It is Allan Blakeney's fate to have become premier of Saskatchewan when what it needs is a messiah

WALTER STEWART October 1 1971


It is Allan Blakeney's fate to have become premier of Saskatchewan when what it needs is a messiah

WALTER STEWART October 1 1971



It is Allan Blakeney's fate to have become premier of Saskatchewan when what it needs is a messiah

Glen Willner is a drylands farmer, and a good one. He works 960 acres, most of it lush wheatland, just outside the Saskatchewan village of Davidson, between Regina and Saskatoon. His father farmed the same land, and his grandfather before him, and they were good farmers, too. After two years of university, Willner worked in Regina for the federal Department of Agriculture, then he was called home to take over the farm from his ailing parent. That was 19 years ago, and he has been working hard and getting nowhere ever since. The investment behind him, in land, buildings and machinery, must be more than $100,000, but he lives on a $750 credit drawn against his next crop payment at the local co-op. He has a car, but can’t afford the license, so the family uses the farm truck for trips to town. When his house needed a new roof last spring, he hauled wheat to Saskatoon and swapped it, at 60 cents a bushel, for shingles. Willner is a tall man, and so skinny his angularity almost hurts the eye. He has a wife and five children and a bleak future. “All I know,” he says, “is that we don’t have any money and we don’t spend any.” In the Saskatchewan provincial election in June, he worked hard for the NDP and was glad to see the party overthrow the Liberals after seven years in power, but he’s not sure now what the victory means. “I don’t imagine the provincial government can do much anyway,” he says. “Ottawa seems to have all the money.”

Willner is a patient man, even stubborn. He would not join the federal government’s Operation LIFT last year — which would have paid him six dollars an acre to take his wheatfields out of production — because he believes it is immoral not to grow food in a starving world and because, well,

“Fve spent all my life studying how to grow the stuff, not to keep it from growing.” But behind his patience and his stubbornness lie the beginnings of a deadly rage. He is harvesting wheat he doesn’t know how he will sell, piling up debts he doesn’t know how he will pay; his tightly-knit family is breaking up because he is determined to get his older boys out of the farming trap, though he remains convinced that country living is better than city crowding. When the National Farmers Union organized a tractor parade last year, he joined them — “Not that it did much good, but at least it let people know we were here.” Willner expects more parades and tougher protests, and he will join those, too. “Farmers have been talking and talking, and now they want action. Some of the boys are talking about really shaking things up, and I don’t blame them.” What will they do? He doesn’t know, he only hopes it brings results from the federal government.

Willner looks to Allan Emrys Blakeney to carry his fight to Ottawa. The new premier is about as different from Willner as he can be.

He is a pudgy man of medium height, with straight black hair, quick brown eyes and the general look of a successful small-town merchant. He even has a belly laugh, a kind of barked hoo-har-har you can imagine rolling along the counter of a drygoods store. It’s a fraud. Behind the hoo-har-har lurks one of the sharpest legal minds in the nation, behind the jovial bounciness is a cool and permanent remoteness. Blakeney will answer any question, even a silly one, but always guardedly. You ask the question and there is a brief pause, while the short, capable hands pick up a pen, tap it once, turn it over, lay it down; then back comes the answer, perfectly

turned, studded with facts, shaped to press an argument home. Blakeney speaks not merely in sentences but in paragraphs. He has no small talk, no gossip; even his jokes are pointed. (He made great play with the Liberal slogan — “The Liberals — they can do more for Saskatchewan.” He would say, “Unemployment is up, wheat sales are down, factories are closing — and the Liberals, they can do more.”) A close friend says, “AÍ has trouble projecting much warmth,” and it’s true, because everything he says and does seems to be weighed and calculated. Not that he lacks enthusiasm; when he gets onto his favorite subjects — western agriculture, federal-provincial relations, the iniquity of the defeated Grits — he roars into them, but always in perfect order. He is one of the few politicians I ever interviewed who will say, “There are four points to be considered here . . . ” and not get sidetracked after point two and forget the rest.

Control is the key; everything about him is controlled, from the clothes he wears — mod, but not too mod — to the information he puts out about himself. Blakeney has been married twice. His first wife, Molly, died suddenly in 1957 of a heart condition, leaving him with two small children. Two years later, he married Anne, Molly’s best friend, and has two more children by her. Nowhere in any of his literature or in any of the stories I read about him does this fact appear. Robert Stanfield, who went through the same process, lists both his wives in the Parliamentary Guide; reading Blakeney’s entry, you would never know he had a first wife. Not that it’s any big secret—although few of his colleagues know about the first marriage — it’s just something private, something behind the wall / continued on page 60

BLAKENEY from page 41 of a man whose life appears to have been shaped for this moment of power from the day he left Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, for university, in 1942.

He was born the son of a Bridgewater merchant, and brought up a sound Tory, but at Dalhousie University he ran into Fred Young, now an NDP MPP in the Ontario legislature, then a CCF organizer on a Maritime tour, and became a convinced socialist. He helped found Dalhousie's first CCF club, and when he won a Rhodes scholarship — on the basis of his gold medal in law and athletic prowess in hockey and badminton — he used his Oxford years to sharpen his debating skill for a future political career.

Back home in 1949, with the prestigious MA (Oxon.) after his name, he at once headed west to offer his services to Canada’s only socialist government of the time, in Saskatchewan. There were no immediate openings, so he moved on to Edmonton to article and await the call. It came in June, 1950, and he went to Regina as legal adviser to provincial crown corporations. Despite his youth — he was only 25 — he soon established himself as a formidable intellect. Woodrow Lloyd, the man he succeeded as NDP leader, remembers, “AI was so clearly a master of his craft that you couldn’t help being impressed.’’ Although he was a civil servant, Blakeney mixed openly in politics — “In those days, it was done,” he explains— until he was appointed to the quasijudicial post of chairman of the provincial securities commission in 1955.

In 1958, Blakeney left the civil service for private practice, paving the way for his successful run for office in the 1960 provincial election. He was taken at once into Tommy Douglas’ cabinet as Education Minister. He was 34, an easterner and, at first, a little resented. However, says Lloyd, “He was so skillful in marshaling arguments that people soon got into the habit of asking, ‘What does AÍ think?’ ” Blakeney never mastered the easy openness of, say, Tommy Douglas, but worked hard to develop a pollside manner and enlisted in community projects, from the coop to the Boy Scouts. He held three portfolios — Education, Treasury and Health — under Douglas and his successor, Lloyd, and discharged them all with careful competence. Then, after the Liberal victory in 1964, his debating skill soon allowed him to overshadow Lloyd, his personal friend and political mentor. Blakeney was more willing to trade blows with the late Ross Thatcher (often referred to as “The Colonel” by the NDP after he received an honorary commission

in the New Mexico National Guard). After the second NDP defeat in 1967, it became only a question of time until Lloyd stepped down and Blakeney succeeded him; when a leadership convention was called in July, 1970, the result was so predictable that Blakeney’s main campaign pamphlet looked beyond the party race. It was titled Blakeney For Premier and served double duty when the election campaign began this June.

Blakeney ran that campaign with a characteristic combination of confidence and prudence. He told party workers they had every reason to hope for victory, but when they seemed to expect it, he “pushed like hell” — his words. One riding association grew so confident of toppling the local Liberal incumbent that it decided to save money and not open a committee room until just before the vote. Blakeney heard about it and announced grimly, “If I phone at 9.30 tomorrow morning and the campaign room isn’t open, there will be hell to pay.” It was open.

Like his Manitoba NDP colleague.

The most important thing about the election is that Blakeney didn't win: the Liberals lost

Ed Schreyer, Blakeney rode to power with a moderate platform designed to coalesce all opposition votes. He pitched directly for Tory support, scarcely mentioned socialism — the word appears only once in the party program — and promised gradual reforms rather than radical changes. Like Schreyer, Blakeney is a moderate. There are other resemblances between the two premiers — both are rather colorless, both are legislators and administrators rather than orators or personalities — but Blakeney has a harder edge than Schreyer, more legislative experience and tighter control, by virtue of a 45 to 15 majority in the Saskatchewan legislature. There will be no Joe Borowskis in Blakeney’s cabinet.

But for all the hard work and moxie that brought him to power, the most important thing about the June election is that he didn’t win it — the Liberals lost it. They ran a campaign based on a series of arrogant misconceptions, the first of which was that victory was certain. In many ridings, little or no canvassing was done. “They figured,” said Liberal provincial secretary Douglas Deagan, “that the NDP

would be knocking on doors three or four times, and people would get annoyed.” When election crowds were down, the Liberals were irritated rather than concerned. Provincial Treasurer Davey Steuart told a Saskatoon meeting, “This is a rotten, lousy turnout.” While Thatcher flitted about major centres in a government jet, Blakeney plodded from hamlet to hamlet in the “Blakeney bus,” and if a plane happened by during his visit, aides would announce, “There goes the Colonel.”

The late premier tried to fight the campaign against grasping unions, wicked socialists and unidentified “creeps, kooks and outside agitators.” His major promises were for labor courts to control the unions, free enterprise to turn back the socialists and more industriál deals, like the proposed $ 177-million pulp mill at Dore Lake, to keep everyone else occupied. He underestimated the sophistication of a province where politics is bred in the bone. Socialism is a bogey wasted on people who lived under the CCF from 1944 to 1964, and labor courts only enraged the unions without reassuring the farmers, who could figure for themselves that the strikes that block their wheat shipments come from unions under federal, not provincial, jurisdiction — railway workers and longshoremen. Nationalists pounced on the pulp mill as a sellout that placed most of the risk in Saskatchewan hands and most of the profit in the hands of Karl Landegger, a New York entrepreneur.

In short, as Davey Steuart, the man who replaced Thatcher as Liberal leader, told me, “We antagonized damn near every identifiable group in the province, without making any new friends.” Steuart thinks an important factor was the influx of outside NDP organizers — “My advice to provincial governments planning to call elections is to call them in convoys, so the NDP can’t gang up on you” — but far more important, he concedes, was the issue that sent Glen Willner out pounding on doors — the plight of the farmer. “We tried to ignore the farm issue and it killed us.”

Thatcher sought to take credit for an interim $ 100-million payment — yet to be made — under the federal government’s Prairie Grain Stabilization Plan, without discussing its merits. Of the 21 seats the NDP captured from Liberals, 17 came in rural ridings, and they came because farmers of every political stripe voted against the federal Liberals and the new farm policy.

That policy grew out of the report of a federal Task Force on Agricul-

continued on page 65

DLAKENEY continued ture published in December, 1969, written by four university professors and an accountant, and studded with such phrases as “We assume that agriculture should be operated much as any industry,” and “Younger nonviable farmers should be moved out of farming,” and “Management by objectives, program planning and budgeting, costbenefit analysis and other modern management techniques should be adopted.” The Task Force foresaw, with apparent equanimity, the decline of Canada’s farm population from about 10% of Canada’s total to about 3%; it recommended diversification and a cutback in wheat acreage of nearly 50% within four years. Rural folk, who imbibed the virtue of the family farm with mother’s milk, cut through the gobbledygook and identified the salient expectation: as Blakeney put it, “Two out of three family farms are to be abandoned, and Ottawa applauds.” Any farmer who couldn’t meet international competition without government support should make way for larger, more efficient operators, the technocrats said. Blakeney replies, “There is hardly one bloody industry in Canada that could meet that test. If the textile industry were subject to those rules, the first thing we’d do would be to close every textile plant in Canada.” The federal government accepted the Task Force report and began to implement it with new programs aimed at easing farmers into other lines of work while supporting their current incomes, through the Grain Stabilization Plan, at a level averaged over the past three — bad — crop years. “The plan has a guarantee,” said Ray Heinrich, a staunch Liberal and reeve of the rural municipality of Willner. “It guarantees to keep us as poor as ever.” The new farm policies are Canada-wide, but the most immediate impact came in Saskatchewan, where, obviously, farmers will not accept the argument that they should give up their way of life because government will not support them the way it does, say, gold miners. They reject the notion that a few giant corporations run on the latest techniques is the best way to work Canada’s land, because it provides cheap food for city folk. They see no sense in moving off the farm and into crowded, polluted urban centres to join the growing unemployment rolls. Their vote in Saskatchewan was a strident “No” to the federal farm policy.

But despite the stridency of that “No” and the majority laid at Blakeney’s feet in consequence, there may be very little he can do. His province is in trouble, trouble reflected in almost

every economic statistic. Saskatchewan farm cash receipts plummeted from a quarterly average of $223.16 million in 1968 to $179.02 million in 1969, and $172.75 million in 1970. Retail sales are down 10.1%, investment has fallen 17.9% and Saskatchewan wages are about $14 a week below the national average (a decade ago, the gap was four dollars). Many people have just given up and pulled out; between June, 1968, and January, 1971. 64,312 people fled the province, almost enough to fill two cities the size of Moose Jaw.

During the campaign, Blakeney poured out promises to right matters by underpinning the financial key — the family farm — including a landbank policy to make land available cheaply. But if Ottawa is determined to cut wheat acreage and accepts the replacement of small farms by agribusinesses, he is wasting his time. Only the federal government has the funds and control over marketing and

“The new federal farm plan has a guarantee all right; It guarantees to keep us as poor as ever”

transportation necessary to revive agriculture. Blakeney’s only chance is to persuade Ottawa to reverse itself and embrace a new approach. He has begun to mount a pressure group, linking the NDP governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba with the National Farmers Union, the wheat pools, and anyone else who cares to join. He said, “We hope to present a united front not only to reverse the federal policies but to indicate realistic alternatives.” These would include a two-price system for wheat, which means paying farmers one dollar a bushel more, selling it at that price domestically, but at a lower price abroad, with the difference covered from federal coffers.

But will Ottawa listen? “We have no way of knowing what will come of this,” said Blakeney, “but it should be clear that the Saskatchewan voter is pretty upset. There can’t be one square yard of Otto Lang’s seat that didn’t go NDP.” (Otto Lang, the minister responsible for the Wheat Board, comes from Saskatoon, which went heavily NDP.)

The alternative to a new farm policy, Blakeney warned, is “increasing frustration, increasing disillusionment, increasing bitterness.” The small but growing undercurrent of

western separatism would be fed by any rebuff. “I always dislike even consideration of western separatism, because it is fundamentally a destructive concept, but the degree of discontent here is very, very marked and making it more difficult to pursue well thought-out policies.” A change might bring a trade-off in attitudes toward French Canada, he argues. “Some of the abrasiveness that develops here reflects not any particular hostility to Quebec, but rather a feeling that somebody is listening to them and not listening to us. This is very destructive of a rational approach to federalism.”

Saskatchewan is caught in a cleft. Because it lives by the export of natural products, from wheat to potash, it needs a strong federal government to pursue vigorous trade, tariff and transportation policies, but a strong federal government can readily ignore the clamor of a single province, especially one that sends a regrettable number of NDP and Conservative members to Parliament. Prime Minister Trudeau answered earlier prairie grumblings with the question: “Why should I sell your wheat?” Will that approach dissolve under the threatened loss of federal Liberal seats in Saskatchewan?

For all the bounce he shows today, Blakeney faces a daunting task. However he discharges his other campaign promises, from abolishing deterrent fees for users of Medicare to renegotiating the pulp-mill deal, he will have failed if he cannot meet the problems that press on Glen Willner and 85,000 other Saskatchewan farmers. But, without the help of the rest of Canada, there is not much he can do, and there is no indication to date that the rest of Canada is even aware of the depth or extent of Saskatchewan’s woes. ■