Manitoba History: Review: Duff Roblin, Speaking for Myself: Politics and Other Pursuits
by William Neville
‘Who-so-ever, in writing a modern history, shall follow truth too near the heels,’ warned Sir Walter Raleigh, ‘it may haply strike out his teeth.’ Such are the perils of presuming to guess how history will assess one’s time and contemporaries. Library shelves groan under the weight of testimonials to once highly esteemed men and women whose names now ring few bells of recognition, and the futures historians will doubtless view and understand our times differently than do we.
Yet, when a notable contemporary figure publishes a memoir, there is a powerful temptation to try to discern whether there has been some settling or sorting out of contemporary views as to what that person signified in and to his own time. In the case of a man like Duff Roblin who last year published a memoir, Speaking for Myself Politics and Other Pursuits, the temptation is very strong. This is partly due to the fact that there is already some distance from Roblin’s most notable role, as Premier of Manitoba, which ended a-third-of-a-century ago. It may also owe something to an observable ebb and flow, decline and resurrection of his public reputation. His premiership ended amidst the controversy over the new sales tax, and was followed by controversy, financial scandal and a public inquiry into the Churchill Forest Industries (CFI) project initiated during his time in office. In the ensuing years Roblin experienced public rejection, political defeat, and intense and continuing controversy over those aspects of his government’s record, in particular. Moreover, in the neo-liberal or neo-conservative attitudes in the Conservative Party that emerged from the 1970’s onward, there seemed often a disposition to disassociate the Party from the Roblin legacy, particularly with respect to activist and interventionist public policy. When, in the early 1970s, the then Conservative leader Sidney Spivak invoked Roblin’s achievements in a speech at St. John’s College, he was pointedly reminded by some of his caucus colleagues that the Roblin era was over.
By the 1980s, however, one could discern new perspectives coming into play and significant measures of vindication and a restoration of public esteem which, in the 1990s, seemed to crystallize into sentiments of respect and, indeed, admiration. The secret of this latter, he has suggested, ‘is to build a ditch and live to be 80.’ There is truth as well as jest in his remark, but it is not the whole truth.
At the launch of his book, Roblin recalled Churchill’s wittily serene observation, “I do not fear the judgment of history, since I intend to write it myself.” In fact, Roblin makes relatively modest claims for himself in this memoir, which early on includes the disarming acknowledgment that any bias in the book is in favour of the author. And in considering Roblin’s book in the context of his wider political significance, I too must enter a disclaimer: I have known Duff Roblin for many years and had the opportunity to read his memoir in manuscript. I admired it considerably on first reading and continue to do so on a recent re-reading.
This is not to say that one might not have wished certain things about the book to be different. Roblin is, after all, highly discreet, and one historian has expressed to me some disappointment with the book on that account. For a public man, he was and remains remarkably private and restrained. In this recounting of a very public life there are, undoubtedly people, events and issues on which he knows much more or feels much more, than he tells; and one could wish he had told more. It is hard, however, to take issue with a retired politician who has no interest in reopening old controversies or settling old scores. In his reticence there is more than a hint of the firm self-discipline—reflected in a disposition neither to complain nor over-explain—that was characteristic of his style as a political leader and, indeed, as a private person. Nonetheless, one is tantalized by some of the his reflections on those with whom he interacted. His observations, for example, on John Diefenbaker or Brian Mulroney or Pierre Trudeau are not uncritical: they are shrewd and have edge; in some instances, his understatement is deftly telling. So, too, are of vignettes of people and events. He recounts, for example, how in 1958, on the day he was sworn in, he was sitting in the premier’s office with his attorney general, when they heard a noise at an outside door. Before they could investigate, a key was turned, the door was opened and there stood the retiring premier, D. L. Campbell. “Oh,” said Campbell, “you’re here already,” and exited. “Thus,” says Roblin, “was the handover between governments in the province of Manitoba.” It was, clearly, a simpler time.
Elected four times, Roblin enjoyed nine highly successful years as premier, during which much was achieved. Then fortune fled. In 1967 he lost the contest for the leadership of the federal Conservative Party. In 1968 he experienced the most visible manifestation of public displeasure a successful and prominent politician can have: In a run for a seat in the House of Commons, he was decisively defeated by a combination of Trudeaumania and local anger over the sales tax his government had introduced the previous year. In 1974 general election, he responded, rather rashly, to an invitation from local Conservatives, to contest the federal riding of Peterborough, Ontario. In that contest, he was not only castigated by the Peterborough Examiner as a parachute candidate, but was subjected to the injection of the CFI imbroglio as an issue which, in daily front page coverage, was treated not only as scandalous but as breaking news. Defeat there was followed by the publication of report of the CFI Inquiry which was not only unresponsive to Roblin’s personal testimony but was harshly critical of his government and that of his successor. He was later appointed to the Senate by Pier ‘e Trudeau, and later still served as Government Leader in the Senate during the first two years of the Mulroney government, an experience, on his own telling, which clearly left something to be desired. In his memoir, though he brings to many of these developments the serenity that the passage of time can provide, they are recounted with minimal second-guessing or attempts to rewrite the past.
Roblin’s early political career largely coincides with the beginning of the modern era in Manitoba government and politics. In fact, this is no coincidence. Certain changes associated with his years in office were driven by considerations beyond his or anyone’s immediate control: demographic changes, for example, produced a shift in political power and priorities away from a long-standing, almost exclusively rural focus, to one necessarily encompassing Winnipeg and the North. In this, however, spontaneous change was augmented by the approach of the Roblin government which was pro-active rather than reactive on many fronts.
Of overriding significance was the transformation of provincial politics and—no less dramatic—the role and scope of the provincial government. The ending of the Coalition—through which the Progressives had governed alone or with allies from 1922 onwards—marked the return to parliamentary party government in Manitoba and the first steps towards revitalizing the provincial Progressive Conservative Party. From his election to the Legislature in 1949, as an independent Conservative opposed to the Coalition, through to his election as Party leader in 1954, Roblin was pre-eminently the catalyst for these developments. He is usually credited with the rebuilding of the provincial Conservative Party, but in retrospect this seems as much an act of creation as it was of restoration, and the new party resembled nothing so much as its creator. (It is telling that, on his retirement from the premiership in 1967, and with the force of his will and personality removed, the party reverted for a time to something much more resembling the traditional rural conservatism that had preceded him.) Roblin’s new party was conservative in many respects, particularly in his commitment to the values and forms of parliamentary government, and in his understanding of the rate at which certain changes could be achieved; and yet in policy, it was possibly the most progressive government that Manitoba had known.
Paradoxically, indeed, after more than 35 years of conservative government by Progressives, the province opted, cautiously, for progressive government by Conservatives. Herein lies one of the keys to Roblin’s significance and impact. Virtually from the time of his first election to the legislature, he articulated the need for change; he helped animate a public disposition for change; and he created an unlikely vehicle on its face, a Red Tory or progressive conservative party—a party of the ‘progressive centre,’ he calls it in his book—to achieve change. This development transformed the provincial party system by restoring partisan competition driven by substantively differing views on policy and the role of government. Roblin thus, simultaneously, inaugurated what can only be described as the modernisation of Manitoba and its government.
In his memoir, he reiterates his great admiration for Lord Shaftesbury, the great Tory reformer; and the affinities between that tradition in Britain and Red Toryism in Canada, and lead one to suppose that Roblin would also share Disraeli’s view that “The first responsibility of a statesman must be the well-being of the people.” In the latter half of the 20th century, the well-being of the people required that health and education be key issues in provincial policy. Education probably ranked most highly of all, both because of where responsibilities were lodged in our federal system, but also because of education’s importance in the process of modernisation and the creation of self-sufficient citizens. It comes as no surprise therefore that, for all the recognition accorded him in recent years over the Red River Floodway, Roblin himself, while recognizing the impact and importance of the Floodway in the public imagination, continues to believe that his government’s most enduring impact will be in other areas, and education foremost. In his book, indeed, the first chapter to deal exclusively with the policies of the new government: it is titled simply, “Education, the Priority.” [Italics in the original]
Certainly, education dominated the agenda. In 1960 the government inaugurated a massive program of educational change and reform, involving new schools, additional teachers, revised curricula and, in consequence, the need to address questions about standards, organization and finance. Higher standards and larger school districts, the better to provide educational opportunities to the young particularly in rural areas, were among the results.
The issue of grants to private schools was re-visited, a course which seemed to re-ignite the Manitoba Schools issue, with such intense opposition as to make implementation of aid to private schools politically impossible. Nonetheless, later and at some political cost, the government pursued a different tack—the development of ‘shared services’ between public and private systems—and the wider use of French both as a language of instruction and as a subject of study. His account of the introduction of shared services between the two school systems represented the first attempt to address some of the worst consequences of, and unresolved issues flowing from. the historic Schools question. His account serves to confirm what, at the time could only be speculated about, that shared services represented a compromise arrived at in the face of a divided cabinet and caucus. His account, indeed, provides almost a textbook case study of the pressures and processes through which controversial issues are moulded into policy in a government caucus within a parliamentary system.
Roblin’s record—as his memoir itself—encompasses other areas of importance: social policy generally; urban policy and, in particular, the establishment of Metropolitan government in Winnipeg; the development of provincial parks and highways; initiatives in agriculture including the establishment of an actuarially sound program of crop insurance; economic development, including the Churchill Forest Industries (CFI) project which ended in scandal; and the Red River Floodway project which ended in triumph.
On CFI, Roblin here provides his first public account since his testimony to the CFI Inquiry in the 1970s, of those events as he saw them then and understands them now. He reviews the genesis of an economic development strategy under the auspices of the Manitoba Development Fund (MDF), the processes by which MDF came to accept CFI’s proposal for a paper mill at The Pas, and the nature of the controls, established while he was premier, to safeguard the public interest. These latter were, in the end, clearly subverted. Of the whole matter, Roblin writes that he “... affirms his commitment to the original The Pas forestry development policy, and I accept the responsibility of office.” He also affirms that with all the mistakes, the decision after he left office, to ‘jettison the powers ... to exercise strict financial control over the operator was indeed a fatal error,” though as to how that happened, he expresses strong doubts that the CFI Inquiry actually found the answer.
If CFI represents a valley of dashed hope in Roblin’s career, the Floodway represents the broad, sunlit uplands of a vindicated vision. The Floodway was, at the outset, denounced variously as unnecessary, unworkable, too expensive and a waste of money. It proceeded, partly through Roblin’s advocacy in bringing John Diefenbaker and the federal government on board to share the cost, partly through Roblin’s conviction that, because it was necessary and workable, it was worth the cost, and above all through Roblin literally having the courage of his convictions. The farsightedness of the decision was validated subsequently and repeatedly, but never more than in 1997’s Rood of the Century when, it was estimated, the cost to an unprotected Winnipeg would have run into billions of dollars and incalculable grief to hundreds of thousands of people.
It is hardly surprising that the significance of the Floodway is understood more readily and clearly than the consequences—more complex or complicated, and less tangible, direct or measurable—of social policy or education or Metro or CFI or all the other policies and projects of the period. The very idea of an enormous project, created in the face of mockery and opposition, which ultimately confers enormous public benefit is not only romantic and the stuff through which heroes are made, but it approaches an ideal of leadership for which the public appears to yearn and claims, only rarely, to find. The impact of the Floodway, on the people it protected, on Roblin’s reputation, and symbolically, is an enormous factor to be placed on the scales of historical assessment. W. L. Morton, in a 1970 epilogue to his Manitoba: A History, written shortly after Roblin’s retirement from the premiership, commented that “the historian can say nothing more weighty about the day before yesterday than any other thoughtful man or woman.” With that disclaimer, he nonetheless observed that though Roblin’s government “tried to embody the will and aspiration of a new and dynamic society [it] was in fact a tour de force, attempted by one lonely and devoted man.” The assessment of 1970 seems, in 2000, prescient and just.
There are additional indicators. In the autumn of 1999 a Symposium was held at the University of Manitoba which, for a full day, brought together four former Manitoba premiers: Duff Roblin himself, Ed Schreyer, Sterling Lyon and Howard Pawley. Between them they had served as premier of Manitoba for all but two of the thirty years beginning in 1958. Many things were remarkable about this occasion, in which four premiers reflected on their own political careers, but one of these was the acknowledgment, expressed most explicitly by Ed Schreyer, of the impact of the Roblin administration on those that followed. That impact, Roblin’s successors seemed to agree, consisted of initiating changes so extensive in their range and implications as to create a new and different context for much of the province’s subsequent political and governmental activity. At the risk of following truth too near the heels, as an interim assessment, that too seems just.
Page revised: 1 April 2016