The man at the microphone is about to treat his well-heeled audience to something people in Toronto don't hear very often: a Mennonite joke.
He's a newcomer to this crowd but knows better than to rush the punchline.
"We Mennonites have a reputation for knowing the value of a dollar," he begins, then adds: "We are also known for focus and by the way we are admonished from a very young age to avoid having sex standing up because" - drum roll please - "it may lead to dancing."
The audience bursts into laughter and applause.
Brad Wall is a hit. And as Premier of Saskatchewan, he has good reason for good humour. His long-suffering province, which for years has repelled its best and brightest, is booming as a time when the rest of the country is doing anything but.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper claimed this week that his stimulus package is working, but Saskatchewan is likely to be the only province to post a surplus this year. It's no longer a mere bread-basket: With potash, uranium and construction revenues streaming in, the province is expected to lead the country in growth and job creation this year.
Mr. Wall is rolling with the good times. On this April evening in Toronto, he is co-chairing the Public Policy Forum's annual awards dinner where Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, the principals of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion, are among the award winners.
This is a consequential event, de rigueur for businessmen, financiers, provincial and some federal politicians and other framers of public policy.
It is a significant event for Mr. Wall as it gives this rookie premier face time in all-important Ontario and a chance to tell his province's story. Exposure in central Canada can be helpful to a Western politician with national ambitions, especially now that Mr. Harper's political future is said to be on the line.
At 43, the Premier is being touted - in discreet circles, at least - as the kind of populist dark horse who could lift a lagging federal party to a majority government - the same trick fellow Saskatchewanite John Diefenbaker performed more than a half a century ago.
The odds are long, of course. His political résumé is as slight as his Saskatchewan Party's national influence. But nobody gave Dief much of a shot either. And skinny young guys bearing great speeches have extra cachet on the Obama-fied North American scene these days.
Mr. Wall's performance in Toronto was impressive enough that those important public-policy leaders were asking themselves one question: How's Brad Wall's French?
In Canada, that's code for: Could this guy be prime minister?
Here's a little advice for those seeking answers to that question: Don't ask Brad Wall's parents.
Speaking by phone from his Swift Current, Sask., home, John Wall is about to finish explaining why his son would never run federally, why a position as national leader would be too far removed from his comfort zone among grassroots politics, when his wife Alice cuts in.
"I don't agree with that," she says in the background.
"Well that's my opinion," Mr. Wall shoots back, before returning to the phone. "My wife doesn't always agree with me."
Political debate always whirled through the Wall home when Brad was growing up. "We were like some sort of Mennonite version of the Kennedys, without all the partying, of course," the Premier recalls.
Swift Current ain't exactly Hyannisport. Sandwiched between gaping blue skies and swaying blond grasslands, it is quintessential Saskatchewan: good soil, good hockey, good people. And, for young people of Brad Wall's generation, a good place to flee.
Settled in the decade before the First World War, the town was designated a Mennonite reserve early on to attract a largely agrarian people whose pacifism and Anabaptist beliefs had garnered persecution in Europe and Russia. That peace-seeking diaspora included John Wall's family.
For the most part, the religious customs of Mennonites are similar to those of other Protestants, aside from a heavy emphasis on peace, community and service, which helps to explain Brad Wall. Both his parents gravitated to public office - Ms. Wall to the school board, Mr. Wall to city council, where he still serves.
Both also introduced their two sons early to the Western pastime of Trudeau-bashing.
In a recent interview, the Premier recalled coming home one day to find his father, who rarely became angry, talking back to the television. Young Brad was intrigued and asked his father about this man on the screen who was clearly making him agitated.
"All he said was Trudeau, somebody named Trudeau had done something that made my Dad animated about something … so I wanted to find out about anything that made my Dad that animated about something," Mr. Wall says.
No surprise then that the signs that cropped up on the Walls' front lawn every provincial and federal election were Conservative ones.
By Grade 6, Brad's budding political nerdiness was playing out on a board-game battleground. Poleconomy (yes, nothing screams childhood abandon like this wonky fusion of politics and the economy) required players to buy corporations and then take turns as a prime minister whose taxation policies could buoy or sink everyone's investments.
"It's the sort of thing you get your lunch money stolen over if your buddies find out about it," Mr. Wall says.
Throughout high school, the teenaged Mr. Wall steered clear of sports and his father's trucking company, devoting time instead to student council, his "Wall of Rock" show on the student radio station and valedictorian duties. John Wall remembers really cluing in to his son's political potential during high-school graduation. "After Brad's valedictorian speech, people came up to me commenting on his talent for communicating to audiences. That's always been his strength."
Mr. Wall's speeches are like a gateway drug. At first, you don't give this blond-haired, blue-eyed Mennonite much chance. With his unlined face, funky Armani eyeglasses (which his aides think may be "too out there") and urban-chic haircut, he looks too young, too fresh, not nearly grizzled enough to hold a crowd. Then comes the zinger. On the rubber-chicken circuit these days, he likes to open with a joke about a controversial Regina jail break - "Greetings from the province of Saskatchewan … where we are becoming increasingly famous for capturing carbon and releasing prisoners" - or the peculiar domestic conversations he's been having of late - "Honey, can you turn off the vacuum, the Prime Minister is going to be calling. ... So I put down the vacuum."
After his first few impeccably timed cracks, he moves into substance and everyone leans in to listen, just like they did on graduation day. By his closing remarks, they're all hooked.
Reg Downs, Mr. Wall's senior adviser, first experienced the Brad rapture 25 years ago at the University of Saskatchewan. He had been recruited to vote against Mr. Wall for a lowly student council position. Just to be sure of what he was voting against, he spied on one of Mr. Wall's speeches. "I remember that first time I heard him speak. He did so with great compassion. Even at that age, he was a gifted speaker. My decision was made; I voted for him."
He did more than that, later joining Mr. Wall as a legislative assistant in Grant Devine's Progressive Conservative government of the 1980s. The two were groomsmen at one another's weddings. "He's probably one of the most personable people I've ever met," Mr. Downs says.
Soon after earning a degree in public administration, Mr. Wall followed the migration of young Saskatchewanites out of the province. He had no desire to take over his dad's trucking business.
He went to work as a parliamentary assistant in Ottawa. It was the time of the free-trade debates, and Mr. Wall helped to found the Alliance for the Future of Young Canadians, a pro-free-trade lobby group, with Lars Hansen, now a Toronto communications consultant.
"It doesn't surprise me how far he's gone," Mr. Hansen says. "At one point he had to do a stand-up interview with the local CTV station and he was extremely articulate, but used the term 'folks' at the same time. He could get across the complex concepts in earnest, simple terms."
That gift before the lens has also been Mr. Wall's Achilles heel. There is no talking about his political future without mentioning the videotape made after Mr. Wall returned to Saskatchewan to work on Mr. Devine's 1991 re-election campaign. On the amateur footage, he answers mock interview questions in an accent that's a dead ringer for the Rocky and Bullwinkle villain, Boris. At one point he says of NDP contender Roy Romanow, "I don't even know how he walks upright with his head so far up his ass."
When the tape became public last April, Mr. Wall apologized immediately. But the incident still troubles him. He remembers thinking on the drive in that day about what he would say in his apology speech in the legislature. It was a very difficult speech to write, he says.
"The first temptation is to over-explain. Precisely the opposite from what was needed. There is not an explanation. It is not right."
He called Mr. Romanow to apologize. "He was very gracious," Mr. Wall says.
He also apologized to the Ukrainian community for his accent, somewhat ironic considering his ancestors farmed the steppes around Kiev before moving to Swift Current, the prairie that has always formed the centre of Mr. Wall's universe.
It was there that he returned after Mr. Devine's defeat. Again, his interest lay in politics rather than trucking. The town's director of economic development, Ron Munro, had recently died and Mr. Wall was eager to apply. Then-mayor Len Stein says he'll never forget the day a forceful young Mr. Wall first marched into City Hall.
"He came into my office, put his hands down on the desk and said 'Mr. Mayor, I want Mr. Munro's job.'"
Mr. Stein, a veteran oil-and-gas man, saw great potential in the brash 26-year-old, and hired him. Rather than lure big industry to the city, Mr. Wall focused on cultivating small businesses in the region. Within a few years it was leading the country in per-capita small business creation.
In 1999, Mr. Wall won the provincial Swift Current seat for the fledgling Saskatchewan Party, built atop the ruins of the Progressive Conservative party, beating out his junior high school principal, John Wall. (This John Wall is not to be confused with Brad's father. There are 70 Walls listed in the Swift Current phonebook.).
"We were getting to be a tired NDP government," explains the defeated Mr. Wall. "And Brad was excellent with regards to PR. He was very individualistic and self-important that way."
In 2003, the party lost to the NDP by just two seats. Insiders recognized a need to soften the party's conservative edge and saw Brad Wall as the man for the job. He was acclaimed as party leader.
As leader, Mr. Wall swept away the policies that had previously doomed his party, such as work-for-welfare, referendums on publicly funded abortions, and boot camps for young offenders. Those policy changes, along with his soothing disc-jockey tones, delivered a majority government in November of 2007.
About 18 months into his tenure, his fans outweigh his detractors 4 to 1, according to a recent Sigma Analytics poll conducted for the Regina Post-Leader. Most tantalizingly for Conservatives elsewhere, Mr. Wall has succeeded precisely where Mr. Harper has failed: allaying fears that his party has an ultra-conservative hidden agenda.
Mr. Wall's national profile may be low, but that single attribute is gold in Ottawa.
His popularity has mirrored the province's fortunes. For the first time in years, native Saskatchewanians are coming home by the thousands - there are jobs and the unemployment rate is actually dropping.
Mr. Wall credits potash, which is used for fertilizer, for helping to bring the province around. He calls it "the real rock star of all of our resources" and he jokes about giving it that status.
Here's his idea: Along with the busts of Walter Scott, the province's first premier, Tommy Douglas and John Diefenbaker, that occupy three corners of the rotunda in the legislature building, he says there should be a fourth plinth - with a chunk of potash on it.
Swift Current remains his home. A driver whisks him the 2 1/2 hours from the provincial capital most nights; he says the legislative dome has a "lobotomizing" effect so it's good to have a normal life with his wife, Tami, and their three children.
At home, his dad says he's an impressive cook, specializing in Mennonite cuisine. "Rollkuchen might be his best," John Wall says. "That's watermelon with fried bread. It's surprisingly good."
This night in Toronto is vintage Brad Wall. He makes jokes about Saskatchewan finally becoming a "have" province while Manitoba is jealously watching from across the border. He also demonstrates a generosity to the country, talking about how Saskatchewan, with its abundance of jobs and resources, is ready to do what it can for the rest of Canada.
And despite these scary economic times, he dares the audience to be audacious.
But how audacious is Brad Wall really?
Doug Richardson, a lawyer and a federal Liberal who worked with Mr. Wall when he was Swift Current's economic development officer, describes him as a moderate and says the Premier is working hard to keep the government from going too far to the right.
At the same time, Mr. Wall has decided not to pick a fight with the Harper government, as even Conservative premiers like Danny Williams do to enhance their popularity at home.
"We said we were going to give peace a chance," says Mr. Wall, riffing off the John Lennon song.
He says he has tried to work with the federal government with some success, believing that the millions of dollars that the province has received for a clean-coal demonstration project and some infrastructure money was the result of his co-operative approach.
About his national aspirations, Mr. Wall gives the standard and expected answer. "No, the answer is no," he says. "I honestly haven't thought about that.
"Honestly, and I'm not being glib, I have the best job in the country right now," he says. "I have the two best jobs. I am also the assistant to the assistant defensive co-ordinator for the Swift Current bantam football team, the Fabro Falcons."
His Toronto speech, however, ends up creating a lot of buzz in the province, with radio call-in shows discussing the prospects of Mr. Wall making a federal bid.
Says Mr. Richardson: "He's got a chance to change the face of this province, forever, significantly. I just don't see him at a national [level] He's such a sunshiny, happy guy. Ottawa would turn him grey."
And then there's the French thing. Thinking he might seek a career in politics, Mr. Wall studied French all the way through second year at the University of Saskatchewan.
He says his professor, though a very nice woman, was a German who spoke Parisian French.
During his short stint in Ottawa so many years ago, he tried out his German-accented, Parisian French on cab drivers and failed miserably.
So, no, Mr. Wall's French is not good.