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Liberals gunning for rural appeal

Vancouver Eager to bag more votes, the Liberal Party is tackling issues that matter to rural Canadians. But the party won't touch gun control.


Eager to bag more votes, the Liberal Party is tackling issues that matter to rural Canadians.

But the party won’t touch gun control.

The plan is to keep Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff focused on other rural issues, says head of the Liberal rural caucus Wayne Easter.

Liberals are looking to erode the Conservatives’ grip on rural Canada, which most believe came about through its opposition to the national gun registry, enacted during Jean Chretien’s time in office.

Chretien remains proud of the registry, he said in a telephone interview.

“We ask you to register your bike, we ask you to register your dog and we ask you to register your guns,” said Chretien. “I have guns and I never use them.”

“It’s not tempering the freedom of anyone at all.”

Registration is necessary as a policing tool, he said.

“When there’s trouble and the police know there is a gun, they behave differently,” he said. “These are the arguments we have to make.”

The 3,000 Liberals attending the leadership vote cheered loudly when Chretien stood by the registry in his speech Friday night, cementing the fact that, despite overtures to rural Canada by Ignatieff, the party isn’t about to change its approach to guns.

That puts Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, one of the few rural Liberals outside Atlantic Canada, in a tough spot.

“There’s lots of good arguments for it, but northerners haven’t been convinced yet,” said Bagnell, who voted with the Conservative Party two weeks ago in a failed bill that aimed to loosen gun control.

“A number of aboriginal people and a number of other northerners don’t think that (the gun registry) is the most effective way to use funds to cut crime,” said Bagnell. “But the majority of MPs in Parliament, who come from big cities, they support it.”

Despite the gun registry’s success as a wedge issue in the last three general elections, there is at least one way to bridge the divide between urban and rural people, he said.

“One of the things that (Yukoners) are worried about, or that they’d really like to change is they don’t want the criminalization,” said Bagnell. “If you’re a hunter, you’re a fisher, you’re a farmer and you have a .22 there to shoot gophers or whatever—you don’t want to become a criminal because you forgot to register your gun.”

The party has a strategy to win back rural votes in Ontario.

“In terms of strategically targeting ridings we need to be targeting them in southwestern Ontario, in eastern Ontario,” said Easter, an MP from PEI . “In western Canada, our opportunity isn’t as great.”

That doesn’t stop the party from mounting a 308-riding campaign, he said.

Seats the Liberals are unlikely to win should still be contested to prove that the party relates to rural Canadians, he added.

“A lot of it is communication,” said Easter. “It’s getting out there and messaging more aggressively than we have in the past. But what’s critical is having the leader himself messaging.”

And Ignatieff is doing that, he said.

“The leader gets better coverage and I think that will get the message out in the outlying areas,” said Easter.

Mining, tourism, agriculture, fisheries and forestry don’t get the economic credit they deserve, he said.

“When you start to tie all those things together in the rural group, you’re looking at rural and remote areas being responsible for about 25 per cent of the GDP,” said Easter.

Government programs must be tailored to rural needs from the outset, said Bagnell.

“We want to make sure that all our polices aren’t only urban-oriented, so that the things that are occurring in rural Canada are given more attention,” he said.

“You can have a national daycare, but it doesn’t mean there’s going to be a national daycare in the rural areas,” he said. “There’s challenges there.”

Most rural industries are seasonal, said Bagnell, and the social safety net is usually conceived and tailored to urban needs.

“People say it’s cheaper to live in rural areas because housing prices are cheaper,” he said. “That’s true, but it costs you more on gas to get anywhere and you don’t have the same services available.

“You need to have your social safety net acknowledge that there’s problems with this kind of seasonal work, and find things for people to do in the off season.”

The Liberals want to develop new web-based industries in rural areas to counteract the seasonal nature of the rural economy, he said.

“One of the ways is enhancement of the broadband,” said Bagnell. “Because normally in rural ridings, if a mine comes and goes, those are sort of boom-and-bust. But broadband you can do at home in a rural area, and you can do it year-round.”

Communication technology can bring the services and opportunity of a city to any home, he said, and scientific infrastructure should also be expanded to remote areas.

“It’s like moving to the city in a sense,” said Bagnell. “Technically, you have opportunities equal to people in urban areas.”

Contact Jam es Munson at