A struggle to win the Prairie soul

Malcolm Gray August 6 1984

A struggle to win the Prairie soul

Malcolm Gray August 6 1984

A struggle to win the Prairie soul


Malcolm Gray

For the Prairies it has been an unusually hot and dry summer. But from the Ontario border to the Rockies politicians are ignoring the cli-

mate in order to canvass dusty farm lanes and shady city streets with one common objective: winning the West. There are 49 Prairie seats at stake, and in a close race the region could determine which party forms the next federal government or holds the balance of power in Ottawa. Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta have the great plains in common—as well as a conviction that for most of the past 16 years the federal government under former prime minister Pierre Trudeau had largely ignored the region. As a result, voters eventually defeated all Liberal MPs west of Winnipeg. But now, even in the Tory stronghold of Alberta, Liberal candidates are expressing a guarded conviction that they may again have a chance of capturing seats.

Fortress: Prime Minister John Turner has promised to revive his party’s fortunes in the West, but Tory strategists in Alberta do not anticipate any real threat to their fortress. But in Saskatchewan and Manitoba the political climate may be more changeable. Public opinion polls show the New Democrats declining in strength, and if that happens both the Liberals and the Tories may pick up seats at the third party’s expense. The Tories are starting from relative strength, splitting the 14 Saskatchewan seats evenly with the New Democrats and holding five seats to the NDP’S seven in Manitoba.

The Liberals, with only two Winnipeg-area seats, have more modest goals: to hold onto those ridings and perhaps pick up a few more. Since the late 1960s Manitoba politics has gradually divided along a political fault line that runs on a rough diagonal from Dauphin in the

I west to Winnipeg in the east. In northern and central Manitoba, a region of marginal farms and resource-based industry, the NDP holds seven ridings, with voters claiming Ukrainian, German, Icelandic, French, Indian and Métis descent. By contrast, the Conservatives are solidly entrenched in five ridings in southern Manitoba, where the descendants of British immigrants till the rich farmland. Between those Tory and NDP fiefdoms the Liberals are squeezed into two solidly middle-class ridings in Winnipeg—Winnipeg-Fort Garry held by federal Transport Minister Lloyd Ax-

worthy and St. Boniface held by Robert Bockstael. Two of the NDP seats, Winnipeg North and Winnipeg North Centre, appear unshakable, but the Tories are convinced that they can win two ridings on the political fault line itself: Dauphin and Winnipeg-St. James.

The Conservatives held Dauphin—a rural riding with a large Ukrainian population—from 1958 to 1979. In 1980 New Democrat Laverne Lewycky won by a 1,844-vote margin. In Winnipeg-St.

James all three parties expect a tight race. The urban riding contains working-class neighborhoods of neat postwar bungalows as well as a mixture of young professionals, affluent suburbanites and Asian and Portuguese immigrants. The Tories won the seat in 1979 but lost it to the NDP the following year by a 438-vote margin. Incumbent MP Cyril Keeper has sought safer territory in Winnipeg North Centre, but Lissa Donner, a Manitoba Federation of Labor official, is trying to hold the seat for the party by campaigning seven days a week.

Tory candidate George Minaker, a

professional engineer and former MLA from 1973 to 1981, contends that former NDP supporters will help send him to Ottawa. His reasoning: New Democrats want a change of administration in Ottawa, but many are displeased with the attempts of Manitoba’s NDP government to extend language rights for the province’s francophone minority. For her part, Liberal candidate Diana Ryback said that she is encouraged by the large number of undecided voters. “This riding is going to be won at the door,” she declared. Indeed, an informal canvass of 50 voters within the riding last week showed that 15 prospective voters had not yet decided which party they would support. Another 20 said they will vote Conservative; eight said they planned to vote Liberal and seven supported the NDP. Said John Neufeld, a 74-year-old management consultant who will vote for the Tories as he did in 1980: “If we are going to have a meaningful parliamentary system, the other side has to get in every now and then.”

Machine: In Saskatchewan, where the provincial government changed hands in 1982, memories of Premier Grant Devine’s stunning Conservative victory are still strong. “We know that we’re doing better than we ever have in the Prairie region, said Conservative campaign cochairman Kenneth Waschuk. Still, Tory organizers are not counting seats before they are won. Added Waschuk: “The NDP has a helluva machine here and should not be taken lightly. They have clearly got a better machine than the Liberals.” But at least six Saskatchewan ridings—Battlefords-Meadow Lake, Prince Albert, Saskatoon East, Regina East, Regina West and Assiniboia—could be decided by the number of votes going to the Liberal candidates. Provincial Liberal Leader Ralph Goodale argues that the party’s revival is genuine, adding that the decline in NDP fortunes will help the Liberals. “You are participating in one of the

most spectacular political comebacks in Canadian political history,” Goodale told 250 party members at an Assiniboia riding meeting in Weyburn last week, where the Liberals trailed the Tory winner by fewer than 1,100 votes in 1980.

But farmers and businessmen in the parched region, which is dependent on good wheat crops, are more interested in rain than political revivals. And the heat in the packed basement auditorium was a harsh reminder that there had been no rain for more than a month. “This is about as bad as the ’30s,” said Reneaud Roy, 60, one of the farmers in the hall. “ If they promise to alleviate the financial pressure on the farmer, they will probably get in.”

Two hundred kilometres northeast of Weyburn the farmers’ concerns about their future are also concerns of Lorne Nystrom, who has represented YorktonMelville for the NDP since 1968. Nystrom cannot guarantee his constituents the clout of a cabinet position after the election but he has worked hard to make Yorkton-Melville one of the few safe NDP seats in the province. “If this riding does not stay NDP, there are not many in the country that will,” declared Nystrom.

In Alberta both the NDP and the Liberals face a major uphill struggle. The NDP in the province has never held a seat federally, and the Liberals have been shut out since 1972. Many Albertans regard the New Democrats as being one step removed from communism, and support for local Liberals has been badly eroded by the province’s intense dislike of Trudeau. Declared James Palm-

er, the Liberals’ campaign co-chairman in the province: “The fact that Trudeau is gone makes an unbelievable difference.” But there are only a few seats —Edmonton East, Edmonton West, Athabasca and Calgary East—where the Liberals have even a slight chance of winning. And another informal canvass in Calgary East suggested that the Tories will have no difficulty maintaining their grip on Alberta. It showed that 27

out of 49 voters questioned support the Conservatives. The Liberals picked up only six prospective votes, the NDP received two and 14 voters still had not made up their minds.

Chance: Still, Rod Sykes, a popular mayor of Calgary from 1969 to 1977, contended that he has a real chance of winning Calgary East for the Liberals, helped by strong support from ethnic voters. Indeed, several of the city’s ethnic communities have banded together to work for Sykes and three other Calgary Liberals. “I think we can influence 10,000 to 20,000 people in Calgary East alone,” said Siddiq Chaudri, chairman of the Elect A Liberal Committee, which has representatives from nine ethnic groups.

Even if there is an upset in Calgary East, Alberta’s voting pattern is not going to change dramatically. In Manitoba the Liberals are unlikely to do more than hold the two seats that they now have. But in Saskatchewan they could take Prince Albert, the riding held for 39 years by John Diefenbaker. The New Democrats have a shaky hold on the riding, and incumbent Stanley Hovdebo beat a Liberal candidate by fewer than 700 votes in 1980. Clearly the perceived weakness of the NDP alone—the Liberals are listing John Diefenbaker’s own old riding as one of the seats that they hope to win—suggests change. And the Tories, with a strong base in the region, hope they will benefit the most from the shift.

With Gordon Legge and Nancy JohnsonSmith in Calgary, Neil Scott in Regina and Andrew Nikiforuk in Winnipeg.

Gordon Legge

Nancy Johnson-Smith

Andrew Nikiforuk

Neil Scott