CANADA

A PARACHUTE JUMP

LIBERAL LEADER JEAN CHRETIEN MAKES A DEAL AND HEADS FOR THE COMMONS BY WAY OF NEW BRUNSWICK

E. KAYE FULTON October 8 1990
CANADA

A PARACHUTE JUMP

LIBERAL LEADER JEAN CHRETIEN MAKES A DEAL AND HEADS FOR THE COMMONS BY WAY OF NEW BRUNSWICK

E. KAYE FULTON October 8 1990

A PARACHUTE JUMP

CANADA

It was a call that most loyal backbenchers dread—and dare not refuse. On Sept. 20, Liberal leader Jean Chrétien telephoned New Brunswick MP Fernand Robichaud in Ottawa to say that he was dropping by to chat. Robichaud, a businessman from the predominantly francophone riding of Beauséjour, had nurtured an initial 1,300-vote victory in the 1984 federal election into a stunning 12,000-vote plurality in 1988. He knew what he was about to lose. In mid-September, the unelected Chrétien had casually asked whether his southeastern New Brunswick riding of rolling countryside and Acadian fishing communities would accept a parachuted Quebecer in search of a temporary berth in the House of Commons. Chrétien was more direct during their 15minute meeting on Sept. 20. The leader made it clear that he needed a seat—and that he wanted Beauséjour. The two politicians final-

ized a deal three days later: a sacrificial seat in return for acceptance of a list of conditions that Robichaud drew up with his riding officials. “It was a difficult decision to make,” said Robichaud. But, he added optimistically, “come the next general election, maybe we will have a

LIBERAL LEADER JEAN CHRETIEN MAKES A DEAL AND HEADS FOR THE COMMONS BY WAY OF NEW BRUNSWICK

direct line to the Prime Minister’s Office.” Liberal strategists did not share Robichaud’s understandable hesitancy. When Chrétien won the leadership on June 23, he announced that he would not seek a seat in the Commons until he and his demoralized party were well organized. Following that agenda, the Liberal leader’s plans for the fall included a 10-city fund-raising tour to pay down the party debt of $3.8 million and the organization, by November, of a party policy platform. But events leading up to last week’s opening of the fall session of Parliament overwhelmed that comfortable scenario. The Liberal-dominated Senate was preparing to fight the Conservative government over plans to implement the Goods and Services Tax on Jan. 1, 1991—and Liberal advisers decided that it was in Chrétien’s interest to join that battle. Meanwhile, polls were showing that, although the Liberals remain ahead of the New Democratic Party and the third-place Conservatives, public support has steadily eroded since Chrétien became leader. ^ “The time had come to get moving,” e Chrétien, a veteran of 23 years in I Ottawa, told Maclean’s last week. “I ^ am a House of Commons man and I I want to be in there.”

* No date was set last week for a byelection, but Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said that he would call one promptly. The Liberal riding association said that Chrétien will formally seek the nomination in Beauséjour on Oct. 21. By choosing New Brunswick to launch a return to Parliament, Chrétien avoided the uphill battle of running in his native province of Quebec —and perhaps courting disaster. And none of

his nine Quebec MPs publicly offered to make their seats available to the leader. In fact, Gatineau/La Lièvre MP Mark Assad denied a report from the Opposition leader’s office that he was willing to step aside so that Chrétien could run. Declared Assad: “The question never came up.”

In contrast, the diverse riding of Beauséjour is, by most appearances, a Liberal strategist’s dream. Through a series of name changes and a 1988 boundary redistribution, the area has sent a solid wave of Liberal MPs to Ottawa since 1935. The francophonedominated northern half of the riding, which includes the Acadian communities along the lobster, herring and mackerel beds of the Northumberland Strait, has voted Liberal in 17 consecutive elections since 1935.

With the exception of the federal election of 1958, the Liberals have easily dominated what is now the southern half of the riding, which includes the university town of Sackville and the seaside tourist haven of Shediac, outside Moncton. Chrétien and his advisers quietly canvassed at least a dozen different ridings volunteered by Liberal MPs during the summer. But they settled on Beauséjour. Said Chrétien: “It reminds me of Quebec. I decided it was a perfect seat.”

Part of the attraction of the region is the Liberal assessment that local problems mirror the larger issues facing disenchanted voters across the country. In turn, Liberal strategists are counting on the riding as a forum to address criticisms that Chrétien has failed to offer alternative policies to the Mulroney government in the first three months of his leadership. Despite claims by some residents that the region has been unfairly branded as one of the poorest in Canada, unemployment in some areas—particularly in the chronically depressed fishing communijS ties—is as high as 40 per cent during the winter months. Said lawyer Yvon LeBlanc from the small

coastal community of Buctouche: “It’s going to be good to have a national politician like Jean Chrétien actually rub elbows with young couples from Buctouche who are forced to pay 14V2-per-cent mortgage rates.”

Many of the voters of Beauséjour acknowledge the practical rewards of allowing a wellknown party leader—and potential prime minister—to temporarily adopt a riding. In a 1983 byelection, Brian Mulroney, then an unelected Tory leader, used the nearby Nova Scotian riding of Central Nova to gain entrance to the House of Commons. Shortly afterwards, Montreal-based Lavalin Inc. announced that it would invest in the steel works at Trenton, N.S.—in Central Nova. “We need all the help we can get,” said Napolean Pellerin, a Shediac jewelry store owner. “If we could only have a few little things, it would give us stability. There’s nothing wrong with having Chrétien come here.”

But, even in the absence of an obvious challenger to Chrétien in Beauséjour, it is not all clear sailing for the leader. According to Chrétien officials, a landslide victory in a region that is 65-per-cent French-speaking would send an important message to both Quebec and English-speaking Canada. Said a senior Liberal strategist: “The message from Beauséjour would be that the French fact is more than Quebec.” But there are signs that some Acadians are not prepared to be used as messengers —particularly those who still resent Chrétien’s role in creating Kouchibouguac National Park on the Northumberland Strait in 1969. About 1,200 Acadians were eventually evicted to make way for the park. A biting editorial in the French-language daily L'Acadie Nouvelle on Sept. 25 denounced Chrétien’s candidacy as a gesture that “disgusts us to the extreme.” Editorial director Jean-Marie Nadeau told Maclean’s that, while Chrétien was almost guaranteed a victory because of a lack of credible opponents, “it will be a victory without glory.” Added Nadeau: “Chrétien has nothing to say to Acadians.”

And although no Tory candidate emerged last week, some special-interest groups in the province, including the Micmac Indians, were insisting that Chrétien not be allowed to run unopposed. But Liberal organizers began last week to woo the support of the Micmacs with a request for a meeting this week. For his part, Micmac Chief Albert Levi of the Big Cove reserve, in the northern end of the riding, professed personal admiration for Chrétien, but said that he, and other Indians, were unimpressed by the Liberal positions on the Mohawk standoff at Oka, Que., and on the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Added Levi: “What has taken place has put a spark to the Indian people. You are going to see practically every Indian vote—and I wouldn’t be surprised if they lean towards the NDP.” In the current political climate, even a proven riding like Beauséjour may not be a Liberal leader’s simply for the asking.

GLEN ALLEN

E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa with GLEN ALLEN in Beauséjour