He may not yet be ready for prime time, but when Alberta Treasurer Stockwell Day delivers a speech, there is more than a touch of the stand-up comedian on display. Day, who almost never works from notes or a prepared text, can be astonishingly articulate on the public stage, rattling off statistics and achievements with the total recall of a committed policy wonk. But it is humour that he uses as his hook. And so it was last week as Day stood before an audience of Rotarians in his home riding of Red Deer and credited ordinary Albertans with goading their government into getting its fiscal house in order. "You said, 'Get rid of that deficit or we'll get rid of you,' " he said. "We pondered that for about four or five seconds and said, 'We better do something about that deficit.' " At another point, Day stopped in mid rhetorical flight to mug for a Rotarian who was pointing a camera at him. When the laughter and applause subsided, Day summed up his public persona with a self-deprecating quip: "He never met a mike he didn't like."
There is little doubt that Day, 48, enjoys the limelight. And these days, he is getting plenty of chances to bask in it. With last month's groundbreaking provincial budget - replete with tax breaks for stay-at-home spouses and the promise of Canada's first "flat tax" on personal income - Day helped cement his status as a darling of both fiscal and social conservatives across the country. Even before the budget, Alberta's Ontario-born, Montreal-raised and passably bilingual treasurer was being touted as a strong contender to lead the United Alternative - a fledgling effort to unite Reformers and Conservatives under one banner federally, and a movement that Day has taken a keen interest in nurturing. Failing that, Day, who also serves as Alberta's deputy premier, is widely seen as the heir apparent when Premier Ralph Klein ends his populist reign. "I just think Stockwell is a terrifically accomplished politician," says Ontario Transportation Minister Tony Clement, who served with Day on the steering committee behind the United Alternative's inaugural conference in Ottawa in February. "He's got a very bright future - whether in Alberta or beyond."
Whatever his leadership ambitions - and, for the time being, Day insists he has none - the telegenic treasurer appears destined to stay in the national spotlight for the foreseeable future. In Alberta, Day is a controversial figure, a former Pentecostal pastor who is at least as well known for his pitched battles against gay rights and abortion as he is for riding herd over the province's finances. "Day is a moral conservative who takes strong, even passionate stances," notes University of Calgary political scientist David Taras. "As the focus intensifies, people will start to ask questions. Who is the man? What does he believe in? I'm not at all sure they will find that he connects with opinion in Main Street Canada."
Stockwell Day was born in Barrie, Ont., in 1950, the second eldest of six children. His father was a vice-president with the Zellers retail chain and the family moved often as the company opened new stores in other cities and provinces. Day spent parts of his childhood in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ottawa, Quebec City and Montreal. He attended high school in Montreal, where he was an avid soccer player and where, according to stories he later told his own children, Day could sometimes be found with his buddies outside the Montreal Forum scalping hockey tickets. It was in Quebec that he learned to speak French. He kept the language up, though not as much as he would have liked. "It would be nice to be fully immersed for a period of time," Day said during a wide-ranging interview last week at his Red Deer constituency office. "As it is, I can go into restaurants and most business meetings and fool them for the first few minutes."
Day's family moved to Victoria in 1968, when he was 18. He attended the University of Victoria, studying English and creative writing. But he was, by his own admission, "not an attentive student" and left before earning a degree. He did, however, earn a reputation for slightly offbeat behaviour. Day recalls that, while living in a cottage in suburban Victoria, he bought a 1956 Plymouth for $25 "because the radio worked." After safety inspectors deemed the vehicle unroadworthy, he bought three hens and began to raise them in the backseat of the car. Each day, the chickens rewarded him with a couple of eggs and he, in turn, would take the birds for a walk, using lengths of string as a leash. Eventually, the neighbours complained and a bylaw officer informed him that residential Victoria was not zoned for poultry. "I tried to suggest these were my pets," says Day, "but he didn't buy that either. So that night, there was a nice roast chicken dinner."
After leaving university, Day worked as a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat. About the same time, he met his future wife, Valorie. The couple married in October, 1971, and moved to Kelowna the following year to start up an auctioneering business. Unhappily, after one successful year, the business burned to the ground. And because of what Day describes as "a classic case of fine print on the insurance form," he was on the hook for a sizable business loan. To help pay off his debts, Day worked at a variety of jobs over the next few years, among them lumberjack in the B.C. interior, oilfield worker in Inuvik, N.W.T., and salesman and installer of drapery tracking equipment in Edmonton. His clients in the latter venture included the Alberta government. "I got my first inside glimpse of government while standing on the desks of deputy ministers, removing ceiling tiles," he says.
While in Edmonton, Day also worked for a year at an agency that dealt with troubled street youth. In the late 1970s, he accepted a job as a youth minister at the Bentley Christian Centre, a Pentecostal church near Red Deer, where he also administered a private Christian school. His new career marked the culmination of a spiritual journey that began several years earlier. Raised an Anglican, Day says his faith "diminished and then evaporated" during his teen years. But he began to reassess his religious views after getting married and starting a family (the Days have three children: Logan, 26, Luke, 24, and Benjamin, 22). When he resumed attending church, it was as a Pentecostal. As part of his faith, Day accepts the Bible as the literal, infallible word of God.
Reg Darnell, a former pastor at the Bentley Christian Centre, recalls Day as a bright, inspirational speaker who was especially popular among young people because of his sense of humour and fun. "Stock is a man who lives by his principles, but not in a rigid, inhumane way," says Darnell, now a pastor in nearby Rimbey, Alta. "He was able to impart to kids the value in having a faith in Jesus Christ."
Day soon became active in an association that lobbied the provincial government on behalf of private Christian schools. This helped whet his appetite for politics, leading to a successful run in 1986 as a Conservative in the riding of Red Deer North. After an initial term as a government backbencher, Day quickly rose through the ranks to serve as party whip, house leader, minister of labour, social services minister and, since March, 1997, provincial treasurer.
Along the way, Day often became mired in controversy. Although he is a provincial Conservative, he was an early and outspoken supporter of the federal Reform party. Among other things, he has advocated work camps for dealing with some young offenders, lent support to a fellow MLA's unsuccessful bid to have John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men banned from Alberta schools because of alleged profanity, and described Ottawa's recent gun registration law as "lunacy." In October, 1997, the rookie treasurer sparked a national uproar when he suggested convicted child killer Clifford Olson be released into the general prison population so that "moral prisoners will deal with it in a way which we don't have the nerve to do." Day later claimed he was not advocating vigilante justice, merely criticizing the "special treatment" Olson enjoyed by having a private cell. All the same, he noted that the hundreds of calls flooding his office were "saying thank you for saying what 99 per cent of us say around our dinner tables and our barbecues."
But above all, two issues - abortion and gay rights - have marked Day as one of Alberta's most prominent social conservatives. Day, who personally considers abortion immoral, supported a resolution that an anti-abortion group presented to the Alberta Conservative party's annual convention in 1995. It called on the government to stop paying for abortions under the provincial health plan. After Klein spoke out against it, the motion was defeated.
Last April, Day was back in the fray. When the Supreme Court of Canada decreed, over the province's objections, that gays and lesbians must be protected under Alberta's human rights law, Day argued strongly in favour of nullifying the ruling by invoking the federal Charter's notwithstanding clause. Though he enjoyed support from an estimated one-third of the caucus, Day lost again after Klein declared that the court must be heeded. Day has since helped fashion a government policy that is attempting to erect "fences" against extending certain familial rights to homosexuals - including the right to marry.
While they have sometimes clashed over social policy, Day has clearly earned Klein's respect and trust in his role as provincial treasurer. Building on the deficit-slaying legacy of his predecessor, Jim Dinning, Day tabled on March 11 what political scientist Taras describes as "the Star Wars budget - boldly going where no treasurer has gone before." In addition to decoupling provincial and federal tax rates, Day vowed that, by 2002, the province would impose a flat rate of 11 per cent on personal income - a move he said would reduce the overall tax take by $600 million. At the same time, he promised to boost program spending on education and health care by an impressive $1.5 billion over the next three years.
Day contends that his critics dwell too much on how his personal religious views affect his stance on certain social policy issues - and too little on his achievements in other areas. He also argues that one reason more politicians may not speak out on sensitive moral issues is that "you tend to get marginalized about everything else that you do." Adds Day: "If you are going to have these views and still be seen as a normal, intelligent person, you have to work extra hard. In some ways, you are always under the magnifying glass."
Day knows that if he pursues a leadership position, the scrutiny will only intensify - and that some will dismiss him as an extremist. Admirers, like Ontario cabinet minister Clement, believe he is up to the challenge. "There's nothing wrong with having strong moral convictions," says Clement, "but you have to separate out your moral choices from what should be public policy. I have confidence that he's going to draw the line in the right spot."
Back in Alberta, though, that confidence is not always shared by those who have crossed swords with Day. Murray Billett, a member of the gay rights group Equal Alberta says his personal dealings with Day are cordial. "He's not a bad guy," says Billett. "He's always given us respect and listened to us." But that does not blunt Billett's view that Day is a dangerous man: "He imposes his religious views on this province and on his day-to-day legislative responses." For Billett, who is himself a single gay father, the most offensive aspect is Day's rhetoric about defending the traditional family unit. "Sure, everyone's blue-sky family has a mom and dad and a picket fence," he says. "But in reality, that's just not the case."
All the same, even Billett concedes that Day possesses many of the ingredients for political success. "He's got savvy," says Billett. "He's a bright, articulate man. He's also good-looking, which is a big thing in politics." Day certainly has the stamina that political leadership so often demands. Colleagues, political aides and family members all tell stories of trying - in vain - to keep up with him as he presses through days that typically begin as early as 5 a.m. and end around midnight. In whatever spare time he has, Day likes to pursue high-energy sports, including in-line skating, snowboarding and skiing.
But the question remains: is he driven to lead? Day insists the answer is no. Of a potential run at the United Alternative leadership, Day says, "I have no plans at all in that direction." When asked if that means he is ruling it out, Day's response allows him the usual politician's wiggle room: "I've not ruled it in, so I don't know how I could rule it out." On the prospect of succeeding Klein, he says, "I also have no designs on that particular job." The denials may be sincere enough. But for the time being, at least, Stockwell Day appears to be a politician blessed with options - and opportunities.
Maclean's April 12, 1999