Is Manitoba ready for a changing of the guard?

Suzanne Zwarun,SUZANNE ZWARUN October 3 1977

Is Manitoba ready for a changing of the guard?

Suzanne Zwarun,SUZANNE ZWARUN October 3 1977

Is Manitoba ready for a changing of the guard?


Suzanne Zwarun

Last May, Lily Schreyer did a bit of spring cleaning and finally rid her husband of some old brown brogues he’d worn for 11 years. Premier Ed Schreyer took the news quietly, but put out the word quickly: those shoes which had been donated to a New Democratic Party raffle weren’t just any old shoes—they were his lucky shoes. The NDP’S Springfield Riding Association caught the hint, retrieved the shoes about to be raffled off, and ceremoniously presented them back to the Premier. “He doesn’t like to admit he’s superstitious,” Lily is saying now, “but underneath he is. And those shoes . . .” She glares at the offending footwear which has taken Schreyer through two successful campaigns. Her husband, swamped by elderly well-wishers at a campaign reception, misses the exchange. But, halfway through Manitoba’s 35-day election battle, “those shoes” were back in action.

If that wasn’t enough to exorcise the Conservative and Liberal furies before voting day, October 11, he had in tow both his wife and his 76-year-old mother, Elizabeth, widowed September 6, the day Schreyer launched the province on its thirty-first search for a new government. A high profile package, but none of it necessary at 400 Stradbrook, a low-cost housing project for Winnipeg seniors where residents seemed to hold Schreyer personally responsible for the happy change in their fortunes. Howard Brown, for instance, is buttonholing anyone who’ll listen. “The NDP has done more for the elderly than all the other governments combined.” He isn’t getting any arguments from the 60 senior citizens who’ve come downstairs to have lunch with Schreyer. Before him, they agree, seniors were at the mercy of slum landlords.

Manitoba’s Conservatives were eager to believe that Schreyer would need all the good luck shoes he could find to pull off his third victory since 1969, the year he brought Manitoba its first NDP government. That win, squeaky though it was (28 seats, a minority government until Liberal Larry Desjardins, now health minister, switched sides), came as an astonishment, perhaps even to Schreyer, a university professor who’d been elected leader only 19 days before the campaign began. Schreyer consolidated the victory in 1973, winning 31 of the 57 seats, leaving 23 for the Tories and three for the by-then totally eclipsed Liberals. But nine months ago the NDP momentum seemed to have slackened and a Schreyer hat trick looked anything but certain. Even Mines Minister Sidney Green

allowed that the NDP was facing the toughest fight of its life. The “full bloom” of public acceptance had faded, he mused in April.

The Manitoba mood is getting harder to read. Many of the province’s 615,000 voters have a feeling of vague unease, of missed opportunity, salted by the suspicion that Winnipeg, the grand old lady of the Prairies, is no longer so grand, nor fortunes so buoyant. “For years, Winnipeg knew it was the only civilized spot between Toronto and Vancouver,” says a young Winnipeg born-and-bred couple who

went east and came home again two years ago. “But that aura is gone. Winnipeg is just another Prairie city and all the action is happening somewhere else.”

Winnipeg lawyer Alan Sweatman agrees. “1 don’t like the drift toward mediocrity. The university and medical college, for instance, prided themselves—justifiably—on having absolutely first-class people but we’re losing people like that now. In the law faculty, all the top-rated

people are being wooed by the newcomers, the Law Society of Alberta, the University of British Columbia. Same in the arts and business. If someone younger asked me, Ts this a good place to settle?’ I’d have to say it was a better town before we started losing our brightest people.”

A decade ago, Eaton’s and The Bay (nine and six storeys) were the Winnipeg skyline’s landmarks. The skyscrapers that overshadow them now seem to belie the idea that the bubble has burst. But Winnipeg, population 578,217 last year, has grown by only 69,458 in the past 10 years, which isn’t as exciting as having 1,800 people a month flood in, the situation in Calgary and Edmonton. The provincial population, 1,021,506 last year, has been virtually static for a decade (963,066 in 1966). Parents worry about the numbers of young people departing. Downtown Winnipeg construction offices have brusque, hand-lettered signs in their windows: NOT HIRING. And if unemployment is still the third lowest in Canada, as the NDP likes to boast, the rate has jumped substantially in a year to 5.6%. On the other hand, a national accounting-firm survey pronounced Manitoba the cheapest western province in which to live for people earning up to $35,000 annually, if housing, medicare and the food index were counted along with taxes.

The uncertainty over whether Manitoba is faltering or flying steadily was reflected in the election campaign. As the province plodded up to voting day, nobody except diehard party members wanted to predict the victors. A minority government—either NDP or Conservative—was the most frequently heard guess. (The Liberals would have to be the spoilers to bring that off and Social Credit was out of the running entirely, with only a couple of Socreds even nominated.)

The campaign hit such a stalemate that both major contenders seemed to have decided simply to keep quiet. “It’s boiled down to the first party that makes a mistake, loses. So nobody wants to do anything,” said more than one political observer. Since both Schreyer, 41, and Tory Leader Sterling Lyon, 50, have occasionally been afflicted with foot-in-mouth disease, the first mistake was up for grabs. That left Liberal leader Charlie Huband, 45, to hustle and he kept a breakneck pace of3 a.m. meetings and 6 a.m. handshaking. Huband, elected leader in 1975, was, like Lyon, fighting his first campaign as leader and he shared with the' Conservative leader the dubious distinction of being his party’s third chieftain since 1969. (He also started out Conservative.) Despite a serious challenge in his own Crescentwood constituency, Huband nevertheless tried to blanket the province with his presence, managing in a single Sunday to sample soul food in Winnipeg and lambaste the “incompetent NDP mismanagement” in Ste. Rose, 100 miles west. Tall, thin and exceedingly earnest, Huband listens quietly

and speaks softly, a low-key style that leaves listeners convinced “the man has done his homework.”

Lyon—short, stocky, faintly freckled— left provincial politics eight years ago after losing the PC leadership battle to Walter Weir. Also a lawyer, Lyon had been Attorney General and a lieutenant of former Premier Duff Roblin. But in the years since he has changed images, from urban expansive reformer to restrained conservative. After the bloodbath that made him leader and a spring controversy over whether he’d been invited to run in Charleswood riding, Lyon hit his stride during the guessing about when an election would be called, taunting the government relentlessly to “screw up its courage” and go to the polls.

But strangely enough, after a year of almost daily speculation, the election, when it finally arrived, was a shock. For Schreyer, that’s becoming a pattern. In 1973, he unexpectedly jetted home from an Ottawa federal-provincial conference, ran a number of bills through a night sitting of the legislature, then dissolved the session at midnight while former Lieutenant-Governor W. J. McKeag sped toward Winnipeg in a police cavalcade to sign

election papers. This time, Schreyer had a September schedule that was to have taken him from Los Angeles to Washington to Ottawa. He declared on September 5 that, since the harvest was delayed by wetness, tne election would be too, until “the farmers have the harvest in and have had a breather.” The very next day, on the morning his 80-year-old father died, Schreyer called the election.

As far as burning issues were concerned, the battle was subdued, almost as if the actuality was an anticlimax to the guessing about when the election would be. For the NDP, events seesawed daily:

• The government, which previously riled labor by refusing to step into a compulsory overtime battle between Griffin Steel Foundries Ltd. and its union, announced it would overrule two Manitoba Crown corporations, Autopac and Flyer Industries, on the same question. But the points won there could be lost if 3,100 angry members of the Manitoba Government Employees Association make good their threat to walk out before the election in protest over contract negotiations.

• A judicial report blasting the public works minister for not implementing fire safety recommendations before an April fire at the Manitoba School For Retardates, which killed eight residents, stung Schreyer into an attack on Judge Robert Trudel. But the International Joint Commission came down the same week with a better-timed recommendation to halt construction on the Garrison diversion project in North Dakota which Manitoba has been fighting.

• The federal Liberals, who last year were trying to woo Schreyer into their fold, were less than helpful. Specifically, former Indian Affairs Minister Warren Allmand threatened to go to court over Manitoba’s failure to sign an agreement compensating natives for flooding by Manitoba Hydro’s Churchill River diversion. But then Allmand got reshuffled.

• The drought prospects that marred the thought of a spring election were replaced with a bumper crop which then began rotting in the unusually heavy rain, too wet to harvest. Schreyer climbed on a combine for the first time in 20 years at the campaign start but with less than half the crop in by mid-September, farmers may be in a less than felicitous mood at polling time.

• A federal Tory memo outlining ways to get around Manitoba’s restrictions on corporation donations during a campaign by preand post-dating cheques created some NDP glee. The illegal suggestion was promptly repudiated by PC officials but their letter of warning missed the mails. More glee. No illegal funds were collected. A standoff.

In the uncertainty of the final days of the campaign Schreyer must have been remembering his expansive mood last February, when a June election seemed a certainty. He had, he said then, “a very definite preference” for spring elections, for psychological reasons. In the Prairie spring, the earth is fresh and carries promise for the future, while in fall everything goes into hibernation. There would be a greater tendency, he said smiling happily, to be defeated in the FALL.SUZANNE ZWARUN