The first lady of reform gets ready to move on
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen February 7, 2004

The sun pouring through a window of the seldom-used living room in a clapboard farmhouse. A fly buzzing around the potted geranium. Searching for wild strawberries in a thicket. Eating Sonny Boy porridge and eggs scrambled with freshly separated cream. The howl of a coyote piercing the dark silence…

Scenes from an Ingmar Bergman film? Hardly. Just the purple prose reminiscences of a scribe born in northeastern Alberta where she also spent summers first with her “Babca,” then Auntie Helen who ran a store at Muriel Lake, at the edge of the Kehewin Reserve, not far from Bonnyville.

The images returned after interviewing Deborah Grey on Tuesday during this, the first week of what is likely to be her last session in Parliament. It was Deborah Grey who made history when, on March 13, 1989, she won the seat for Beaver River — the same northeastern Alberta riding where I was born and spent my summers — to become the first Reform MP to sit in the House of Commons.

“Can you possibly come from a more Canadian-sounding riding than Beaver River?” Grey once joked. But it wasn’t a joke. Beaver River wasn’t just Canadian, it was a microcosm of a Canada pregnant with possibilities.

Situated along the most northerly stretch of the lake-and poplar-studded Parkland Belt with rolling hills and a mixed agricultural sector, the area also has an oil industry, two military bases (Cold Lake and CFB Namao), seven native reserves and four Métis settlements. Alberta’s second-largest concentration of francophones is located in St. Paul and Bonnyville where Grey won eight, then all 10, of their 10 polls in the 1989 and 1993 elections respectively. Eastern and central Europeans also settled the area. At 28,000 square kilometers, it was three times the size of Kuwait. For a member of Parliament, that’s a lot of terrain to cover. “No wonder,” she says, “I’m tired!”

One of five children, Grey grew up in British Columbia, then taught on an Indian reserve at Frog Lake, Alberta. Four years later, she was restless. “I knew there were serious problems in Ottawa and I could dedicate myself to effecting change,” she told Women Today magazine. A near-win in 1988 translated into a byelection victory in 1989, and Deborah Grey, MP for Beaver River, was on her way.

As the lone, often lonely, voice of Reform in Parliament, she sustained the hopes of countless Reformers and established the beachhead that admitted 51 more Reformers in 1993. Later, during the race for the leadership of the new Canadian Alliance, she became the first female Leader of the Opposition. “Six months in 2000,” she says proudly. “March to September.”

The Stockwell Day leadership crisis took its toll. “My biggest regret is the lack of confidentiality in my conversation with Stockwell,” she says. Making the best of even that difficult situation, her Democratic Reform Caucus laid the groundwork for eventual unity with the Tories.

If Preston Manning with his proposals for fiscal, constitutional and parliamentary reform was the New Canada’s ideas man, Deborah Grey was its midwife. Straddling the country like she straddled her motorcycle, she told Maritimers that the West and the East had a lot in common, that “both are on the fringes, feeling isolated while the federal government concentrates on Ontario and Quebec.”

In his Globe and Mail tribute, Manning praised her abilities as a “firm, fair, humorous and decisive” caucus chair, but those qualities also applied in the House where she gained the respect of her colleagues and the affection of Canadians. A self-described “football nut,” she says she’d love to become the next commissioner of the Canadian Football League.

The clapboard farmhouse and lakefront store at Muriel Lake still stand, but the riding of Beaver River disappeared in the 1997 redistribution. Deborah Grey then served two terms as MP for Edmonton North. This week, on the eve of her departure, a new Conservative party is forming which she hopes will meld into a true alternative to the Liberals.

As bulk membership sales and a potential landslide victory for the Martin Liberals demonstrate anew the virulence of Old Canada politics, the need for the kind of change this remarkable woman could effect remains current. Politics won’t be the same without her.

Neither will the New Canada — whose long gestation she’s so diligently nurtured — when it finally arrives.

Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.

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