Centennial

RICH IN DIVERSITY

ROY ROMANOW reflects on growing up in a Saskatchewan family of immigrants who, like many seeking a future in Canada, spoke neither official language

July 4 2005
Centennial

RICH IN DIVERSITY

ROY ROMANOW reflects on growing up in a Saskatchewan family of immigrants who, like many seeking a future in Canada, spoke neither official language

July 4 2005

RICH IN DIVERSITY

ROY ROMANOW reflects on growing up in a Saskatchewan family of immigrants who, like many seeking a future in Canada, spoke neither official language

AS A VERY young boy, I vividly recall being pulled home by my father on a brand new sleigh, my Christmas gift from St. Nicholas, after an evening of celebration at the Ukrainian community centre on the west side of Saskatoon. Ukrainian carols, poetry, dance and skits were the highlights of the evening. On the way home, the air was crisp and the icy snow crackled with every footstep. As I lay back on the sleigh and looked skyward, I was overwhelmed by the sudden arrival of the northern lights, with their unpredictable beauty. They produced a colourful dance that made me feel they were so far away and yet so close.

Perhaps that is why the memory is so strong. The magnificence of Saskatchewan’s landscape—and sky—is one of its defining features.

In the heat of summer, the seemingly endless fields of golden wheat extend so far into the horizon that they seem to pierce the sky. And when the Prairie wind blows through the wheat fields, they bob and weave like an undulating ocean. As I look back on that moment in the sleigh, I am struck by another reality: we were a family of immigrants and our family’s universe was comprised of the Ukrainian hall, St. George’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral, our schools, and the shopping area of 20th Street just a few blocks away. We could go to church, visit friends and neighbours and buy our necessities without using either one of Canada’s two official languages.

Saskatchewan, of course, is rich in diversity. The kaleidoscopic nature of its geography—its hundreds of lakes, lush parkland forest and rolling southern prairies— stands in sharp contrast to the perception

A hard but welcoming land that forced people to lean on each other

of the province that exists outside.

It is the same for its many different, mostly European cultures that arrived in quick succession, beginning around the turn of the century and continuing until the 1930s. Saskatchewan, as I’m fond of telling my Ottawa friends, is a province where, for many years, the country’s two founding groups, English and French,

found their early influence here swamped by the barrage of newcomers.

My father left Ukraine in the late 1920s in pursuit of liberty and a future in Canada. He did not know much about the country to which he was destined. He did not know its languages. He did not know its history or traditions. And for sure his timing was not the best. Arriving on the eve of the Great Depression, which was made worse by the debilitating droughts of the early 1930s, he saw his dream to resume his livelihood as a farmer shattered. Like many from his place of origin, he turned to the railways for employment. He was a section man for the Canadian National Railways, a laborious job of repairing tracks, carting ice to old boxcars for refrigeration, and clearing the tracks of the huge snowdrifts that blocked the way. The trains had to do their work, especially in Saskatchewan, a place where distance mattered. This was now his life. When my mother and sister finally arrived by ship in the port of Montreal, there to meet them was Mike Romanow, who used his railway pass to travel four nights and days from the West, to accompany them to their new life in Saskatoon.

I was born about a year later, in 1939, at St. Paul’s Hospital, near our small home on the west side, not far from the Ukrainian National Federation Hall. Built by volunteer labour, it featured two statues of lions at the front entrance and was the place where family and friends would socialize, maintain their culture and talk of how to someday bring about the liberation of Ukraine. Similar halls and cultural institutions, of course, were built by other arrivals. The workingclass west side of Saskatoon was alive with the sounds, smells, faiths and faces of many other new Canadians. They were primarily Polish, German, Jewish, Scottish and English. And so an important lesson was learned: that tolerance and acceptance were essential for our province to move ahead.

This rich mixture of people existed throughout Saskatchewan’s cities and towns. And the dirty thirties brought yet another lesson: that frequently we could accomplish much more by working together than alone. Thus credit unions, co-operatives, universities, regionally organized health centres and Crown corporations sprung up as the practical vehicles to pursue immediate survival and future growth. Eventually, I grew to appreciate these very practical institutions were an important part of my own dreams.

I am sure my father voted for the Liberal party, even though he was a firm believer in advancing the rights of working men and women, just because it was that same Liberal party whose government offered him hope and an opportunity for his children in a new land. Politically, I chose a different vehicle. From the very first time my father and I were stretched out in the evening on our small living room floor, with only the orange glow of the Zenith radio to light up

the room, I was captured by the compelling preacher’s voice and big dreams of Tommy Douglas, whose new party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (later the NDP), seemed to represent the best way to build on our community strengths.

University helped me fully understand the political philosophy that underpinned Douglas and his government. But I probably learned more about him—and our province—by being his volunteer driver to speaking events around the time of the 1960 election; and seeing the tensions and aspi-

rations of rural Saskatchewan, in particular, up close. By the time of the doctors’ strike in 1962, the culmination of a three-year fight over Douglas’s introduction of public medicare, our province was divided into two bitterly competing camps. My personal beliefs and friendships made it clear to me which side I was on. But the experience was also a watershed for many of us, confirming the importance of government and public life in shaping the nature of society.

Only a few short years after graduation, I turned my attention from law to active political life. Of course, Douglas was a major influence, but at that point, in the mid-1960s, it felt like giants graced our political landscape. Besides Douglas, there were leaders such as former Liberal premier and later federal agriculture minister Jimmy Gardiner, and Conservative leader John Diefenbaker in Ottawa. There were also influential public figures such as Al Johnson, later head of the CBC, Tommy Shoyama, who became a federal deputy minister of finance, and Emmett Hall, later a Supreme Court judge. As a group, they proved two things about Saskatchewan: that it could produce people of stature for the national stage, and that it also lost many of its best and brightest to greener pastures.

I was elected in 1967 and brought into Allan Blakeney’s cabinet in 1971 as deputy premier and attorney general. These were heady times in which we created a legal aid plan and a Human Rights Code for the province, worked and fought with Ottawa over resource development, and later, as the decade ended, engaged full-heartedly

FOR A TIME, ¡t feit

like giants graced our political landscape, men like Douglas, Diefenbaker, Emmett Hall

in the patriation of the Constitution. That last political fight led to an extremely close association with fellow attorneys general Jean Chrétien from Ottawa and Roy McMurtry from Ontario, and to our so-called kitchen accord at the last of those big conferences in 1981 with Pierre Trudeau. This is not the place to go into those war stories except to say it was one of the rare, maybe even hokey, moments in our history when three of the main pillars of modern Canada —the French, English and immigrant experience-collided in a creative way. At several key points during the long patriation battlein the political negotiations and before the Supreme Court—Saskatchewan offered different and creative solutions from the other participants. That is just the way we are.

The patriation fight led to political defeat for the Blakeney government and for me personally in 1982. But that was not the end of the world. After all, drought and international markets had defeated Prairie farmers, but they fought back. Our provincial ambitions had often met political resistance from other regions, but Saskatchewan continued to pursue its dreams.

In Saskatchewan’s first 100 years as a province, many of its communities have experienced this cycle only too frequently. Time and again, however, they saw the potential to rebuild and to renew, as limitless as the open sky. I certainly felt some of this determination when Saskatchewan voters elected the NDP to govern again in 1991, with me as leader. Many of us interpreted this as a mandate to start afresh, to dream again about the Big Ideas. But first we had a formidable hill to climb. The public agenda was urgent and long, but the fiscal capacity to achieve it was limited. A huge deficit had to be wrestled to the ground as soon as possible, not because this was a goal in itself, but because it was a prerequisite to build a dynamic Saskatchewan for the 21st century. Yet again, citizens were called upon to personally sacrifice in order to build a stronger province for the future. And cutting services was not an easy thing to do for a social democratic government. But in the mid-1990s, Saskatchewan became the first of any jurisdiction in Canada to eliminate its deficit and to start reducing debt, at a cost of closing some rural hospitals and sacrificing other needy causes. We gambled residents would buy into the pain in order to rebuild the trust and effectiveness of their public institutions. And we were not proven wrong.

Sometimes, I look back in wonderment to try to fully understand why my life unfolded as it did. Surely it was the tolerant, imaginative, embracing and bold nature of Saskatchewan that permitted the son of Ukrainian immigrants to be its premier. And I’m confident that groundwork is still there for future generations. Each province, territory and region, plus our many cultures and different stories, can be likened to individual pearls making up a beautiful necklace, connected to each other by the strand of a shared destiny. That strand, however, is fragile and requires constant attention. For me, our shared destiny has been and will continue to be the engine of progressive change. Shared destiny is the vision behind medicare, sometimes described as Saskatchewan’s gift to the nation and something I’ve now heard thousands of Canadians speak passionately in support of, almost as a birthright. That’s why I am certain that, just as there will always be the waving wheat fields and glittering northern lights, so too will Saskatchewan’s next 100 years be even better than its past 100—and just as experimental. Ail