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Chapter Two: The Saskatchewan Party and the Canadian Alliance

Visiting with MLA Glen Hart at the 1999 Saskatchewan Party convention in Saskatoon. (from CBC's "In Focus")

Chapter Two: The Saskatchewan Party and the Canadian Alliance

In September 1999, I decided to go to Western Academy Broadcasting College (WABC) in Saskatoon to take their radio personality program. My best man Jeff Lowey had convinced me to join him in this endeavor, so my wife and I moved with our new son to Saskatoon where I quickly got into the routine of school from 3 to 9 P.M. Jeff and I were both creative and we enjoyed our shifts on the mike and the promise of receiving our diplomas and landing a job at the end of the school year. Researching and writing news soon became my favorite activity while Jeff would entertain the other students with his bizarre humour.

We followed the provincial election and, like everyone in Saskatchewan, we were surprised by the Saskatchewan Party's success in receiving the popular vote which forced the minority NDP to forge a coalition with three Liberal MLAs. I was immediately curious about how this new party, which was barely three years old, could become so popular. I checked out their website and emailed their Saskatoon organizer, Gord Campbell, who replied with an invitation to their annual convention which was being held in Saskatoon on October 29th. Although the Sask Party was known to have unfriendly policies towards First Nations, I figured I would check it out to learn how to build a political party. The petitions to register the First Nations Party of Saskatchewan were packed away somewhere in another closet, but I nursed the idea throughout the school year.

I had to skip school to catch the Friday night meet-and-greet where I would meet some newly elected MLAs from all over rural Saskatchewan. Everyone was excited about their success, and I enjoy the pleasantry of meeting new people, so the evening went well. I visited the United Alternative's hospitality suite, where I brushed shoulders with Reform Party MP Jim Pankiw, who oddly enough was very courteous to me. Everybody was passing out business cards and jotting down phone numbers, especially the younger party members who were excited to see a new face. I knew absolutely nobody there and was ready to head home when I spotted a familiar face- Jo Lynn Sheane, the CBC reporter who interviewed me about the bible college in the summer.

Jo Lynne and I had last seen each other at a retirement party for CBC weather man Howard Thornton, my mom's good friend who was heading to England to go to Oxford. She was surprised to see me at the Sask Party convention and was intrigued that the party was counting an aboriginal person among their new members. She asked if she could do a story on me as a new party member, which would involve following me around the convention the next day, and I agreed. She cleared it with the Sask Party communications director and we agreed to meet the next morning. It was already past midnight so I headed home to tell my wife and get some sleep. I didn't want to sleep in the next day.

The next morning I suited up for the convention and met Jo Lynn and her camera man who fitted me with a clip-on microphone for the convention. I was registered for the convention and met a number of people including Sask Party MLA Bill Boyd, who was the former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in Saskatchewan. On camera I asked Bill two questions. First, I asked what the sentiments were towards some of the treaty controversies happening in the eastern and western Canada, to which he replied, "Any obligations in terms of treaties have to be followed, have to be lived up to…" My second question was "How much of an element of First Nations people are involved in the party?" His nervousness was clearly evident as he answered such a loaded question. "Oh, difficult to say, the First Nations I would say represent a small part of the Saskatchewan Party…" A small part indeed. Me!

I was soon whisked over to the entrance where Opposition leader Elwin Hermanson was arriving. I was glad to finally meet the Sask Party leader who encouraged me to get involved in all the activities of the convention. Pretty soon the convention was being convened where speaker after speaker analyzed what the party did right in the election campaign, and what the party did wrong. Campaign chair Harry Meyers admitted that support on reserves and inner-cities was very weak and the party needed to make a bigger effort to attract aboriginal voters. I knew already that without drastically changing their policies regarding First Nations, their goal of attracting any aboriginal voters except me would be difficult. I decided I would volunteer to lead an effort to amend their unfriendly policies if possible in the New Year.

I was introduced to the convention and soon became, as Jo Lynn Sheane would describe in her report, "the most popular guy in the room." I participated in all of their policy workshops, but could only suggest that they try to instill people with "dignity and self-esteem" when debating welfare reform which others felt required work-for-welfare. I explained to one workshop that all the major revolutions in history, including the American, French, and Russian, benefited from the participation of the poor, and I encouraged them to accommodate the social needs of aboriginal people, who I said were in "a difficult position" but "the enthusiasm is there. They’re looking for something." I wanted to make it clear that I am a liberal Conservative. I’d rather be a liberal Conservative than a conservative Liberal.

I met Tom Hengen who ran for the leadership of the Saskatchewan Liberals before helping to form the Saskatchewan Party. Tom is a psychologist who works with inner-city aboriginal people for his organization, Building a Nation. I enjoyed learning from him, and he was popular with many members, so he introduced me to as many people as possible. I was introduced to MLA Rod Gantefoer and sat with him during the banquet that evening. I was impressed by the respect shown to me by so many ladies and gentlemen, which I am used to from growing up Anglican. I appreciated the opportunity to learn what I could about the game of politics, which I saw was a highly social game. It's not what you know and it's not who you know. It's who knows you. (And as I would later learn, what they know about you…)

I enjoyed my first political convention and returned on Monday to preparing news at WABC, where I learned the Saskatoon Star Phoenix’s Randy Burton had opened his column by writing that I was what the Saskatchewan Party needed. "Young, Native, and urban," I represented "the fondest dreams of the Saskatchewan Party," which he suggested could "moderate its image and win the next election." (The Sask Party failed to win any urban seats.) I had told CBC that I didn't want to use the term "watch-dog" but I would be keeping a close eye on the direction the party chose to take in the future. I was already contemplating how to moderate the party's stance on aboriginal issues. Elwin Hermanson encouraged me to be in contact with party policy chairman Jason Dearborn who would keep me informed of the dates leading to their policy convention the following year.

The Saskatchewan Party followed up their post-election convention with a leader's dinner in Saskatoon just before Christmas. Tickets were one hundred dollars apiece, but because I was a youth delegate I received two tickets for fifty dollars. I decided to use this event as an opportunity to introduce my wife to the political crowd. It was also an excuse to dress up and have a nice dinner! We left our son with her aunt and headed out to the hotel. We were introduced to Arlene Jule, the party's aboriginal affairs critic, with whom I discussed my desire to get involved in politics further, perhaps by running for chief or council on my reserve. I was convinced I would require a large amount of money to organize such a campaign and Arlene said if I could raise my suggested amount, I should run for a seat in the legislature!

Raising money was what the leader's dinner was all about. The ballroom was full to capacity and the party was attracting corporate donations from a number of large businesses. I looked with curiosity at an empty table not far where my wife and I sat which was reserved for none other than the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN)! If I had known nobody from the FSIN was going to attend the leader's dinner, I probably would have sat at their table, which was closer to the podium than the table I was at. It interested me, though, that a table of eight could be sold to the FSIN and I considered again whether it was time for a First Nations Party.

Over the Christmas holidays, I was invited to Davidson for the inaugural meeting of the Saskatchewan Party Youth Association which I always called SPY. Sask Party general manager Tom Lukiwski (now Conservative MP for Regina-Lumsden-Lake Center) chaired the meeting, which brought together about eleven young people from Saskatoon and Regina. At this meeting a president, secretary, and treasurer would be selected by show of hands, and there was pressure on me to run for president. I didn’t want to be identified as a member of the party's youth, though. I wished to remain a regular member so I would have more credibility regarding policy changes I wanted to introduce. When the floor was open for nominations, I immediately nominated another ambitious member who I had met at previous functions. He was elected president of SPY and I remained a regular member of the party.

Upon returning home, I decided I would celebrate my 24th birthday in January 2000 with a Disco Blues Band performance at Bart's on Broad in Regina and donate the cover charge to the newly created Sask Party Youth. I wrote up a press release titled "Party for the Party" and announced that my birthday would serve as the date for the event, as well as who would join me in my band. The announcement appeared in the Leader Post shortly thereafter and my bass player was shocked to see his name associated with the Sask Party. "They’re a bunch of Nazis!" he exclaimed while explaining that he came from a staunchly NDP family. We laughed it off, though. CJME News Director Murray Wood, who I was reporting for at the time, was not so forgiving. He told me journalists must remain apolitical, so I would have to withdraw my membership if I wanted to continue at CJME. I withdrew my membership but sent a donation of over one hundred dollars to Tom Lukiwski as promised.

I continued my internship at CJME and got the opportunity to cover a wide range of stories in and around Regina. I watched the political scene intently and took great interest in the story of Darrell Night. Night, a fellow Saulteaux man from my reserve, was abandoned outside a Saskatoon power station in the dead of winter without any shoes after being picked up by Saskatoon police. Another man from my reserve, Lawrence Wagner, had been found frozen to death at the same location a week earlier. The public outrage that followed gave momentum to the aboriginal party still developing in my mind. I was convinced that a platform was required for aboriginal leaders to speak from on a wide range of subjects without being dismissed as another Joe Blow.

Creating political parties was the style of the day, with Reform Party leader Preston Manning pushing forward his United Alternative which sought to emulate the model of the Saskatchewan Party, born from a marriage of progressive conservatives and liberals in Saskatchewan. I met one of his assistants, Kory Teneycke, at a Sask Party function and helped to arrange Manning’s appearance on CJME’s morning talk show with John Gormley. Kory and I would talk on the phone from time to time about the political scene in Saskatchewan and Ottawa where he worked. Soon I was approached to be a prospective candidate for the newly created Canadian Alliance, the fruit of Manning’s labour, and the party whose leadership he was now seeking. I reserved my decision.

My internship ended and I renewed my membership with the Sask Party and soon attended a Saskatoon policy meeting where I introduced my policy amendment. Instead of imposing provincial sales tax on First Nations as the Sask Party policy stated, I introduced a policy of "entering negotiations with the FSIN" over provincial taxation and the interpretation of treaty rights. I knew that the FSIN would only agree to things on their terms, so I thought my amendment would afford them the respect required in inter-governmental relations. My amendment received the backing of the Saskatoon constituencies so it could be introduced at the upcoming policy convention. I was satisfied with my achievement and was happy to have met Ken Cheveldayoff who chaired the meeting. Ken would win a Saskatoon seat a few years later in the next election and I could see that he had great leadership potential.

Another person I believed had great leadership potential was Alberta Treasurer Stockwell Day. When he announced in early 2000 that he would be seeking the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, I decided I would take out a founding membership and support his candidacy. I heard little or nothing from Alliance founder Preston Manning and knew almost nothing about Day’s platform, but I received emails from Day’s campaign organizer Jason Kenney, so I decided Manning's leadership was tired and a new, photogenic leader like Day could bolster the party's image. I honestly believed that I could try to moderate the Alliance's aboriginal policies if I got involved the way I had with the Saskatchewan Party. Jason Kenney arranged for me to meet with Day at Regina’s Hotel Saskatchewan the first week in April.

I phoned Morton Paulson in Calgary, who was organizing press releases about prospective Canadian Alliance candidates in the next federal election. I told him to add my name to the list. I intended to seek the nomination for Regina-Lumsden-Lake Center, and would be supporting Stockwell Day in the leadership race. He explained that the nomination process was still months away but he would issue a press release the first week in April at my request. April seemed to be the month when all the action would start! Until then I would be off to Vancouver Island with Jeff Lowey to try out a news director position at an AM station. Jeff accepted a job at a sister station and we both started on the same day in March. (Coincidentally, we negotiated our respective offers privately and phoned each other excitedly one night not knowing we'd both be working within an hour of eachother.)

I was hoping I could use the news director position on the island as a step up to a better position at home in Regina. My wife and son stayed in Regina while I flew to British Columbia to test drive my new position. I told the station manager I wouldn't commit to moving my family to the island until I was certain I could commit to a long-term job. As I settled into the new position and considered all my options, news came from Saskatchewan that would change my mind altogether.