He is polite, disciplined, always well-dressed and seldom visibly angry. But those qualities have earned Manitoba premier-elect Gary Filmon, 45, few laurels. Since he became Conservative leader in 1983, critics have labelled him a “preppie overachiever,” a “boy scout,” and “a wimp.” His friends say that those descriptions are unfair. “They don’t know him,” declared Winnipeg lawyer and former high-school classmate Nicholas Trusewych last week. “He is a tough guy.”
With the support of only a minority of members of the Manitoba legislature and a caucus that by and large does not share his middleof-the-road policies, Filmon will need to be tough.
Scarce: Still, adversity is familiar to Filmon. Growing up in Winnipeg’s workingclass north end, where his Romanian-born father worked as a clothes presser, money was scarce. Filmon set pins at a local bowling alley and sold suits at Eaton’s to pay for the studies that led to his degree in engineering from the University of Manitoba. The habit of hard work has stuck. Filmon regularly turns in 60to 70-hour workweeks. He is also known to have a fetish for efficient scheduling.
“He is never late,” said David Maclennan, a business associate and squash partner. And Filmon clearly values his background. He told Maclean's last week, “Coming from a poor family, doing manual labor—I will draw on a wide range of experiences to get the legislature to support our programs.”
Filmon’s earliest successes were in business. In 1969, six years after his marriage to Janice Wainwright—the couple have four children—he became vice-president of his father-in-law’s Winnipeg business school. Filmon bought the school in 1971, struggling through several stressful money-losing years. He has revealed that he suffered from nervous exhaustion during that period before restoring the business to prosperity. Later, he added a string of
other investments that included a bottled-water company and a travel agency.
Filmon gained his first political experience by winning a Winnipeg city council seat in 1975. Then, in 1979, he won a Winnipeg byelection for the provincial Conservatives and was named minister of consumer and corporate affairs in the government of Premier Sterling Lyon in
early 1981. Two years later, when the party chose a new leader following the government’s defeat by the New Democrats, Filmon’s moderate pragmatism seemed to offer a change from the abrasively right-wing Lyon.
Criticism: But Filmon’s political record has at times seemed lacklustre. He has twice failed to turn impressive standings in the polls into gains at the ballot box. In April, 1984, the Tories stood at 58.9 per cent in a poll conducted by University of Manitoba Research Ltd. (UMR). The NDP, under strong criti-
cism for its support of francophone language rights, was at 23.6 per cent, and the Liberals were at 14.6 per cent. But by the time the March, 1986, provincial election was held, that lead had vanished, and Howard Pawley’s NDP government squeaked back into office. The poor showing contributed to persistent rumors of Conservative disenchantment with Filmon’s leadership. Disaffection reached a peak last December when several leading Tories tried to persuade federal Health Minister Jake Epp to return to Manitoba to lead the party.
Unconvincing: Epp finally ruled out a leadership challenge in February, leaving Filmon to lead the Tories into the election. But again his performance was unconvincing. According to UMR polls, the Conservatives entered the campaign with the support of 50.4 per cent of the voters, with the NDP at 25.4 per cent and the Liberals at 22.8 per cent. But by last week, after a low-key campaign, that lead had been badly eroded, leaving the Tories barely 2.7 points ahead of Sharon Carstairs’ Liberals in the popular vote. As well, Filmon—a moderate Tory who has supported pay equity for civil servants and more day care funding—emerged from the election with a caucus dominated by hawkishly conservative rural Tories.
Despite his image as a somewhat uncertain leader, Filmon’s supporters say 1 that he should not be underestimated. “I am always surprised when people characterize him as weak,” declared Maclellan. “Gary has shown a lot of strength of character and of purpose.” Added Filmon himself: “The polls said that voters felt that Carstairs was the most popular leader, but I was the most competent.” Even so, as leader of a precariously poised minority government, Filmon’s plodding methods and button-down style are likely to be severely tested in the weeks ahead.
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