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Racists, rednecks and the reform of Canada

With a poll imminent, reactionaries are out in force, writes Tim Cornwell
Vancouver - On his small square patch of Canada, surrounded by a nine-foot fence of English laurel, Reform Man is railing against the Frenchmen who run the bloody government, and dropping remarks about Chinese drivers.

"I admire a lot of those other cultures, but in their own country," said Sid Blanchett, a diesel engine mechanic. Mr Blanchett lives in north Vancouver, a hotly contested riding in the 2 June election. There are two signs outside his fence: one for the Reform Party, and another that says "No More Prime Ministers from Quebec". He's proud to be a racist and a redneck, he said, if that means defending his own culture, religion, and traditions.

Covering Reform can be like waking up in a Monty Python sketch, as one Vancouver journalist said this week. Old-fashioned caricatures pop up and say the most extraordinary things. Members belt out Oh Canada at party meetings, and while they drop clangers about blacks, gays, or Sikhs, the race they really detest is the French.

In 1993, Reform went from one seat in the Canadian parliament to 52, riding the back of the conservative collapse. Four years later, though the Liberals seem assured of re-election, it is Reform that dominates the political conversation, along with its leader, Preston Manning.

Anger against the conservatives put Reform in place: Mr Manning is now fanning the flames against Quebec to bring his voters back to the polls, accusing his opponents of pandering to French Canada.

The other party leaders - all Quebec politicians, as he has pointed out - turned on him for running the most divisive campaign in Canadian history, even fomenting civil war.

"They are constitutional arsonists," said Warren Kinsella, a former journalist and aide to the Liberal Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, challenging the Reform encumbent in North Vancouver. A Bible-toting prairie Christian, Mr Manning's political base is in Alberta, where his father was premier for 25 years and a radio preacher for nearly 50. At 54, Mr Manning recently had his teeth straightened, and dropped his clunky glasses after laser surgery on his eyes. But voters still seem uncomfortable with him personally - "a bit too odd for me" said one man, in the streets of "North Van".

His support is almost exclusively in the west, in Alberta and neighbouring British Columbia, where he won 24 of 32 BC seats. He would actually like Quebec to leave Canada, it is whispered, because without it Reform would have a shot at forming a government. His showing this time could determine whether Reform can overtake the stumbling Bloc Quebecois as the country's official opposition, or whether it will eventually fade like other upstart populist movements from the region. Reform is trying to push east into Ontario; at the same time it looks to lose several seats on home turf in British Columbia.

The party's platform is conservative, but with a populist edge that has made corporate donors slow to hop on board. It is for downsizing the federal government in favour of the provinces; longer jail sentences; limiting Indian and Eskimo land rights; keeping out all but skilled (read European) immigrants; referendums on abortion and the death penalty. It embraces tax cuts and rejects gun control and multi-culturalism, having led a parliamentary charge on the Mounties for allowing Sikh recruits to wear turbans.

Mr Manning once described homosexuality, condemned by his church, as "destructive to the individual and in the long run to the society", a remark he now says was misquoted.

Reform candidates stress their modernity with volunteers on rollerblades and handing out short home videos on the door step rather than canvassing directly. The Canadian press, however, has delighted in reporting a string of politically incorrect remarks by top party figures. Black or gay employees could fairly be sent to the back of a shop by the owner if a customer is "uncomfortable", one MP famously remarked last year. Another quoted Adolf Hitler in Parliament.

Reform's sudden victory undoubtedly attracted a lot of unsavoury types, and put a few in Parliament. But Western Canadians, even leftists who loathe him personally, are irritated at being cast as political neanderthals by the eastern-dominated media. Vancouver intellectuals say Mr Manning has touched the west's genuine grievances over years of being short-changed by Ottawa, as the east has claimed the lion's share of the government pie, from ship-building and military contracts, to cabinet posts and even arts funding.

Vancouver is demanding more attention as Canada's fastest-growing, hippest city, and a magnet for Pacific trade and culture. "We are under-represented in every way, and the Reform Party has caught on to that," said Peter Newman, Canada's best known political writer, a former editor of Macleans magazine.

The establishment "hate and fear" Preston Manning, said Alan Twigg, editor of BC Book World, a quarterly books magazine.

"Reform don't represent me, but they do represent a lot of people. All he's really doing is expressing the alienation of people in the western half of Canada. They don't get a fair shake."