by Christopher Guly
Conservatives' Ukrainian-Canadian rainmaker
1997 may prove to be the most challenging year in David Tkachuk's life. As co-chairman of the Progressive Conservative Party's national campaign, the 51-year-old senator from Saskatchewan has been tagged to orchestrate his party's return from the wilderness in a federal election likely to be called by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
It's a heady task, considering the Tories hold only two of 295 seats in the House of Commons. Certainly, Canada's current political climate suggests the Conservatives' fortunes have changed for the better and could replace the regional Bloc Quebecois as the Official Opposition in the Commons. Forming the next federal government won't likely happen, given the Liberals' continuing popularity.
That would require a miracle - or backroom political acumen. That's where Sen. Tkachuk comes in. When he joined the Saskatchewan Tories in 1974, the party was virtually non-existent in the province. By the 1980s they held power under Premier Grant Devine, for whom the senator served as principal secretary.
Now, federal Conservative leader Jean Charest, a former Mulroney Cabinet minister, appears to want to tap into Sen. Tkachuk's political magic of transforming political obscurity into political power.
Fellow Tory, Ukrainian Canadian and Saskatchewan resident Raynell Andreychuk first met Mr. Tkachuk when they served on the student council at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon in the early 1960s. Today, they serve together in the Canadian Senate. "David will be responsible for putting the nuts and bolts of the campaign together, and ensure the operation is in place," she said. "That's what he is known for."
In fact, professionally, that's what he seems to have lived for. A graduate in history and political science from the University of Saskatchewan, Mr. Tkachuk spent the initial portion of his working life as a small businessman and teacher. But from 1974 on it's been politics, all the way: working for the Saskatchewan Conservatives and, for a year, for British Columbia's conservative Social Credit party.
His profile, however, was always behind the scenes.
"My appointment to the Senate was not very popular, even among Tories, because I was not what you would call a people person - more a political person," recalled Sen. Tkachuk.
When Prime Minister Brian Mulroney telephoned him on June 8, 1993, to notify him of his new job in the Senate, Mr. Tkachuk himself thought a friend was pulling a prank. "I was cooking breakfast for my son [Brad, now 20], when I got a call from the prime minister's office and I started to dismiss it until the person said, 'No, it's really the prime minister's office.' Then, Mr. Mulroney got on the phone and started talking about mutual acquaintances and I thought, 'Why is he asking me all these questions?' He then said, 'I'm appointing you to the Senate of Canada this afternoon.'"
In the game of politics, the job was pure patronage, with some irony. The man who has built a career on getting Conservatives elected to public office will never, unless the rules change, have to face the electorate himself. Mr. Tkachuk will remain a senator until February 18, 2020.
It rankles him when the media, and the public, either criticize him and his fellow upper house appointees - in 1996 senators earned a $64,400 (about $47,000 U.S.) salary, a $10,000 (about $7,000 U.S.) tax-free expense allowance and free travel between Ottawa and their residences - for avoiding voter sentiment in elections, or simply ignore the Senate and its inhabitants.
"I think it's important that [senators] go about their business," he explained. "For me, I think my political experience has proven to be very valuable. Three years after my appointment, I became chairman of the Finance Committee."
That's a long way from the small multicultural town of Weirdale, Saskatchewan, where Sen. Tkachuk grew up and spoke Ukrainian in the local playground.
Long before he got to precede his name with a senatorial designation, Mr. Tkachuk had difficulty explaining to people how to pronounce his own family name. "When most people heard 'Kachook,' of course they spelled it without the 't,'" he says. "So, our family started to pronounce the 't' before the 'k.'"
Though the family name now is properly pronounced, Sen. Tkachuk admits that the linguistic side of his heritage has largely been lost. His boyhood Ukrainian is mostly a memory. But that could change.
Over the last three years, he and Sen. Andreychuk - the only two Ukrainian Canadian members of the chamber - are often invited to events in the community. Sen. Tkachuk hopes to also visit Ukraine for the first time over the next couple of years.
Given his new job as Tory campaign wonderworker, Mr. Tkachuk will likely emerge with a higher profile in 1997, both within and outside the Ukrainian Canadian community.
In the process, the unelected senator seeking positive returns from the Canadian electorate may close the loop in his political career as backroom strategist and glad-handing politician.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, January 12, 1997, No. 2, Vol. LXV
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