Pawley offers context on recent Manitoba history

Above, former NDP cabinet minister Wilson Parasiuk (left) and Pawley in the legislature. On the cover, Pawley heads to the podium after his election as NDP leader in 1979.


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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/04/2011 (4195 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Keep True

A Life in Politics

By Howard Pawley

University of Manitoba Press, 278 pages, $28


When Howard Pawley’s Manitoba NDP government was defeated on a budget vote in 1988 due to a member of his own caucus, it was the end of a political era.

This event triggered Pawley’s retirement from politics, an NDP leadership race with a young Gary Doer as the victor, and a subsequent provincial victory for Gary Filmon’s Progressives Conservatives, who would remain in power until 1999.

Pawley’s memoirs, Keep True, span three decades of political activity reaching back to the late 1950s. Though far from scintillating in its style — it sometimes plods along like a campaign speech in a stuffy hotel room — this book is a welcome addition to the province’s political record.


It provides ample material for those seeking to better understand our recent history, especially in relation to Autopac, the French-language issue, dealings with former prime minister Brian Mulroney (whom Pawley despises) and how things spun out of control for the budget defeat in 1986.

Following the surprise victory of Ed Schreyer and the NDP in 1969, Pawley was responsible for delivering on a long-standing party promise: to convert the province’s private automobile insurance system into what is now Manitoba Public Insurance.

The issue was a lightning rod and could easily have caused the collapse of the new Schreyer government if not for the support of Larry Desjardins, who was elected as a Liberal in St. Boniface.

Pawley, now 76, writes in a diligent and chronological fashion. Originally from Ontario, he inherited an interest in politics from his parents, who relocated the family to Manitoba.

During the late 1950s, he was active in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the predecessor to the NDP. An ardent opponent of the efforts of organized labour and such party stalwarts as Stanley Knowles to transform the Manitoba CCF into the “New Party,” Pawley remained with the NDP in spite of his early misgivings.

Pawley in the legislature.

He ran what was to become a successful law practice in Stonewall and later in Selkirk. His political career began with campaigns in ridings he had no chance of winning.

In 1969, after losses at both the federal and provincial level and while recovering from a serious automobile accident, Ed Schreyer appeared at Pawley’s bedside to plead that he run in the riding of Selkirk, where no one thought he had a chance.

Much of the 1969 campaign was spent in his hospital bed while his wife, Adele, did all the legwork. Due to her hard work and poor campaigning by the other two parties, Pawley was elected.

Although he does not discuss this, one wonders if perhaps Adele should also have run for the NDP in subsequent provincial elections.

In Keep True, Pawley discusses his successful fight to introduce public automobile insurance, as well as his less-than-successful handling of the French-language issue and his soured relations with Mulroney over the awarding of the CF-18 maintenance contract to a Quebec firm instead of to Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg.

He also discusses his perspectives on the Meech Lake Accord and the untimely fall of his government in 1988 due to Jim Walding’s decision to vote against his own party’s budget.

While not declaring outright that Walding colluded with the PCs, Pawley notes that the opposition appeared to know something the NDP did not on the day of the budget vote, including the fact that many PC MLAs’ spouses gathered in the visitor’s gallery to watch the event unfold.

At the time of the government’s defeat, and afterwards, allegations were made (and never substantiated) that Walding was bribed to vote against his party.

Pawley paints a similar picture to that found in Ian Stewart’s 2009 account of the event, Just One Vote. Simply put, the easily disgruntled Walding did not need to be bribed to demonstrate his growing disdain for Pawley and the NDP.

It is with regard to his dealings with Mulroney over the CF-18 contract that Pawley reveals his strongest emotions. Here we get a play-by-play account of how Pawley was repeatedly promised that the awarding of the CF-18 contract would be conducted fairly.

The PM’s attitude toward Pawley became venomous, and Pawley then had to deal with Mulroney on other issues, including constitutional reform. One can’t help thinking that Pawley could have been craftier in his dealings with Mulroney and others in Ottawa.

Former NDP cabinet minister Wilson Parasiuk (left) and Pawley.

This is not a political potboiler. There are no salacious stories and few amusing ones. About the most personal thing we learn is why Pawley refuses to eat chicken to this day.

For more detail, one has to turn to Herb Schulz’s account of the Schreyer years, A View from the Ledge, or the more recent Tales from the Backroom by Michael Decter, who served as Pawley’s senior civil servant.

Pawley has little to say about more recent events that occurred since he moved on to teaching political science at Windsor University.

He criticizes Bob Rae’s tenure as Ontario’s NDP premier and the British Labour Party’s Tony Blair for abandoning their social democratic principles. Judging by his choice of title, Keep True, Pawley must feel that at least he has stuck to these principles.

But his views about more recent NDP provincial governments or Jack Layton’s federal NDP are nowhere to be found. Have they kept true? Pawley is, perhaps diplomatically, silent on such matters.


Christopher Adams is a vice-president at Probe Research and the author of Politics in Manitoba: Parties, Leaders and Voters.

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