Paul Hellyer likes to wait until the end of a speech before he tells “The Story of the Two Nuns.” This is after he has recommended doing away with the Free Trade Agreement, renegotiating NAFTA and rejecting a customs union with the United States.

It is the point, the leader of the Canadian Action Party says, when someone usually askshim if his ideas will work. The story goes like this:

Two nuns are driving from Brampton to Toronto when they run out of gas. They had passed a gas station about a quarter of a mile back, so after pulling off the road they take the only thing they have — a bedpan — and carry it with them. They fill it up with gas and walk back to the car.

“Suddenly, two Bay Street power brokers pull up in a convertible,” Hellyer says. “The brokers tell the nuns, ’If it works, we’ll convert.’ Believe me, this will work.”

Hellyer is referring to his plan to build a new national opposition party, composed of everything from the NDP to the Progressive Conservatives, which he hopes will replace the Liberals after the next federal election. It was appropriate he would use a joke featuring members of the Holy Orders; he admits it is a project that will require a miracle.

“The Conservatives have no chance of winning the next election on their own,” he told an audience in downtown Toronto this week. ’The NDP has no chance of winning this election on its own, and — I’m sad to say — the Canadian Action Party has no chance of winning this election on its own.”

While he used the occasion to sell his books and stump for new CAP members (“We need more numbers to have clout when we talk to the other parties,” he said), Hellyer did not take advantage of the current transition in the NDP leadership to launch his own bid to replace Alexa McDonough.

“That race is underway, and they have to elect a new leader. Then we can talk,” he said. “Even my friends in the Liberal party — and I still have some — admit that the dominance of the Liberal party is not good for democracy.”

Hellyer, 78, left the Liberals behind when he resigned as Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s senior minister (and former defence minister) in 1969 over a housing issue. He started out as Canada’s youngest Member of Parliament when he was elected in 1949; eight years later, he was the youngest cabinet minister.

The CAP Web site now calls him “the elder statesman” of Canadian politics, and he plays the part. He stumbled coming down the steps of the small stage inside Trinity St.-Paul’s church, where the event was held. He moved closer to audience members when they asked questions, complaining he was hard of hearing. He drew on his status asa senior citizen to recall changes in the Bank of Canada’s monetary policies from 1938 to today.

Hellyer said he knows the CAP’s resistance to U.S.-brokered trade deals and globalization is at odds with the policies of some of the other parties, but he’s willing to put differences aside. So should they, he said, if they want to ensure Canada’s survival. “That’s more important than any differences we may have.”

Though he said he has been in talks with McDonough, Conservative leader Joe Clark and others, Hellyer admitted promoting a coalition was his toughest challenge. After his speech, when audience members offered their own suggestions — a public debate in Ottawa, an appearance on CBC’s Counterspin — he was all ears. “Sounds good to me,” he said. “Tell them I’m available.”