CANADA

The Prairies: where often is heard a discouraging word

Julianne Labreche May 14 1979
CANADA

The Prairies: where often is heard a discouraging word

Julianne Labreche May 14 1979

The Prairies: where often is heard a discouraging word

CANADA

Julianne Labreche

Duane Zimmerman scans his black dirt and stubble-grain fields, still soaked with duck-delighting sloughs, and curses the timing of the May 22 federal election. Rain has already slowed down dawn-to-dusk spring seeding for the third-generation Saskatchewan farmer, and taking an hour off to go vote is precious lost time. Still, he will mark his X at the poll, for the Conservative party although he shrugs his wide shoulders with frustration and says: “If a person could control the weather and the government around here you’d have it made.”

Prairie people can’t seem to control either element these days. While only farmland was flooded in southeastern Saskatchewan last week, serious emergency measures to combat rising waterways were in effect in Manitoba’s Red River valley, where some 7,000 people fled their homes, inducing Winnipeg Tribune political columnist Frances Russell to observe: “For a lot of people the election just isn’t happening here.” Many federal campaign workers have temporarily abandoned canvassing to pile sandbags and build dikes in submerged districts.

Meanwhile, westerners who are keeping track of 208 federal candidates

running in the three Prairie provinces, also have that sinking feeling of frustration. They will cast their ballots knowing that the Prairies have not supported the party in power for the last 16 years. In Alberta alone, not a single Liberal MP has been a winner in the past two elections. Westerners today, though prosperous, feel alienated and alone, cut off from the reins of power in Ottawa. It’s no surprise that one newborn satiric

the Party of Despair, has caught the imagination of scores of Calgarians.

Such Prairie discontent grows like wild weeds when westerners are confronted with the current choice of federal leaders. A recent Liberal poll in Saskatchewan shows that 65 per cent of those questioned are dissatisfied with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s past performance. “For many, he’s a hippie-dippy Frenchman,” says one Liberal insider. New Democratic leader Ed Broadbent is identified by many as an alien easterner stuck with glue to big unions, which are unpopular on the Prairies. It’s a theme that Saskatchewan Liberals have used as ammunition in their advertising campaign, playing up the Canadian Labor Congress’ support for the NDP. “Britain has been crippled by the domination of the Labor party by the union brass,” states the Grits’ campaign brochure. “The CLCNDP want to repeat this mistake in Canada.” Opposition leader Joe Clark, a native westerner, is accepted by most as the best of three evils. As Howard Gibson, president of Carter Mapping in Calgary, says, “Nobody in the oil industry thinks Clark is a messiah, like people thought of Trudeau a few years ago, but maybe he’s not such a joke.”

The man who bears the brunt of much humor right now in Alberta is cabinet minister Jack Horner, wrestling with his turncoat image. It was two years ago that the big, burly rancher left the Conservative ranks for handsome rewards with the Liberals. Farmers, and even Horner’s own family in the rural riding of Crowfoot, still haven’t forgiven him. Trying to do a little political arm twisting, Trudeau and Agriculture Minister Eugene Whelan, reputed to be the farmers’ friend, have visited the riding to help Horner. Whelan even made an election promise there of a $3-milliona-year program to compensate Prairie farmers for crop damage caused by migratory waterfowl. But Horner’s chances still seem to be slight. As one federal Tory said with a chuckle, “Jack Horner couldn’t get elected even if Joe Clark went around the world again.”

Though Clark’s Conservatives appear to have collared a majority of the voters in Alberta, prospects are more unsettled in Saskatchewan where a fistful of three-way fights is under way. The Liberals hope to improve their standing from the 1974 election, in which they won three of 13 Saskatchewan seats (there are now 14 ridings after redistribution). The province is often nicknamed Lang Gang Country, since many crucial Liberal races revolve around Transport Minister Otto Lang and Grit

candidates who have worked for him or are related to him. Lang himself is running against Rev. Bob Ogle, an NDP candidate and Roman Catholic priest whose parish Lang and his wife, Adrian, have attended for Sunday mass. Initially, Lang supporters worried that Ogle (“our star candidate,” says one provincial NDPer) might steal the large Catholic vote in Lang’s Saskatoon East riding. But now, with Tory candidate Dan Meyers also running strongly, Lang has fresh competition. As for Ogle, he’s telling the undecided to “vote with your conscience.”

In Regina, Lang’s brother-in-law, Tony Merchant, has had his campaign office open since July, 1977. His flashy campaign, opponents say, has cost him as much as $250,000. Merchant himself says the bill is closer to $70,000. No matter—it is shaping up to be one of the

more expensive election campaigns. A lawyer with big ambitions, Merchant has declared several times that he is running more as an independent, and doesn’t hesitate to bad-mouth fellow Liberals, including his brother-in-law. Asked why he is running, Merchant replied: “I have certain things I will personally do. Regina has in part been getting a screwing, largely because of Otto [Lang]. Nothing new comes here. He sucks things from here.” Merchant’s main rival is an NDP candidate, 37-yearold Simon de Jong who, in the 1960s, was a counterculture dropout running a food co-op and craft factory in Vancouver. Now a local restaurant owner, he has retained his idealism about a better world. De Jong appeals to senior citizens, who remember the CCF’s introduction of medicare back in the days when Tommy Douglas was premier of Sas-

katchewan. As one out-of-touch 93year-old woman, Piada Hornoi, told de Jong during a lively chat: “I’ll vote for Mr. Douglas.”

In rural ridings such as Assiniboia, a sore spot in the campaign is railway abandonment—an emotional issue across the Prairies. Dozens of small Saskatchewan towns are fearing the proposed closing of 24 branch lines. The Liberals say they want the rail lines to be more efficient, the Tories’ position on the issue is unclear, but the NDP has quickly become popular among farm communities by announcing that all the branch rail lines would be preserved.

Never was that concern in the campaign more clear than last week when Broadbent passed through Leroy, Saskatchewan (population 450), where a zipper of track fastens the town’s existence to the outside world. The local save-the-rail committee was doing its best to show that Leroy is a vigorous community. The Saturday before Broadbent’s visit, the town got ready by buying a grader and smoothing down its roads. Schools, the library and the credit union were unofficially closed, since the entire town turned out to greet the NDP leader and his following gaggle of national reporters. “We shone up the fire engine and the ambulance so they’d sparkle,” says Ervin McGrath, the Leroy fire truck driver, “but it rained.”

In Manitoba, a major scrap has developed over Fort Garry riding, Jim Richardson’s old seat in Winnipeg. Richardson quit in protest over bilingualism and the Liberals are running Lloyd Axworthy, the last Liberal member of a provincial legislature on the Prairies and a staunch defender of bilingualism. His Tory opponent is Sidney Spivak, former leader of the Manitoba Conservatives, who was dumped in favor of Sterling Lyon, now the premier. The Liberals also hope to win back St. Boniface riding in Manitoba, which they lost to the PCs in last fall’s byelections. The rest of the province is primarily a fight between the Conservatives and the New Democrats, with the former holding the upper hand.

The strong Tory roots on the Prairies stem partially from the swing behind former prime minister John Diefenbaker back in 1958. The 83-year-old campaigner is now fighting his 13th election, although he is not spry enough to do much main-streeting through his Prince Albert, Sask., riding. Perhaps trying to elicit sympathy votes, Diefenbaker has publicly announced that he will not run again, unless there is a minority government. But that doesn’t much faze Prince Albert voters: after all, the same threat has been circulated by his campaigners during the last three elections.