Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/11/2017 (1449 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Last Wednesday, Nov. 1, marked the 40th anniversary of Robert A. Steen, a St. James resident, becoming mayor of the City of Winnipeg after defeating Bill Norrie by 1,819 votes in the race to become the first person to succeed Steve Juba, who had been mayor since 1957.
Steen became involved in politics as a 12 year old, when he volunteered to help n the 1945 federal election campaign. He attended the University of Manitoba, where he earned a B.A. and a law degree. He was called to the bar in 1959, but was always active in politics, serving as an executive assistant to federal cabinet minister Gordon Churchill. In 1966, he was elected the Progressive Conservative MLA for St. Matthews.
In 1971, he was elected to city council from the old Westminster ward as a member of the Independent Citizens’ Election Committee (a loose coalition of Progressive Conservatives and Liberals that was active in civic politics for many years).
Steen enjoyed municipal politics because it was closest to the people. As a councillor, he was able to reverse a Board of Commissioners decision to delete a $100,000 road renovation project from his ward. After severing his ICEC ties, he was acclaimed in the 1974 election.
In 1977, he decided to challenge the invincible Steve Juba. When Juba pulled out at the last minute, announcing his retirement from politics, he endorsed Steen, as did former NDP premier Ed Schreyer. With strong support from the North End, northeast, city centre and Deer Lodge, Steen narrowly defeated ICEC candidate Norrie.
The new mayor faced a challenging job. Juba had governed by confrontation and the ICEC had an exaggerated view of its importance and the new PC provincial government of Sterling Lyon wanted to cut spending at any cost.
In March 1978, Steen fought to have the Province honour its funding commitments to the City, demanding a meeting with the entire cabinet. Ultimately, his Steen’s willingness to work with everyone helped calm a difficult situation. The late activist and political observer Nick Ternette said Steen had a unique ability to relate to and earn the respect of politicians of all stripes. NDP councillor Magnus Eliason called Steen the best of the three mayors he worked with on council.
Sadly, Steen died of liver cancer on May 10, 1979 at Misericordia Hospital. On May 12, former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker delivered a eulogy at Winnipeg City Hall. His funeral was held at Knox United Church on May 13 and he is buried in the St. James Cemetery.
After his death, the former Immanuel Pentecostal Church at 980 Westminster Ave. became the Robert A. Steen Community Centre and a National Film Board documentary, The New Mayor, was released, detailing Steen’s rise to power.
(Special thanks to Irene Steen for her help in preparing this article.)
Fred Morris is a community correspondent for St. James. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
St. James community correspondent
Fred Morris is a community correspondent for St. James.