Liberals celebrate their past as they seek a new leader

For a party desperately seeking renewal, Monday night's Liberal leadership kick-off in Ottawa at the Chateau Laurier hotel was long on the celebration of past glories.

Party members gather in Ottawa to kick off leadership race

Former prime minister Paul Martin, left, shakes hands with former Liberal cabinet minister Herb Gray as former prime minister John Turner looks on, during a tribute in Ottawa Monday to Gray's 50 years of public service. The event was attended by several Liberal leadership hopefuls. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

For a party desperately seeking renewal, Monday night's Liberal leadership kick-off in Ottawa at the Chateau Laurier was long on the celebration of past glories.

That nostalgia reached back even to the hotel's namesake, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who was feted by Liberals singing two verses of "Happy Bithday" in honour of his Nov. 20 birthdate. (If alive, Laurier would be turning 172).

Interim leader Bob Rae seemed conscious of being surrounded by so many aging Liberals as he jokingly introduced former House of Commons speaker Peter Milliken as someone who first won his seat in the 1800s. And nothing could have been more of a reminder of ghosts of Liberals past than former prime minister John Turner, who delivered his speech from his chair, and the guest of honour, former MP Herb Gray who uses a walker.

Campaign dates announced


  • Sunday, Jan. 20: Vancouver.
  • Saturday, Feb. 2: Winnipeg.
  • Sunday, Feb. 16: GTA.
  • Sunday, March 3: Halifax.
  • Saturday, March 23: Montreal.

Voting week:

  • Saturday, April 6: Toronto, national showcase.
  • Sunday, April 14: Ottawa, results announcement.

Several of the declared candidates for the Liberal leadership were present at the event. And some who are still deciding were there as well, including Montreal MP Marc Garneau, who said, "I will announce something when I have something to say." Others, though, say Garneau's entry into the race is "imminent."

It is not always easy to tell who is a serious candidate, but the non-refundable entrance fee of $75,000 (in up to three installments) is an important marker. So far, the only candidate to actually register for the leadership and put money down is Justin Trudeau.

Former MP Martha Hall Findlay, who announced last week she's running, was without her Calgary-based campaign strategist, Stephen Carter, although Carter's presence would have meant several senior Liberals who claim they've never heard of him could have had the opportunity to meet him. Carter stickhandled the upset victories of Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi and Alberta Premier Alison Reford.

Others preparing to join the race

While Ottawa MP David McGuinty said Monday he has decided not to enter the race, others are preparing to announce bids.

Toronto lawyer George Takach intends to formally launch his campaign on Nov. 29 with a focus on technology and the economy.

Ottawa lawyer David Bertchi said he's been campaigning "coast to coast" for six months, and has raised all the money he needs, although he hasn't registered for the race yet.

Vancouver MP Joyce Murray, who will launch her campaign next week, and who's said to have an impressive fundraising network, said she "completely disagrees" with those who think Trudeau has already sewn up the race.

"At the same time, people will ... also be looking, not just for a buzz because a buzz is temporary, they'll be looking for who can really lead the kind of transformation that we need in our party," Murray said.

Former prime minister Paul Martin talks with Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau at the party's leadership kick-off Monday at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. (CBC)

There were lots of Liberals heartened by what they see as a "buzz" around this leadership race, although they admit it seems be almost wholely attributed to the one registered candidate, who listened intently to Herb Gray and then spent the rest of the evening being mobbed.

The room was full of old-time Liberals, among them: Lorna Marsden, Warren Allemand, David Colinette, Laurier LaPierre, Derek Lee and Paul Szabo (who is supporting Trudeau).

But there were new Liberals too, including a woman who paid $199 to attend because she's tired of "extremists," and another who attended because of Justin Trudeau, whom she described as having an "Obama way" about him.

Herb Gray, frail now and recently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, seemed to have a connection to every Liberal in the party. He taught Bob Rae to play tennis, nominated Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty when he first ran, was introduced to his wife by John Turner, convinced a young Paul Martin to stay in law school and once had a 12-year-old Dwight Duncan, now Ontario Minister of Finance, as a poll captain.

Gray was first elected in 1962, when, it was pointed out, there was no universal health care, no Maple Leaf flag and no official bilingualism. He was celebrated in speeches from Martin and from former prime minister Jean Chrétien and Dalton McGuinty, both of whom spoke by video.

with files from the Canadian Press