There are few areas in Canada where bedrock support for the NDP is stronger than in a swath of rolling farmland and small ethnic communities in east-central Saskatchewan that locals refer to as “Red Square.” It was here, in 1968, that a 22-year-old Lorne Nystrom won the federal riding of Yorkton/Melville for the NDP—and where he has remained unbeatable through six successive federal elections. But as local residents and farmers gathered at Yorkton’s Co-Op Cafeteria one afternoon last week for their daily session of coffee and gossip, it quickly became clear that Nystrom’s iron grip on the riding may be slipping. “I believe he’s got a fight on his hands,” declared Walter Blahut, a retired farmer and longtime NDP supporter who is considering voting for another party in this year’s federal election. Agreed Anton Skutnitsky, another retired farmer who is also a longtime Nystrom supporter: “The NDP support is thinning out You hear some say that Lome has been there long enough.”
For Nystrom, now his party’s finance and constitutional affairs critic, experience and a national profile are double-edged swords. Through his long years as an MP, he has developed strong personal ties with thousands of his constituents. But at the same time, there is a growing sense in the riding that Nystrom has gradually lost touch with his Saskatchewan roots. Nystrom has long made his home in Aylmer, Que., across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill. And his national reputation is mainly due to his work on constitutional issues, which have little direct relevance to people who live in the small farming towns that dominate his riding. Yorkton businessman Dick de Ryck says that Nystrom’s strong support for both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional accords angered many of the riding’s older voters, who are usually solid NDP supporters. Concludes de Ryck: “I think the territory is ripe for the picking.” That is also the view of Reform party Leader Preston Manning, who has targeted Nystrom’s riding as one that his party could win. Reform candidate Garry Breitkreuz, a schoolteacher, predicts that the anti-politician sentiment rampant in the country will hurt Nystrom. “What people tell me is that they are all the same and that they want a change,” says Breitkreuz. The incumbent will also face a stiff challenge from Liberal candidate Jim Walters, the popular mayor of Melville (population 5,000).
Still, most observers agree that it would be foolish to predict certain defeat for the 47year-old Nystrom, who won the riding by an impressive margin of 5,980 votes in the 1988 election. For his part, the veteran bilingual MP remains sanguine about his chances for re-election and discounts public opinion polls that show the NDP in trouble across the country. “I’ve been around long enough not to get too excited by the polls,” Nystrom told Maclean’s last week. He added that voters’ anger over the Charlottetown accord was largely vented in last October’s referendum. Still, Nystrom insists, “I always assume I’m 100 votes behind so that psychologically I don’t slack off.” Given the rumblings of discontent from his sprawling prairie riding, that is probably a wise strategy.
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