Friday, April 22

Remembering Allan Blakeney

I was trying to find a photo of former Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney in my private collection that I could publish here, but couldn't find a suitable shot to illustrate my "particular" fondness for our ex-Premier -- "particular" being pronounced with the distinctively Blakeney touch that our late-Premier was famous for.

I remember attending a Blakeney speech in 1979 or 1980 at Saskatoon's Forestry Farm, when my grasp of "Blakeney-speak" was only slightly less seasoned than my grasp of the English language. Still, Allan Blakeney made a positive impression on me that day. Perhaps this impression was partly shaped by the fact that his speech had been delivered from a flatbed truck trailer in the shadow of a shelterbelt in Sutherland, or that some of my later colleagues at CBC had learned to parody Blakeney-speak to a level of excellence worthy of an Oscar. But clearly, Blakeney had impressed me that day. He would not be the only Saskatchewan politician to do so.

As a University of Saskatchewan student during post-1980 years, I learned to also appreciate John G. Diefenbaker's wit, as I catalogued the voluminous resources he has bestowed to the U of S' Diefenbaker Centre. Learning how Dief approached  -- how he learned --  about electoral campaigning in French in Quebec during federal elections by annotating his speeches, using phonetic symbols meant to guide him through particularly challenging passages in French, was a revelation to me, to be honest.

And there were no campaign planes then -- only campaign trains!

Dief didn't speak French - something an aspiring Prime Minister could never get away with today. But he was incredibly funny, in my view. Humour is a universal language. Here was a man who saved every political cartoon, caricaturists from sea to sea, to sea produced at his expense, for the benefit and postumous enjoyment of all Canadian citizens who would dare make their way to Saskatoon one day.

The P.A.-based Member of Parliement was a most impressive Western Canadian charismatic national politician -- until Trudeaumania -- one could ever find. "Dief the Chief" kept somewhat artistically-inspired black velvet portraits of himself made and given to him by admiring fans over the years. These are part of the magnificent Diefenbaker Centre collection.  Check it out... really!  I never met our former Prime Minister, but I frequently and respectfully swept the snow off his grave during my years as a U of S Anthropology Major, as a Diefenbaker Centre student interpreter.

As someone who was born in Quebec and came to Saskatchewan in 1979 -- someone who studied closely a number of significant private correspondance pieces that John G. Diefenbaker left behind for posterity -- I get of sense of the "Chief" being a good-hearted man who came into office more closely aligned with Eisenhower's views than those of Kennedy, but who also kept Canada's interests at heart. Maybe the time has come for political scientists and historians to look at Dief's contribution to Canada through a fresh lens.

Similarly, I believe that Allan Blakeney's legacy is not that dissimilar to Dief's in this way: Blakeney helped make Canada a better place by being himself, a humble public servant who never lost sight of his public service duties. This is something that has influenced every Saskatchewan Premier and political  leader since Blakeney, in my view. I would venture to say that Grant Devine, Roy Romanow, Elwin Hermanson, Lorne Calvert and our current Premier, Brad Wall, have been inspired to some extent by the same principles as Diefenbaker and Blakeney in how their public duties ended up being carried out.

Blakeney's legagy is one where:
  • the politics of honesty, transparency and authentic electoral engagement prevailed.  
  • where insignificant attempts to create a society where the beliefs of a few can overshadow fundamental democratic right of the majority are doomed.
  • reasoned approches where building better communities that protect individual freedoms -- and nurture rather than destroy the things that make a diffence in our collective lives -- are always the first option.
I miss "Dief" -- although I may not have agreed with him on a regular basis had I been around during his times, had I met him while he was alive. I respect his efforts, most notably in helping the Bill of Rights come into being. That historical document celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Even Pierre Elliot Trudeau had this to say about Dief, according to the Toronto Star:

"I was struck,” Pierre Trudeau said, “by his vigorous defence of human rights and individual liberties. The Bill of Rights remains a monument to him.”

Soon political scientists will start taking another look at Blakeney's own legacy. I will miss Allan Blakeney because seeing him at work at a time when Quebec sovereignty efforts tended to be a simpler story than is today helped me realize that perhaps I did not quite have the grasp of Canada I should have until I had met Blakeney.

Pictured as a technocrat by many former media colleagues and political analysts, his legacy is likely, in coming years, to be measured through in-depth investigation of dedicated public policy contributions, personal acts of kindness and honest willingness to play the best cards dealt to him on Saskatchewan's behalf, and ultimately, for all Canadian citizens. That is how I will remember Allan Blakeney: a truly worthy Canadian citizen.