Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ladies and gentlemen, meet... The Opposition

He's a wedding singer and a national-calibre athlete. He can swear like a sailor and cry at the mention of his father's name. He was raised in a tiny farmhouse and now lives in a mansion. He's a self-confessed hard-ass who leads, doesn't follow. And he wants to be your premier.

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PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE -- The Man Who Would be Premier is behind the wheel, talking about civility and changing his ways, in particular reforming his once-infamous reputation as a rookie MLA in Gary Filmon's provincial government in the early 1990s, long before the Manitoba Conservative Party took a nose-dive into obscurity.

"When I started I was a mean son-of-a-bitch," Brian Pallister, now 58, says bluntly. "Excessively partisan. A heckler. A lot of anger. I think I went too far, and I regret that."

The anger came from a lot of places. His father, Bill, who he adored, had died of cancer in 1993, a blow that left his son in an emotional abyss. The insurance business that Pallister had started out of his car a decade previous was struggling in a nose-diving economy. And so a towering man of 6-foot-8, who attained national-level success as an often intimidating agitator in several sports -- the fastball diamond, the curling rink, the basketball court -- wasn't afraid to get his elbows up in the political arena, either. Or pitch high and tight.

But since assuming the job as Manitoba's PC leader last July, one of Pallister's first edicts to fellow Tories was to tone down trash talking in the hallowed confines of the Legislative Building. As in, "Pretend your family and children are sitting in the gallery."

On this day, however, Pallister is headed for Marquette, just northeast of Portage la Prairie, where a frustrated mob of angry farmers, cottagers and cattle producers are simmering at the Meadow Lea Community Hall, waiting to vent their collective displeasure with the NDP government's handling of relief from the devastating flood of Lake Manitoba in 2011.

Pallister is already in full game-face. He's hinting that under his leadership the provincial Tories will be more aggressive in pressing their agenda.

How aggressive? Replied the man behind the wheel: "You'll get a sense of that today. I've never been afraid of speaking truth to power. I'm not starting now."

It doesn't take long. Shortly after NDP Finance Minister Stan Struthers does his best with a short-straw gig, pleading for patience in a room full of stern faces that long ago run out of the stuff, Pallister ambles up to the podium.

Within short order, the PC leader, with a handful of caucus members in tow, describes Struthers' presentation as "weasel words and excuse making."

As for the NDP's intimations that the federal Tories are cutting back on provincial transfer payments: "Bullshit!" Pallister tells the crowd.

Apparently, the civility Pallister was preaching an hour before is a work-in-progress. But it's music to the ears of some of the frustrated flood victims. They're chuckling at Pallister's small town anecdotes, like when his father would tell him, "The more I work with people, the more I like my cows."

Heads in the crowd bob in unison. "Where do I sign?" one calls out.

When Pallister leaves the hall a few minutes later, he's pumped. The adrenaline is still flowing. He leans his lanky frame on a car hood and explains his agitation.

"Condescending crap like that angers me," he said.

Maybe it's the adrenaline talking. But Pallister has a burning desire to be in charge; the company boss, the guy holding the ball, the skip throwing the final stone. And it shows.

You see, it's not just the farmers inside that hall who are frustrated. Pallister has assumed leadership of a political party that has been out of power since the 21st century began, with 19 sitting MLAs to the NDP's 37-seat majority.

He's auditioning to run the province, but what do Manitobans really know about the guy? After all, Pallister's political resume might be thick -- provincial MLA from 1992-1997, failed bid for the federal leadership of the disintegrating PC party in 1998 and Portage-Lisgar Member of Parliament from 2000-2008 -- but his personal history has heretofore been relatively scant.

Know this much: Pallister is not used to throwing lead stones, not familiar with being irrelevant to the outcome.

"I feel like a steer," says the Leader of the Opposition, before leaving Marquette. "But it's not because I don't have the balls. It's because I can't feel the power."

-- -- --

Spend any amount of time with Brian Pallister and behold a (literally) giant, walking and (most likely) talking contradiction.

He can be described as both uber-competitive and compassionate. The ultimate team player or a self-serving, what's-in-it-for-me political animal. His friends vouch for the former, his critics the latter.

Pallister himself admits to being overbearing at times.

Ask Pallister what his friends might say of him when they're drunk, he at first muses, "Well, it's not hard to imagine my friends being drunk." Then more serious: "They'd probably say they could only stand me in bits, I would think. I'm too intense. A little too focused. People like me tire even me out, right?"

More contradictions. Pallister is a certified jock whose current list of night table reading includes such mind-numbing titles as, Negotiating the Numbered Treaties, The Leadership Challenge and This is Not a Peace Pipe.

He's a piano player and wedding singer -- about 35 gigs and counting -- who, during his own marriage ceremony to bride Esther, sang Crazy Love by Van Morrison. And even his harshest critics acknowledge whatever faults Pallister might possess, he's most often the smartest guy in the room.

"There's two people in my life that are the most intelligent people I know. One's a crook. And then there's Pally," offered long-time friend Randy Dutiaume, who in the 1980s travelled with Pallister to New Zealand to play competitive fastball. "He's a thinker. He sits around and thinks about stuff. He combines well-read book smarts with street smarts. That's a quality where you have to be out on the streets and down-and-dirty to know."

Dutiaume is a former provincial men's curling champion who has represented Manitoba at three Briers (twice as an alternative on Jeff Stoughton's rink), and one of Pallister's myriad of sporting accomplices, who universally characterize their former teammate as competitive to the point of combative.

"If you were on his team, great," offered one-time curling teammate Mike Sullivan. "If you weren't, look out."

Although constantly espousing the necessity for teamwork -- in life, in politics, in sport -- Pallister is equally clear about just who is leading the team.

"He likes to skip, let's put it that way," replied younger brother, Jim, when asked about any childhood disagreements with his older sibling. "And when it comes to baseball, it's 'Give me the ball.'"

"I'm demanding," Pallister conceded. "I expect nothing more from people than I would give myself, though. The coaches I liked the most were the most demanding. If you slacked off in a drill your coach told you. A bad coach wouldn't."

Then there's the mansion, of course, a $2-million, 9,000-square-foot spread on Wellington Crescent, complete with basketball court and seven-car heated garage, which Pallister purchased last October. Pallister bristles at the notion his current lush digs make him tone-deaf to poverty, citing a rural upbringing where cows were milked before school and the cream was used to buy groceries on Saturday.

Pallister paid for that River Heights real estate with the proceeds of his insurance business, which he started in the early 1980s, and now serves some 300 clients.

"I understood poverty enough that it's a place you don't want to be," he insists. "I understood when I was nine years old: No work, no eat."

Yet another contradiction: Pallister is a seasoned, well-spoken politician with almost two decades experience in both provincial and federal politics. He's charming and folksie, and a consummate story-teller. Yet if comfortable in your presence, the former cabinet minister in the Filmon government can curse like a sailor. Or a trash-talking basketball player. (At one point, a reporter asked Pallister's communications director Mike Brown, half-joking, if his boss would use such salty language in front of an elderly woman on the campaign trail. Brown thought for a moment and replied, "It depends if she swore first.")

In fact, watching Pallister behind the scenes, at his most excitable moments, is to imagine a sequel of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ... directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Yet in the same conversation, Pallister's eyes will well up just at the memory of his father, who survived polio to raise three children with his wife, Anne, in a modest farm house southwest of Portage that didn't get indoor plumbing until 1967.

"People don't see that side of Brian," offered Larry Dewis, a one-time fastball teammate who now works at Pallister's insurance business in Portage. "Tears can come to his eyes at the drop of a hat. People see him as a bad-ass, but under that exterior is a very sensitive guy."

The most apparent soft spot is Pallister's father. Bill Pallister was one of six children born to Harry and Jessie Pallister, who started out farming 300 acres of dirt near the hamlet of Edwin after their marriage. The homestead was originally settled by Pallister's great grandparents John and Mary-Jane, who lived in a house where the floor was half wood, half dirt.

Brian Pallister was raised tugging on his grandfather's overalls around the farm. Father Bill worked the fields, despite having one leg just over half the size of the other, the result of a bout with polio as a boy. Recalled Brian: "My dad never wore shorts. We never went to the beach. I never knew why."

Until one day, when Pallister was in his teens, and he got the first glimpse of his father wearing shorts in a sauna. Nothing was said.

But affection and sharing weren't the fabric of the Pallister home. Love and respect, sure, but the first time Pallister went to embrace his father, after returning from a year at university, Bill Pallister squirmed.

"We don't hug," his father said.

Pallister's mother, Anne (Poyser), was one of five siblings whose mother died of pneumonia when she was 12. At a teenager, she worked her own way through high school, literally, as a nanny tending to homes within blocks of the Legislative Building.

Anne would become a public school teacher and so would daughter, Peggy, Pallister's younger sister.

When it came to his boys, however, Bill Pallister always said he wanted a farmer and a pitcher. Younger son, Jim, now owns one of the largest white bean operations in Western Canada, which includes those original 300 family homestead. Brian became a fastball pitcher who, during his peak, once shutout Canada's national team 1-0, and became a starter for the Winnipeg Colonels, late of the now defunct Western Major Fastball League.

As a boy, in fact, Pallister would throw fastballs at the side of the brick wall of the family farm house. Hundreds of pitches a day. Thousands a year. In what would become a life-long trait, Pallister would stubbornly and relentlessly attempt to prove himself to those who thought otherwise.

Even though Pallister would eventually become one of the premier fastball pitchers in the country, competing at several national championships, he was never invited to try out for Canada's national team -- admittedly because his self-taught farm house technique was unorthodox and clunky.

Besides, Pallister would always push the envelope -- whether it was arguing with the coaches for more of the ball or feuding with catchers for more control from the mound.

In fact, for a man whose entire sporting background has revolved around teamwork, Pallister has a rebellious, independent streak that defies convention.

For example, after graduating from Brandon University with a teaching degree in 1976, Pallister's first job interview was with a principal at the high school in Gladstone. At the time, Pallister had shaggy hair and a beard, a popular style of the day.

The principal asked Pallister, pointedly: "If you get the job, are you going to shave off your beard?"

The young applicant was perplexed: "No. Why would you even ask me that question?"

Pallister got the job anyway. (True story: The future leader of the provincial PC party served as the teacher's union representative in Gladstone.)

However, in 1979, Pallister returned to Brandon University to get his Bachelor of Education degree. But the little boy who had grown to live up to the lofty expectations of his parents (mother Anne was a public school teacher) was adrift. Fat and out of shape, Pallister had ballooned to 290 pounds.

"He was almost a Goodyear blimp," recalled Jerry Hemmings. "He was a big boy."

Now 65, Hemmings is still teaching Physical Education at BU. But back in 1979, the head coach of the Brandon Bobcats men's team was building championship calibre teams, largely by recruiting New York kids straight from the asphalt courts of Brooklyn.

So Hemmings already had enough raw talent. In Pallister, however, he immediately recognized an oversized-but-athletic farm boy big enough to "go bear hunting with a stick."

It turned out to be a perfect fit: Hemmings was looking for muscle, Pallister was desperate for direction.

"I needed to change my life," Pallister said. "I was headed for mediocrity, lethargy, complacency. I knew there was someone inside of me that had the drive for more than that."

Whatever was inside of Pallister, Hemmings literally ran it out of him.

"I ran him until his tongue came out," the coach said. "I can still see him walking out the doors to go vomit. But he'd always come back."

Pallister never started for the Bobcats. But he became a valuable sixth man on a team that eventually lost the national final to the University of Victoria in 1980. Pallister was voted the Most Improved Player.

"It gave me some self esteem, a little confidence," Pallister recalled.

Pallister's marks improved. The weight stayed off. But the teaching days were over.

After leaving BU, Pallister's streak of self-reliance continued when he began selling insurance. "He had no office," Sullivan noted. "I signed my policy on his trunk. I still have that policy."

Over 30 years later, Dr. Sullivan is Pallister's dentist. They remain close friends, usually meeting once a week if schedules allow.

Pallister will tell you he remains very loyal to friends because he had so few growing up. Despite his height (over six feet by age 12) he was bullied at school. In his first week at tiny Edwin Elementary, a fellow student, at the urging of older kids, stabbed Pallister just below his eye with a pencil. For years, Pallister had difficulty sleeping on Sunday night. Why? "I hated Mondays," he said.

Tall and gangly, Pallister took up piano and played in school recitals, where the competition was almost exclusively tiny girls in flowered dresses.

That image, of course, is a stark contrast to the grown politician who stood before a packed house in Marquette and essentially branded the ruling NDP government as -- to quote Pallister -- weasels and bullshit artists.

But Hemmings, for one, has seen this movie before; how when his lumbering, once-overweight forward would relentlessly bang opponents, who were often more talented, under the basket, to the point of their distraction.

"Now I see the same things in Brian's politics as he was as a player," Hemmings said, with a level of pride. "Nobody can get under other people's skin like he can. He was a real warrior."

Yet when you ask the "warrior" how his father died, the other side of Pallister emerges. The PC party leader is sitting in a fried chicken restaurant in Portage when he recalls when his father was first diagnosed with primary liver cancer in 1993.

Bill Pallister broke the news with Jim and Brian at his hospital bed side.

"It's fast," the father said, as if to reassure his sons.

"Well," Brian noted, "it's better than Aunt Beth (Bill's sister), getting chopped up over ten or 15 years."

It was one of those awkward moments for men raised on the farm. They shed a few tears. Cleared their throats a lot. Tried to make jokes.

Then Jim reasoned, "It's better than getting hit by a goddam truck."

So the father eyed up his two boys -- in an old school attempt to lighten the pall -- and concluded, "Well, men. I think we've established it's all for the best."

-- -- --

Dark days followed Bill Pallister's death.

"When my dad died... I shut down," the eldest son admitted. "It wasn't a good time. There was a period of my life where I wouldn't let anybody in. I went into my work. Went into the Legislature. I left Esther with a one-year-old daughter (Quinn) in here (Portage) and... I wasn't a very good father.

"I don't like to live my life with regret. Nobody does. When I look back on that period I just say, 'It wasn't good.'"

What would Pallister have done differently?

"Hug my kids more. Hug my wife more. Should have opened up. I should have talked to somebody. There's people out there who could have helped me, but I'm too stupidly self-reliant sometimes."

Esther Johnson met Pallister, quite by accident, at a basketball game at Riddell Hall in 1974. Johnson was a forward for the University of Manitoba Bisons, and retired as the school's all-time leader in rebounding. Together, they have two daughters; Quinn, 21, currently studying at the U of M's Asper School of Business, and 15-year-old Shawn, a promising basketball prospect for the Oak Park Raiders high school team, who already stands 6-foot-1.

Naturally, Pallister's wife believes her husband has a "ton of potential", too.

"He does care deeply. At the same time it doesn't make him weaker, it makes him strong," Esther noted. "It gives him greater depth. When you have to lead, you can feel what you need to feel, but still take the proper actions."

As for that period when Pallister confessed to being emotionally AWOL for his family, she only said: "He's hard on himself."

Maybe, but not as hard as some former political foes who aren't yet convinced that Pallister has evolved from the "mean son-of-a-bitch" whose win-at-all-costs reputation they feel got him both rich and elected.

Al Collins worked for Pallister's early provincial campaigns back in Portage in the early 1990s. Now, with Pallister newly installed as PC leader, Collins isn't a believer anymore.

"Brian is a bright man," Collins said. "I liked what he said. But I have never liked the politics of self-interest. This might sound harsh but Brian's confidence -- if you hang around long enough -- is his sense of entitlement. There's an arrogance that just puts blinders in his eyes.

"People find out that's the thing he can't fix. People are worn out because nothing comes back to you. It just gets sucked in. It's an exercise of how quick does he get what he wants before everybody finds out the Emperor has no clothes."

It was little things that bugged Collins, who believed Pallister didn't thank his volunteers enough. He wasn't engaged with the public.

For the record, Collins also campaigned for David Faurschou, who in 1992 lost the PC party nomination for Portage to Pallister. Faurschou told the ÀÜ that, "Brian only respects Brian's opinion."

Sour grapes, perhaps. But that Pallister's sometimes blunt, sometimes abrasive, often in-charge persona can rub the wrong way is no secret. In fact, even old teammates would understand -- and most certainly his old opponents. So what?

"Not everybody likes me, either," Dutiaume reasoned. "When you're on one side of an issue and someone's on another that can stir up some resentment. That's just the way it is. You can't go through life worrying about who likes you or who doesn't. You have to do what you think is right in your heart and is good for everybody. That's the way Brian is.

"You name any politician; half the people like him, half the people hate 'em. Sometimes you ruffle feathers the wrong way. It's the business you're in.

"He lets his actions speak for him," Dutiaume concluded. "Not just his size and his big mouth."

Maybe Pallister will emerge as a polarizing figure, who critics contend will never get elected but whose close friend Sullivan will boldly venture: "If we go back 100 years (in the future), he'll be remembered as one of the best premiers we've ever had."

When confronted with Collins' criticism, Pallister first responded by saying he hadn't seen the man in "15 or 20 years." Then sitting on his couch in the Legislative office of the Leader of the Opposition, he finally said, "But he was probably right."

Still coping with his father's death. Business struggling. A political back bencher in a starter's world. "At that time, I was thinking a lot about myself," Pallister admitted.

"But I hope I'm better at that now," he said. "People see other people in different lights at different times. People take time to change, but you've got to believe they can. Otherwise, what's the point? Why be involved in public policy debates if you think everybody's got a fixed position and nobody will change their mind? You've got to believe that most people are open minded."

Curious, but it was early on in the interview process when Pallister was explaining why he didn't mind opening up about his past. He's figured that between all the games he's played -- both in political and sporting arenas -- he's failed enough for a lifetime. He's heard more "No's" at the door, selling insurance or canvassing for votes, than any traveling salesman.

In fact, friends will tell you Pallister feeds off failure, and being labeled an underdog. If that's the case, political observers would agree, he's found the perfect job.

"I'm more comfortable in my own skin than I've ever been," he said. "Self-doubt is a natural aspect of most people. I've confronted a lot of my own demons in my life. I've been forced to. I've lost people I've loved, I've lost good friends. I've behaved in ways I've regretted.

"I've always believed life is a canvas and you try and paint it the best way you can, right? I don't want to look back with any regrets. And it's taken a long time to respect myself, to believe in myself, to feel I have something to offer. But I do."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 ??65535

History

Updated on Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 9:10 AM CDT: corrects typo

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