Remembering my friend Allan Blakeney

By Dennis Gruending

Dennis Gruending with Allan BlakeneyMy friend Allan Blakeney, the former premier of Saskatchewan, died recently at age 85. I describe him as a friend and he was, although I am aware that he had many friends of longer duration and also many admirers. I was an adolescent when he was involved as a young cabinet minister in giving us medicare in 1962. By 1971, when he became premier, I was a newspaper reporter and my specialty at the time was in covering agriculture, not politics. Later on I became a CBC Radio host and interviewed him on numerous occasions but did not know him well. His closer relationships with journalists were with some of the veteran political reporters. He played small chip poker regularly with a number of them over a period of years and he almost always left with the loot in his pocket.

He was a remarkably good premier even though the hand-pumping side of politics did not come easily to him. Although he liked people and was genial and quick witted in private, his public persona was one of someone buttoned up and cautious. He told me in an interview after he left politics that when he was premier he kept in mind the image of a giant reel-to-reel tape that was always recording. He did not want to commit any embarrassing bloopers that would threaten his government and its social democratic projects.

Potash takeover

I was working for CBC Radio by 1975, when the foreign-owned potash companies decided to go on strike against the province. They did not like the NDP’s increased royalties so they stopped paying their taxes and took the government to court. Allan stunned the industry and pretty well everyone else by introducing legislation enabling the province to buy out half of the industry. It was an incredibly bold move and this time the poker game was anything but penny ante. He rode out the political firestorm and by the time the potash dust had settled, the province had purchased about 40 per cent of the mining capacity and had created the crown-owned Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan.  A major part of Allan’s project as premier was to use crown corporations to participate in resource development in potash, oil and uranium.

That gave the government some equity ownership and a larger share of the rent from the resources. He used those revenues to create a variety of programs, including a pharmacare program, children’s dental care, community based schools and public housing in poor urban areas. During the years after his defeat in 1982, when neo-conservatism, privatization and deregulation became an almost religious mantra, Allan remained unapologetic about his preferred model of a mixed economy where the government played a significant, but not over-riding role.

Exit interview and biography

After his rout at the hands of the Conservatives in 1982, Allan stayed around to lead his rump of eight MLAs, rebuilding the party and fighting another election in 1986.  The NDP won in the popular vote although not in the seat count, but the party was back as a credible force in opposition and he could take his leave. I was co-hosting CBC Radio’s morning program in Saskatchewan by then and shortly before Allan left the legislature I went over with a sound technician and taped a 30-minute interview with him. We broadcast a much-edited version of it. I remember several things from that interview. One is that he appeared more relaxed than I had ever seen him. Secondly, when I asked a question, perhaps with a negative twist, about Grant Devine, his successor as premier, Allan looked at me then shook his head and waved his arms like a referee disallowing a goal. He did not want to make a negative comment about an opponent. The third thing I remember is his saying when we had finished the interview that he wished journalists would work in this kind of depth more often. It was a comment that was to remain with me.

In the spring of 1988, I contacted him and said I was interested in writing a political biography. I asked if he would agree to some conditions. One, that he provide me access to the papers that he had deposited with the Saskatchewan Archives Board. Secondly, I asked if he would write a letter that I could provide to prospective interviewees, saying that he was cooperating with the project and would have no objection to them talking to me. Thirdly, I said that while I would be vigorous in accuracy and fact checking, I did not want to show the manuscript to him prior to publication. He agreed to all of the conditions and was, predictably, as good as his word.

Leisurely chats

In June and July of 1988, I conducted about a dozen taped interviews with him at a townhouse that he and his wife Anne bought when they gave up their home in Regina. Each interview lasted for about three hours and was punctuated about half way through by our stopping for tea, served with lemon in his case. Anne, who studiously avoided intruding upon our space during the interview sessions, would join us for tea and I discovered that behind her outward reserve there existed a friendly and gracious person. In the interviews, I learned much about Saskatchewan’s recent history that I had previously understood in only superficial form. The interviews were lengthy and unhurried but Allan did draw boundaries. There were no tell-all tales about his former caucus and cabinet colleagues, although I did get some of that information from the approximately 100 other interviews that I undertook for the book.

Civil servants and even cabinet ministers in the Blakeney government were always apprehensive about briefing the premier because they would be grilled and cross-examined by one who usually knew more in detail about their proposals than they did. That tension was not much in evidence during our interviews, although he would challenge or correct me on facts if he thought I had them wrong. He could also be impish. On one occasion I asked if he would mind my asking who he had supported for the federal NDP leadership in 1988. “No, I don’t mind your asking,” he said and paused, “but I’m not going to tell you.”

Promises to Keep

My book, Promises to Keep: A Political Biography of Allan Blakeney, was published in September 1989. Allan was out of the province by then on a two-year teaching stint at the Osgoode Hall law school in Toronto. I sent him a copy of the book slightly in advance of its release. Some time later I called him and asked for his reaction to it. “I could quibble about some things,” he said, “but overall I think it was a fair piece of work.” I took that as wild praise. People who worked for Allan often described him as being stingy with compliments. He thought that the opportunity to do interesting work was its own reward.

By the time the book appeared in 1989, my wife Martha and I had moved with our young children to Ottawa. Three of the four Blakeney offspring lived in Ottawa as well and Allan and Anne always visited them over Christmas. We began in the early 1990s to hold a house party each in December to visit with friends, enjoy good food and wine, and sing carols. We invited Allan and Anne to one of the first and after that they came every year but one. They were good company and our friends enjoyed them. One year a guest, who was originally from Illinois and had never lived in Saskatchewan, asked Allan what his connection was to the province. “Oh, I used to work for the government there,” Allan said. Our guest’s husband, who had lived in Saskatchewan, began to pound his forehead with the palm of his hand. Allan had a good laugh at that one.

Sing-alongs and friends

We found, as old friends of Allan’s had told me when I researched the biography, that he liked sing-alongs.  He and Anne certainly enjoyed singing carols and he seemed to remember all of the lyrics. He had grown up steeped in a Baptist tradition in Nova Scotia. He retained a fondness for that background and a respect for religious faith, although he was always cautious about expressing those sentiments publicly for fear he would be seen to be using religion for political purposes.

When I talked on the phone to Anne and Allan in November 2010, they told me that he had cancer and had lost a good deal of his energy, but that they would be coming to Ottawa for Christmas. I suggested that they might not want to attend a party if his health did not allow it. “Oh no, I want to come,” he said. “This being sick is boring.” They did come and they sang the same old songs with us. I mentioned to our guests that they had Allan (and others) to thank for the fact that they do not have to reach for their wallets when they go to the doctor. That led to a flurry of questions and Allan held forth with a few stories from the doctors’ strike in 1962. In a follow up visit over lunch a few days later, Allan said that his cancer was serious and worrying. Then he paraphrased from Tommy Douglas when he, too, was dealing with cancer. “Tommy said, don’t feel sorry for me because I have had some good innings. I feel the same way.”

I was in Saskatoon in March and visited with Anne and Allan. He looked gaunt and was obviously weak but he was entirely lucid. “I am pleased that I decided to write that biography,” I said to him just before I left. “So am I,” he said. “It led to a warm friendship.” Those are parting words that I will always cherish.

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

11 thoughts on “Remembering my friend Allan Blakeney”

  1. Just a fabulous summary and an honest tribute to one of Sk’s finest visionaries! Thank you, Dennis.

  2. Beautiful, heartwarming – honouring a fine man, an important era of Canadina history and a friendship. Kinda crying here, Dennis

    Dennis replies: Me too. Thanks so much for the note.

  3. Dennis, this is lovely.You have brought to life both this man so many of us admired and the story of your friendship with him. It is such a moving tribute. I’m with Lona Hegeman, I cried.
    Janet Lunn

  4. Thanks, Dennis. A lovely tribute. I wish I could be there for the memorial next weekend.

    Dennis replies: Thanks Melissa. We won’t be able to be in Regina for the tribute to Allan either but I am sure many people will attend. Keep well.

  5. Well told, Dennis! I have much more forehead to pound with the palm of my hand these many years later (!), but I also remember how Anne Blakeney recovered so graciously from that awkward moment, saying, “Well, we were originally from Nova Scotia, really!”
    Gracious and smart is a very appealing combination, seen in both members of that kind couple!

  6. Thanks so much for this Dennis. I have very fond memories of Allan Blakeney coming to Marian Centre every Christmas while he was premier in the ’70’s to serve dinner to the men who came along with Archbishop Halpin and other VIPs. He exemplified the best of the Prairie spirit for me..unpretentious, generous, genuinely concerned for one’s neighbour. It was a deep privilege to have met him and known him that way. I always admired him. He really was a statesman in the best sense of the word. And it turns out he could be fun at a party. Double gift! May his memory live in our hearts forever.

  7. Dennis, this was a very moving and thoughtful account to read on election day in Canada. I found it truly inspiring. It makes me want to read the biography to learn more about this fine man. I’m very sorry for your loss, but thank you for sharing these thoughts.

  8. A moving and beautiful view of a life well-lived and a warm, motivating friendship. I deeply appreciated that Mr. Blakeney was not willing to make negative comments about his opponents — a life lesson for us all. Dennis, I am very sorry for your loss.

  9. Wonderfully told, Dennis. Brought back so many fond memories. I loved the expression “buttoned up.” It so perfectly described the premier I covered for some time with the Regina LeaderPost. Reflecting back, as a young green journalist, I certainly learned a lot from this amazing man.

    Dennis replies: Thanks Yvonne for your comment. You would have many stories to tell about your time as a political reporter in Regina. I’m sure some political types there still quake in fear at the mere mention of your name!

  10. Dennis, Thank you for this lovely blog on your friend, Allan Blakeney. My deepest sympathies.
    And, now I’ll look for Promises to Keep which I’ve not yet read.

  11. Hi Dennis. Wonderful tribute!
    I attended the celebration of Blakeney’s life in Regina yesterday. It was a moving event. Many former premiers (his colleagues)and other dignitaries spoke, highlighting his many achievements and personal qualities. Roy Romanow MC’d and did a particularly fine job as did Hugh Blakeney. It was both joyful and sad. I felt privileged to share it. Some wonderful quotes from your book were included in the official program.
    Love, Alma

    Dennis replies: Thans Alma for your kind note. I was sorry to miss the service for Allan but had a work assignment that did not alllow me to be in Regina. 

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