North Dakota has lost a remarkable political leader. Manitoba and Canada have lost a good neighbour and friend.
George "Bud" Sinner, who died March 9, was the Democratic governor of a predominantly Republican state from 1985 until 1992 — a wise, folksy and feisty populist when being a populist had a positive connotation.
During his two terms as governor and in the years that followed, he was a valued colleague and friend to three Manitoba premiers: Howard Pawley, Gary Filmon, and Gary Doer. Working with his Manitoba counterparts, he played a leading role in establishing three important arrangements for cross-border dialogue and cooperation:
1) The Manitoba-North Dakota cooperation agreement on trade, tourism and water management, our province's first-ever formal agreement with a U.S. state.
2) The beginning of regular participation of western Canadian premiers in annual meetings of the Western U.S. Governors' Association (WGA).
3) The non-partisan, yearly regional Legislators' Forum, bringing together senior lawmakers from Manitoba, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.
Sinner once confided that one of the easiest ways for a U.S. border state politician to get popular support was to bash Canada, but that he had chosen the opposite course. He wasn't promising not to be critical of Manitoba and Canada at times — and he was, often asserting that our country manipulated the exchange rate to make our exports more competitive, and arguing in favour of coal over hydro for electric power generation — but that he thought cooperation was a far better and more productive choice for neighbours.
Early in his first term, at a meeting at the International Peace Garden in July 1985, Sinner suggested to Pawley that, with a new Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement on the horizon, Manitoba and North Dakota should work together to explore how best to take mutual advantage.
Although Pawley was wary of freer trade with the U.S., he saw the potential benefits of state-province cooperation. Not long after, encouraged and assisted by Canada's then-ambassador to the United States, Manitoba's Allan Gotlieb, a formal Manitoba-North Dakota agreement followed, focusing on trade, tourism and water management cooperation, the first such accord for our province. A subsidiary agreement on health service delivery information sharing came soon after. A year later, Sinner lent his support to Manitoba's campaign against a U.S. Department of Energy proposal to store nuclear waste in northwestern Minnesota, in the Hudson Bay Basin.
When the Manitoba government changed in 1988, Sinner was in immediate contact with the new premier, Filmon, and started a dialogue that took the Manitoba-North Dakota relationship to a new level.
Filmon was a strong advocate for freer trade, both internationally and domestically, and quickly found allies in our two neighbouring states, forming early bonds with both Sinner and the Democratic governor of Minnesota, Rudy Perpich, who was brought up in his state's northern iron range, and who knew and admired Canada.
A new Manitoba-Minnesota economic cooperation agreement was an early result, and a subsequent joint Manitoba-Minnesota trade and tourism mission to the U.K. attracted considerable attention, as did a "Two Nation Vacation" promotion.
A later Manitoba-Minnesota higher education agreement contained provisions to facilitate students in both jurisdictions taking advantage of studies in each other's colleges and universities.
In 1990, Sinner and Perpich joined Filmon and Saskatchewan's premier, Grant Devine, for an historic Hands across the Border meeting and ceremony at the Emerson-Pembina border crossing, celebrating the two countries' July 1 and July 4 national holidays.
By coincidence 1990 was also the year Sinner and Filmon were the chairs of the Western Governors' Association and the Western Premiers' Conference, respectively, and they decided to invite each other to their annual meetings. Sinnner and his vice chair, South Dakota's Republican Governor George Mickelson, came to Portage la Prairie for the WPC and Filmon attended the summer WGA meeting in Fargo.
So began a formal relationship that has continued to this day, with Manitoba's premiers being quite regular participants in the WGA meetings.
Among the many benefits have been the building of direct personal relationships with governors, many of whom have also gone on to influential positions in Washington as cabinet members and senators. Now, U.S. governors are the most effective advocates for NAFTA and for North American cooperation.
There is also no doubt that Manitoba's profile in U.S. governmental circles is far higher than it would have been without WGA participation. Manitoba's subsequent bilateral agreements with Kansas under Filmon, with Texas, California and other states under Doer, and with Illinois under Premier Greg Selinger, likely would not have been possible without Sinner having opened the door for WGA membership for Filmon and his western colleagues. The MidContinental Corridor initiative was also a product of Manitoba's work with the US states along I-29 and I-35.
Serious health concerns in 1991 led to Sinner's decision not to run for a third term (North Dakota does not have term limits) but they did not stop him from staying engaged in activities that involved Manitoba.
His last major contribution to cross-border cooperation occurred as a direct result of the 1997 flood in the Red River Valley and its disastrous consequences for Grand Forks and near-disastrous consequences for Winnipeg.
In the aftermath of the flood, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) committed to providing substantial support for a grassroots International Flood Mitigation Initiative (IFMI) led at the staff level by Sinner's former legal counsel, Dick Gross, and with active involvement by Sinner himself, Minnesota state Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, former North Dakota Governor Al Olson and community leaders from North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba.
Filmon supported the IFMI work and his successor, Doer, continued that support, receiving regular progress briefings from Sinner and Moe. When the IFMI report was completed, Doer met in Fargo with North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura and Sinner and Moe to review its recommendations, one of the most important of which was to establish a permanent, non-partisan cross border forum for regional legislators on flood prevention and water management and other shared priorities.
The first meeting of the new regional Legislators' Forum was held in Winnipeg in 2001 and it has continued to meet annually, building lasting personal contacts and better mutual understanding among provincial and state lawmakers. South Dakota is also a member and hosting duties rotate among the jurisdictions. A number of the present members of the Manitoba Legislature have participated in the forum and have benefitted from their experience.
A further positive outcome of the IFMI process, and Sinner's involvement in it, was a stronger role for the Red River Basin Commission, which continues to focus on water management and quality issues of critical importance to Manitoba. The recently established Assiniboine River Basin Initiative is based on the same model and is making promising progress.
After the IFMI process ended, my own personal contacts with Sinner continued to contribute great memories. Every time I saw him, he had a new joke or two to tell — usually lengthy and always hilarious. He remained very interested in Manitoba's political scene and always asked about his premier friends, their families, and staff members.
One standout memory was his speech, almost exactly ten years ago in front of a crowd of over 10,000 at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, introducing Hillary Clinton, then competing in the Democratic primaries with Barack Obama. His speech, which he proudly wrote at age 79 with his wife Janie's help, focused on the glass ceiling and was a triumph. Clinton thanked him profusely and joked that he and Janie were her and Bill's "favourite Sinners."
This summer's meeting in Manitoba of the Midwestern Legislators' Forum will be a further reminder of the kind of constructive state-province relationship Sinner envisioned and championed. His enlightened leadership has paid lasting dividends not only for North Dakota and Manitoba but also for the U.S. and Canada. He will be well remembered.
Governor Sinner was 89 when he passed away in Fargo. His autobiography, "Turning Points: A Memoir" was published in 2011.
(Jim Eldridge worked for the Manitoba government nearly 49 years, including as clerk of the executive council and deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs. He was a key adviser to most of the province’s premiers over the last 50 years, played a key role in setting up the province’s intergovernmental relations branch, and has been recognized across the country for his strategic advice on federal-provincial and interprovincial relationships.)