A Prairie titan's fall

A Saskatchewan senator may face a year in jail


He was the big fish in the small pond—the deputy premier who, everyone knew, truly ran Grant Devine’s Saskatchewan government in the turbulent 1980s. But when nowSenator Eric Berntson was sentenced last week to a year in jail for defrauding taxpayers of $41,735, the ripples extended all the way to Ottawa. Saskatchewan residents—those who have not tuned out the long saga of provincial Tory corruption—were struck by two images of Berntson. One was the jowly, stone-faced power broker they had come to loathe. The other was a broken man, nearly friendless, pleading for compassion, citing the strain of events and his work on behalf of literacy and homeless children.

Except for one day in the Court of Queen’s Bench—-just before Justice Frank Gerein pronounced the sentence an abuse of trust and “a sad day for Saskatchewan”—Berntson has maintained a public silence. That has left most Canadians with another indelible image: that of another Tory senator led from court in handcuffs—only to return to a Senate seat, pending appeal. Both Berntson, 57, and Senator Michel Cogger, 60, who was convicted last July of influence peddling, showed up unexpectedly for Senate duties on Wednesday. They sat side by side in an isolated corner of the upper chamber while catcalls of “shame” came from Reformers and New Democrats in the nearby House of Commons.

Berntson will resign if his conviction is upheld, his lawyer said, while Cogger has made no such commitment. Until his legal troubles, Cogger was a backroom operator known mostly for his ties to Brian Mulroney. Berntson, on the other hand, has long been a public figure in his home province. A farm boy who joined the navy at 16 and remade the perennially opposition Tories in his 30s, he spent 15 years in the legislature. During nine of those, the Tories were in power for what became a wild interlude of free enter-

prise and massive debt sandwiched between two penny-pinching NDP regimes.

Still, of the 15 Conservatives now convicted in the biggest political scandal in Saskatchewan history, Berntson’s crimes were not the most serious. He was given a year in jail and ordered to pay restitution for pocketing money intended for secretarial services in his constituency. He was acquitted of a more serious charge of diverting publicly funded caucus money to party coffers.

But because this is an election year in Saskatchewan, with a vote expected in June, the fuss over Berntson is unlikely to die soon. ‘The continuing saga of Tory tricks can’t hurt the NDP,” said Gerry Sperling, head of political science at the University of

Regina. “I’m not certain people are passionate about this government. But there is a vacuum of leadership on the other side.”

In fact, the Liberals, who jettisoned former leader Lynda Haverstock shortly after she vaulted them over the Tories to official opposition status in 1995, now have a new leader: Jim Melenchuk, a family doctor who has lost his previous two attempts at office. Meanwhile, Conservatives voted in 1997 to cease operations for at least 10 years. Some went to the Saskatchewan Party, a home brew of disaffected Liberal and Tory MLAs formed in August, 1997, and led by a former Reform MP, Elwin Hermanson. With nine elected MLAs (five ex-Liberals, four former Conservatives), they form the official opposition.

That has been enough to keep them under close scrutiny from Premier Roy Romanow. The premier declines to talk about the Berntson case—but has no qualms about referring to his Saskatchewan Party opponents as “the Saska-Tories,” linking them at least indirectly to the excesses of the past. In last week’s throne speech, the NDP unveiled an inventive new bill that would require any elected members who want to cross the floor to vacate their seats and seek re-election under the new banner. Notes University of Saskatchewan political scientist David Smith: “It’s a bizarre proposal that fairly screams its purpose.” Screaming aside, Romanow’s NDP, now completing its second term, appears in good shape for a J une vote. A Liberal-sponsored poll to be released this week has the NDP as the first choice of 54 per cent of decided voters and leading in all areas of the province. The Saskatchewan Party trails at 22 per cent, while the liberals have 20 per cent. But a high number of undecided voters, nearly 43 per cent has all parties itching for a fight.

The only issue that may postpone an election call, Romanow says, is an unsettled wage dispute with provincial nurses. But he may also be thinking hard about the NDP’s much publicized travails in British Columbia; and the basement-level resource prices that made Saskatchewan the only province not to post any employment gains in 1998. Saskatchewan’s well-honed sense of fair play should keep Berntson’s name out of the election limelight. But his ghost will be felt at every campaign stop.