07/01/2012 09:55 EDT | Updated 08/31/2012 05:12 EDT

Man whose son died in 1997 flood aims for leader of Manitoba Liberals

WINNIPEG - A man who left Manitoba after his son was killed in the great flood of 1997 has returned and is aiming to become the next leader of the provincial Liberals.

Robert Young, a business consultant, counsellor and Christian fiction writer, is the first candidate in the race to replace Jon Gerrard as head of the beleaguered party.

"Doing this is a sacrifice. I've lost enough already. I don't want to say, 'What have I got to lose?' but that's the kind of attitude you have to take," Young said.

"I've come back and I'm disheartened at what I've seen. I think it's great we've got the Winnipeg Jets, but we've got more poverty than when I left. We've got more homelessness."

Young, 52, was born in Winnipeg and had Liberal leanings from a young age. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he worked as an executive assistant to two Winnipeg city councillors with Liberal ties and served as a liaison between civic and provincial Liberals.

He also served on the mayor's task force on youth and gang violence.

In 1997, during the so-called flood of the century, tragedy struck. His 14-year-old son, Adam, was swept into a culvert that was connected to city sewers and drowned.

"I learned that your life can change with a phone call, drastically. But even though that situation happened, I'm still here. I've got a responsibility."

Young fought for improvements to the sewer system and lost his job, he said. He left for work in the southern United States in 2000.

In the years that followed, Young worked as a school counsellor, operated a real estate company and wrote novels including "Three Days With Mary," a religious-themed story about a man seeking redemption after making poor choices in his life. He also worked for BluefishTV, a non-profit Christian video production company.

He returned to Winnipeg last year and now works as a business development consultant at a downtown firm.

Young realizes that the Manitoba Liberal party is a shadow of the one that existed in the late 1980s when it was the official Opposition under Sharon Carstairs and had 20 of 57 legislature seats.

The Liberals have just one seat now. It belongs to Gerrard. He announced his plan to resign as leader after the party got only 7.5 per cent of the popular vote in last fall's election. A replacement is to be chosen in October 2013.

Because the party failed to meet the 10 per cent threshold for campaign expense reimbursements, it is in debt and has cut staff. For the time being at least, the Liberals have virtually no money to pay any new leader.

It all adds up to a big challenge for the next leader, says Paul Thomas, a political science professor at the University of Manitoba.

"It's all uphill. It involves a huge amount of heavy lifting in terms of all the hard work on the ground that has to be done to rebuild constituency associations, to build a policy platform," Thomas said.

Young is unfazed.

"The main priority right now is to build a party ... and give Manitobans another voice."

He is already laying out some of the broad strokes of his platform. He says he would restore the balanced budget law that has been amended and suspended by the NDP government if he ever won an election.

He would also like to find new ways to encourage kids to stay in school. Tying their scholastic abilities to a driver's licence is one idea.

"I would like to see drivers' licences and insurance, between the ages of 16 and 18, tied to school attendance and performance."

Young has a website ready to go live this week or next, and has volunteers to help his campaign.

It remains unclear, however, whether Young will be able to file his nomination papers. The Liberals have yet to set a start date for the leadership race. Party officials are to meet in September to set ground rules for a convention, Liberal president Bernd Hohne said.