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Minister in his prime

Conservative Christian pastor Stockwell Day charms his way into the leadership of the Canadian Alliance

Canada's liberal media elite have decided that Stockwell Day, newly elected leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, the Canadian Alliance Party, is a Bible-thumping Neanderthal, a conservative extremist with almost no chance to win the federal election expected next spring. Mr. Day is proposing a flat federal income tax, more federal powers "devolved" to the provinces, and privatizing parts of the national health care system. He opposes gun control, abortion, and gay rights. Altogether, "there's something, well, vaguely American about him," sniffed newsmagazine Maclean's in a cover story on Mr. Day titled, "How scary?"

But many Canadians don't find him very scary at all. During his leadership campaign the former Pentecostal preacher and Christian school administrator attracted remarkably broad support, from Vancouver pro-lifers to gay libertarians in Montreal. In a July 8 second-ballot, Mr. Day crushed Preston Manning, one of the founders of the Reform Party of Canada (predecessor to the Alliance) and leader of the Opposition, by a 2-1 margin. Canadian conservatives are optimistic about his chances to oust Jean Chrétien of the Liberal Party from 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, the prime minister's residence.

Stockwell Day, now 49, would have seemed unlikely to contend for prime minister when he was a marijuana-smoking jack-of-all trades in the early 1970s. After leaving his parents' Victoria, British Columbia, home at 18 he worked a series of odd jobs, driving a hearse in Vancouver and dropping commercial fishing nets off the California coast. Back in Victoria, he rented a cottage and cooped a trio of chickens in the back seat of his car, taking them for walks in the evening on leashes made of shoelaces.

Raised a nominal Anglican, in 1971 he began to reexamine his Christian roots while going through premarital counseling with his fiancée, Valorie Martin. By his wedding he had "accept[ed] the reality in terms of Christian faith," as he told his biographer, Claire Hoy. Mr. Day then cut his long hair, shaved his beard, quit drinking, smoking, and swearing, returned to church, and began raising a family (two of his three sons, Luke and Logan, worked on the latest campaign). He tried several jobs around western Canada over the next few years, including auctioneer, logger, and youth addiction counselor, before attending Bible college in Edmonton, Alberta, and then landing in Sylvan Lake as assistant pastor of a Pentecostal church. In 1979 he helped start an independent Christian school in nearby Bentley, which the province tried to shut down in 1984 because it was uncertified. Mr. Day joined a lobby of other independent schools and convinced the province to recognize church schools the next year.

In 1986, at age 35, Mr. Day found his calling in politics. He won a parliamentary seat from the Red Deer, Alberta, riding (legislative district) for the ruling Progressive Conservatives and rose gradually through the ranks, becoming minister of labor, minister of social services (where he supervised welfare reform), and most recently treasurer. He stood out for his social conservatism, backing a 1996 proposal (axed by Premier Ralph Klein) to stop government funding of all "medically unnecessary" abortions, and fighting (also unsuccessfully) to have Alberta use an obscure constitutional clause to "opt out" of a Supreme Court decision forcing the province to include sexual orientation in its Individual Rights Protection Act.

Given his record, Mr. Day had to expect liberal sneers. Under the headline, "Can Stockwell Day separate church from state?" one Globe and Mail reporter wrote that Mr. Day has "a long record of putting religion ahead of government.... [W]hat unsettles many Canadians is that Mr. Day is not simply a moralist, but a man of action."

Preston Manning, also an evangelical, endured similar attacks after he founded the Reform Party in 1987. But the attacks faded over the years as Mr. Manning seldom discussed his faith publicly and Reform seemed less and less likely to capture Ottawa. In the 1997 election Reform candidates dominated conservative-leaning western Canada but won not a single seat in vote-rich Ontario or Quebec, allowing the Liberals to form a second consecutive majority government. In a last-ditch effort to unite Canadian conservatives, last year Mr. Manning dissolved the Reform Party to form the Alliance. He put the leadership up for grabs, hoping to recapture the title and head into the next federal election with the momentum of a hard-fought campaign.

The strategy seems to be working for Mr. Day. Many journalists, however much they oppose Mr. Day's social views, have been gushing over how Mr. Day "exudes youthful energy" and is "witty," "charming," and "telegenic." They have published pictures of a tanned and fit Mr. Day rollerblading, kayaking, and kick-boxing, and also playing jazz drums in a Montreal nightclub. Even his political enemies say it's hard not to like him. Some compare his campaign with the 1968 rise of the last charismatic prime minister, Liberal Pierre Trudeau. Prime Minister Chrétien, 66, whom columnists have been describing as "geriatric," denied that his whitewater rafting trip last week, accompanied by national media, was an attempt to counter Mr. Day's youthful image.

Moreover, Mr. Day has calmed the fiscally conservative but socially liberal crowd in his own party, which was afraid he would "impose" his Christian morality on Canadian society. "No member of Parliament has the right to do that," he said in a speech last April. He proposes legislation for citizen-initiated referendums and allowing "free votes" in the House of Commons (where MPs are expected to vote according to the wishes of their constituents) on such controversial social issues as abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment.

Weeks after that speech, key Ontario conservatives promised to raise $18 million for a Day-led Alliance federal campaign, more than double the Reform Party's last election budget. They think Mr. Day might win, observes Tom Flanagan, professor of political science at the University of Calgary, and while they may not agree with his moral stance they understand his democratic approach. "He's known as a team player," said Mr. Flanagan, "someone who won't turn the board over and walk away when he loses the game."

The pro-life, pro-family forces in Canada have bought into Mr. Day's program. Joanne Hatton, president of Alberta Pro-Life, would be satisfied with a chance to force a national referendum on defunding abortions. "Stockwell won't bring in a law to criminalize abortion," she said, "but it's our job as pro-lifers to change public opinion. In a democracy, that's as good as it gets."

Does Mr. Day have a realistic shot at winning next spring? Mr. Flanagan notes that the Reform Party typically polled around 10 percent between elections but nearly 20 percent on election day. The Alliance is already taking 20 to 25 percent, says Mr. Flanagan, so if the pattern holds Mr. Day might nab 30 percent in the election itself. "That's not enough to win, but it is enough to take 20 or 30 seats in Ontario," and deny the Liberals a majority.

And he just might go all the way, according to Mr. Flanagan. "The evidence isn't there yet, but he has the kind of personality that might create a bandwagon. If he can get his views understood outside Alberta, he could have a winning position."

Les Sillars

Les Sillars

Les is a WORLD Radio correspondent and commentator. He previously spent two decades as WORLD Magazine's Mailbag editor. Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College and resides in Purcellville, Va., with his family.