The Greatest Manitoban died late Sunday afternoon almost at the moment that Duff’s Ditch was once again rescuing Winnipeg.
Duff Roblin, our 14th premier from 1958 to 1967, died about 6 p.m. Sunday in Victoria General Hospital with his daughter Jennifer by his side, said Roblin’s longtime friend Bill Neville.
Roblin, who would have turned 93 next month, will be forever remembered for relentlessly pursuing and achieving his vision of a floodway to carry the Red River around the city of Winnipeg, a quest he launched as an opposition backbencher shortly after the devastating 1950 flood.
Sunday afternoon was one of the countless times the floodway has been operated to avert possible disaster after near-record rainfall this weekend unleashed torrents of water into the Red.
When the Winnipeg Free Press published The Greatest Manitobans book in 2008, the province’s citizens named Roblin as our Greatest Manitoban.
Roblin was ridiculed mercilessly in the early 1950s, recalled Neville: "It was unnecessary, it wouldn’t work, or it would cost too much, or all three."
Roblin went on to become premier in 1958, the promise of a floodway one of his key election planks. And Roblin lived every politician’s dream of being derided, struggling, and eventually being vindicated, said Neville.
Flood-threatened communities from all over North America come here to study Duff’s Ditch, provincial flood forecaster Alf Warkentin said Sunday.
The floodway was ready for the ominous 1969 flood, Warkentin said. "We’ve had about 10 serious floods that the floodway has protected the city from," none more potentially catastrophic than the 1997 Flood of the Century.
"It’s a great loss — he was a tremendous premier... He was, in modern language, a man who governed for everyone," Premier Greg Selinger said Sunday night. "He was a great premier and a great Canadian."
Neville, a history professor at the University of Manitoba, said Roblin felt his greatest contribution to Manitoba was not the floodway, but the changes he made to education: taking the long-standing system in which every individual school in the province had its own school board, and creating the modern system of school divisions.
"The creation of Brandon University and the University of Winnipeg (from colleges) began on his watch, the beginning of the community college system," Neville said.
"He made Manitoba a more modern place to live — his greatest contribution was to the schools," Selinger agreed.
When Roblin began his nine years as premier in 1958, Roblin said, "Education is not a cost or a bill or expense but a wholesome investment in human life, growth and comprehension."
It was Roblin who promoted French-language education, Selinger pointed out.
And, said Selinger, "He modernized hospitals.
"He was a progressive conservative, with the emphasis on progressive," said Selinger, who was struck by Roblin’s sense of dignity.
"In a way, you felt like you always knew him," Selinger said.
Neville profiled Roblin in The Manitoba Encyclopedia. "No question, the floodway caught the public imagination," Neville said.
Neville said while Roblin did not seek out the spotlight, former premier Gary Doer "made a point of keeping Duff in the loop for every aspect of the floodway," especially the expansion now underway, and invited Roblin to attend major events.
Hugh McFadyen, leader of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party, said this morning: "Duff Roblin was voted the greatest Manitoban for a reason. He faced down opposition to build the floodway. He began the building of modern Manitoba.
Our hydro, education and road systems are all parts of his remarkable legacy. His profound optimism about our province's untapped potential inspire a whole new generation of Manitobans.
"Over the past few years I have appreciated his thoughtful advice on the major challenges facing our province today. He was a gentleman in every sense. My condolences go out to his family and close friends."
Former Conservative premier Gary Filmon saw Roblin as his mentor.
"I met him when I was running for city council, he was a constituent of mine," said Filmon, who said Roblin would not outright tell Filmon if he had Roblin’s vote.
"I had the pleasure of playing squash with him. We’d sit in the locker room, with towels around, and talk politics," said Filmon.
"There are so many legacies," and while many people will forever link Roblin to the floodway, said Filmon, it was Roblin who introduced regional secondary schools and community colleges.
Filmon said when his government launched a review of the entire postsecondary system in the 1990s, it was obvious no one knew more about colleges and universities than Roblin: "The people at Red River College, to this day, credit their expansion to that report," said Filmon.
"I’m very, very saddened."
As the book The Greatest Manitobans noted, Roblin’s government was a busy one. It brought in a regional government for Winnipeg, crop insurance for farmers, new highways to access the north and a social allowance program to help the province’s most needy. There was also the creation of two new provincial parks, Grand Beach and Birds Hill — two of the most popular parks in the province today.
Less popular was the Roblin government’s introduction of a provincial sales tax.
Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau appointed Roblin to the Senate in 1978, where he served until his retirement in 1992 at age 75.
To relieve stress during long days, Roblin played the bagpipes in his office. "The cleaning staff soon got used to it," he quipped in his 1999 autobiography.
Neville said Roblin had been ill for about eight months, but his health had declined markedly in the last three weeks.
Roblin is survived by wife Mary, two children and five grandchildren. The Roblins had lived in the same River Heights house for the past 35 years.
No funeral arrangements have been made yet.
— With files from Laurie Bailey, Margo Goodhand, Bruce Owen and Aldo Santin
LEGACY OF A LEADER
- Duff Roblin was born in Winnipeg in 1917, the grandson of Sir Rodmond Roblin, who was Manitoba’s premier from 1900 to 1915.
- He served overseas with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War and retired in 1946 as Wing Commander.
- He was first elected to the Manitoba legislature in 1949.
- He became leader of the provincial Conservatives in 1954.
- Four years later, Roblin led his party to success in the first of four Manitoba elections and was premier until 1967 when he resigned.
- In 1967, Roblin was a leadership candidate for the federal Conservative party. He lost to Robert Stanfield.
- In 1978, Roblin was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. He became Leader of the Government in the Senate under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
- In 1992, he retired from the Senate at age 75.
"If you asked him, he’d say education was his greatest accomplishment, the reorganization of the school system"
— Manitoba historian Bill Neville
"He made Manitoba a more modern place to live — his greatest contribution was to the schools."
— Premier Greg Selinger
"Duff was truly a visionary. The irony is that one of the best things he’ll be known for is the floodway but any time I spoke to Duff he said ‘Don’t underestimate the power of education.’ "
— former Conservative leader
"Duff Roblin led a Conservative administration the likes we’ve not seen elsewhere in Canada and not likely to see again. It was positive in every respect. He brought Manitoba into the modern era, with desired changes in education, hospital finance, roads, social assistance and flood protection."
— former Manitoba premier Ed Schreyer
"The first time I saw Duff Roblin was when I was a member of the Youth Parliament in the 1950s and he spoke to us. I was quite impressed with his oratory and his ability to communicate."
— former Manitoba premier Howard Pawley
"As far as Manitoba is concerned, Duff Roblin made the Conservatives a progressive Conservative party."
— former Manitoba NDP minister Sidney Green
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