed one as he breezed through Kings County Academy in Kentville, a big, handsome stalwart on the school’s provincial championship hockey team. But now, at 18, he felt lost. An ankle injury and second concussion had forced him to quit hockey and drop out of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax partway through first year. He liked his job—helping manage a cattle farm—but never really considered a future in farming. And the only other obvious career choice, joining his father’s Kentville insurance company, held no allure. “I was a pretty confused kid,” Chisholm, 41, told Macleans. “I didn’t really have a clue what I wanted to do.” Now he does: to be Nova Scotia’s firstever New Democratic Party premier. It is a lofty goal for a late-blooming political leader who was still struggling to find a career path when he was in his early 30s. Yet self-doubt does not appear to weigh on Chisholm—still model-handsome, but with a polish and seriousness that his old friends hardly recognize—as he leads his party towards the July 27 provincial election. Once dismissed by political opponents as “Jethro Bodine”—the hunky but emptyheaded nephew in The Beverly Hillbillies television show—he has undeniable star appeal on the campaign trail. Sign-waving seniors gushed over him when he opened a candidate riding office in the south shore village of Hubbards recently. And in a housing project on the outskirts of Halifax, a woman took the married father of one inside her home to show him his picture taped to her kitchen wall.

So far, though, Chisholm’s platform has been long on promise and short on detail. When reporters try to pin him down on specifics, he says he is unwilling to make large-scale financial pledges without knowing the true state of the province’s finances. He does say that a Chisholm government will hold widespread consultations with the public on budgeting. But after decades of espousing spending, the NDP—which has promised to limit new health-care funding to $17.3 million if elected—seems intent on portraying itself as the party of fiscal restraint. And that cautious approach has left a big opening for Liberal Premier Russell MacLellan, who is building the Grit campaign around his plan to borrow $600 million over three years for health care.

In the last election, just 16 months ago, MacLellan’s government barely managed to cling to power after the premier’s poor performance in the televised leadership debate. This time, he will be on the attack when the three leaders appear in front of the TV cameras this week. There is a lot on the line. When Chisholm and Conservative Leader John Hamm toppled the Liberals on June 17 by voting against the budget (the Liberals said they were presenting a balanced budget, but had not included the new health-care funding), the NDP and Grits were virtually tied in public opinion polls. They were also deadlocked in the 52-seat legislature with 19 seats apiece (the Tories had 13). A new poll, released last week by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates, shows it is still anybody’s campaign: the Liberals enjoy the support of 34 per cent of decided voters, compared with 30 per cent for the New Democrats and 26 per cent for the Tories. The poll includes some bad news for Chisholm: Nova Scotians think health-care'’ spending is more important than balancing the budget.

But the NDP never got within reach of power when Chisholm’s predecessor, Alexa

Canada

The New Democrats’ cautious election platform has left a big opening for MacLellan’s Liberals

He and Simon, meanwhile, had married in 1980. The couple moved to British Columbia where Chisholm took a job as an insurance adjuster—mainly, he now says, because “it came with a car.” Although he had always considered himself apolitical, he began to question the political status quo. Chisholm’s evolution continued when the couple moved to Ottawa in 1986, where he entered Carleton University to work on a master’s degree. He joined his first union—the Canadian Union of Public Employees—as a teaching assistant. Upon completing his MA, he went to work for CUPE as a researcher. A year later, the couple’s infant son, Simon, died of a massive brain tumor at just six months of age. “It was like I woke up,” Chisholm now says of the tragedy. “I was going to make a contribution instead of sleepwalking my way through life.”

McDonough, led the provincial party (during her 15-year tenure, the NDP won no more than three seats in an election). Following McDonoughs move to the helm of the federal NDP in 1995, though, New Democrats in Nova Scotia tapped into anger at Jean Chrétiens Liberals during the 1997 federal election and won six of the province’s 11 seats (the Conservatives took the other five).

Chisholm, with his combination of youth, charisma and small-town roots, may well be poised to achieve a breakthrough on the provincial stage as well. “The successful New Democrats—Tommy Douglas, Allan Blakeney, Roy Romanow—have all been essentially conservative progressives,” says David Cameron, chairman of the political science department at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “Chisholm seems cut from the same mould. He’s more of a consensusbuilder than a radical ideologue.”

Even his closest friends, though, seem surprised by Chisholm’s sudden ascent. “I always thought Chissy would end up doing something more physical,” says Sandy Van Blarcom, a Kentville postal worker who played left wing on Chisholm’s high-school hockey line. “Like on a farm or something like that.” It is a natural assumption. When Chisholm was 9, his father, a decorated Second World War flying ace and insurance agency owner, moved his wife and five kids from Kentville to a farm in nearby Woodville. There, Chisholm attended a three-room school, and worked pitching hay and moving boulders. All that farm work had made him a muscular 195 lb. when his family moved back to Kentville seven years later and Chisholm entered Kings County Academy, the local high school. Friends and teachers remember him as a hockey player who liked to go into the corners, an unmotivated student, but a popular boy who was never without a date. “He was a freewheeling guy, having a good time,” recalls Billy Young, a childhood friend and teammate. “We were normal high-school guys, playing hockey and chasing girls without much thought about the friture.” After his short stint at Saint Mary’s, Chisholm farmed for a year, then got a job in Halifax as an insurance adjuster. But he was adrift and directionless in 1978 when he met a darkhaired young woman named Paula Simon, who had just finished a master’s degree in social work at Dalhousie. Simon convinced him to go back to school, and Chisholm became the first member of his immediate family to earn a university degree when he received a bachelor of arts in sociology from Dalhousie in 1984.

In 1989, Chisholm took a CUPE transfer to Halifax. Soon after, his moment arrived. Tory premier John Buchanan, his government battered by scandal, resigned his suburban Halifax seat in 1990 to take a Senate appointment. “We had a great opportunity,” recalls McDonough, then one of two New Democrat MLAs in the legislature. “We were looking for candidates and a lot of people were coaxing Robert to run.” Chisholm won the August, 1991, byelection, bringing the NDP s seat total to three, then squeaked back in by a mere 12 votes in 1993 when the provincial party barely managed to hold on to its seats and the Liberals formed the government. When McDonough left to take over the federal party, Chisholm won the leadership. Then he began strengthening the party in the run-up to the next election. Come voting day in March, 1998, the NDP equalled the Liberals with 19 seats, although the Liberals formed a minority government.

Chisholm and his advisers have since been taking guidance from ex-Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney—a Nova Scotian who summers in his native province—and higherups in Roy Romanows current Saskatchewan government. One of the challenges is selling Chisholm as a moderate politician ordinary Nova Scotians can trust. Chisholm’s handlers are trying to make their leader an elusive target, keeping campaign events to a minimum. The television screen, meanwhile, emphasizes his personal style, including the tailored suits that are closer to the corporate boardroom than the shop floor. There is nothing false about that image: Chisholm and his wife, after all, live in an upper-class neighbourhood in Halifax’s west end; their daughter, Jessie, 10, goes to private school. “Right now, I feel incredibly balanced on the path I’m on,” he said during a recent break in the campaign. “I feel like this is what I was meant to do.” At long last, Chissy seems to have found his way. E3