Manitoba’s flood barely a ripple during election

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Sometime during the next month, the murky waters of the Red River will collide with the federal election campaign. It will be an encounter between a force of nature and a force of human nature, if you will. And the outcome, at this juncture, is anyone's guess.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/03/2011 (4323 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Sometime during the next month, the murky waters of the Red River will collide with the federal election campaign. It will be an encounter between a force of nature and a force of human nature, if you will. And the outcome, at this juncture, is anyone’s guess.

Our last experience with a convergence of flood water and politics was 1997, and there is still some debate about whether the flood itself affected the outcome of the election. It certainly impacted the course of the campaign. Many of the candidates closed their campaign offices and sent their campaign volunteers out to sandbag. The party leaders still came to Manitoba, and some even tried to make political hay out of the flood waters. In ’97, Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien became involved in a very rare misstep when, on a trip to a dike in Winnipeg, he hefted a sandbag and then asked: “What do you want me to do with this?” Several locals no doubt thought of several things Chrétien could have done with that sandbag, but they were too polite to say anything.

Did the flood affect the election, either here or across Canada? Chrétien is remembered in this province as a curmudgeon for his decision to drop the writ in the middle of the flood. But by the time the election was over, it was clear the Flood of the Century wasn’t much of an issue outside of Manitoba.

As the Free Press’ Ottawa-based national reporter in 1997, I was able to ask Chrétien about his decision to call an election. The prime minister dropped the writ on Sunday, April 27. By that time, the flood in Manitoba had already paralyzed most of the south central region of the province. At a scrum just after his visit to the governor general, I asked the prime minister if he would consider delaying the election. Chrétien was evasive, but it was clear he was proceeding with the vote. “If there is a problem, the chief electoral officer has the right to do whatever is needed to make sure (Manitobans) have the right to vote,” Chrétien said. And that was pretty much the last time anyone on the national stage, politician or reporter, gave any serious thought to the Flood of the Century. There was some interest in early May when then-Reform leader Preston Manning suggested suspending the campaign. However, the story was not carried widely in Canadian newspapers.

If the flood had no impact outside of Manitoba, could it have altered the outcome here? Most students of political history know that in 1993, the Liberals captured 12 of 14 Manitoba seats, only to lose six of those seats in the flood election of 1997. However, in those six ridings, there is no clear pattern that would connect the result to the flood.

The Liberals lost several ridings that were simply not traditional Liberal seats. The best example of that was Brandon Souris, won by Grit Glen McKinnon in 1993. After losing his seat in the flood election of 1997 to Progressive Conservative Rick Borotsik, the affable former principal admitted he was little more than a warm body for the Grits in what was a long-shot riding, but won anyway. His loss in 1997 had less to do with flood politics and more to do with the return of the riding’s natural political sensibilities.

This same scenario played out in other ridings such as Winnipeg Centre, where David Walker lost to NDP candidate Pat Martin; and Winnipeg North Centre, a new riding created by boundary redistribution where the Liberals did not run an incumbent. New Democrat Judy Wasylycia-Leis won easily there. Junior minister (now provincial Liberal leader) Jon Gerrard lost a close race in Selkirk-Interlake, a decidedly right-of-centre riding that was made even more difficult through boundary redistribution; Marlene Cowling lost Dauphin-Swan River to Reformer Inky Mark in a riding that revelled in Reform ideology; and further north, iconic aboriginal leader Elijah Harper lost Churchill back to Bev Desjarlais and the NDP after a trying four years in Ottawa where he suffered extremely poor health.

The flood certainly did not hurt the Liberals in the most-affected ridings. Provencher, which included many of the communities most devastated by the spring flood, re-elected Liberal MP David Iftody quite handily and voter turnout was equal to 1993.

Perhaps the Liberal decision to call an election contributed to some of those Grit losses, making it impossible to hold on to non-traditional seats. But there is also no clear evidence the Liberals had a plan to hold on to them.

Overall, history shows us the Liberals still won a majority and even though voter turnout was lower in Manitoba, it was lower all across Canada.

So, for politicians out campaigning in this flood season, what are the hard lessons of 1997? First, a lot of people will get wet. And second, not many people outside of Manitoba will give a damn.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

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