COVER

POLITICAL MISSTEP

DALE EISLER May 12 1997
COVER

POLITICAL MISSTEP

DALE EISLER May 12 1997

POLITICAL MISSTEP

Ten days and 25,000 sandbags later, Lance Barber is almost too exhausted to be angry. His nerves are frayed and his muscles ache from building a threemetre-high dike around his house on the flooded banks of the Red River in St. Vital, a Winnipeg neighborhood. But his anger flares in a second when asked what he thinks about Jean Chrétien calling an election while southern Manitoba copes with the flood of the century. “I’m

disgusted,” he says. “How In good conscience can they call an election when people are facing this?”

It was a question on the lips of thousands of Manitobans last week as the “Red menace” forced more than 25,000 from their homes in its relentless flow northward from the U.S. border. Struggling to save their homes, people let their outrage flow as freely as the muddy water itself. At almost every turn, mention of the campaign drew snarls. Volunteers loading sandbags onto Barber’s aluminum rowboat unanimously condemned the call. “It’s the same old story,” says Mike Kotyk, 42, of Winnipeg. "We’re insignificant, everything stops at the Ontario border. I’ll probably swing from the Liberals to the NDP.”

As the public’s fury grew, so did

pressure to postpone the election in flood-stricken areas. Chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley toured the area on Friday and met with chief returning officers to determine whether the election could go ahead. While no politician wanted to be seen as taking advantage of the situation, the party leaders could not resist doing exactly that by accusing others of playing politics with the flood. First in was NDP Leader Alexa McDonough, who went to Winnipeg to announce that the party would suspend its campaign in the province until the Red threat was over. “People’s homes and livelihoods are more important than politics,” she said. Immediately, the Liberals’ Paul Martin accused McDonough of playing politics. Reform’s Preston Manning jumped in by phoning an open-line radio host to point out that a section of the Election Act allows Ottawa to delay votes in specific areas due to emergencies. Not wanting to be outdone, Chrétien said the government knew all along that voting day in Manitoba could be delayed if necessary.

With 10 of Manitoba’s 14 federal ridings affected or threatened by the flood, the Liberals’ decision looked like a major blunder. Scrambling to save face, the party turned some of its campaign offices into flood assistance centres.

Nowhere was the impracticality of the coming election more obvious than in the sprawling Provencher riding in southeast Manitoba, where 17,000 of the riding’s 80,000 people have been forced from their homes. “It’s not as if the Liberals didn’t know what was going on. Believe me, this will haunt them,” says Provencher Reform candidate Larry Tardiff, whose swamped home near Ste. Agathe was accessible only by boat. Liberal incumbent David Iftody, who had asked Chrétien to postpone the call, conceded the election was the last thing anyone wanted to hear about. “Anyone who is seen to be trying to take political advantage of this situation is asking for trouble, big trouble,” Iftody said. Perhaps the Prime Minister should have thought twice before putting his election timetable ahead of Mother Nature.

DALE EISLER in Winnipeg