Day's journey

Canada's conservative leader battles for political survival

Issue: "More than a warlord," July 21, 2001

Ottawa-Last year Canada seemed like a dream to conservative evangelicals in U.S. politics. This year it's a nightmare.

Evangelicals flocked to George W. Bush's banner last year. They realized that Mr. Bush in his associations and many of his attitudes was not one of them. They understood, though, that in American politics they could do no better than a presidential candidate willing to declare his allegiance to Christ and deeply respectful of evangelical ministries.

In Canada, evangelicals last year did better. They elected as leader of the major opposition party a person with Bush's charm but a strongly evangelical background. Stockwell Day, 50, studied at a Bible college, became an assistant pastor, and spent the early 1980s founding and running a Christian school in the western Canadian province of Alberta.

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Then he went into politics and spent 15 years building an impeccable record as a social conservative. He opposed abortion and pornography, and pushed for a crackdown on crime. He fought government financing of abortion. He advocated welfare reform and tax credits for contributions to nongovernmental schools.

Mr. Day also built a strong resumé, including positions as Alberta's head of social services and provincial treasurer. He fought for lower taxes in a way that should appeal to fiscal conservatives. He photographs and speaks well, with a palpable sincerity and a dry, self-deprecating wit.

For all those reasons the Canadian Alliance, a new attempt to unify Canada's fractious conservatives, made him its party leader last year. Some backers of Preston Manning, now the patriarch of Canada conservatism, wanted Mr. Manning to get the job. When most Alliance members went for Mr. Day, some hard feelings resulted.

But those were nothing like the hard feelings among Canadian liberals and their press megaphones. Mr. Day encountered some strident attacks, with demonstrators chanting, "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Stockwell Day, go away." More damaging by far, though, were the snide press attacks, similar to those George W. Bush encountered: "He's not bright enough."

While eating lunch on the screened porch of his home, Mr. Day told me of mistakes he had made in appointments and in some dealings with the press. Now that I've spent time with some leading Canadian journalists, though, I don't think it would have made much difference had he been error-free.

A [Toronto] Globe and Mail column headlined "Leave the Prayer Book at Home, Stockwell," shows the prevailing view of the nation's journalistic elite: "That Mr. Day has strong religious beliefs is fine; that he brings them into the public domain is not. At least not in this secular country."

Bringing strong liberal or feminist beliefs into the public domain is fine, but doing the same with biblical belief is wrong, even though a Globe and Mail survey found that 84 percent of Canadians declared their belief in God. Two out of three Canadians also said that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that religion is very important to them.

Once Mr. Day refused to sign onto evolution and other ideologically correct theories, reporters depicted him as dumb, which he is not. The Alliance's initial foray garnered only 66 of the 301 seats in the House of Commons elections, and in the past two months a dozen of those 66 have left the Alliance in a carefully orchestrated, press-fostered campaign. Some are still loyal to Preston Manning. Others appear to be opportunists seeking plaudits from reporters.

The resignations, coming like clockwork every few days, have produced headlines predicting the Alliance's demise. Since social conservatives do not have any major national newspapers, magazines, or networks of their own, the stories may be self-fulfilling prophecies. Many Alliance members know in theory that liberal reporters are biased, but daily sneers at Mr. Day have still produced a climate of disaster in the making.

Yet if the Alliance falls apart, what then? Many Canadians tell pollsters they recognize the importance of the Bible, but few seem to see it as relevant to public policy. Social conservatives cannot by themselves win a Parliamentary majority. Yet the leader of Canada's Progressive Conservative Party, a possible ally, marched last month in a gay pride parade.

Somehow, someway, Canadian social conservatives must stop being fratricidal, and fiscal conservatives must find a way to work with them in tapping into a sentiment shared by over 80 percent of Canadians: that taxes are too high. Canada's politics are complicated by the presence of French-speaking Quebec, but disunity among conservatives has allowed the Liberal Party to turn its 41 percent of the vote in the last election into 57 percent of the legislative seats.

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