Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bill Norrie -- worthy and honourable

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In St. Paul's Cathedral, on the tomb of the great architect Sir Christopher Wren, are inscribed these words: "Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you."

The words were appropriate: It was Wren who had recreated St Paul's and rebuilt much of east London following the Great Fire of 1666.

Such broad (or apt) tributes are rarely extended to politicians -- a Churchill, perhaps -- but to municipal politicians in particular, hardly ever. Yet, among municipal politicians, Bill Norrie merits special attention and acknowledgment.

As a school trustee, city councillor and mayor of Winnipeg for nearly 30 years, he lived in the public eye. Yet, less publicly, he served both the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba -- the latter in the highly visible role as chancellor; he served on the Rhodes scholarship selection committee where, not surprisingly, he was a master when it came to putting nervous candidates at their ease.

Moreover, the Canadian Who's Who entry on Norrie lists numerous social and humanitarian tasks and responsibilities undertaken, and services rendered, that would be unknown to most citizens of Winnipeg. Nor would most citizens be aware of the many honours bestowed on him.

Characteristically, he wore these lightly -- though he was especially honoured by his induction into both the Order of Canada and the Order of Manitoba.

Bill Norrie served in public office for 28 years, of which the 20 years in municipal office spanned a particularly important period.

Though the years immediately after the Second World War had been years of great economic expansion, by the 1970s it was clear that, in some areas, Winnipeg among them, growth was no longer certain or automatic and the new challenge was one of governing intelligently and creatively in less auspicious times.

It would not be claimed of Bill Norrie that, on his watch, all problems were surmounted and all challenges met.

Neither, despite his buoyant optimism, did he pretend the problems were not there.

Yet he was one of the key figures in the Core Area Initiative, the North Portage Corporation and The Forks Redevelopment and in initiatives on race relations, refugees and arts funding.

However else these may later have been judged, they represented substantial attempts to address substantial issues. These spoke of a desire to make a better city and went far beyond bread and circuses or mindless boosterism, an occupational disease among many municipal politicians.

He disliked controversy but would not run from it. In public and, for the most part, in private, he seemed imperturbable even when facing unpalatable choices.

In 1981, with two motions -- one that killed the Sherbrook-McGregor Overpass and another that sought to revive it -- he voted for both.

Two years later, though personally opposed to holding a referendum on the then-current French-language controversy, he expressed concerns to me and another colleague that an anti-French backlash in the upcoming election might sweep away what he regarded as able and enlightened councillors (and, presumably, himself) who had dared to part company with the majority.

In the election, however, conducted simultaneously with the referendum, those who had opposed holding a referendum suffered no unusual electoral adversity. Bill won overwhelmingly.

He was intelligent; he had a fine sense of humour; he could laugh at himself. When he gave his word on a matter, he kept it. In his public persona, he was open, friendly, gracious, a man of endless affability and sunny ways.

His jokes tended to run to the corny and his sports jackets ran to the loud and flashy; both were forgivable.

In 1993, when Bill was an awarded an honorary degree by the U of M, I was honoured to prepare and deliver the citation, which ended with these words:

"Apart from his willingness to deal in real issues, Bill Norrie brought certain estimable qualities and attitudes to public office. Though not a populist, his openness, accessibility and affability made him in a very real sense, mayor of all the people, something demonstrated graphically in the 1983 election when he won every poll in the city.

"He was a politician of decent instincts and reasoned impulses. He has brought intelligence, civility and a sense of calm to public debate and controversy; an instinctive conciliator and slow to anger, he seemed unperturbed by personal criticism from political opponents or, one may add, from political columnists, (including this one).

"He has, in short, made a worthy contribution to this city and an honourable contribution to its public life."


A memorial service for Bill Norrie will be held at 1 p.m. today at Crescent Fort Rouge

United Church, Nassau and Wardlaw.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 11, 2012 A7

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