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Regional Outlook : Disillusionment on Canada's Prairie : A new political party's message is 'west first.' And that theme is catching on in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

December 04, 1990|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THORSBY, Canada — When Canada-watchers look north for clues on how well this vast, diverse nation is holding together, they usually set their sights on Quebec, the French-speaking province in the east that periodically makes noises about independence.

These days, though, they might just as well turn their gaze west, toward Canada's prairie heartland.

Here in this tiny town in Alberta province, for instance, about two dozen citizens turned out on a recent evening in the local recreation center to discuss, amid the crashing of bowling balls, the need for a thorough revision of the national agenda. They had not a good word to say about the policies emanating from Ottawa, Canada's capital. In their own way, they expressed convictions just as strong as those of the French-speaking supporters of sovereignty in Quebec, 1,500 miles to the east.

"We're bankrupt. We're broke. We're in a mess," said Bob Slavik, a retired physician and activist for the Alberta-based Reform Party, who co-chaired the meeting. Slavik called for massive changes in the way Canada operates: constitutional amendments, a restructuring of the Parliament, deep budget cuts, the scrapping of all Indian treaties. His listeners seemed to like his ideas; a number of them plunked down a small membership fee and joined the Reform Party at the end of the meeting.

The scene in Thorsby is being repeated in town halls, living rooms and hockey arenas all across the West as fed-up locals give traditional Canadian parties the slip and rush to join the Reform Party. Unlike the backers of sovereignty in Quebec, the Reform Party isn't calling for separation outright. But all the same, Canadian federalists are worried about the party's rapid growth, since its West-first message--coming at a time of heightened regional tension--promises to drive this country's geographic wedges even deeper.

The burgeoning Reform Party isn't the only sign of the West's growing alienation from the rest of Canada. Treasury officials in Alberta and British Columbia have lately been trying to find legal ways of collecting taxes themselves, to keep the federal government from taking the money away. In Saskatchewan, Premier Grant Devine has been battling the federal government--successfully so far--for the freedom to build a huge dam complex without completing strict, federally mandated environmental impact studies.

But for all this high-level regionalism, the strongest sign of western alienation comes not from officials working within the system but from ordinary people on the outside--the disillusioned citizens flocking to join the Reform Party.

"They believe the (ruling Progressive) Conservatives have sold them out," says Alan Tupper, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alberta.

The Reform Party didn't even exist until October, 1987. Now it claims more than 52,000 members, with 3,000 more signing up each month, many of them disgusted defectors from Canada's governing party, the Progressive Conservatives. When the Reform Party ran its first slate of candidates in 1988 federal elections, it didn't win a single parliamentary seat. But soon afterward, a member died in office, a by-election was held, and a Reform Party member won handily.

Six months later, another Reform Party candidate was elected to the Canadian Senate, the upper house of Parliament, by defeating the closest of his six opponents by a 2-to-1 margin. (The Canadian Senate is, in fact, an appointed body, but Prime Minister Brian Mulroney accepted the vote and nominated the winner eight months later.)

Political analysts are predicting that if another parliamentary election were held today, the Reform Party would win up to 40 more seats in the 295-member House of Commons, Parliament's lower house. Although that is far from enough to make a majority, such a showing could give the pro-West party significant influence in today's Canada, where the two main traditional parties--the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals--are fast losing ground.

Neil Weir, a Reform Party executive in Edmonton, Alberta's capital, offers what he calls "a very likely scenario" for the next elections, which must be held before November, 1993.

In this scenario, neither the Progressive Conservatives nor the Liberals get enough votes to form a majority government, but the Socialist New Democratic Party and the separatist Bloc Quebecois don't really flower either. If the Reform Party could win 40 seats in such a Parliament, Weir says, it would hold the balance of power and the ability to force its agenda on any mainstream party trying to govern.

"If you can't be the prime minister, the next best thing is to be the party holding the balance of power," he says. "The party with the balance of power can bring down the government, virtually at any time."

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