CANADA

A western shootout

The Reform party plans to unseat Joe Clark

JOHN HOWSE April 27 1992
CANADA

A western shootout

The Reform party plans to unseat Joe Clark

JOHN HOWSE April 27 1992

A western shootout

The Reform party plans to unseat Joe Clark

He is an unlikely giant killer. But Reform party candidate Cliff Breitkreuz, 51, is powered by an apparently unshakable conviction that he will capture the sprawling Alberta riding of Yellowhead in the next federal election—and unseat the incumbent, Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark. “I’ll see if I can hook a few votes,” Breitkreuz says cheerfully, gesturing with the hook that now takes the place of his left hand, lost in a farming accident 15 years ago. The former high-school teacher, now a grain farmer near Onoway, 40 km northwest of Edmonton, is politically a relative unknown in Yellowhead, a riding of 33,600 square miles that stretches from just west of the provincial capital to the B.C. border. Clark has represented the area for 20 years and is one of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s most respected cabinet ministers—as well as a former prime minister. But Breitkreuz claims that the wave of antiConservative sentiment in Alberta will carry him to victory in the next election, expected in the spring of 1993. “We had such great expectations that the West would get a fair shake under the Tories,” he says. “It didn’t happen.”

The sense of disappointment expressed by Breitkreuz, himself a former Tory and a founding member of Reform, is echoed by others in Yellowhead. Said a truck driver in Peers, 150 km west of Edmonton: “Clark had 20 years. I hope he enjoyed it—there won’t be more.” In fact, recent opinion polls indicate that Clark is one of many Alberta federal Tories on the endangered list. In a province in which the Conservatives once seemed unassailable, Reform now is the favored federal party. According to an Angus Reid Group survey released on March 11, Reform enjoys 44 per cent support among Albertans—with the Liberals in distant second place at 21 per cent and the Tories in last place behind the NDP. Clark has yet to say if he will stand for re-election. Last week, he said: “I was elected in 1972 and I’m tired. I haven’t made a decision.” If Clark does run, though, he—and indeed the 22 other members of the federal Tories’ Alberta caucus—clearly faces an uphill battle in the coming campaign. Declared former Tory and now Reform party worker Mark Smith, 31, a high-school teacher in Drayton Valley, 95 km southwest of Edmonton: “We are riding a wave of discontent—and we are going to get Joe Clark this time.”

Clark’s opponents cite a long list of grievances against their MP. High on the list is the

minister’s widely publicized absenteeism— largely a result of his demanding schedule during eight years as a key member of the Mulroney cabinet, first as external affairs minister and, since April, 1991, as the central figure in the Constitution renewal campaign. Declared Chris Leuchtenmueller, manager of the Whitecourt Inn in Whitecourt, 150 km northwest of Edmonton: “I am still a Conservative, but people are looking for more than quick visits.”

Clark’s support of distinct society status for

Quebec, as well as his expressed unwillingness to endorse a so-called Triple E Senate—elected, equal and effective—have also clearly angered many Albertans. James Horsman, intergovernmental affairs minister in Alberta’s Conservative government, recently warned Clark about the dangers of what he described as ignoring his constituents’ wishes. “You are not going to be re-elected if you don’t listen to what Albertans are saying,” Horsman told Clark at a public meeting of provincial Tories last month.

But the anti-Clark, pro-Reform sentiment among Yellowhead’s 85,000 residents is far from unanimous. Says Glenn Eaton of Peers, co-owner of Eaton Brothers Construction Ltd.: “You may not like Clark all that much, but you like the others less.” And some people point out that Clark has overcome similar challenges in the past. During the 1988 election campaign, many analysts predicted electoral catastrophe for the minister, then running against Reform

Leader Preston Manning. In fact, Clark won handily with 17,847 votes, compared with Manning’s second-place 11,207. “People know Joe,” conceded Tonilee Nickurak of Jasper, a vice-president of Reform’s Yellowhead constituency association. “He is a tough opponent, and Reform has a lot of work to do.”

As well, some Yellowhead analysts say that Clark’s absenteeism will have little impact with voters. Noted Noel Edey, publisher and editor of the weekly Grande Cache Mountaineer in Grande Cache, 50 km from the B.C. border in the northwest comer of the riding: “Joe maintains a strong presence without being here. His office is readily available.” Others claim that Clark’s efforts away from his riding on behalf of national unity may help him retain his seat. Said David Berezowski, 29, editor of the weekly Jasper Booster: “He is in the news—a constitutional success will buy him some points.”

In fact, some Yellowhead residents say that the Reform party’s popularity may already have peaked. Declared Harold Switzer, a pharmacist in Edson, 190 km west of Edmonton: “There is a bit of fad in the Reform party. It does not seem to be staying around as much lately.” And some Yellowhead booksellers point to another possible straw in the wind: the apparent lack of interest in books about Reform, especially Act of Faith, a recent history of the party. Said Jasper bookstore owner Kevin Crawford, who returned his order of Act of Faith, which went unsold: “I hear very little about Reform.” Added another bookseller in Yellowhead: “I don’t see any impact here by the party.” That assessment may be premature. But it may also indicate that, while Clark and other Alberta Tories clearly face a tough fight in the coming campaign, Reformers are unlikely to find victory handed to them on a silver platter.

JOHN HOWSE in Jasper