How Manitoba Turned 100 By Standing On Its Head

DOUGLAS MARSHALL December 1 1970

How Manitoba Turned 100 By Standing On Its Head

DOUGLAS MARSHALL December 1 1970

MANITOBA, TO BORROW a phrase from a political hero of Premier Ed Schreyer, just may be the place where Canada keeps her overdue rendezvous with destiny. Important things are happening there, important to all of us. Even British Columbia’s W. A. C. Bennett, attending the Provincial Premiers’ Conference in Winnipeg last August, could sense national significance in the Manitoba air. Admittedly, the premiers met there during one of the dramatic moments in the province’s 100-year history. In the background, a joyous $2.8-million Centennial birthday party was swinging toward a well-orchestrated climax. In the Legislature, Schreyer’s New Democratic Party government seemed about to fall on the issue of compulsory public auto insurance. Perhaps Bennett was prematurely gladdened by the prospects of a socialist defeat. At any rate, he pronounced that “Winnipeg should be the new capital for Canada’s second century.”

Well, it should. Manitoba today is more than a fuzzy middle ground where the East ends and the West begins. It is fast becoming the matrix of Canada, the mold in which the disparate elements that bedevil this country could finally be shaped into an organic whole. For Manitoba is Canada in miniature. Imagine all our complex problems and potential numbing distances, the untapped North, biculturalism and bilingualism, teeming cities and deserted farms, the need for investment capital and the concern about where it comes from — condensed and reduced to one twentieth of scale and you would have something that looks a lot like Manitoba.

Most of all, you would have the people. Back in the days when Canada was merely a couple of transcontinental railways masquerading as a nation, Winnipeg was the halfway point where all the trains stopped. Outgoing boxcars carried the grain harvest of half a continent. Incoming passenger coaches, plebian versions of the Istanbul Express, unloaded a human harvest gathered from the Orkney Islands to the Urals. Today, trains don’t stop long in Winnipeg any more and melancholy Prairie winds moan through the hulk of the CPR’s once-grand railway hotel, the Royal Alexandra.

But the people the trains hauled in have taken root. Manitoba now has a population of nearly one million, half of it clustered in Metropolitan Winnipeg. Only 45% are of British stock. The other major ethnic groups coalesce in a spectacular collage — roughly 12% Ukrainian, 10% German, 9% French, 6% Dutch, 5% Polish, 4% Scandinavian (mainly Icelandic) and 3% native Indian and Eskimo that forms an almost perfect cross section of John Porter’s vertical mosaic. The people of Manitoba represent the new Canada. When they speak, the rest of Canada would be wise to listen.

The people spoke on June 25, 1969, by voting an NDP administration into office, the first socialist government in Manitoba’s history. In effect, Porter’s thesis has been turned upside down. The monied Anglo-Saxon elite, who ruled for 99 years by deftly combining big business practices with small - town values, have been turfed out. The sons and grandsons of the immigrants are in power.

That is not a partisan conclusion. The people really are in power in Manitoba — and enjoying every minute of it. A changed mood is evident everywhere. Social life in Winnipeg is beginning to move out of stately homes and into co-operative canteens. At night the city’s pubs (relaxed liquor laws, including admission to 1 8-year-olds, have made them the most clubbable in Canada) are packed by all levels of society. This summer’s Centennial celebrations turned into a blue-collar bash complete with a decidedly popular $333,000 lottery. The people danced and drank beer in the streets while the deposed Establishment sulked over whiskey sours behind the closed doors of the Manitoba Club, which has no Jewish members.

Highways Minister Joe Borowski, every taxi driver’s idea of what a politician should be (see page 38), is disposed to boast: “This is the only province that truly represents the common workingman — which is 90% of Manitoba. What we do here will change the Canadian way of life.”

Which is fine, except that there are still many people, inside Manitoba and out, who don’t particularly want their way of life changed. One doesn’t have to be a corporation president to have honest doubts about how NDP policies will affect the free enterprise system, doubts about the fundamental conflict between the welfare state and individual incentive. From the moment he took office, Schreyer, who once taught political science at university, has been at pains to allay such doubts. The point he keeps stressing is that “we do not feel inclined to impinge on private enterprise that is operating successfully.” At heart he is a New Dealer, no farther left than the quotation by Franklin Delano Roosevelt that hangs behind his desk: “The test of our progress is not in whether we add to the abundance of those who have much but in whether we provide for those who have little.”

Many businessmen remain unsoothed. They are suspicious about 34-year-old Schreyer’s ability to control the doctrinaire radicals in his caucus — such veteran socialists as Mines Minister Sid Green and Canadian Dimension editor Cy Gonick — who tend to advocate massive public ownership as a matter of principle. This lack of trust reached panic proportions when Schreyer, apparently bowing to pressures from his left wing, introduced Bill 56, setting up a government automobile-insurance corporation. The result was a classic confrontation, a set-piece battle between socialism and industrial capitalism.

“The NDP has this can tied to its tail,” says George Heffelfinger, 44 - year - old president of National Grain and a possible leader of what’s left of the provincial Liberals. “Because of Bill 56, my business friends continue to display considerable apprehension. I feel pretty hard pressed to recommend to my board of directors that we undertake expansion.”

Against such opposition, Schreyer’s brand of popular politics may be less easy to export than he and his supporters hope. What the NDP victory does prove, however, when taken in conjunction with Trudeaumania, is that the mainstream of political consciousness — the Canadian consensus, if you like — is flowing somewhere between Ed Schreyer’s pragmatic populism and Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s pragmatic elitism. Ontario’s Premier John Robarts may be convinced his Conservative party can “stay in power for ever” but he can hardly ignore the political passions kindled in Manitoba. Eighteen months ago Manitoba seemed smalltown oriented and conservative. Today the province is in ferment. Issues are discussed incessantly and everyone from the bus driver to the grain baron wears his political heart on his sleeve.

If the insurance companies are looking for someone to blame for Bill 56, they might just as well pick on poor old Walter Weir. Everybody else does. Weir started the NDP on the road to power in May, 1969, when he called a snap June election. The Tories had just won three out of four by-elections and the leaders of both opposition parties had resigned. As things turned out, everything went wrong with the Tory plans. This was partly because the Conservatives had a leadership problem of their own in Weir, a former undertaker from small-town Minnedosa. During his years as a lame-goose premier, Weir made only two speeches on major policy and carefully concealed whatever inspirational qualities he may have behind a bluff, Bennettlike display of boosterism.

But even a Conservative strategist with Churchillian insight could not have foreseen the circumstances that were combining to make a New Democratic victory possible. The NDP didn’t see them either. None of the three veteran strategists masterminding Schreyer's campaign thought he would form a government. The race was for second place. With hindsight, it's possible to see the upset factors:

Timing. The leaderless NDP had scheduled a convention for the end of June, with Schreyer and Green the main contenders. By calling the election for June 25, Weir hoped to catch the socialists unprepared. The plan backfired. The NDP advanced their convention to June 7 and got hours of invaluable TV coverage throughout Manitoba right in the middle of the campaign.

The Liberal blunder. The Liberals had resuscitated Bobby Bend, a 1950s-era cabinet minister, as leader. Young Grits defected to the NDP in droves. Liberal organizers bungled the campaign by almost ignoring issues. Instead they put a cowboy hat on Bend and sold him as a Ben Cartwright who could defend western values. Result: the Liberals lost eight seats.

The northern issues. Public unease about two Tory-conceived projects — a massive Manitoba Hydro scheme that would have flooded two communities on South Indian Lake and a pulp-and-paper complex at The Pas that may cost Manitobans $92 million before it's finished — provided the NDP with first-rate campaign material built around the theme of “big business versus little people.”

Redistribution. Every 10 years Manitoba’s provincial ridings are redrawn. Redistribution since the previous election had created eight new urban seats. The NDP won six.

None of those factors, however, was as decisive as the drawing power of Ed Schreyer himself. There seems to be a pattern in the way Manitobans, many of whom are horse-racing fans, pick their premiers. Every 10 years or so they take a flyer on a bright hope. In 1948 it was Douglas Campbell; in 1958 Roblin; this time it was Schreyer. He is not a natural platform politician; his manner is too low-keyed. But in intimate conversation or on TV, he communicates a steel eyed integrity and a seriousness of purpose that captured the popular imagination.

The point at which it first dawned on the public that Schreyer might make a Premier of Manitoba was a televised speech he made at the NDP leadership convention.

Accused of being a Liberal in disguise. Schreyer was goaded into an impromptu declaration of his convictions as a social democrat. It proved to be the speech of his career. Parts of it were incorporated in his highly effective TV campaign. From then on, which was only 18 days, Schreyer was billed as The Man For All Reasons and something NDP organizers call "the inevitability factor” took control. His special assistant, Ken Goldstein, explains it this way:

"Some guys, for one reason or another, reach a point where their election becomes the most natural thing in the world. It happened with Trudeau in 1968. And it happened with Schreyer in 1969. Basically, all we said in our ads was here is a guy who grew' up on a farm, was educated in both rural and urban schools, taught in rural schools, lectured at university, served in the Legislature and in the House of Commons and has in a very real way touched most of the Manitoba bases. Personally. I guess people were just looking at him. And I guess it clicked and — here we are.”

There they were, barely. When ballot counting had finished, the NDP were clinging to 28 seats, a gain of 16 but one less than they needed for a clear majority in the 57-member House. The Conservatives were reduced to 22 seats from 33. The Liberals held five, Social Credit one and there was one Independent (Gord Beard, a disaffected Tory).

Weir vanished for a week to study the results. He did not relinquish power and there was talk of a Conservative-Liberal alliance to prevent Schreyer’s taking power. The traditionally Liberal but neurotically antisocialist Winnipeg Free Press, which had treated Schreyer fairly during the election, began a news page campaign designed to prove the NDP would invite economic ruin for Manitoba. In contrast, the Winnipeg Tribune devoted two pages to a taped interview with Schreyer, clarifying his position.

Weir's hopes of hanging on vanished when Liberal Larry Desjardins decided to join the NDP caucus. Desjardins, styling himself a Liberal Democrat. explained to his St. Boniface supporters that the best way to fight for Liberal principles was with Schreyer. His move gave Schreyer control of the Legislature. But, as later events were to prove, it also gave Desjardins control of the NDP.

On July 8 Weir finally met Schreyer and discussed the transition of power. The meeting lasted 20 minutes, 10 of which were reportedly taken up by Weir paying a doleful farewell to the official car he had recently received (a Buick Electra equipped with radio-telephone, thermostat air-conditioning and power-everything, including wing mirrors. On July 15 Schreyer was sworn in together with a cabinet that read like a battle hymn of the unwashed — four Anglo-Saxons, three Jews, two Ukrainians, one French Canadian, one Pole, one Icelander and one Austrian German (Schreyer) — drawn from a caucus that also contains one Métis and, despite the NDP’s reputation for Godlessness, one Ukrainian priest.

Never before have the minorities of Manitoba been so represented. At the same time, no previous cabinet has been as well educated; there are at least 15 university degrees shared among the NDP ministers. There are also people who never made it into grade seven. Schreyer’s most inspired move was the appointment of Joe Borowski as transport minister. With one stroke he erased his regime's vaguely academic taint and gave working-class people a champion.

Schreyer soon needed all the brainpower he could muster. On August 14. the new' government went cold into a special Legislature session, needed because the confident Weir government had neglected to pass the estimates for the current fiscal year before calling the election. Bills were quickly passed raising the minimum hourly wage to $1.35 from $1.25, creating an Ombudsman and reducing Medicare p re m i u m s by 889f . This measure, achieved by increasing the provincial income and corporation taxes, established the break-even point at $1 1,348 for a family of four. Any family with an income below that level winds up ahead of the game.

Schreyer also made good on his other campaign pledge to bring "open government" to Manitoba. This meant being constantly available to minority delegations, who had previously felt the Legislature doors were closed to them. Schreyer’s telephone number remained listed in the Winnipeg directory (he now has a second number, unlisted, for official business) and anyone who called usually found himself talking to the Premier. When a grade 10 girl phoned one evening asking for an interview for her school newspaper, Schreyer promptly arranged to see her in the Legislature.

Schreyer’s easygoing informality is remarkable. He always flies economy. His idea of lunching out is to drive himself to the basement cafeteria of the trades-union club and order cheeseburgers with ketchup. Naturally, the working press love him. Especially when, as happened recently, he is prepared to help a tardy reporter charm his way out of a domestic crisis by bringing the Premier of Manitoba home for an after-work drink.

Schreyer carried the same casual informality into the royal tour, which was marred by only one failure in protocol — at The Pas. Dave Courchene, president of the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood (and wearing a resplendent war bonnet made in Formosa), seized on the chance to address the Great-WhiteMother - From - Across -The -Big-Waters on the subject of Indian grievances with the Crown. The Queen was nonplussed and could reply only in the platitudes of her prepared text. Otherwise the five-day tour went splendidly. The royal train zigzagged down from Churchill through a province decked out with pride, hungry for pageantry and determined not to let the steady drizzle spoil things. The clouds cleared on the last day. The royal family, escorted by 24 jangling RCMP riders, rolled in open landaus through the horizontal mosaic of a sun-drenched Winnipeg to the steps of the Legislative Building. Schreyer, his cabinet and a crowd of 150,000 were waiting. A 21gun salute echoed over the Red River. On the top of his dome, Manitoba’s Golden Boy glistened in glory.

That was July 15. Two weeks later the Schreyer government that had greeted the Queen so confidently was tottering on the edge of a general election. Throughout the ceremonial summer, Schreyer had been conscious that a crisis over government automobile insurance could hardly be avoided. As originally set out, his Bill 56 was essentially enabling legislation. It established a crown corporation to administer compulsory insurance coverage that will be sold to drivers along with their license plates. The policy pays third-party liability to a limit of $50,000. Death benefits up to $10,000 will be paid on a no-fault basis, as will medical bills, loss-of-income benefits and collision damage. Further details, including the premium structure, are still to be worked out by the corporation.

“We had a long-standing commitment to bring in public auto i n s u r a n c e,” says Schreyer. “Not only will premiums be reduced by about 15%, but some $25 million in investment capital will be transferred from the private sector to the public development fund. I was hoping against hope the members of the financial community wouldn’t be too critical. I thought they could buy it. I was disappointed when, true to caricature, they started to scream.”

The screaming came from two directions. The insurance corporations howled about the loss of the bulk of the $35 million in auto premiums they collect in Manitoba each year. (The loudest wails came from the giant Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Company, which does a total annual insurance business of $41 million out of the tiny village of Wawanesa, south of Brandon.) Meanwhile, and with more immediate cause, the province’s 1,200 private insurance agents protested the imminent loss of their livelihood.

By April the two forces had combined to form one of the richest and most clamorous lobbies ever heard in Canada. Insurance company employees marched in the streets and picketed the legislature— supposedly spontaneously, though many carried machine-printed signs. The villagers of Wawanesa, all 498 of them, arrived in a convoy of buses to plead for private insurance. Bumper stickers (“Help Stop Bill 56”) and pennants for car aerials (“Free Enterprise Yes/Government Monopoly No”) were suddenly everywhere. Paid newspaper advertisements and the unpaid columns of the Winnipeg Free Press preached daily about impending doom. Charges of “a Red glow over the Legislature” and references to “Red Ed and his Raiders” were bandied about freely. In the words of Eric Wells, elder statesman of Winnipeg journalism, it was “all pretty Neanderthal.”

It slowly dawned on Schreyer and his supporters that they were fighting the whole insurance industry. The campaign was organized from Toronto by Public and Industrial Relations Limited, retained by the Insurance Bureau of. Canada. The caraerial pennants turned out to have been printed in a suburb of Kansas City. One Winnipeg PR expert estimates the industry spent at least $500,000 in the fight.

Schreyer dismissed the corporate attack as just “an ugly scare campaign.” But he was personally convinced the insurance agents had a case when they complained about inadequate compensation. The trouble was it took him much longer than he expected to bring his colleagues round to his point of view: “I told

them we were in for a rough ride unless we somehow involved the existing agents in the government scheme. The 29th vote wasn’t secure.”

The 29th vote was Larry Bill 5b that met most of his objections. But now it took Schreyer 12 days of concessions and diplomacy to coax him back around.

During those hectic days Desjardins and Gord Beard, the other Independent MLA. seesawed along the axis of power. Insurance agents telephoned Desjardins all night (his home number is 2565050, symbolic and easy to remember) and NDP members worked on him all day. He also received a rash of obscene calls. As Bill 56 played its committee stages to a full House and a packed gallery, one or both of the Independents voted with the NDP at each crucial test and kept the government in office.

For Schreyer, the sharpest threat to the government’s survival came from within. A dissident NDP faction, led by Green and Gonick, wanted to force an election. They were convinced the NDP would pick up at least four seats. The rumor that the government was contriving its own defeat seemed confirmed when Joe Borowski. erupting sulfuriously on an issue unrelated to Bill 56, was briefly expelled from the House. Borowski’s exit looked deliberate — it was not — and Schreyer went pale: “I had promised we’d stay in power four years unless defeated in the House and I had no desire to fight an election on Bill 56. It would have been a dirty, emotional campaign fought on slogans rather than issues. So, during that crisis I was keeping a very close eye on everything that happened within the caucus. Normally, as far as party discipline goes, I'm quite lax. I don’t believe a leader should operate like a little martinet."

In the end, Desjardins was wooed back by amendments that allow half the private insurance agents to sell government auto policies if they wish and provide better compensation for the others. On August 12, tears in his eyes, Desjardins declared he would vote for the altered bill: “There is not one single person who could refuse to support the government after the co-operation that has been shown." Insurance agents in Desjardins. For weeks Desjardins had been wrestling with his conscience over Bill 5b. On July 31 Desjardins’ Liberal principles won out and he dropped his bombshell. He would not vote for the auto insurance bill because it was “socialism for socialism’s sake." The irony was that only three hours before Desjardins announced his decision, the NDP caucus had agreed on amendments to the gallery hissed and Conservative Whip Bud Sherman stormed out of the chamber shouting, “You poor fool, you fool.” Next day, Desjardins and Beard siding with the government. Bill 56 was voted into law by 29 votes to 27. Moments later the House prorogued, ending the most exciting political session Manitoba has known since Louis Riel’s provisional government of Red River.

Sitting for seven months out of its first thirteen in office — Manitoba’s sessions normally last only three months — Schreyer’s government had passed 194 pieces of legislation. It had withstood the heaviest attack the opposition is likely to muster. The only socialist democracy in North America seemed here to stay.

Appropriately, one of the last ceremonies in Manitoba’s Centennial program will be the unveiling this month of a monument to Riel near the Legislature. Riel and Schreyer are the only two leaders in Manitoba’s history completely representative of the common people of their time. In the end they hanged Riel, which is one of Canada’s two alternatives for dealing with such men. The other is to send them to Ottawa and make them Prime Minister. Since nobody is going to hang Ed Schreyer...