Lessons in leadership
Excerpts from Gary Filmon’s newly released autobiography Yes We Did: Leading in Turbulent Times
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/09/2021 (382 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The following excerpts are from Gary Filmon’s newly released autobiography Yes We Did: Leading in Turbulent Times. They touch on themes that remain today in Manitoba and across the country — the fragility of leadership, governing in a time of crisis, and navigating the campaign trail.
In the fall of 1987, the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party held its annual meeting at the Holiday Inn in Winnipeg. On the surface, everything seemed to be calm as the meeting approached and there was no prior notice of a leadership review motion. The agenda contained the usual round of policy debates, a speech from the leader and a number of mix-and-mingle social events. I had also introduced a new event dubbed the “bear pit”, where members of caucus and I spent an hour and a half fielding questions from the assembly as well as comments, both positive and negative, on the efforts and progress of our caucus in the legislature.
All in all, the mood seemed great and Janice and I spent the evening on Saturday at a social event following dinner, speaking to as many members as we could. When we arrived back at our hotel room, it was just after midnight. We had booked an adjoining room for our daughter Susanna, and as Janice went to check on her, she discovered a paper that had been slid under her door — not ours. She read it, and brought it to me. It was a letter which purported to speak on behalf of a large group of party and caucus members, criticizing my leadership and calling for a leadership review. It was signed by a young man who had been Doug Gourlay’s executive assistant in the Lyon government, but there was no doubt who was behind it. I was furious. I immediately called Bob Laine (yes, after midnight). He was at home and when he answered, I gave him a brief summary of the issue and asked him to call the others in my inner circle and have them meet in our suite at 7 a.m. We would have two hours before the meeting was scheduled to resume at 9 a.m., and we needed a plan.
After a fitful sleep, I awoke early, showered, shaved and welcomed the group. This attempted coup had been carefully planned. They had not put the letter under our door because they wanted their plan to be sprung on me in the morning. It was only because they didn’t realize that the other door was also ours that they had placed the letter there. They had waited until the registration of delegates had closed on Saturday to reveal their strategy. My team had made no effort to ensure that my supporters had registered, so the majority of members registered were from rural Manitoba, not my base of support. As a matter of fact, my campaign manager, my constituency president and four of the five people sitting at this meeting hadn’t registered. I couldn’t blame them for wanting to spend the weekend with their families, but they were terribly upset.
I listened to their comments, their anger and frustration and then shared my decision with them. At the beginning of the morning session, I would take the microphone, acknowledge the letter and state that it was time to clear the air. We could not carry on as a divided party and hope to be elected to government. So I did.
I asked the president to call a leadership review vote immediately. There were gasps, tears and sheer bedlam. As I stepped off the stage, I was mobbed by people expressing anger and support. Like me, they were furious that a small rump group for its own selfish reasons wanted to take over the party. I was more than pleasantly surprised that several prominent people who had opposed me in the leadership convention came forward to tell me they would be supporting me in the review vote. Their reasons varied but were generally two-fold. One, they viewed the opposition group, especially those from caucus, as being undemocratic and selfish. Secondly, they believed that the party was changing in a positive way—we had elected three women for the first time and were now attracting Indigenous and visible minorities as candidates and supporters. Nevertheless, I felt that the odds were against me.
The vote was set for 11 a.m. and went smoothly and quickly. When the result was announced—I had garnered almost 70 per cent in favour—there was great applause. On the other hand, my opponents knew that they had received a serious rebuke. They knew that I had not stacked the delegates. They had brought their supporters out, and still did not prevail. The legislature media were impressed. “A gutsy move” was the most common reaction. For me, it was the only move I could have lived with.
Normally, the Red River slowly meanders through the Red River Valley from North Dakota to Lake Winnipeg, but sometimes over the spring season, depending on snowfall and a few other variables, it swells and spills over its banks. After a disastrous flood in 1950 caused a billion dollars in property damage and expanded the Red —normally some 150 metres wide — into a lake 65 kilometres wide and 100 kilometres long — Duff Roblin’s government undertook to build a floodway to divert water around the City of Winnipeg. I had worked on it as a young engineer and it had since proved its worth many times over, so most Manitobans — including me — were confident it would rise to the occasion whenever required.
In fact, the spring of 1996 produced the third-worst flood in the valley in the 20th century, with peak levels just a foot below 1979, ranking it after 1950 and 1979. The floodway was fully utilized, our flood-fighting efforts as a province, along with those of the City of Winnipeg, were fully tested and most people were satisfied that the province responded well to the challenges. Like most Manitobans, I felt relatively complacent about the chances of another flood the next year — even though I had often used this classic example to teach probability to young people or friends:
*QUESTION*: if you flip a coin nine times and it comes up heads nine times in a row, what are the odds that it will come up tails on the 10th flip?
So maybe I should have been more concerned when we had a very wet fall in 1996 and the winter began with unusually high soil moisture levels throughout the valley. The snow pack that winter was well above average. Our flood forecasters were a little on edge, as well, because the snowfall in the Red River basin to the south of us was at a record high, so the rate of melting could be a critical factor. Nonetheless, things seemed to be going all right as we neared the end of the winter of 1996–97, when all of a sudden on April 5th and 6th we encountered a blizzard of epic proportions, driven by a fierce Colorado low that dumped 90 centimetres of snow on the valley. This was not just ordinary fluffy snow, but the heavy moisture-laden variety that causes heart attacks in elderly people who go out to shovel their sidewalks and driveways. The outlook for flooding took a turn. Thawing did not resume until April 13th and only melted the snow gradually until April 25th. Updates from all around indicated that things were looking worse.
The view from the south was ominous as reports came in suggesting that the snow melt in the headwaters of the Red was much heavier than expected. The City of Fargo, North Dakota (350 kilometres south of Winnipeg), was experiencing flooding and everyone downstream began to scramble — but was it too late? On April 18th, we learned that Grand Forks — just 232 kilometres south — was under siege.
Janice and I had gone away to the U.S. for a long weekend with friends. The American papers carried dramatic stories and graphic photos of the disaster in Grand Forks. The Red River had surged over its reinforced banks; the city’s entire downtown was flooded, and some landmark buildings had caught fire and were reduced to rubble. A state of emergency had been declared as more than 40,000 people were evacuated to higher ground.
“We have to get home,” I said, and within hours via a private plane, we were back in Winnipeg.
The next day we held an emergency cabinet meeting. We got the latest report from the province’s flood forecaster, Alf Warkentin, and a briefing on the status of preparations in the province for what looked to be an unprecedented surge of water heading our way. We reviewed all available resources, the process for calling a state of emergency if required, the communications plan, and so forth.
From that point forward, the flood became the number one priority for everyone in our government. It consumed our attention and our resources 24 hours a day. Every day began with a meeting of senior personnel from all government departments and agencies at 7a.m. wherein these key decision-makers were updated on all the priority issues that had to be addressed by individual departments, agencies or specialists. Flood level forecasts were updated, critical pressure points were identified, and resource requirements were prioritized. This included earth-moving equipment, pumps, sand, bags, food supplies, boats and personnel. All resources needed to be acquired or commandeered immediately.
This co-ordinating committee (which included ministers and deputies from every key department, plus senior representatives from hydro, telephones, RCMP, city and municipal police forces and ultimately the federal government and the military) also met daily at 7 p.m. to review the accomplishments and the newly identified risks and challenges of each day. This coordinating group was remarkably calm and focused as it met the daily challenges with both dedication and determination — in the end, this saved lives and limited damage and disruption to a remarkable extent. Its members were true professionals and deserve enormous credit and recognition for their leadership and public service.
Early in the crisis, I had to make a decision about how to best communicate with the public about a rapidly changing situation that involved changes to public roads, access to towns, hydro, telephone service, and health care institutions, but primarily critical information on the daily forecasts for the expected flood levels throughout the Red River Valley and the City of Winnipeg. The legislature was in session, so the minister responsible for Emergency Services and I were responding to questions from members of the Opposition for 45 minutes every day. Following that, I would have a lengthy scrum with the media. News releases were being sent out daily on all critical issues, but clearly we needed a daily news conference to satisfy all the media’s needs. I decided that chairing this daily conference every day was not the best use of my time. Even though my engineering and water resources background would have allowed me to speak knowledgeably about the challenges, I felt instead that we needed to make available the technical and operational experts upon whom we were basing all our decisions. Thus, our news conferences consisted of the director of the Emergency Management office, Harold Clayton, the chief flood forecaster, Alf Warkentin, and the flood liaison officer, Larry Whitney, both civil engineers. It proved so successful that these technical experts became overnight media stars. In fact Whitney, a folksy kind of guy who played the guitar, became a media favourite. Meanwhile, I was freed up to do Job One, which meant travelling daily to the front lines and the hot spots.
Fortunately for all of us in Manitoba, the federal government of Jean Chrétien agreed to send a huge number of troops to our province to lead the fight against the flood of the century. These troops were of instant value because they were trained in the use of equipment (vehicles, earth movers, materials handling etc.), well-organized, and used to following orders under any and all conditions. There could be no more valuable a contribution. I cannot overstate the instant positive impact of these 8,000 men and women on the flood-fighting ability of our province.
Several hundred military personnel were already on the ground in southern Manitoba in early April, helping us build and raise dikes. But after we declared the state of emergency on April 22nd, they were everywhere, in the thousands and ready to serve….
In addition to soldiers, tens of thousands of volunteers were hard at work throughout the Red River Valley in small localized pockets — saving a home here, building a local dike there. These were Manitobans responding to crisis — neighbour helping neighbour, friend helping friend. I spent much of each day travelling to critical hot spots to encourage and support the public servants and volunteers working so hard to save lives and property every day. With Highway 75 cut off from vehicular traffic early in the crisis, I usually took a helicopter.
I recall landing in Emerson on the Manitoba-U.S. border, where overnight the forecasted peak level had risen as it became apparent the water levels south of us in North Dakota were higher than expected. Word came that the Emerson ring dike needed to be raised another two feet — with two days to do it. Ultimately, the peak discharge at Emerson reached 130,000 CFS1, compared to 94,000 in 1950.
A high school in Altona gave its students the choice to spend the day in class or pile into the local school bus to build dikes in Emerson. It was heartwarming to see these healthy teenagers filling sandbags and cheerfully getting the job done.
That same day, all the residents of a personal-care home in Emerson were forced to evacuate to a facility in Winnipeg; obviously an upsetting experience. I decided to drop into the home to visit and express apprecia- tion and support to staff and residents. As I went around the foyer where all the residents had been assembled for the buses, I stopped to chat with many. One elderly gentleman appeared confused by all the commotion, so I smiled and said I was just there to assure him that everything would be fine. No response. I asked, “Do you know who I am?” Slowly, he responded, saying, “No, but if you ask that nurse over there, she’ll tell you.” I tried not to laugh.
Similarly, in other places along the valley, entire Hutterite colonies were out building dikes in neighbouring communities where they rarely interacted in normal times. The women, in their traditional dress, would set up a kitchen and cook food for the volunteers. The men would operate the sandbag-filling machines for days on end—cheerfully doing this back-breaking work for no compensation, other than the sense of pride in a job well done. These were true stories of Manitoba, a resourceful, generous and big-hearted place like none other….
The flood of the century demonstrated a maxim I have observed many times in my time in public service. Natural disasters and crises bring out the best in some people and the worst in others.
I’ll always remember the stories of neighbours, friends, and ordinary volunteers giving hundreds of hours to help those in need, the Hutterites leaving the closed circle of their colonies to give invaluable service to their neighbours, young students learning from an early age the ethic of volunteerism, the ready, willing and able service of thousands of well-trained, motivated and loyal military personnel far from their homes, and of course, the leadership and long hours of effort by public servants who went well beyond the call of duty.
These stories will remain with me and far outweigh the people who, in the midst of crisis tried to game the system, or the people who spent all their efforts criticizing and complaining as others valiantly got the job done.
In all my years of door-knocking, I was surprised to discover a large proportion of the electorate chooses candidates based on single issues.
If the only thing you base your voting decision on is the cost of a fishing licence or the location of a bus route, the outcome can be a disaster if and when unexpected crises arise. The two most important things to look for in an elected representative are judgment and values. We can never anticipate the wide range of challenges that a government will face in office; an economic collapse, a natural disaster, an armed conflict, a trade war, a civil uprising or, dare I say it, a pandemic.
I would ask voters to tell me about their relationship with their closest friend or their spouse, and then ask “And do you agree with them all the time?” Invariably, the response was “Of course not.” So then I’d say, “So do you agree with me most of the time?” Often, the response was “Yes” and I’d say, “So you agree with me most of the time but you’ll vote for someone with whom you agree less often because of one decision I’ve made.” Sadly, the answer was often “Yes.”
My response was that if I’d spent my life looking for people who agreed with me all the time, I wouldn’t have been married for 57 years and I’d have no friends.
In my 25 years in public office, I also witnessed a disturbing trend toward single-issue politics. Too often, political parties and political campaigns are decided on the basis of just one issue, or a narrow spectrum of issues. We see parties hijacked by a religious, social or public-interest movement, resulting in governments which lack the ability to deal with the wide range of issues and challenges they will face in office.
On those lines, I have always believed it is critical for me to educate and inform others about the need to encourage good people to run for public office. Elected public office is and should continue to be one of the highest callings in our society. It is the foundation of our democracy and must be preserved. When people say politicians are “all crooks” or their motivations are self-interest or power, I firmly disagree. The vast majority of people I have served with in public life, regardless of their party affilia- tions or philosophical beliefs, are motivated by a desire to make their world a better place. The difference is how we plan to achieve that.
As Winston Churchill said, democracy has many faults, but it’s still better than the alternatives, and we need to do all it takes to maintain and enhance our system.