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Election 2019
Federal Politics

The Singing Cowboy Who Parachuted into Canada’s Federal Election

Trying for an Atlantic breakthrough, Tories roped in George Canyon from Alberta.

Michael Harris 3 Oct

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly-awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

George Canyon has probably played livelier venues than the Eureka Volunteer Fire Hall.

Outside the brick-red building just off Highway 374 near Stellarton, Nova Scotia is a simple sign: “Meet and Greet George Canyon, Tuesday 7 P.M.”

Most nights the country and western star plays to packed houses on the concert circuit. Tonight, the 40 or so people, most of them long since into collecting their pensions, are quiet and watchful — as if they were sizing up a new pastor at their church.

They have come to see the man who wants to be their Conservative MP. The audience, like the town, is rural and mindful of its history. Outside the fire hall, there is a plaque glistening in the gentle rain:

“In memory of the nine men of this community who gave their lives,” in the two world wars and Korea. There is also a small memorial to the pioneer surnames of the place, 12 names in all, including the clan “McKay.”

Inside the Eureka Volunteer Fire Hall, the man dressed in a dark sport coat, open-necked checkered shirt and blue jeans paces back and forth, trying to tease questions from local residents. Like the chairs they occupy, the crowd is wooden — for now.

Tall, square-jawed, and awash in star quality, George Canyon rattles on, like an indefatigable auctioneer determined to get a bid. He keeps prowling the room and talking, trying to get engagement out of a meet that has yet to turn into a greet.

It is hard to tell if their reserve is awe or shyness. Or could it be disapproval? Canyon, after all, rode into town from Alberta, appointed by Conservative party bosses in Ottawa betting his star power might break the Liberal monopoly on Atlantic Canada’s 32 seats. Canyon’s arrival stampeded the hopes of local Tory candidates for the nomination, bruising feelings.

Whatever it is, the residents remain largely passive. It is as if they are waiting for something, and know that if they just let him talk long enough, they will get it.

‘I will always tell you the truth’

One of Canyon’s themes is honesty.

“I will always tell you the truth, good, neutral or bad. I won’t blow sunshine up your behind,” he says in a clear, seductive voice.

A few smiles finally bloom in the audience, followed by a trickle of questions. Someone asks about teachers’ salaries. Climate change comes up, and one man carefully explains to the now silent candidate that carbon dioxide is actually good for the planet. There is an inquiry about health care, and how to make it work better, including for those with mental health problems.

“Get out your Googleators, and check out how other countries do it more successfully,” Canyon advises.

Policy is not his strong suit, but “Googleators” draws more chuckles.

The front of Canyon’s election bumph features a coloured photo of George in a cowboy hat. On the back, three promises are laid out: scrapping Trudeau’s carbon tax; increasing health care transfers by three per cent; and supporting rural communities, farmers and fishermen — whatever that may mean.

The man with the 100-watt smile talks a little about his boyhood in the area, before he was George Canyon and his name was Freddie Lays. He always wanted to join the military and his parents couldn’t understand why.

“No one in our family had been in the military, except an uncle who never came around much. So they wondered why I wanted to. It was about a need I’ve always had — a need to serve.”

Canyon relates to his audience how his friends felt about his decision to run: “They thought I was dumber than a bag of hammers for letting my name go forward.”

582px version of GeorgeCanyonSingsNovaScotia.jpg
Canyon finishes his evening at the Eureka Volunteer Fire Hall near Stellarton, Nova Scotia with a Johnny Cash classic about temptation and hellfire. Photo by Michael Harris.

In fact, Canyon had almost sought election before. In 2014, he flirted with the idea of running for the Conservative party in the 2015 federal campaign in Alberta. A cancer scare persuaded him to stand down.

A polished performer on stage, there are signs of rust in the man who has not lived in Central Nova for over 10 years.

Canyon refers to the Atlantic region’s most powerful business family, the Irvings, as the Irvines — a mistake he repeated, but corrected and recovered from on his feet.

He also hammered away at the carbon tax, claiming it was taking money out of peoples’ pockets. That’s the Andrew Scheer line, but there is a problem. There is no carbon tax in Nova Scotia, but rather a cap-and-trade system.

Canyon seems not to know how much the carbon tax actually is in those places that have it, and never mentions anything about the federal rebate involved.

Still, the audience likes it when Canyon says there is one person he never argues with, theatrically withholding the name. An elderly woman speculates out loud, “Your father!” Canyon shakes his head and says, “No, the Big Guy.”

The night’s first and only sharp question finally comes his way. A woman asks the country music star what qualifies him to be the MP from Central Nova.

“Well, I’m not a lawyer for one thing,” the candidate says with a hopeful smile. Then he realizes something. Sitting amidst the smattering of people, directly in front of him, is local legend and powerbroker, Elmer MacKay — a lawyer.

Canyon walks over to MacKay with an amiable apology, but the veteran politician is anything but offended.

“Cowboys are more popular than lawyers,” MacKay quips to general amusement.

Elmer MacKay was the longtime Conservative MP for Central Nova, one of the iconic seats for the old PC party and now the Conservative Party of Canada. If they are to make a breakthrough in Atlantic Canada on Oct. 21, this would be the most likely riding.

When Brian Mulroney was looking for a safe seat after becoming Conservative leader in 1983, MacKay resigned and handed Central Nova to his new leader. Mulroney moved on to a Quebec riding in the 1984 election, and Elmer immediately reclaimed the seat like a favourite sweater he had lent to a friend.

When Elmer left politics, his son Peter MacKay took over the riding. Like his father, Peter made cabinet — Elmer under Brian Mulroney, and Peter under Stephen Harper. In 2015, Peter MacKay read the political entrails. They told him that it was the right moment to spend more time with the family. He did not re-offer. The Conservative party put up Harper PMO staffer Fred DeLorey. The seat went to Sean Fraser and the Liberals.

As the night wears on in the Eureka Volunteer Fire Hall, there is no shortage of one-liners from the Conservative party playbook.

“I’ll push pipelines not carbon taxes,” Canyon says.

As he would do more than once this night, Elmer MacKay breaks into Canyon’s pitch with some help. He points out that Canada’s carbon footprint worldwide is so tiny, 1.5 per cent of the total, that even if all Canadians stopped driving cars, and using fossil fuels, there would be no impact on climate change. The big polluters were the United States, China and India.

‘This doesn’t sit right with me.’

The biggest question of the night, though, is never asked.

Despite Canyon’s celebrity, support from the powerful MacKay clan and dark clouds gathering over the national Liberal election campaign, can the singing cowboy turn Central Nova blue again?

It is far from a sure thing.

Canyon did not win a contested nomination put on by the local riding association. Instead, he was appointed after the man who did, Roger MacKay, mysteriously withdrew as a candidate. MacKay, who also stepped down as mayor of Westville, cited “personal reasons.”

At that point, the national party decided to appoint a new candidate for the riding rather than hold a second nomination meeting, or approach one of the people who had already run for job.

The person they chose was announced barely a day after Roger MacKay’s withdrawal — the singing cowboy who lived on a cattle ranch in Alberta, George Canyon. Somehow, in no time at all, his lawn signs started popping up. Locals suspected skullduggery. Were those signs already prepared?

The other three candidates who had fought for the nomination won by Roger MacKay learned of the decision to appoint Canyon like everybody else did — by email. Never mind that they had all plunked down $1,000, filled out a 50-page questionnaire, and travelled 1,000 kilometres around the riding selling memberships. Luke Young was one of those candidates.

“This showed so much disrespect to members of the party. A lot of people signed up to become members, only to find out that their memberships don’t count. Somebody from Ottawa will decide what candidate we have. I’m not sure about winning, but there’s a good chance of losing now,” he told The Tyee.

Although Young does not blame Canyon, and in fact called him “a good man,” he declined the new candidate’s invitation to support him in the campaign.

“You stake your life on certain principles,” he said. “Some people will vote for Canyon and shrug their shoulders and say that they want a Conservative to win. But a lot about this doesn’t sit right with me. I still have a set of principles.”

‘He doesn’t live here or own a house’

The second-place finisher for the Central Nova Conservative party nomination was Wes Surette, the general manager of Pictou Lodge resort. Like Luke Young, Surette won’t be helping the new candidate.

“Four candidates worked their tails off selling memberships, trying to engage. I’ve heard from the membership ever since, multiple calls, emails, people pissed off. Conservatives who had voted for the party for generations had lost their right to choose their MP. A lot of members are supporting Sean to send a message to the Conservative party, to say ‘you didn’t do this right.’” (Sean Fraser is the Liberal MP for the riding.)

Although Surette readily acknowledges Canyon’s rabid popularity as a country singer, he wonders about his grasp of local issues — and his commitment.

851px version of WesSuretteCampaigning.jpg
Wes Surette, speaking, finished second for the Central Nova Conservative party nomination. Canyon’s top-down appointment left ‘people pissed off,’ he says.

“Great name recognition. Immensely popular here after the singing contest he won. But he doesn’t live here or own a house. And he’s still on the road as a singer, he’s still got prior commitments. How serious is he if concerts come before debates? Is there any substance behind the celebrity?”

There is no question that the national party officials had the right to appoint Canyon. They have that express power under the party’s constitution. But don’t tell that to local party stalwarts like Marianne Stewart, whose home-made rum-soaked plum pudding has found its way to Elmer MacKay’s table on more than one occasion. Stewart, who comes from a family of 22 children, is fuming.

“All the local fellas were good people. Wes Surette was probably the finest fella I ever talked to in politics, although maybe a little too honest. After it all happened, I was picking tomatoes all day in the garden and the phone rang. It was the Tories asking for support for George Canyon. I was damned mad. I said, ‘Please don’t waste your time.’ I was totally sickened by the whole thing. The dirty work. I see nothing but dirty work.”

That is how another local resident, Dr. Clarence H. Felderhof, felt when he wrote this letter to the editor published by the Chronicle Herald: “The entire process for the nomination of the Conservative candidate was a farce. This is our democratic process at work. It is shameful.”

Back at the fire hall, the questions peter out at 8:10 p.m. for an event that was supposed to run until nine o’clock. Except for one. A lady who hasn’t put a question all night asks George Canyon when he is going to sing.

“You want me to sing?”

Does corn boil in a pot of hot water?

Canyon strides to the back of the fire hall where his gear is stowed against the wall. He puts on his cowboy hat and gets out his guitar. After tuning it, he returns to the centre of the room, waiting until the anticipatory buzz dies down. Performing with no microphone or electrification, he strums his acoustic guitar. The audience collectively wiggles, leaning forward in their seats.

I realize that all the questions and speechifying have been prologue to this swelling act. This is what they have been waiting for all evening. As Canyon breaks into the Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire,” the hands clap, the feet stomp, and everyone looks 10 years younger.

The crowd forgets about life for a while, the politics, the cost of living, their aches and pains. It rides with George and Johnny into the ring of fire — the achy-breaky love that burns, burns, burns. George Canyon has his Eureka moment.

The question is, will it last?  [Tyee]

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