Darlene Stakiw was thrilled to meet Deborah Coyne, one of nine candidates vying for the leadership of the federal Liberal Party, at the Yorkton Co-op January 28.
"I haven't seen a Liberal leader around here since Trudeau in 1968," Stakiw quipped.
"Too long," Coyne joked back.
That was the beginning of a triple-dose of Liberal leadership hopefuls for Yorktonites last week. Martha Hall Findlay and Justin Trudeau followed Coyne's Monday visit on Wednesday.
It's pretty unusual for a leadership race, but all of the candidates have been travelling around the country drumming up support in advance of the April 8-14 vote on who will take over the reigns from interim leader Bob Rae.
Why are they stumping as if they are in the middle of a general election? Well because they are, kind of.
In October, 2012, the Liberal Party took the unprecedented step of opening up the voting to all Canadians who want to have a say—providing they are not members of another party—no membership, no fees, no attendance at a leadership convention required.
"We trust Canadians," Trudeau said during his speech at a Yorkton Legion Hall lunch event.
All of the visiting candidates expressed their admiration of Canadians, but admitted they had a long road ahead for the trust to once again be mutual. The campaign, so far, has resembled more of a battle for hearts and minds than the dog and pony show usually associated with choosing a leader. Liberals know they're not just selecting a leader; they need to rebuild and renew.
An ignominious fall
Once considered the "natural governing party of Canada," and one of the most dominant political institutions in the western world, the Liberal Party of Canada has been relegated to an ignominious third place in the House of Commons, exiled to Canada's political wilderness by voters in 2011.
With a mere 35 of the 308 seats in Parliament, only three of the nine leadership contenders are sitting MPs, Trudeau, Marc Garneau and Joyce Murray. Membership in the party is at an all-time low with just 96,000 card-carrying grits compared to a peak of 531,000 in 2003 when Jean Chrétien was prime minister and held a strong majority of 172 seats.
Hall Findlay did not mince words over where the blame lies for the Liberals' dismal showing in the last election.
"Canadians overwhelmingly in 2011 said, 'We know where Harper stands, we know where Jack Layton stands and we'll vote accordingly, but we really don't know where the Liberal Party stands any more'," she said. "People voted because they wanted leaders who actually stood for what they said they stood for, for better or for worse. Over and over we complained about the crime bills, but we voted for them because we were afraid we would look soft on crime.
"The worst we could say about the F35s was it should have been a competitive bid without coming down hard and saying, 'why on Earth do we need the wrong plane for Canada at a ridiculous cost and since when did Canada become a stealth-fighting attack country'?"
The campaign itself has been rather lacklustre. In the latest debate on Saturday night in Winnipeg, there was little to distinguish one candidate from the other. Aside from Hall Findlay and David Takach favouring the dismantling of Canada's supply management system for dairy, poultry and eggs and Joyce Murray advocating a one-time collaboration with the NDP to bring down the tories, the contenders all appear to see eye-to-eye on the major issues.
Even on the hustings, they seem more eager to take on Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair and even their own former leaders than each other.
"We don't currently have any party that stands up clearly for Canada first, for government that's an instrument of the people not the prime minister," Coyne said
Both Trudeau and Hall Findlay echoed the criticism in interviews with Yorkton This Week that Conservative MPs have become spokespeople for the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to their constituents rather than spokespeople for their constituents to the PMO.
That is not to say the candidates haven't taken up strong positions on agriculture, pipelines, crime, the environment, First Nations and even the full legalization of marijuana, but in the mid-term of a majority government, the leadership campaign of a third-place party might have gone relatively unnoticed had it not been for the candidacy of Justin Trudeau.
For the first time probably since Trudeau the first, the Liberals have some real star power in the race and it shows where it counts most, in the bank. To date, the Trudeau campaign has raised more money than all the other candidates combined.
Many in the media continue to treat the leadership race as a sideshow to Trudeau's coronation, but none of the others show any signs yet of throwing in the towel.
Hall Findlay admitted Trudeaumania II is a bit of a frustration, but said the contest is far from over.
"I actually find it fascinating to see how quickly the level of discourse changed," she said. "Yes, at the beginning there were people talking about coronation, and how do you beat pretty much an entire Maclean's magazine issue? Well, you do that with substance, you do it with intelligence, you do it by showing experience, you show it by maturity and gravitas. That's what the party needs; that's what the country needs. Celebrity is not leadership."
Coyne pointed out that with the new voting rules, it's much more difficult for the party machinery to affect the will of the voters.
"Regardless of what some of these pundits say, this is a wide open race," she said. "It's very very different. People can sign up and nobody can sort of move them like in a delegated convention. The Canadians I meet crossing the country and the Liberals especially know that there's no quick fixes here; we have to know what we stand for. I'm confident, that's what keeps me going."
While some pundits were quick to crown Trudeau, others were just as quick to level the criticism that he is all charisma and no substance. The 42-year-old heir apparent is far too polished to actually bristle at the question, but he dismisses it out of hand.
"I've had that challenge all my life," he said. "That was certainly something that was said about me in the very beginning when I decided to run in Papineau in Montreal. People said I would never win the nomination and lo and behold, I won it. People said I would never be able to unseat a very strong incumbent Bloc Quebecois and I beat him.
"People said I wouldn't be able to hold off against the orange wave that was going to hit a riding like mine, very nationalistic, very working class and challenged economically and I tripled my majority.
"I have always been able to demonstrate my capacity to pull people together, to build solutions that matter, to have bold thoughts and what this campaign is about is pulling Canadians together once again."
Echos from the past
That is one message that all Liberals can, and apparently do, agree on. Coyne's campaign slogan is "One Canada for all Canadians," like an echo through time of her party's roots.
During a 1968 visit to Yorkton, then-Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, "firmly rejected granting special status or privilege to any one province," according to The Enterprise. "My message is simple," he said. "Canada is one nation."
Of course, in the 1960s, the west was a little bit easier to ignore, something all the candidates admit was at least partially responsible for their party's undoing.
"Every time somebody says to me, and unfortunately they still do, that the future of the Liberal Party is, 'We just have to regain Ontario and Quebec,' I cringe," said Hall Findlay. "For years, I have been so upset at this because I've spent so much time in the west and made a point of launching [in Calgary] is because I have every intention of leading a party that is national."
The President's men
Whomever the party elects in April, it could use a little of the Trudeau magic that made Pierre the third longest serving prime minister in history. Justin Trudeau is looking at a little more contemporary model, though, bringing in strategists from American President Barack Obama's organization. Obama's success is not quite what people think, Trudeau said.
"Everyone thinks the Obama campaign was all about social media and clever advertising," he explained. "The reality is nobody in Canada has nearly the kinds of funds Obama and Americans have for social media, for advertising, for all those sorts of things, but the essence of what President Obama's campaigns were, was about connecting on the ground.
"It was about building volunteer capacity and organization capacity in every community across the country and that idea is exactly what modern politics needs. That's what the Liberal Party is doing here in Yorkton."