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A disconcertion of Duff

Manitoba was ushered into modern era with old-fashioned courtesy

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/6/2010 (2637 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Brisk, assertive, commanding, he revived boldness, decisiveness and trenchant criticism... He restored to public affairs a sense that issues mattered, a sense long dulled by the former government's belief that the whole of government was administration.

-- W. L. Morton, Manitoba: A History

Duff Roblin at the Sept. 5, 1967 Progressive Conserva­tive leadership convention.

Duff Roblin at the Sept. 5, 1967 Progressive Conserva­tive leadership convention.


As Tuesday's Free Press lead editorial observed, for many people, Duff Roblin was the best prime minister Canada never had. W. L. Morton was, I believe, one of those people and I have long counted myself another. The grounds for such a view are to be found in Roblin's intelligence, industry and a record of achievement that spoke to unsurpassed creativity and dedication. From education to crop insurance to the floodway and so much more, his impulse was to use the power of government -- intelligently -- to serve the public interest.

He would also have been the first fluently bilingual prime minister to come from outside Quebec. And yet, he saw the country whole. In 1963, in a much applauded speech in Montreal, he offered a personal, eloquent and compelling view of our history and its complexities:

"All of Canada is my country. I was born in Manitoba but I am as much at home on the banks of the St. Lawrence as on those of the Red River. The dual culture of which people talk is, to some degree, my culture. But no one can bisect me. I am a Canadian. Part of my legacy is here, in la Belle Province, and this legacy is French. I know who kept Canada Canadian in 1775 by forcing American armies back from the walls of Quebec. I know in what language they voiced the cry of victory at Chateauguay during the War of 1812. I know who fought in 1837 to give Canada responsible government. I know that there were as many tuques as there were Scottish bonnets when Manitoba was created in 1870."

In the last few days much has been said of the achievements of this remarkable man. Many they were but, as in any human endeavour, there were setbacks along the way, all of which are chronicled in his own memoir, with candour and without recrimination. Yet having been with or near him during several of these, I am aware of how heavily some weighed on him; and I am also aware of the courage, discipline and grit that enabled him to learn, accept and carry on.

He was indeed a progressive Conservative, an illustration of which lay in his early and enthusiastic advocacy of an elected Senate. Yet, he understood instinctively the need to address the consequences -- for Parliament as a whole -- of having two elected chambers, each claiming electoral legitimacy. He had concerns about any informal erosion of the reserve power of the Crown in a constitutional system in which much was unwritten and in which precedent could readily become fixed practice.

Though he shared his opinions if asked by those in public office, he was disinclined to speak publicly on current political questions believing, as he would tell me, that he'd had his time in public life and that it was not his place to offer gratuitous advice to those in whom another generation of electors had now placed their trust.

I believe I was not alone in wishing that he had been less self-effacing, for he possessed an uncommon wisdom, the supply of which is rarely over-abundant in any political system.

In a classroom, aged 87, he provided a candid retrospective on some of the issues confronting him during the nine years of his premiership. When asked what his government had done about aboriginal issues, he made no attempt to inflate his government's record, acknowledging that it reflected the times' levels of awareness and was demonstrably insufficient; and that he wished he and his colleagues had been more far-sighted.

He had a lively sense of humour, which seemed to grow with the mellowing of age; he had a fertile imagination and a reasoned hopefulness about the future. He was a good listener. He could still put -- or counter -- a case with elegant logic and, more admirably, with no interest in scoring a point but great interest in achieving clarity about the subject at hand. He had a remarkably agile mind, well and truly stocked by wide reading, deep reflection and intellectual curiosity. I continued to learn from him right to the end.

He had standards. He was gracious, charming, a touch reserved -- he did not seek to impress or impose his views on others -- and he retained a rather gentlemanly old-fashioned courtesy that, for many, has long passed: even latterly, in face of growing physical infirmities, he would still rise from his chair when a woman entered the room. In conversation, he listened carefully and sympathetically even if one was rebutting his argument. He would listen sympathetically to a recital of a friend's woes but his solicitude was always respectful of the friend's privacy. He had an acute appreciation of human folly, but showed no interest in personal gossip. In responding to my suggestion that, in his memoir, he had pulled his punches in describing several controversies or the people involved in them, he replied simply that he had no taste for reopening controversies involving people who were dead and unable to respond.

Morton -- and others -- felt that Roblin was hobbled by a cautious business community and by the nature of his caucus and party, a view with which I have some sympathy. Roblin himself, disagreed; and his memoirs recount only a single instance of his conceding, reluctantly, to caucus opinion that he did not share.

Whatever the case, the dimensions of Roblin's impact seem to be widely agreed upon: that by re-creating a competitive party system, he restored parliamentary government to Manitoba; that he largely transformed the conduct of government, redefined and enlarged its scope, and modernized its operations; that his government was, on a wide range of issues, progressive, enlightened and liberal; that in the tumultuous 1960s he brought a reasoned and reasoning voice to public discourse; that on many important fronts -- education, health and the floodway, notably -- his policies had enduring consequences; that all of these things contributed, by the late '60s, to a fundamental and enduring political realignment in Manitoba.

The wide agreement, in short, would hold that Roblin brought Manitoba, its government and its politics into the modern era. Beyond all this, moreover, he became by virtue of his eloquence, convictions and conduct, a national figure who might well have become prime minister of Canada -- and a distinguished one.

It was my immense good fortune to count him as a friend. In a column in this space on his 75th birthday, I lauded some of his qualities as a person and as a public man, but noted that he was very private and that such public praise would probably disconcert him. Several days later I received a hand-written note from him which said, "Bill, you may disconcert me any time you like."

Well, Duff, I'm still trying.



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