A rally to support the historic Liberal-NDP coalition attracted about 500 people to a downtown hotel ballroom last night.
Chanting, "Yes we can, yes we can," the standing-room-only crowd at the Marlborough Inn saw Liberals and New Democrats put aside their differences with the objective of toppling the Harper Conservative government.
The event attracted a large number of local labour officials, academics, and a smattering of current and former politicians, including Bill Blaikie, Tina Keeper, Inter-government Affairs Minister Steve Ashton and Winnipeg North MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis.
"I think we saw democracy in action tonight," J. P. Lauzon, a grocery store clerk. "I think it’s time for a change."
Blaikie, the 29-year veteran of Parliament and former NDP MP from Transcona, mingled in the crowd before the speeches began and then was given a place of honour at the head table where his criticisms of the Harper government repeatedly drew calls of "liar," "bully," and "coward" — all directed at Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"What we have here today is not the beginning of the end of the coalition," Blaikie told the standing-room only crowd. "It’s the beginning of a struggle to get a different prime minister .... somebody who has respect for Parliament."
The rally was held despite the decision by Gov.-General Michaelle Jean earlier Thursday to accede to Prime Minister Harper’s request to prorogue Parliament — shutting it down — for two months, preventing the opposition parties from defeating the Tories on a vote of non-confidence.
While Blaikie hushed the smattering of boos when Jean’s move was mentioned, he nonetheless said it was an unprecedented move, one which allowed the Harper government to escape a test of Parliament's support.
Blaikie said the coming two months will be a battle of public opinion, where he expects Tories and their supporters would conduct a "dirty war" to undermine supporters of the coalition.
The 40-minute rally ended with the crowd singing O Canada.
Joining Blaikie at the table and speaking to the crowd were Wasylycia-Leis, U of M economics professor John Loxley, and Bobbi Etthier, former president of the Manitoba wing of the federal Liberals and the co-chair of the federal Liberal leadership race.
Loxley said the Harper government’s response to the international financial crisis — a series of austerity measures and attacks on labour and women’s groups — stood in contrast to the expansionary fiscal policies initiated by almost every other country.
Wasylycia-Leis , who some political observers speculated would be given a cabinet post in a coalition government, said it was Harper’s ideologically driven response to the crisis that prompted Liberals and New Democrats to work together on a fiscal policy that will protect jobs and restore confidence in the economy.
Wasylycia-Leis said the coalition would form a progressive government which would immediately implement policies that will pump money into infrastructure projects, save jobs and help families.
"We are going to show Stephen Harper and his government something about this country that he doesn’t understand," she said. "This is a time for real democracy."
Local labour leader, Darlene Dziewit, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, said the rally will the first in a series of local events over the next two months to grow support for the coalition government.
Dziewit said the findings of a Probe Research poll, which showed Manitobans overwhelmingly opposed to the coalition, was the result of a fear-mongering campaign unleashed by Harper, adding that once people understand the concept they will support it.