Canada's East-West Dividing Line in Flux

The official opposition party attempts to regroup. Questions over how to broaden its appeal persist and a scandal emerges.

Highlighting sharp regional divisions in Canada's politics, a two-day retreat intended to heal squabbles within the West-based Reform Party has ended with moves that may lead to its demise.

At issue is whether the party, which is the legal opposition, can ever challenge Canada's ruling Liberals. The solution, according to Reform Party leader Preston Manning, is to form a new coalition of conservative forces.

Last spring, he launched an initiative that would see the country's two right-wing parties - the Conservatives and Reform - merge. But there has been near-silence from the greatly diminished but long established Conservative Party. Mr. Manning is persisting with plans to form a coalition aimed at defeating the Liberals, although members of the populist prairie movement have voiced doubts about the course that Manning is plotting.

In only 11 years since its formation, Reform has grown from a grass-roots movement to the country's official opposition. In the last federal election, in 1997, Reform swept the western provinces, winning all but a handful of seats. But the party failed to win a single seat east of Manitoba. Without significant gains in Ontario, Reform has no hopes of ever forming a government.

Manning has publicly stated that he made a mistake when the party was formed 11 years ago, acknowledging that the party's strong regional identification is frustrating its bid to win seats in central and eastern Canada. Under the banner of "The West Wants In," Reform captured the protest vote in the four western provinces. The party's calls for fiscal responsibility, greater provincial powers, and an uncompromising stance toward separatists in Quebec won it widespread support. Manning's call for a new coalition is an attempt to resolve that problem.

"It's a regional protest movement and politics in Canada tend to be regional for several reasons," says Trevor Harrison, a professor of political sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. "It is regional because of the ethnic basis - French and English - but you also have very distinct economies across the country." While central and eastern Canada are home to the country's corporate headquarters and heavy industry, the west was developed later and is largely a resource-based economy.

"There are distinct economies and distinct regional parties," Mr. Harrison says, referring to Reform in the west and the separatist Bloc Qubcois in the French-speaking province of Quebec. "If [Reform] wants to become a national party, the trick is how do you broaden your appeal enough to blunt being a purely a regional party?"

Harrison, the author of a book chronicling Reform's rise, questions whether the party can survive a new incarnation. He describes the call for a coalition to defeat the ruling Liberals as characteristic of the "impatience" and "political naivet" of key members within the Reform Party. "It's interesting, [Manning's] impatience, suddenly throwing everything up and saying, 'We made a mistake.' But how do you rectify it?"

Last week's caucus came after a series of embarrassments and conflict within the party. Earlier this month one of the party's most respected members was charged with sexually assaulting two young girls nearly 30 years ago when he was a Mountie. Jack Ramsay, the party's former justice critic, has since resigned as the party's immigration critic but remains in caucus. Several high-profile members of Parliament have also publicly criticized Manning's leadership, describing him as dictatorial and saying the party is doomed under his leadership. Reformers have also been disciplined for opting into the federal pension plan, which the party has criticized as excessive and a drain on the country's tax dollars.

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