Wednesday, September 24, 2008

For some in the running, it's just an honour to be nominated

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 24, 2008


The NDP candidate in North Vancouver is a clown.

He is also an alien, an anarchist, a cowboy, an FBI agent and a piano teacher.

"I'm not really a doctor," he said, "but I play one on TV."

Michael Charrois, a 46-year-old actor, is making his first run for Parliament in a riding in which his party has a long history of failure.

The party delayed calling a nomination meeting, hoping perhaps a woman or a member of a visible minority community would be keen to challenge Liberal incumbent Don Bell.

Precisely zero candidates stepped forward. Finally, the party's riding executive asked one of their own to put his name forward.

He knows only too well the unlikelihood of his name topping the polls.

If the NDP wins this riding, it will mean Jack Layton is prime minister, Ottawa has become New Jerusalem, and a democratic socialist utopia will have been established outside of Sweden.

So, why campaign when the odds are against you?

"Somebody has to wave the flag," he said. "I admire anyone who stands up for what they believe in."

Much campaign coverage is about distractions - allegations and insinuations, pooping puffins and Cheech-and-Chong candidacies. Out of the spotlight, candidates hand out pamphlets, knock on doors, bone up on the issues and learn more about their constituents then they ever imagined. The campaign is a 38-day hiatus from everyday life, as 9-to-5 jobs are ignored and family obligations put off.

The sacrificial lambs put as much effort into the contest as do candidates with a shot at a seat in Parliament.

With cabinet minister David Emerson deciding to retire from electoral politics, Salomon Rayek, the owner of a small business, is carrying the Conservative banner in Vancouver Kingsway. (Mr. Emerson was elected as a Liberal and switched from red to blue after it became clear the Liberals would not be forming a government.) The east-side riding last sent a Tory to Parliament in the John Diefenbaker sweep of 1958.

Up in Skeena-Bulkley Valley, Corinna Morhart, a social worker in Prince Rupert, is the Liberal standard-bearer in a riding where the party has placed third in the past two elections. The old Skeena riding last sent a Grit east in 1974, when Iona Campagnolo knocked off an NDP incumbent.

Mr. Charrois faces even longer odds.

Back in 1935, during the depths of the Depression, voters in North Vancouver elected Grant MacNeil, a wounded First World War veteran and automobile dealer. Three years earlier, he had attended the founding convention of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the NDP's predecessor.

How long has it been since the left held the seat? Mr. MacNeil was defeated in 1940 by the future father-in-law of Pierre Trudeau. We're talking history.

The last time the NDP came close on the North Shore was in 1965, when a young criminal lawyer named William Deverill placed a distant second in the old Coast-Capilano riding. He had greater success in court and on the bestseller list as the author of mysteries.

Mr. Charrois is familiar with lost causes. He ran for the NDP in an Alberta provincial election. In March.

"It was dark. Cold. And lonely. I held the vote." He paused. "There was not a lot to hold."

With much of the Vancouver film industry based on the North Shore, Mr. Charrois expects to find pockets of support for his criticism of the Conservative government's $45-million cuts in arts funding. He advocates arm's-length funding of the arts.

"Nobody in the Prime Minister's Office, or me, should be telling artists what kind of work they should be making," he said.

The Conservative candidate in North Vancouver is Andrew Saxton, who is the CEO of an investment firm. The Green Party is running computer consultant Jim Stephenson, whose website states he trained under former U.S. vice-president Al Gore in presenting the Inconvenient Truth slideshow.

Mr. Charrois is familiar with bottom lines as a self-employed businessman. He co-produced Orphans, a dark comedy that played at the Firehall Theatre in June to positive reviews.

"No grants," he said. "Totally out of pocket. On our own dime. How'd we do financially? Not too well. We lost a little money, but that's the nature of the biz. Thank God I'm in the union. They keep me from giving it away for free."

Not that he doesn't know numbers. He read all of John Kenneth Galbraith's works in preparation for portraying the Canadian-born economist in a one-man show featuring comedy, magic and juggling.

A descendant of Gaspé fishermen and refugees of the Scottish Highland Clearances, Mr. Charrois became an actor in junior high school. He has been a street performer, a Fringe Festival player and a drama teacher.

He portrays an FBI agent in the current X-Files movie, and he spent four hours in a makeup chair being fitted with a hideous mask for The Exorcism of Emily Rose. In the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven, he drawls, "They went that a-way."

He does have a word of advice for voters.

"Better to know you're getting a clown now," he says, "than after they've gone to Ottawa."

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