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Jack Layton's campaign opener in Edmonton suggests NDP strategy to come

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Federal NDP leader Jack Layton

With a sly nod to the Canadian reality of strategic voting and an open attack on the pathetic way the Harper Conservatives take loyal Alberta voters for granted, New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton opened his national election campaign in Edmonton last night.

There was a crowd of several hundred hardy Alberta New Democrats and loud rock music, of course, but that's pretty much standard operating procedure for television-driven political campaigns nowadays. It was the part of what Layton had to say that is certain to get short shrift from the mainstream media that mattered more than the hoopla.

More interesting than Layton's evocation of the reality that in the Edmonton area today it's only New Democrats who have even a slim chance of knocking off Conservatives in the May 2 federal election or of the shabby way the federal government kissed off the city's Expo bid last year, was his acknowledgement of health care as an issue that really matters to Canadians.

It didn't hurt, either, that he got this message across after hobbling onto the stage at the spacey Art Galley of Alberta building in downtown Edmonton, supporting himself with an aluminum crutch.

Layton's comments about health care -- an area where Conservatives of either provincial or federal stripes, in this province or elsewhere, have precious little to offer -- may give a strong hint of where the NDP campaign is likely to go. Mr. Layton mocked Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s promise to see that 100 more family physicians graduate in Canada, noting that would be one for every 50,000 Canadians who don’t have a family doctor now.

If you're going to have health care without lineups, you have to plan for population growth and change so that you have the physicians in place where they're needed -- something that, as Layton pointed out, is obviously not the Conservatives' strong suit.

"Your health care here in Edmonton is as bad as it's ever been," he observed. "You've got cutbacks, you've got long waits in the emergency room, you've got doctors being intimidated for defending their patients and you don't hear a peep about it from Stephen Harper and his Conservatives."

Of course, there's rarely much need for the federal Conservatives to peep about anything in this province -- most Albertans who bother to vote, do so for Conservatives no matter what, then complain about the better government services received in provinces with feistier electorates.

This message won't catch fire with the national media, but it’s an issue that will have more than a little resonance with plenty of Canadians in lots of places. This is especially true since it's coming from a guy who has obviously just had some first-hand experience with the Canadian health care system after treatment in Ontario for prostate cancer and hip-replacement surgery that must have left the fitness-obsessed Layton grinding his teeth.

Since the state of Layton's health is obviously going to be an issue, especially if his message starts to make inroads against the Conservatives, let's state the obvious now: he never would have received a hip replacement if his cancer wasn't responding to treatment. That thought should lay the matter to rest, but don't bet on it in the current ugly and Republicanized environment of Canadian election campaigns under Prime Minister Harper.

Speaking of which, while Layton praised Edmonton-Strathcona MP Linda Duncan, the only Alberta politician to knock off a Conservative in the 2008 federal election, Conservative operatives were phoning householders in Duncan's riding pretending to the non-partisan-sounding "Voter Outreach Centre" and seeking support for the local Conservative candidate.

Oh well, worse things will happen before this is over.

Since the NDP has a distant chance in two other Edmonton ridings, those candidates were introduced as well by Layton, along with the brave souls contesting seats in Alberta's hinterland.

In Edmonton-Centre, native activist and business owner Lewis Cardinal is bearing the orange banner against the lamentable Laurie Hawn, whose principal achievement seems to have been getting a million smackers in federal "stimulus" funds for the tony and exclusive Glenora Club in his riding.

Former Alberta MLA Ray Martin is contesting the Edmonton-East riding where the current Conservative MP, Peter Goldring, is best known for visiting the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies in 2004 to, as the Wikipedia put it, "explore the possibility of annexation of the islands to Canada."

But really, despite the enthusiasm at yesterday's rally, everyone in the Art Gallery lobby knew it's an uphill battle for any non-Conservative, no matter how hardworking or thoughtful, to win election in this province.

It says something for the optimism of social democrats who settle in a place where the snow is still flying on March 26, that, like Layton, they soldier on regardless.

Speaking of which, on a personal note, I must say it choked me up a little to shake Layton's hand while he demonstrated that in politics, as in showbiz, sometimes the show must go on. It momentarily reminded me of a similar, if quieter, event I attended with my late father in 1963, where I shook hands with Tommy Douglas, another Canadian political trooper who kept the Canadian faith against the odds.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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