Blakeney’s mission

Dogged? Tenacious? Well, he has a country to save

Suzanne Zwarun December 26 1977

Blakeney’s mission

Dogged? Tenacious? Well, he has a country to save

Suzanne Zwarun December 26 1977

Blakeney’s mission

Dogged? Tenacious? Well, he has a country to save

Suzanne Zwarun

It’s two minutes before sunrise, it’s late fall, it’s Saskatoon and that’s a combination to give anyone a dose of the miseries. A cold, coffeeless trio shambles out of the King George Motor Hotel. Cabinet press officer Bruce Lawson has been pressed into temporary duty as a foggy-headed chauffeur. The Premier’s wife, Anne, is barely on her feet after an appendix operation two weeks before. The New Democratic Party Premier is just plain testy. Allan Emrys Blakeney jerks open the station wagon door and his big, red Thermos splinters on the pavement. He slams the door on his wife’s apologies, spins around to face the dreary, deserted street and yells: “Hell’s bells!”

That’s all.

Totally composed now, Blakeney turns back to the car and climbs in with the air of a man consciously starting his day anew. Blakeney is a reasonable man, a man not given to rages, to passions, to eruptions. He handles life with a super-cool efficiency. Broken Thermos dispensed with, he is already into another space, digging into his briefcase, discovering the day’s agenda has eliminated his most precious hour, the 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. time to himself he always needs to catch his breath. That rates a glum sigh.

In the next 17 hours, Blakeney will circle through five Francophile villages midway between Saskatoon and Prince Albert. He’ll talk to a couple of dozen classrooms of schoolchildren, press the flesh at three coffee parties, speak at a lunch and again at a dinner, tour the Batoche historical site and look over the One Arrow Indian reserve.

Then, as the evening draws toward midnight and the band tunes up for a dance, he’ll make his slow farewells, climb

back into the station wagon and head for Regina, four hours away.

Small wonder Friday morning is coming down bleak. But as the sunrise tints the curdy, buttermilk sky pink, as the country grows bumpier, lumpier and prettier than motorists on the Trans-Canada Highway would ever believe, Blakeney slides into working gear. He arrived in Saskatoon the day before to open the two-million-dollar John Dolan School for handicapped children: government business. He’ll end the day at a St. Louis banquet and dance: New Democratic Party business. But he’ll spend the day, snatching opportunities, making opportunities when they’re not offered, on

Allan Blakeney’s own private business: saving Canada.

In kindergartens littered with lunch boxes plastered with decals of Charlie’s Angels, he passes out slick pictures of the Queen on her 1973 visit to Saskatchewan and talks about Canada’s government. In elementary classes where the kids all have French surnames and speak only English, he clucks sadly and prods them into a pride in their French ancestry. In junior and senior classes, where portraits of the Pope and the Queen share star billing, he warns that the future of Canada is at stake and future citizens must think about that. He blushes for his own unilingualism, beams over St. Isidore School’s success at creating an entirely bilingual high school, praises Saskatchewan’s multicultural roots.

It’s a lonely mission. After a droughty spring and a soggy fall, Saskatchewan has a single, overwhelming obsession: the Crop. Bulk oil dealer or housewife, people are concerned about the government’s land bank to get new farmers started, about the shortage of propane for grain dryers, about the Hutterite threat to family farms, about falling wheat prices and utility grade grain. Blakeney, who has scant talent for small talk, listens carefully, answers seriously. But always, he turns the conversation to Canada. “There are decisions to be made about Quebec, about separatism, about

unity. We’re in difficult times. We’re not sure about the future of Canada and there is some straight bargaining coming up. The stance Saskatchewan takes depends on what the Saskatchewan people want. I ask you to give it some hard thought over the next couple of years. Decide what you think should be done and tell your elected representatives.”

Eyes glaze. In Hoey (population 88), villagers want to show off their new $40,000 community hall and complain about the cost of keeping the main street oiled. In Domremy (population 188), they urge sandwiches on the Premier, joking that eating bread will keep up wheat prices. In Bellevue (population 54 families), teenagers are disgruntled about the drinking age having been raised back to 19. No one wonders, even idly, what Quebec wants now.

Blakeney observes that Saskatchewan is the only province where people of British descent and French descent even together don’t form a majority. “The (Slav) immigrants who came to Saskatchewan had to make an emotional commitment because there was no going back for them. That gives them a very, very strong attachment to Canada.” It often seems, however, a commitment to Saskatchewan. A member of the prestigious Saskatoon Club has heard members only twice mention Quebec. The most repeated refrain is a simple, “People either think it’s all talk and Quebec won’t go or Quebec will go and it’s not going to make the slightest difference to them.”

Blakeney keeps right on slugging away, and he can only hope the fate of Canada isn’t weighed on the scales of charisma. René Lévesque, the rumpled man behind the cigarette smoke, works passionately and plays boisterously, and used to be known for his late-night poker sessions with the Press Gallery. Separated from his wife, living with a mysterious other woman, he’s short, balding, haggard, baggy-eyed and droopy-mouthed. But he sweeps a crowd like a tidal wave, pleading, cajoling, threatening, reasoning, charming, challenging, ceaselessly working his hands, his eyebrows, his furrowed brow, his shoulders. -He seduces, he slices, he swamps with emotion. The performance and the man are unforgettable.

Then there’s Blakeney. Not quite short, not quite fat. Eyes not quite blue, not quite grey. A pudgy little man, with closecropped, never ruffled hair, going plain grey, nothing so interesting as silver. A bland, smooth, pale, unremarkable face collapsing into an unfortunate landslide of jowls. A Baptist. A non-smoker and a virtual nondrinker, he sips mostly tea since his stomach rebelled against coffee. In times past, as opposition leader, he, too, played poker with the press, but that only happens as a ceremonial once or twice a year now and the stakes are nickel and dime, not the hundreds of dollars the Québécois are into. Despite a hint of a lisp and

a tendency to shrillness, he gives a competent speech, debates with the skill of an Oxford background, has acquired the appropriate gestures: the carefully cupped hand, the stiffly shrugged shoulder, the rigid, wagging finger. But he’s not a speaker to twist the guts, not a man to inflame a crowd, inspire a unity army. Blakeney, that dependable, temperate, solid, reserved, trustworthy administrator, will never touch the emotions.

But Allan Blakeney is dogged. Utterly indefatigable, he has never failed or faltered in pursuit of a goal. Born 52 years ago in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, he abandoned his Tory family’s roots at Dalhousie University where he helped found the first

CCF club. In his high-school yearbook, he settled his career—lawyer and politician— and furthered both with a Rhodes scholarship, won on the basis of a gold medal in law and a competency as a hockey rightwinger. Back from Oxford, he decided on a job in the Saskatchewan civil service, Canada’s only socialist government then, and when there wasn’t an opening he waited patiently, usefully spending the year articling in Edmonton. In 1950, opportunity opened. Blakeney went to Regina as legal adviser to the provincial Crown corporations and established a reputation for intellect that led to his appointment, in 1955, as chairman of the provincial securities commission. Three years later, he returned to private practice, a better springboard for politics, won a seat in the next election, in 1960, and a post in Tommy Douglas’ cabi-

net. In the next two years, he held education, treasury and health portfolios and, by the time he steered Saskatchewan through the Medicare crisis, his reputation for careful competence was unassailable, even though the Liberals won the 1964 election in the aftermath of the doctors’ strike. Woodrow Lloyd, Blakeney’s friend and mentor, had by then taken over the NDP, but during the party’s seven years out of power Blakeney overshadowed Lloyd. When Lloyd stepped down in 1970, Blakeney stepped up and led the NDP back to power the next year, where they’ve easily stayed, now with 39 seats against the Liberals’ and Tories’ 11 each.

It’s all as neat as a Saskatchewan farm section and if there were doubts, fears and setbacks, you won’t hear about them from

Blakeney. But Anne Blakeney, who has the warmth and easiness with people her husband lacks, reveals a small, human crack. When they were first married and Blakeney was on his first political campaign, they main-streeted Saskatchewan together because “it comforted us both.” Anne’s retelling of their honeymoon, however, better fits Blakeney’s image. Now 50 and the mother of four, she is his second wife. His first wife and her lifelong friend, Molly Schwartz, died of a heart ailment at Christmas, 1957, leaving him with two small children. When the widower went a-wooing Anne, a botany lecturer at Victoria College, she recalls he was far more likely to chat about low-cost housing than about himself. She had no children, he had two, and he sent her Mother’s Day flowers in

1959. She was touched, and they were married later that year, honeymooning through BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Blakeney didn’t miss inspecting a single power dam along the way.

If a new bride is not enough to turn Blakeney away from his business at hand, neither is the vice-premier of China. Increasingly, Saskatchewan’s business has been potash; its reserves of 75 billion tons of the potassium-based fertilizer are enough to fill current world demand for the next 3,000 years. In the search for new markets, Blakeney decided China would be a logical buyer. However, on a visit in May, 1976, he found the Chinese unenthused. They vetoed his request to inspect a Chinese potash mine and sidelined him into sightseeing. Blakeney, with his usual

unflagging tenacity, kept right on pushing potash. When Vice-Premier Chi Tengkuei warned there was going to be a third world war, Blakeney came away from the meeting subdued, but only because the Chinese weren’t quite as interested in potash as he’d hoped. His interpreter, a humorless, taciturn young man, finally cracked. On a visit to a Shanghai department store, Blakeney casually wondered what was stored above the first four shopping floors open to the public. Deadpan, the interpreter shot back: “On the fifth floor is stored potash.”

When Blakeney took over Saskatche-

wan in 1971, he was one of the new wave of western premiers. Alberta premier Peter Lougheed that year ousted the long-entrenched Social Credit. Two years before, Ed Schreyer gave Manitoba its first NDP government. A year later, Dave Barrett blitzed BC with the NDP. All young men, all allied in their western alienation, all aiming for a brave new deal for their provinces. But the always successful Blakeney tended to give the impression of a technocrat who preferred efficiency in government to any great commitment to ideals. He won originally on a platform of moderation, with scarcely a mention of socialism. In two terms, he introduced free dental care for children, almost free prescription drugs, an experimental guaranteed income plan for low income families, the highest hourly wage in Canada (since eclipsed by several provinces), a land bank that enabled 1J00 new farmers to go into business, joint uranium ventures, stiff new royalties on the oil industry. And still people persisted in thinking of him as moderate, middle-of-the-road, reliable. An exceptional administrator, they said, but no ideologist.

It wasn’t until 1975 when Blakeney announced his intention to take over the potash industry that it began to dawn that here was a totally dedicated socialist who believes only the state can create an egalitarian society, that it can’t all be left to individuals and their competing wants and needs. The explosive reaction was perhaps fueled by a sense of betrayal; this wasn’t the man people thought they knew. There was a legislature filibuster, hours of paid telecasts by potash companies and the government, acres of newspaper ads, scores of public meetings, stacks of opinion polls (mostly opposed to the take-over), and months of court battles with the potash companies. As Charlie Farquharson quipped: “It’s got so that out in Regina they’re scared to stand beside Blakeney in the washroom. If he sees you got a good thing going, he’ll try to nationalize it.” Blakeney, of course, persisted. By this fall, the government owned three of the province’s 10 potash mines, was negotiating for another and talking about an interest in two more. It is the first major government take-over of a nonessential industry in Canadian history and it cost $700 million. It was an astonishing step for a province of 936,500 people and it continues to cause problems; a good deal of the money used to buy the mines—more than $500 million—is now, according to a Supreme Court ruling in November, owed to oil companies. The court declared unconstitutional the 1974 legislation under which Saskatchewan collected tax and royalty surcharges to prevent oil companies from exacting “windfall profits” from rapidly rising prices. But that’s not the end of the story; Blakeney and his attorney general, Roy Romanow, immediately went to work on new legislation to counteract the court decision.

The convictions that carry Blakeney through the potash fight have taken him now into the Confederation battle. For years, he has been embroiled in a dispute with Ottawa over resource taxation, which he maintains deprives Saskatchewan of rightful revenues. He seemed almost to welcome the Parti Québécois victory in November 1976, remarking that it would make it easier for Saskatchewan to achieve its own economic aims. A month later, he met Lévesque at a first ministers conference and did an abrupt about-face. What galvanized him is unclear; he says only that Lévesque “impressed” him. Whatever, Blakeney took to the road to prevent the dismemberment of Canada. In January, he was telling the Canadian Club in Toronto that Canadians must win the hearts and minds of Quebec. In February, he was in Ottawa helping to organize an NDP consensus on handling the separation threat. In March, he was filling newspaper pages with a Canadian Press interview on Canada’s most important national issue. By June, he’d bearded Montreal, then backtracked to Ottawa. When the Task Force on National Unity reached Saskatchewan this fall, Blakeney was waiting with an exhaustive presentation. His intention, he says, is to define areas where fruitful negotiations with Quebec might take place. The people of Quebec consider it their decision to separate. Blakeney be-

lieves, therefore, a federalist leader must rise in Quebec. (“For the sake of a name, say Claude Ryan. No, never mind a name.”) That leader must convince Quebeckers that Lévesque cannot give them sovereignty-association, only separation, while a federalist leader can give them a revised Confederation that both Quebec and the rest of the country can live with. Blakeney, meantime, is paving the way in the rest of Canada; jabbing, pushing, stuffing possibilities down EnglishCanadian throats to make them think. “I am suggesting some things that might be unpopular, not because I expect them to arise but to get people thinking about whether they’re in the range of things people might be willing to concede.” As usual, Blakeney is thorough. Western rednecks are hit with the spectre of large-scale bilingualism. Unions are faced with the unappetizing prospect of trade unions based on linguistic groups. Businessmen are told to contemplate the wider use of public enterprise, “several Hydro-Quebecs, perhaps.” Constitutionalists are handed the notion of particular status for one province. And Blakeney has a stunner for just about everyone with his warning that countries wiser than Canada have stumbled into civil war.

The cynical Saskatchewan Press Gallery ponders what’s in it for Blakeney, fails to find an answer. The other western premiers are studiously avoiding the unity debate, except for Manitoba’s Sterling Lyon who took it on himself to tell Quebec that

English Canada doesn’t give a damn about their language and cultural anxieties. With the NDP gone from government in BC and Manitoba, faltering in opposition in Ottawa and Ontario, Blakeney could go national without whispering a word about Quebec. He was asked, he refused. Neither is Blakeney diverting attention from problems at home. Saskatchewan, through the 1970s, has been in fine shape. Population is climbing after the mass exodus of the 1960s, unemployment has been the lowest in Canada; if wheat prices are again faltering, Saskatchewan has at least become a have province in some key resource areas and the sale of oil and gas rights hit a record $7.6 million this fall.

One evening in August, Saskatchewan made the National CBC-TV news with an item on a farmer hauling a pig barn down the road to a new location. Ian Bickle, media-watcher for the Regina LeaderPost, reacted with a quote from the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission’s inquiry: “Only Canadians living along the St. Lawrence axis from Quebec to Hamilton belong in the news; all others are some kind of Canadian fauna living in the boondocks, to be noticed only when they do something picturesque.” Allan Blakeney agrees. “In Saskatchewan,” he says, “we have grown accustomed to the assumption by pundits in Ontario and Quebec that these two provinces constitute Canada. It does not surprise us to discover participants in the current debate making the same assumptions.” But this time, the Toronto axis has underestimated a stubble-jumper called Allan Blakeney. He’s no picturesque piece of Canadian fauna; he has no intention of being intimidated into silence because the East doesn’t consider Canada his problem. Blakeney has weighed the problem, calculated the solutions and set himself to the task of saving Canada with his usual gritty determination.