New Mexico trip highlights premier’s grit

In the annals of Manitoba politics, it may one day be known as the Legend of the Gila Trail.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/11/2018 (1476 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the annals of Manitoba politics, it may one day be known as the Legend of the Gila Trail.

Premier Brian Pallister returned this week to the Rain Creek-Mogollon trail in New Mexico’s famed Gila Wilderness, a rugged hiking area that last year was the scene of his well-publicized, near-death experience.

During a November 2017 expedition, Pallister and his wife, Esther, wanted to hike the trail from different ends and meet in the middle. However, they got a late start on the day, and it got dark before the two could meet up.

Mary Alice Murphy / Grant County Beat Premier Brian Pallister and his wife Esther present a certificate of appreciation for the care he received at Gila Regional Medical Center in Silver City, New Mexico in 2017. GRMC Chief Financial Officer Richard Stokes and Chief Executive Officer Taffy Arias accept the certificate.

The premier did not have a flashlight, cellphone, GPS nor an abundance of water. In the darkness, he wandered off the trail and lost his way.

When Pallister did not show up when expected, his wife called 911. Pallister eventually spotted a search light from a police vehicle and found his way out. But not before he fell into a dry creek bed and badly injured his left arm.

Upon returning to Manitoba, Pallister called the experience “the worst night of my life.” His arm in a sling for weeks afterwards, he pledged to return and finish the hike. It’s not clear whether anyone believed he was serious.

A simple statement from the premier’s office this week confirmed Pallister and his wife had returned and successfully traversed the trail without incident. They also stopped at the New Mexico hospital where Pallister was initially treated, presenting staff with a Canadian flag. The premier also honoured the state trooper who found him and got him to hospital.

The narrative arc — from near-death to conquering hiker — is impressive. It’s also a living metaphor that reveals many of the qualities that make up the psyche of most powerful man in Manitoba.

Pallister’s original decision to launch out into the wilderness, somewhat unprepared but committed to the completion of the challenge, certainly exemplifies the fierce determination that has distinguished many points in his life.

As a young man, Pallister fought through a weight problem to become a member of the Brandon University Bobcats basketball team. By his own measure, he was a player who was shy on talent but long on sheer determination. He willed himself onto the team.

Politically, you can see the same determination. He showed an appetite for leadership early on in his career, at both the federal and provincial level, but received little encouragement from political allies. Pallister had lots of ambition, but Tories in Manitoba thought he was too volatile, too unpredictable.

Mary Alice Murphy / Grant County Beat Premier Brian Pallister and his wife Esther present a certificate of appreciation for the care he received at Gila Regional Medical Center in Silver City, New Mexico in 2017. GRMC Chief Financial Officer Richard Stokes and Chief Executive Officer Taffy Arias accept the certificate.

A rebuff like that would crush many politicians. Pallister was undaunted, and, after a four-year absence from politics, returned in his late 50s to assume the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives. After 3 1/2 years in opposition, he assumed the role of first minister.

The hiking metaphor also works well as a demonstration of Pallister’s fearlessness. Hardly anyone would have criticized the premier if, for example, he decided to undertake less-onerous hikes in a less-challenging area.

If you know Pallister, however, you know he could not rest until he conquered this particular stretch of trail.

That fearlessness is also on display in his work as premier. In little more than two years, Pallister has demonstrated a ruthless appetite for skewering political sacred cows: he has closed hospital emergency rooms, cancelled high-profile infrastructure projects, and openly taunted public-sector unions with the threat of legislated wage freezes.

Using his commanding majority in the legislature, and an iron grip on his caucus, Pallister has forged ahead with an austerity agenda to balance the budget years earlier than initially promised. Critics who point out he promised to avoid austerity are dismissed with a wave of the 6-8 man’s enormous hand.

His history of triumphing over adversity — a history that now includes his return to that New Mexico hiking trail — reveal the rewards that come from determination and fearlessness. However, his first, ill-fated hike is also a reminder of the risks that come with those two qualities.

Over and over again, Pallister has suffered the slings and arrows of self-inflicted political wounds — the result of the repeated triumph of determination and fearlessness over prudence and restraint.

He insisted on buying an ostentatious home in north River Heights, against the advice of political aides who worried it would send the wrong message to working Manitobans. He also defied advice when making frequent trips to his vacation property in Costa Rica. The frequency and duration of those visits has become the political gift that keeps on giving for the premier’s political enemies.

Mary Alice Murphy / Grant County Beat New Mexico State Patrolman Justin McNett, who first rescued Premier Pallister, accepts a Winnipeg Jets t-shirt from Pallister and his wife, Esther.

Add those together with a general posture that values confrontation and conflict over compromise and conciliation, and you’ve got a pretty complete picture of the man who is premier of Manitoba.

Rarely do citizens get to see a political leader involved in a non-political drama that so perfectly captures the essence of that person’s approach to life and politics. That’s exactly what Manitobans got, thanks to a dusty stretch of hiking trail 2,200 kilometres from the province’s southern border.

And consider this: if Pallister ever learns to harness his determination and fearlessness with a modicum of self-awareness, it is his enemies who will be lost in the political wilderness for some time to come.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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