Saskatoon lawyer and Liberal party organizer Douglas Richardson looked out his office window at a cloudless Prairie sky and said that he wished it would snow. Explained Richardson on the eve of the party’s muchheralded all-candidates debate in the West: “If the weather is bad, the farmers will come in for our policy session. If it’s good, they will stay in the fields and seed.” It was a humbling admission of just how much hard reality has intruded on the Liberals in Saskatchewan. In fact, the 34-year-old chief organizer for John Turner in the province acknowledged that what westerners probably want most from the Liberal Party of Canada “is to get us out of office in Ottawa.”
Richardson’s wish did not come true. The weekend of the Saskatoon policy debate on April 29 dawned fine and bright, and a mere 800 diehard Liberals—considerably less than the party’s modest target of 1,000 participants from all three Prairie provinces—gath-
ered in the city’s 2,000-seat Centennial Auditorium. The rows of empty seats were a compelling reminder to the seven leadership contenders of how precarious the Liberal party’s survival as a coast-to-coast political entity has become. As Justice Minister Mark MacGuigan told his fellow candidates and the audience: “I believe the West is the great challenge facing the Liberal party—without the West we are only half a party.”
It was a sombre assembly. The delegates arrived with a detailed shopping list of western concerns, and the candidates responded with earnest policy prescriptions. Turner, the leading contender, in one of his strongest and most confident performances of the campaign, committed himself to “a new deal for Western Canada” and he pledged to end the debilitating bickering that pervades relations between Ottawa and the provinces. His strongest challenger, Energy Minister Jean Chrétien, outlined a distinctly different vision of nationhood, offering to put Western Canada “at the centre of decision-making”
but reserving for Ottawa the role of final arbiter in federal-provincial disputes.
Indeed, each of the candidates had his own plan to embrace the disenchanted West. Economic Development Minister Donald Johnston said he would reform Parliament in order to guarantee future western Liberal MPs “real clout” in Ottawa, and Agriculture Minister Eugene Whelan said he would appoint a deputy prime minister in charge of fishing, forestry and agriculture. In an appeal to youth delegates, Employment Minister John Roberts said he would “connect better” with the West and he would prevent the party from turning into a pale imitation of Brian Mulroney’s Tories. MacGuigan proposed a doubling in the number of western senators to 40, and he added that he would establish a $5million fund to rebuild the run-down Liberal organization in the West. For his part, Indian Affairs Minister John Munro pledged to make the banks more sympathetic to the needs of western farmers and businessmen. When the 3 xh - hour session ended, the party’s stal-
warts went back to their ridings talking hopefully of a Liberal rebirth in the West. But James Rude, a University of Saskatchewan economics lecturer, had a much more detached view. Said Rude: “There is too much built-up resentment in this generation for the Liberals to have a future. Given a period out of office, westerners might give them another look.”
Saskatchewan Liberal Leader Ralph Goodale acknowledged that skepticism about a Liberal resurgence in the West is widespread and that it will take more than a new national leader to dispel it. Said Goodale: “I have always believed that what the party has to do is not simply a matter of personalities. It will not be enough for the party to enjoy the excitement from now until June and then assume that, presto, there is our solution. There is a lot of rebuilding to do.” Goodale, who has a reputation as an unshakable optimist, is convinced that the process is already under way. As evidence, he cited the 3,500 party memberships sold so far this year in Saskatchewan, compared with 2,100 for all of 1983. And in Alberta, Liberal organizers reported selling 1,500 memberships a week. But Bruce Ogilvie, president of the Young Liberals of Canada and a Saskatoon law student, said the party has some hard lessons to learn before it again earns the respect of the West. Said Ogilvie: “As a western Liberal, you grow up hearing, then echoing, the same complaint—that we are never listened to. We have become chronic complainers.”
The key issue for western Liberals in selecting the party’s next leader is which candidate stands the best chance of breaking that cycle of exclusion, frustration and complaint. Most Saskatchewan Liberals have clearly decided on Turner. The Toronto lawyer’s Saskatchewan organizers claim the support of about 65 per cent of the province’s 197 delegates—an estimate none of the six other candidates seriously disputes. Although Saskatchewan is Turner’s strongest province, he is undoubtedly the favorite throughout the three Prairie provinces. In Manitoba, Turner’s organizers estimate firm support from about 60 per cent of the province’s 175 delegates. But there are also obvious gaps in the Turner network. Manitoba Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs and Winnipeg’s prominent Kroft family—one of the most visible Liberal families in the province—are vigorous Chrétien backers. And the Turner camp is uneasy about the level of commitment from some of its supporters. Paul DuVal, co-owner of Winnipeg’s St. Regis Hotel, was elected a delegate as part of a Turner slate, but he now says that he is uncertain how he will vote in Ottawa on June 16.
In Alberta, where the Liberals’ prospects in the next election appear bleakest, Turner is in front because he is perceived as the only Liberal who can save the party from a total shutout. Although Turner’s organizers claim to have the support of 70 per cent of committed delegates, they acknowledge that there is still widespread reluctance
among delegates to declare their loyalty to any candidate. Murray Stodalka, for one, an engineer representing the riding of Wetaskiwin, south of Edmonton, is determinedly uncommitted. Said Stodalka: “My name was put on a Turner slate without my consent—I had never met the man.” As a result, Stodalka said, all the Wetaskiwin delegates agreed to go to Ottawa uncommitted.
But the Saskatoon policy debate appeared to reinforce Turner’s front-runner position. Acknowledged Regina lawyer and delegate Timothy Stodalka, brother of Wetaskiwin’s Murray: “As a Turner supporter, I was worried that he would be flat. But he seems to have found his politician’s legs.” And Cyril Fransoo, a farmer representing the riding of Battleford-Meadow Lake, said he made up his mind to support Turner on the basis of his performance at the debate. Even Bruce Daze, 23, a youth delegate from Regina East and a committed Roberts supporter, admitted that Turner looked “less rusty” and more impressive than he had anticipated.
But not all the delegates walked away from the Saskatoon auditorium supporting Turner. Most of them arrived with specific policy demands, which Goodale said reflected the outlook of western Liberals. “There is a feeling of frustration about being left out,” he said. “But it can be translated into a list of pretty standard western issues.” He divided the checklist into four major areas. On the question of energy, the West—particularly Alberta—is looking for changes in the National Energy Program to accelerate the development of heavy oil and to encourage spin-off industries. For their part, farmers are looking for a candidate who understands that they are caught in a squeeze between rising costs for fuel, equipment and fertilizer and stagnant prices for their crops. As well, farmers want federal assistance to help them restore the fertility of their overworked land and to protect their water supply.
The West’s traditional mistrust of the railways is also a lingering concern. A new leader could capitalize on that uneasiness by pledging to force the rail companies to live up to last year’s commitment to provide Western Canada with a modern, efficient transportation network in return for higher grain freight rates. Westerners also want Ottawa’s support to diversify their resource-based economy. It is an ambitious agenda, but all of the Liberal leadership candidates appear to recognize its importance in winning back the confidence of the disillusioned region.
Richardson has been fighting for a Liberal rebirth in his province for more than a decade and, he said, “It has been the pits, frankly.” But he is convinced that with a new leader the party could stage a breakthrough in Saskatchewan. He quickly qualified his optimism, however: “I do not mean a big breakthrough—I am talking about two or three seats. That would be terrific.” The unhappy alternative for the Liberals could be to see their chances in Western Canada destroyed for a generation.
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