Hundreds at tribute for former Manitoba Liberal

Jon Gerrard Manitoba Liberal Party
Manitoba Liberals paid tribute to former leader Jon Gerrard on Thursday.

WINNIPEG – Former Manitoba Liberal leader Jon Gerrard received a lavish sendoff Thursday night with a standing ovation from hundreds of people and praise from former prime minister Jean Chrétien.

It was the kind of attention Gerrard rarely saw during his 15 years at the helm of the troubled provincial party — a tough haul acknowledged by Chrétien, his one-time boss.

“He stayed in politics in a very difficult position,” Chrétien told some 380 Liberal faithful who paid $150 for Gerrard’s tribute dinner at a high-end hotel ballroom.

“It’s very rare that we meet an individual like him who devoted the last 20 years to public life, and I want to say thank you for your dedication.”

Gerrard served under Chrétien as secretary of state for science, research and development during his one term in Parliament in the 1990s. He was not re-elected in 1997 and took over the leadership of the third-place Manitoba Liberals the following year.

Story continues below advertisement

Throughout his time as leader, the party had only one or two seats in the 57-seat legislature. Without official party status and the funding that comes with it, Gerrard operated on a shoestring budget and struggled for exposure. He travelled on the cheap as he criss-crossed the province trying to rebuild the party.

Gerrard told reporters Thursday he has no regrets.

“The kids and the people of Manitoba are worth it. Even when I was alone (in the legislature), there were a lot of people who provided support.

“There have been challenges along the way, yes, but for me, it has just been a phenomenal 15 years.”

Gerrard announced his plan to resign after a disastrous 2011 election that saw the Liberal popular vote plummet from 12 per cent to 7.5 per cent. The resignation took effect last month when the party elected his successor, 36-year-old lawyer Rana Bokhari.

Gerrard retains his party’s only legislature seat — in the River Heights area of Winnipeg — and said he has made no decisions about his future. He won’t rule out running again provincially in 2016 and would not comment on rumours he might run federally.

“People are talking about all sorts of things, but right now, the only plan I’ve got is to work for the people in River Heights and support Rana Bokhari as our new leader.”

Story continues below advertisement

Chrétien spent much of his 35-minute speech lauding his government’s record, including his refusal to loosen banking regulations governing mortgages and other items. That, he said, prevented the banking implosions seen in the United States and Europe.

“The other day, I had six of the presidents of the bank in front of me, so I could not help but jump on the occasion,” Chrétien said.

“I said ‘you go around the world today and they tell you you’re the best bankers in the world, and I guess you take the compliment and good for you. Do you tell them it’s because we stopped you from jumping from the bridge?’ ‘”

Chrétien also defended current Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau from accusations he is too young and inexperienced.

“He is older than (former Progressive Conservative prime minister) Joe Clark when he won, but I know he will last longer than Joe Clark,” Chrétien said to laughter from the Liberal crowd.

The tribute dinner was aimed at raising much-needed money for the provincial party. Because Bokhari does not have a legislature seat, the party is paying her a $50,000 salary at least until the next election.