Funny tales from campaign trails

Campaign Tales - Preston Manning inset

Preston Manning: Reform Party of Canada candidate in Yellowhead (Alberta), 1988.

On one of our first door-knocking calls early in the Yellowhead campaign, Randy Murray (a stalwart volunteer) and I knocked on the door and introduced ourselves to the lady who opened it. Before we could say anything more, she asked, “What is your position on the ozone layer?” As I prepared to give a scientifically nuanced answer, Randy blurted out, “We’re in favour of it, at least the western portion.”


In Edson, one morning in the same campaign, we started up the walkway to a house when someone yelled out, “If its religion or politics, I don’t want it.” To which Randy replied, “Actually, we’re from Lotto Canada, but if you don’t want to be disturbed, we’ll leave.”


Later in the same campaign we encountered perhaps the most confused voter in Yellowhead. Two stories carried by the Edmonton media had apparently caught this man’s attention. One dealt with the possible northward movement of killer bees from Brazil, the other dealt with the possible movement of PCB-contaminated oil from Quebec to Alberta for incineration at the Swan Hills waste-disposal facility. Somehow he had these two things mixed up, and when we knocked on his door the first thing he wanted to know was, “Why are the PCs bringing in all these bees? And from Quebec yet?” I whispered to my fellow doorknocker, “Just back away slowly. There’s nothing we can say to untangle this.”


Clare Denman: Campaign manager for Kerry Diotte, 2013 Edmonton mayoralty election.

“I want to know where the candidate stands on abortion,” demanded the voter. “I’m not voting for him if he doesn’t have the right answer.” It was her third time in the campaign office that week, insisting on a response while helping herself to the volunteers’ food table.

I explained again: “Ma’am, abortion is a federal issue and city council won’t be making any decisions regarding the matter. The answer will not affect his ability to do the job.”  She scoffed, declared she would not be leaving the office until she had an answer, and settled in with the Peek Freans for the afternoon.


At an all-candidates’ forum hosted by the LGBTQA community, a man stood up and mischievously asked the candidates, “What is your shoe size?” The crowd was mostly silent as each of the candidates dutifully supplied their unremarkable measurements, until the man who would go on to win the election announced that his feet were size 15. A chorus of “Oooh’s” swept over the room. Looking back, I think that was the moment I realized he was a shoe-in for mayor.


Ron Wood: Former press secretary to Reform Party Leader Preston Manning.

In the early 1990s Preston Manning wrote a book and we set off on a national promotion tour with a dual purpose: sell books and promote the Reform Party.

One of our first stops was a book store in downtown Vancouver for a lunch hour book-signing event. A fair-sized crowd gathered, including a television news crew which filmed Preston and interviewed some of the book buyers. I stood on the sidelines holding two books, cover out so people could see them and perhaps be prompted to buy one.

Mistaking me for a book buyer, the reporter approached and asked why I was there. I gave him an answer and later in my hotel room watched the supper hour news to see what coverage we got.

It was an excellent piece, plenty of front cover shots, friendly smiling faces, a relaxed Preston Manning obviously enjoying himself.

Even the brief interviews with onlookers and buyers were good. Especially the clip showing a guy in the crowd holding two books with covers out and saying, “I’m here to get his autograph because he’s going to be the next Prime Minister of Canada.”



Campaign Tales - Ted Morton inset

Ted Morton: Former Alberta Conservative MLA and cabinet minister.

It was December, 2004 and I had just been elected as the new MLA for Foothills-Rocky View in the Alberta provincial election. I received a phone call from Richard Marz, a veteran PC MLA from Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills. Richard explained that he would be seeking the position of Deputy-Speaker, and asked for my support.

I barely knew Richard, but I did know a number of his constituents who were active in the Federal Reform-Alliance-now Conservative Party. I intended to run for leader of the PC party when Ralph Klein decided to leave – which was anticipated to be soon – and my strategy was to tap into the large number of Reformers across Alberta, including those in Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills. So I said yes to Richard. I would support him for Deputy Speaker.

Several days later, I got a call from Shiraz Shariff, another veteran PC MLA. Shiraz said he too was seeking to be elected as Deputy Speaker. Would I support him? I explained that I had already promised my vote to Richard Marz, and said I hoped he would understand that I had to keep that promise.

A month later I was seated in the Legislative Assembly as the results of the secret ballot vote for Deputy Speaker were announced. The winner was Richard Marz. Sitting just in front of me was Shiraz Shariff. He was visibly upset, and soon was almost sobbing. Later I tried to comfort him. “Don’t take it personally,” I said. “Your day will come.”

Shiraz thanked me and said, “Ted, I was supposed to win. I phoned everyone in our Caucus, and you were the only one to say you wouldn’t support me.”

This was my introduction to Caucus politics.


Campaign Tales - Ted Byfield inset

Ted Byfield: Journalist, publisher, raconteur.

The fine art of crucifying by word of mouth was, one suspects, more honed and skilled in the politics of bygone years than those of today, though many things grow richer in memory. In mine, few tongues could out-lash that of John George Diefenbaker, prime minister of Canada from 1957 to 1963. By the summer of 1965, however, he was back in opposition and delivering a campaign-style speech in a sweltering schoolhouse in (I think it was) Gypsumville, Manitoba.

Diefenbaker‘s primary target was the smooth, scholarly, icon of the respectable left, Liberal Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. Two years into his first minority government, things were already going wrong in the promised Pearson Paradise.

There was, for instance, the prison escape earlier that year of Lucien Rivard, a hardcore Montreal gangster, whose trial had been expected to provide sensational disclosures about Liberal people in high places. But for mysterious reasons that eventually led to the resignation of Pearson’s justice minister, Rivard was sent out one warm evening to flood the prison rink, and used the hose to climb over the wall.

At the start of his speech in Gypsumville a few months later, Diefenbaker observed that it was a frightfully warm evening, and asked the “ladies in the audience” for permission to remove his jacket. That done, he resumed the microphone and began with a line that was no doubt heard many times by many audiences across Canada during the run-up to the fall election, convulsing all of them with laughter just as it did the Gypsumvillians: “You know, it was on an evening much like this that Lucien Rivard was sent out to flood the prison rink.”


Another favourite Diefenbaker target was Tom Kent, an English economist and Manchester Guardian editorial writer, brought to Canada to edit the Winnipeg Free Press. Kent parlayed that job into a senior post in the Pearson Ottawa bureaucracy, where he was put in charge of the government’s so-called “War on Poverty.” One day soon after in the House of Commons, Diefenbaker took aim: “I see that Mr. Tom Kent has been given command of the War on Poverty, at a salary of sixty thousand,” he dryly observed. “Well, he’s certainly won his war on poverty!”


When Diefenbaker was in power, his finance minister Donald Fleming introduced his first budget by recounting the many hours he had spent, night and day, preparing it. But no sacrifice, he declared, was too great to make for the fiscal security of the country he so dearly loved.

I wish I could remember the name of the Liberal financial critic who arose in reply to Fleming’s budget address. Going from memory, it went something like this: “It is the custom for the man responding to the budget from this side of the house to begin by paying tribute to the minister for the work he has done in preparing the budget. Unfortunately, however, neither I nor any other Canadian could think of any tribute to pay to the minister that the minister has not already paid to himself, so on this occasion I will dispense with that courtesy.”


My father, who covered the Ontario Legislature for the Toronto Star in the 1930s, told me many funny stories about Liberal leader Mitch Hepburn, the man who deposed Ontario’s ageless Conservative government in 1934. Hepburn’s wisecracking style skewered many a Tory opponent. On one occasion, however, a Hepburn jibe backfired on him. Speaking at an agricultural implements show in the market gardening country of southwestern Ontario, he stepped up into the bin of a manure-spreading machine. “This the first time,” declared Hepburn, “that I’ve ever spoken from a Tory platform.” As the laughter subsided, there came a loud voice from the rear: “Well, throw her into gear, Mitch. It’s the first time it’s ever been loaded.”


Alcohol played an omnipresent role in the politics of the Thirties and in much else besides, as the country sought refuge from the miseries of the Great Depression. Most politicians were prodigious topers, Hepburn included. My father recalled that after Hepburn’s first election victory, he and a Star photographer showed up at the scene of the Liberals’ gala celebration party the next morning to get some comments and pictures of the premier-elect. The residue of the festivities still littered the room, including Hepburn passed out on the buffet table. The sandwiches had to be peeled off his jacket before the pictures were taken. It was an inauspicious beginning, perhaps, but booze notwithstanding Hepburn became a remarkably good premier.

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