Canadian News

The white knight of the far right

Angela Ferrante September 18 1978
Canadian News

The white knight of the far right

Angela Ferrante September 18 1978

The white knight of the far right

Sterling Lyon is the perfect preacher of the new religion of restraint. Tory pre-

mier of Manitoba since he trounced the NDP last fall, his zealotry has won him the labels Fascist and right-winger.

But he doesn’t care. On the contrary, he just keeps on castigating the nonbelievers — the “feds” for

“spending like drunken sailors,” Quebec and Ontario leaders for wasting time being “nation savers,” and all Canadian socialists for indulging in “ideological silliness.” His favorite target is “the maw, the animal” of government bureaucracy

which he has been pitilessly decimating in Manitoba. He says flatly: “The public sector is on trial.”

At 51, Lyon certainly has all the credentials for his calling—a thin-lipped 1950s conservative who is once again fashionable. He’s the kind of father who gets annoyed when his 12-year-old son doesn’t know what a post mortem is. After all, when Sterling Rufus Lyon was a kid he studied Latin for eight years, so what’s happening to education these days? And he’d bring back hanging because "it works." He knows Communists are dangerous. He thinks bilingualism has failed, and that good old-fashioned road-paving to the North is the way to bridge the economic gap with the South. A modest Prairie lawyer, he’s no captain of capitalism. But he is one of its most ardent foot soldiers.

Short, freckled, with a middle-age paunch and occasional ulcers, Lyon is hardly a charismatic leader. His victory—by the largest majority in recent Manitoba history—was all the more remarkable in that he was well behind the NDP'S Ed Schreyer in popularity. And he’s a political retread. He spent 20 years in politics—serving six ministries under Duff Roblin—before retiring to be a corporate lawyer in 1969. Three years ago he jumped back into the partisan fray by taking on the leadership of the badly divided Tories.

But Lyon cannot be dismissed simply as an ideologue taking advantage of the current all-pervasive conservatism, incapable of seeing beyond his own narrow track. He may

be the private enterprise candidate from Portage and Main, but he knows instinctively that “you can’t run government from the office of a manufacturers’ association any more than from a union office.” Those who call him a bigot are surprised to discover his five children all study French—and even he had a go at it (to no avail).

Lyon is a politician who has made a few choices and sticks to them, however impolitely—a definite novelty in the Canadian politics of pragmatism. He is still the kid from Portage la Prairie, the product of a broken home, who later worked his way through school (with the help of his wife, Barbara) all the time emulating his neighbor-hero, former prime minister Arthur Meighen. But even as Lyon prepares for another round of bloodletting this fall (now that he has cut back government, he is going to reorganize it), it remains for the congregation, the Manitoba electorate, to decide whether his call for “a return to simpler times” is just a step backward or the true dogma of the 1970s.

Angela Ferrante