When Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon arrived in Ottawa last week for the First Ministers’ lastditch effort to salvage the Meech Lake accord, few observers predicted that his opposition to the constitutional deal would run so deep. For one thing,
Filmon had once backed the agreement. And both federal officials and some of his fellow premiers had indeed predicted privately that he would change his mind again. Still, as the negotiations continued through the week, the Manitoba premier surprised many of his critics with his determined insistence on amendments. Although Filmon’s forcefulness clearly caught many observers off guard, those who know the premier said that they expected nothing less. Noted Manitoba Conservative Senator Nathan Nurgitz: “He is tough when he has to be.” Hostage: That toughness has clearly helped Filmon, 47, weather previous storms during his political career.
Widely perceived as weak-willed when he became leader of the Manitoba Conservative party in 1983, he later faced criticism of his leadership from within his own party. After the provincial election of 1988, Filmon became Manitoba’s premier. But he found his minority government held hostage by the opposition Liberals, led by Sharon Carstairs, and Gary Doer’s New Democrats. Indeed, Carstairs threatened to bring down Filmon’s government over his initial support of Meech Lake. As a result, when Filmon finally withdrew his support for the accord in December, 1988—after Quebec passed its French-only sign law—his reversal was regarded by many analysts as being as much a response to Manitoba’s political realities as a point of principle. Said Nurgitz: “Gary is first and foremost a realist.”
That pragmatism, and what some acquaintances describe as his extreme ambition, have been evident throughout Filmon’s life. The son of a Romanian-born garment worker, he grew up poor in a North Winnipeg workingclass neighborhood. During high school, Filmon supported himself with a series of part-time jobs, but still managed to stay near the head of his class. He also honed his competitive outlook through sports. Recalled Ken-
neth Copeland, president of Digital Equipment of Canada Ltd. and a friend since Filmon’s university days: “Gary was an unbelievably good basketball player—a fierce competitor.” That aggressiveness manifested itself quick-
ly after Filmon’s 1967 graduation from the University of Manitoba. While at the school, Filmon had earned a master’s degree in engineering—and married the former Janice Wainwright (the couple now have four children). He then worked for a Winnipeg engineering firm until joining his father-in-law’s struggling private Winnipeg business school as its president in 1969. In 1971, he bought the school outright and reversed its decline, later investing in other businesses, including a bottled-water company and a travel agency.
In 1975, though, Filmon entered the political arena when he won election to Winnipeg city council. Four years later, he won a provincial byelection as a Tory. In 1981, thenPremier Sterling Lyon named Filmon minister of consumer and corporate affairs, a portfolio he held for only a matter of months before Lyon’s rightwing government fell to Howard Pawley’s NDP later that year. After Lyon’s resignation two years later, Filmon narrowly won the party’s leadership in December, 1983, portraying himself as a consensus builder.
Vague: But Filmon’s early years as Tory leader resulted in anything but consensus about his talents. In spite of the Conservatives’ high standing in opinion polls, the NDP won the March, 1986, election—with many Tories blaming Filmon’s often vague campaign performance. Two years later, when the NDP lost a vote of confidence £ over a hugely unpopular budget, the S Tories again entered the subsequent I election campaign with a strong lead £ but, this time, managed a slim minorI ity victory by winning just 26 of a I possible 57 seats. Again, some Con~ servatives blamed Filmon for losing what had appeared to be a sure majority and urged a change in leadership. But, since then, Filmon has united the Tory caucus behind him. Conservative MLA James Downey, who ran against Filmon for party leader and is now Manitoba’s northern affairs minister, attributed that to Filmon’s style as premier. For one thing, he said, Filmon has allowed ministers to run their departments without interference. And the premier has also won respect for his attention to smaller details, such as insisting on signing all of his letters personally. But Downey said that it is not only the Tory caucus that is standing firm behind Filmon. “A lot of Manitobans and Canadians are cheering him on,” he said. As hundreds of phone calls and faxes swamped Filmon’s Winnipeg office last week, urging him to stick by his guns, that support clearly encouraged his tough stand in Ottawa.
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