You REMEMBER Joe Borowski. The guy who caused such a stir a few years back by camping on the steps of the Manitoba Legislature. Even the eastern press was full of stories about this crazy miner from Thompson. Man., with his sleeping bag and his handlettered signs that said: ROBLIN HOOD IS NO DAMN GOOD (FOR MANITOBA).
People read the stories and said: Look at that poor, dumb Polack, camped out there in three-below weather. What’s he trying to prove?
And then that poor dumb Polack became Minister of Transportation for the Province of Manitoba.
He did prove something — that an outsider can get in. Even an outsider as conspicuous as Joe Borowski. And now he’s trying to prove the rest of it: that you can fight The System from the outside, and then fight it from the inside, and not sell out to the ends-justify-the-means boys. The politicians.
Joe Borowski is a political phenomenon: the super-honest, clumsy amateur, who wants to stay that way. Or, if you want to get fancy about it, the anti-politician in power.
THE LEGISLATIVE chamber is a beautiful room, all blue and gold and dark polished wood, the pièce de résistance of a building designed throughout with the dignity of the democratic function in mind.
It is August 5, 1970. Ed Schreyer's NDP government is facing its big crisis. Bill 56, introducing government auto insurance in Manitoba, is in the final stages of debate. The government could fall. Everyone is waiting for the question period to end to hear Premier Schreyer’s promised policy speech on Bill 56. And then somebody asks the transport minister about that scandal in highways.
Joe Borowski rises. Yes, the Attorney-General’s investigation has reached a stage where he is ready with a report. The irregularities in the highways department, dating back to the Conservative administration, have been at least partly confirmed.
He gives them details: two employees fired and facing charges of theft and breach of trust; two others suspended. Multiple charges of fraud pending against a contractor. Investigation continuing into the much-publicized “missing road,” which has now been found. Accusations of kickbacks to the Conservative government: still to be “dealt with.”
And then he turns to two former Conservative highways ministers still in the House, former Premier Walter Weir and Harry Enns, the member from Lakeside. Borowski suggests both men be suspended from the Legislature pending further investigation. “I don’t know to what extent they were involved. But they were ministers, and it seems to me they knew, or should have known, what was going on.”
Angry Conservatives begin jumping up and down, demanding retraction. Borowski says all he did was answer a question, and “if the Opposition doesn’t like it, the Opposition can go to hell.”
And all hell breaks loose. Walter Weir tosses his rule book into the centre of the chamber. Larry Desjardins (St. Boniface) offers to go outside with Borowski and “slug it out” for the honor of the House. Labor Minister Russ Paulley begins to cry as he pleads for a return to parliamentary sanity. Ben Hanuschak, the Speaker, is beating his chairman’s wings in the void in vain.
The Premier apologizes for his minister, but it’s not enough. They want it from Borowski. Retraction or expulsion. Schreyer, AttorneyGeneral Al Mackling, and finally a full-scale NDP delegation leave their desks to plead with the honorable member for Thompson. Make the retraction, Joe. Borowski shakes his head.
Finally, a vote is called and Borowski is suspended from the House for the remainder of the sitting. He charges out the door with his heavy-footed farmer’s stride. He will apologize the next day, somewhat stiffly, after a few words with Schreyer. But at this moment Joe Borowski is angry. It was “the bloody truth,” he tells reporters in the corridor. “I have a right to say it. If I can’t tell the truth in the House, then I don’t want to sit in that goddam House.”
That afternoon, a message appears on a government car down in the parking lot below, scrawled in magenta lipstick by an unknown citizen: Good Work, Joe.
IN WINNIPEG, where the people have suddenly discovered the entertainment value of their own politics, Ed Schreyer is Quentin Durgens and attendance in the public gallery of the House is an alternative to watching the weeknight movie. But there is little doubt about everybody’s favorite continuing free show: Joe Borowski.
Joe, they call him. Nobody has to ask: Joe who?
The man is a giant. A tall, thicknecked Slav with a large head and a build like an ox, usually wearing a brilliant green shirt and matching (more or less) checked pants, he presents a startling figure in the Legislature. Emerging from a Cabinet meeting, he towers over sombre-suited, bespectacled fellow ministers, his broad, high-colored face alight with an open, ear-to-ear grin, making the others look somehow pale and harrowed. Coming at you with that grin, his incredibly powerful bulk bent forward into the wind, he looks like a refugee from a practice session of the Blue Bombers.
The shadow he casts on the Manitoba political landscape is every bit as large. Just by being ordinary Joe, honest Joe, Joe the working stiff from the mines who used to carry a lunch pail, he has become a folk hero. Joe has a clear-cut idea of how the world is divided, into little guys and bad guys. And he has it in for the bad guys (rich people, powerful people, large corporations and Conservatives — especially Conservatives).
The NDP won Manitoba in 1969 with a slate of candidates that read like a petition for minority rights, and the Anglo-Saxon Establishment— the tight little group of insiders who had controlled Manitoba business and politics since 1870 — is still reeling. For the first time, Anglo Saxons are outnumbered in government as they are in population. The power structure has been turned inside out, and the outsiders are in.
The old guard don’t like it, but they’re living with it. It’s clear that Schreyer and his lieutenants are mostly cultivated, moderate and sober administrators. But Joe Borowski says “I seen” and swears like a stevedore. He has a grade six education. He spent most of his life in bush camps. He warned the House in his maiden speech that he was a working man, hadn’t been to finishing school, and had no intention of making himself over. All over Manitoba the man who carried the lunch pail thwacked his newspaper and said: Yay, Joe. And the old guard wanted to know: How the hell did he get in there, anyway? They’re still asking.
In fact, Joe was on his way before the NDP was even considered a good bet to form the Opposition. He made it by making himself heard. He wouldn’t have been caught dead using the phrase “tell it like it is.” But he went around telling it like it is and building a reputation. When a by-election was called in the northern riding of Churchill early in 1969, Joe ran and won.
They used to explain Joe’s popularity by pointing to the support of his own kind: his fellow Slavs, the Ukrainians and Poles who make up almost 20% of Manitoba’s population; his trade-union buddies (Joe was vice-president of the Steelworkers’ local in Thompson); and his fellow northerners. But the Winnipeg press corps, pro-Joe almost to a man, are convinced that nowadays their favorite headline maker could run in any constituency in Manitoba and win.
And today you run into Borowski fans in surprising places. In Gimli, the Icelandic community where small-c conservatism has characterized politics since the first settlers, the mayor is sitting in a bar, attacking the NDP. Joe Borowski, though, he’s different. “Now, there’s a man. I’d vote for him any day.”
On a tree-shaded lawn in St. James, one of the wealthier suburbs of Winnipeg, an insurance broker sips his stinger and tries to be reasonable about the Schreyer government, which has engaged him in what he considers a fight for his financial survival. He’s bitter. But about Borowski, he says: “The guy is honest; he must be the most honest man in politics today.”
And not all the sons and grandsons of immigrants support Borowski. Some who have pulled themselves up in other fields wince at the mention of his name. “It’s embarrassing,” says Winnipeg lawyer Barry Krawchuk. “I wish his name was Smith.”
MINES AND Natural Resources Minister Sid Green gets a kick out of talking ideologies with Borowski because you never know which side he’s going to be on. Green thinks he has it figured now, though: The Great Borowski Paradox. “Joe,” he tells him, “when it comes to ideas, you’re a liberal, and as progressive as anybody in politics. But when it comes to morals, you’re an out-and-out reactionary.”
There’s something in that when you consider these samples from the Borowski stock of homely truths: A woman’s place is in the home. Adultery is “terrible.” Alcohol is the world’s number one social problem. Atheists are entitled to their views, says Joe, but he wouldn’t want his daughter to marry one. Also off limits for his teen-age daughters: smoking, miniskirts, university.
University? Yes, when Joe spoke at the University of Manitoba and got his first glimpse of modern campus life, he didn’t like it. He came home and told 16-yearold Debbie: “Well, you’re not going there.”
The Borowski Paradox reached an exquisite perfection last summer during the royal family’s Centennial tour of Manitoba. When the northern rebel met the Queen of England, it was love at first sight. His souvenirs of their tour of the Thompson mine site: five brand-new white hard hats, lined up on his office mantelpiece, each with a name on it: Elizabeth. Philip. Charles. Anne. Joe.
Borowski neither acts nor reacts like a politician. But then, he likes to point out, he isn’t a politician. He doesn’t even like politicians much. Can’t trust the bastards, he says. He isn’t a socialist either. He’s for “competitive free enterprise” and against crown corporations. He says he’d become a Conservative tomorrow if the NDP got too far out of line.
Joe is, as he says, a Christian and a union man. And there, alongside all those hard hats in his office, is a large statue of the Virgin Mary.
“JOE A POLITICAL embarrassment?”
Ed Schreyer sat in the dingy basement cafeteria of the Manitoba Legislative Building, finishing off a 90cent plate of pork chops, carrots and French fries. “In all candor, yes,” he said. “But when I balance out the good points with the embarrassments, I can also say with equal candor that I have no regrets about appointing him to the Cabinet. No regrets at all. To tell the truth, they all thought I had rocks in my head at the time.”
JOSEPH BOROWSKI SENIOR was a Polish “pon,” or duke. His family was no longer wealthy but they did not take it kindly when he married a peasant. In 1930, Joseph and his bride left for Canada. The best homesteads had been taken when they arrived in Saskatchewan. They settled on a hilly quarter section on the CPR right-of-way, and Joseph agreed to give the railway one third of every crop in lieu of rent.
It was poor land and Joseph a poor farmer. He got used to being poor, but he never got used to being treated as an equal by his neighbors, people from peasant stock. “The name is pronounced Borofski,” Joseph used to tell his sons. “That is the proper, aristocratic pronunciation.” And the fourth son, the stubborn one with the big head, used to say: “That’s b ... s ... !”
There were 10 children and only enough money to send one son to college. That was the eldest, Isaac. The rest had to quit school around 13. The girls got jobs as waitresses or domestics, the boys worked as farmhands for $50 a month, plus room and board.
One of Joseph Borowski’s sons still farms that rocky quarter section and still hands over one third of all he produces to the CPR. The fourth son, Joe, the stubborn one, keeps saying that the CPR is the “biggest bunch of horse thieves in the history of Canada.”
BEFORE HE WENT to Thompson in 1958, Joe was a drifter. From bush camp to bush camp, after his first lumberjack job at 14, he just kept moving. He was a stevedore in Vancouver, a dragline operator in Swift Current, a bull cook in every mess hall from Kitimat to Fairbanks, and a miner in camps from northern Quebec to BC.
In Thompson Joe got involved — in the community, business, politics. And he says that for that he should thank International Nickel, the company that owns the Thompson mine.
Joe was a perpetual thorn in INCO’s side. He was instrumental in getting out the Mine, Mill union in 1962 and getting in the United Steelworkers. He helped negotiate the new local’s first contract, an expensive one for INCO. Later he found the company was not paying holiday pay on bonus income — a discovery that cost it $875,000 in the first year.
He also fought INCO as a would-be merchant in a company town, after he started a sideline business selling nickel souvenirs and gifts he designed himself to his fellow miners. It grew into a flourishing little store, which Joe still owns.
But INCO wouldn’t let him sell his trinkets on the mine site, and then — as Joe tells it — they tried to block his attempts to rent store space in the townsite. His first stand on the Legislature steps, in 1964, was a demand for self government for Thompson.
The store, which Joe says he would never have opened if INCO hadn’t stopped him selling on the mine site, was what got him into trouble with the law in 1968 — the year he went to jail three times. He refused to collect provincial sales tax from his customers, claiming that it was an illegal tax because the people had never voted for it. He paid it — more than $20,000 out of his own pocket over the years, he claims —but the law said the customer must pay.
So Joe went to jail. When he came out, after two or three weeks, he would usually have something to say about the “rat-hole” conditions in the jail at The Pas. He would write to Cabinet ministers, give interviews to newspapers, becoming more and more a voice in the affairs of the province.
INCO fired Joe eventually, for insubordination. Joe says the real reason was that he got up at a coroner’s inquest and publicly accused the company of criminal negligence in not maintaining proper safety conditions. Then, on the job he was told by his foreman to go into the area he considered unsafe.
“Like hell,” he said.
“You go up there, Borowski, when you're told.”
“You go to hell.”
Joe called that common sense. The company called it insubordination.
THE FIRST TIME Jean Borowski saw Joe she didn’t like him. He walked into a café one night in Wynyard, Sask., her hometown, and she took one look and decided: He’s one of those guys. He might as well be saying, here I am — big, bold and beautiful.
Joe never chased women, Jean says now. They chased him. And, she adds, with a look of contentment, “I can’t really blame them.” Joe’s entire houseful of women is in love with him. He has three daughters: Debbie, 16, Karan, 14, and Sandra, 10. “Dad is too strict,” they all agree, but “isn’t he a doll, though? I mean, for a man his age ...”
It is Jean who will show you Joe’s nickel designs, and tell you about the poems he used to write, and how they had to stop going to movies with other couples because it became embarrassing. Joe used to cry so much.
THE MINISTER of Highways and Public Works lay sunning himself on an inflated rubber raft on his little piece of river (he recently bought a 10-acre farm near Winnipeg) and talked about his job, which, with expenses, pays about $22,000 a year.
Joe worked 12 to 18 hours a day in the highways department (annual budget: $60 million) and now he’d been given public works as well. Where would he find the time? He didn’t know, but he’d find it because it was in one helluva mess. “The way they’re running it now, it’s not working properly at all. They’re clock-watchers. They think they’ve got jobs for life. Well, I’ve got news for them. They’ve got a job as long as they’re serving the public, and no longer.”
Joe says highways is “the easiest place in the world to get away with acting like an out-and-out crook. I’ve had a whole bunch of propositions from people who offer me a piece of the action for giving them advance information on where highways construction is going to take place. There’s a lot of money been made in this province that way. You know, if you come from a poor family, and you’re not too well off yourself, and you belong to a poor party that’s $40,000 in debt ... it makes you think sometimes. I guess that’s why the Premier appointed me to highways. Because he figured I was incorruptible.”
JOE BOROWSKI’S love affair with government began, and almost ended, on the same day. His first day as an MLA was the disappointment of his life. “I used to think all these men who sat in the House were God-like creatures, orators. And I get into the Legislature and find jackasses and drunks. Falling asleep in the House, going through their bills, making paper darts.” Since then, he’s become more tolerant, more realistic — but he remains an idealist.
In his days on the Legislature steps, Joe used to get into debates with the young people who hung around. About violence as a means of fighting the system. The young radicals liked Joe and they were after him to lead them in their crusade to destroy the system. But Joe didn’t want to destroy the system, only to change it. The students laughed and called him naive. Destroy, they said. That’s the only way. Borowski disagrees. “We are in a position to do things most men dream of all their lives. And we’re doin’ ’em.” But he has also learned the politician’s art of qualification, because he adds: “I’m not saying we’re going to restructure the system into Utopia. It’ll never be Utopia. But it’s going to be a helluva lot better in Manitoba than it has been for the past 100 years.”
He’d like to run into those kids again, those friends from the sleeping-bag days. So he could say to them: “Well, what have you been up to lately?”