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A rare Canadian politician

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Sterling Lyon, who died Thursday at the age of 83, was a rare Canadian politician in that he was a conservative in the truest sense of that word. Many Canadians use the word to describe themselves politically and socially and some of them even support the Conservative parties on federal and provincial levels, but most of them are that only in the Canadian mould of being liberals (or Liberals) "with reservations." The massive movement of voters back and forth between the two parties that frequently occurs in Canada is evidence of that.

Mr. Lyon's conservatism, however, was of a more classic kind. He welcomed change when that change was truly progressive but opposed it when it appeared to be only change for the sake of movement. He was not opposed to -- in fact he enthusiastically endorsed -- new ideas, but he did not believe in tearing something down until he was certain that he understood why it had been put there in the first place.

In this context, the description "right-wing" that is often used to describe him and his one-term government -- he was premier of Manitoba from 1977 to 1981 -- is a sadly inadequate misnomer. He might be more accurately described as a man who was ahead of his time, a politician offering ideas and suggestions that people were not yet ready to accept. In his own way, in his small, provincial fiefdom, he carved out a path that former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former U.S. president Ronald Reagan would follow and change the world forever.

His term as premier may have been brief and storm-tossed, but his career was long and distinguished. He served as attorney general for a total of nine years as well as in numerous other cabinet positions and was elected leader of the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives in a bitterly contested battle with Sidney Spivak in 1975.

After his defeat as premier, he was appointed to the provincial Court of Appeal in 1986, where he served as a consistent and welcome voice of reason until his retirement in 2002.

He will be best remembered for his premiership. He shocked the province by implementing a program of "acute, protracted restraint," cutting both the size of government and the cost of it, as he had promised to do. Voters unaccustomed to politicians keeping their election promises found it unnerving; Mr. Lyon's critics called it harsh. It may, in fact, have been both, but it set a precedent that future governments can follow if they have Mr. Lyon's courage when times call for restraint. He showed that governments can exercise tough restraint without collapsing completely.

The other major pillar of Mr. Lyon's legacy -- the inclusion of the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a defence of the supremacy of elected parliaments over unelected courts -- was controversial when he first supported it and remains so today. He feared that provincial and federal parliaments would themselves cede their power to the courts to avoid controversial issues, a fear that has proved well founded.

These marking points of Mr. Lyon's legacy were in their time radical ideas that could have come from either a truly liberal or a purely conservative mind. In the event, they exploded from his mind and Manitoba and Canada are better, more interesting places because of him.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2010 A14

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