October 10, 2008 Features & Images » Feature Story

Chasing Chuck Strahl 

Pemberton strives to have impact within Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon

Pemberton could be forgiven for feeling a little jilted at federal election time.

By the grace of bureaucrats at Elections Canada, Pemberton lies at the westernmost point of Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, a riding that includes communities as diverse as Lillooet, Hope and Harrison Hot Springs.

In the 2006 election, Pemberton accounted for 3.4 per cent of the votes cast in the riding and 1,444 votes in total — a small dent in this region, given that the last election saw a margin of more than 16,000 votes separate the winner from the first runner-up.

Pemberton’s place on the electoral map is almost comical for Mayor Jordan Sturdy, who said the village was placed in the riding without consulting the people who live there.

“It was done by some bureaucrat in Ottawa who looked at a map and said, oh look, the water in Pemberton goes to the Fraser Canyon!” he said. “In terms of our connection with community it makes no sense whatsoever. All of our orientation is south in this corridor.”

Pemberton, however, isn’t totally distinct within the riding. With acre upon acre of lush farmland and a significant First Nation living nearby, Pemberton has plenty in common with neighbours such as the In-SHUCK-ch Nation, a community of 908 members living along the Lillooet River and Harrison Lake.

It also shares much in common with Chilliwack, yet another B.C. community renowned for its vast farmland. All three belong to the Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon.

Pemberton has a lot less to be jilted about when it comes to its federal representative. Chuck Strahl has established himself as one of Canada’s most influential Members of Parliament and his constituents have given him landslide victories in five straight elections.

Though he doesn’t seem happy his community belongs to Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, Sturdy nonetheless has glowing things to say about his Conservative MP.

“As an individual I have a lot of respect for Mr. Strahl,” he said. “He's communicative, he does visit Pemberton… he does his job and he does his job well. We could be certainly more poorly served.”

Strahl first ran as a member of the Reform Party, a western-oriented coalition that sought to bring a more grassroots conservative voice to Parliament at a time of successive Liberal majorities. In his first election he took the riding of Fraser Valley East by over 7,000 votes. At that time the riding did not extend to Pemberton.

That margin tripled in the 1997 election when he beat Liberal candidate John Les by over 21,000 votes. His margin of victory over his opponents reached a peak in 2000, when he won by almost 30,000 votes.

It was during this government, a third straight Liberal majority, that Strahl rose to national prominence. By this time, the Reform Party had been rebranded as the Canadian Alliance and it was foundering under the leadership of Stockwell Day.

Strahl, along with 13 other MPs, including Deborah Grey, Jay Hill and Monte Solberg, led a revolt against their leader and sat with the Progressive Conservatives as the “Democratic Representative Caucus.”

That revolt ultimately signaled the end of Day’s leadership and opened the door to Stephen Harper, a former Reform MP who left the party after a fallout with then-leader Preston Manning.

In a whirlwind turn of events, Harper won the leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2002 and brokered a deal with the Progressive Conservatives that saw them emerge as the united-right Conservative Party. Harper again was elected leader and Strahl went on to take a series of prominent positions within the party.

When the 2004 election rolled around, Pemberton was incorporated into the new riding of Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, along with communities such as Ashcroft, Lytton and Cache Creek. Though the demographics changed, Strahl took the riding again, this time with a slimmer margin of 15,000 votes.

Now running in his sixth election, Strahl enters the race as one of the most influential members of the federal cabinet. As Minister of Agriculture he fired Adrian Measner, president of the Canadian Wheat Board, the sole vendor of Canadian barley and wheat.

In 2005 the Conservatives made a campaign promise to stamp out the monopoly of the wheat board, and Measner was believed to be a casualty of that promise.

After a cabinet shuffle on Aug. 14, 2007, Strahl was moved to the Indian and Northern Affairs portfolio, a ministry where he oversaw the implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement. That agreement, the biggest class action settlement in Canadian history, gives out payments to survivors of the residential school system and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a five-year commission that aims to incorporate survivors’ stories into Canadian history.

Along with Industry Minister Jim Prentice and NDP leader Jack Layton, Strahl was one of three Members of Parliament who helped convince the Prime Minister to deliver an official apology for the residential school policy. Millions of Canadians watched transfixed as Stephen Harper delivered the apology from the floor of the House of Commons on June 11.

Just four months after his crowning moment at Indian and Northern Affairs, Strahl finds himself fighting for his job once more after the Prime Minister called an election for Oct. 14.

There’s little doubt that Strahl expects to take the riding again, but he doesn’t say so when asked how he’s managed to hold it for so long.

“I think my politics and my policies that I’ve advocated for the most part… are what a lot of people believe in this riding,” he said in an interview with Pique .

If an address to an all-candidates meeting at Pemberton Secondary School last Friday is an indication, those politics include modest spending and a tough stance on crime.

At the meeting, where he drew the most enthusiastic response upon introduction (though not exactly a rockstar’s welcome from an audience of teenagers), he cited national unity and a federal deficit as his reasons for getting into politics. But the federal justice system was also a sticking point.

“There seemed to be a movement afoot that we had to specifically address rehabilitation of offenders and that became a priority,” he told his audience. “What we said is we had to rebalance that. Rehabilitation was important, and alternate sentencing and so on was important, but it was also important to send a message that we’re not going to put up with violent crime.

“A lot of those issues that got me into politics are still important today.”

Conservative policies on crime are an even bigger sticking point for Myra Sweeney, a second-time Liberal candidate in Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon. She came in third in the 2006 election but is running again, this time drawing on her experience as a parole officer to stick it to the Tories for their harsh stance on crime.

“The seven years I've been in corrections, I’ve noticed we're getting more offenders that need mental health addressed,” she said in an interview.

“We were starting to know who needed neurological psych assessments, better treatment, who we needed to finally contact and say, you know what, this is a medication issue, let’s get him stabilized, let’s get him the right resources that he needed in the community.”

When asked what chance she has at beating Strahl, she says she has “just as good” a chance as last time out, when she missed the mark by 15,989 votes.

Speaking at the all-candidates meeting, she drew on her youth in an attempt to engage a teen audience. She told them about her work with prisoners from Abbotsford’s Matsqui Institution, a medium-security prison, as well as Kent Institution in Agassiz.

At one point she asked the audience if they knew what level of security Kent was, then promptly said it was a maximum-security penitentiary.

Besides that she touted the Liberal Party’s Green Shift, a multi-fold plan to cut emissions by taxing fossil fuels while lowering other taxes. She also kept her answers brief, often directing people to the Internet to get more information. It was a welcome approach for a young audience not accustomed to federal election campaigns.

Sweeney, however, isn’t the only one taking on Chuck Strahl in Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon. There’s also Helen Kormendy, a Village of Ashcroft councillor carrying the flag for the NDP.

A child and youth mental health clinician by trade, she’s a well-travelled candidate, having been to Ireland, Argentina, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

A lifelong New Democrat, she feels that Strahl has a strong commitment to public life, but she also doesn’t think this election is about him.

“I think it's about his party and the issues that they bring forward,” Kormendy said. “I don’t think they're good for Canada, I think Canada needs Jack Layton as the leader, and we really have to look after average Canadians and their families.”

The Green Party has a candidate in Barbara Lebeau. She did not return a request for comment for this story and did not attend the all-candidates meeting at Pemberton Secondary School, but she did make an appearance in Pemberton on Oct. 4.

Then there’s Harold Ludwig, the candidate for the Christian Heritage Party. At the all-candidates meeting he tried to convince the audience he wasn’t running for a “scary right-wing fringe party.” He then proceeded to say his party respects the Charter, with particular emphasis on the part of the preamble that recognizes the “supremacy of God.”

He also talked about how “radical abortion activists” killed Bill C-484, legislation that would have made it a more serious criminal offence to harm a pregnant woman. He also made particular mention of his party’s opposition to same-sex parenting.

It was later confirmed with the moderator that candidates had, in fact, been told that they would be speaking to teenagers.

Canadians go to the polls Oct. 14 th . And though Pemberton may not make a big demographic dent within Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, it nevertheless bucked the trend in the last election. Most of the community’s votes went to Liberal Sweeney, while the second most votes went to Strahl.

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