Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/9/2021 (244 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Gary Filmon navigated many choppy waters while premier of Manitoba between 1988 and 1999.
From the Meech Lake crisis to the Red River flood of 1997 to the loss of the Winnipeg Jets, Filmon contended with one historic event after another, never really having the time to put his thoughts on paper.
But Filmon had much more breathing room to reflect on his stint as an elected official after leaving politics in 2000, and even began writing a memoir midway through the 2010s.
Earlier this month, Filmon finally released his autobiography, entitled "Yes We Did: Leading in Turbulent Times," which aims to provide Manitobans with an inside look at his career in politics, as well as his upbringing and family life.
In a Wednesday afternoon conversation with the Sun, Filmon chatted about his writing process, his connection to Westman and his thoughts about how the world of politics has changed in the last 20 years.
The following is a transcription of that conversation, which has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
The Brandon Sun: When did you make the active decision to start writing your memoir? What brought about this decision in the first place?
Gary Filmon: It was about five years ago.
I had been having discussions with academics and journalists who said "nobody’s really written the history of the ’90s and your role in it" and "why are you leaving it to somebody else to tell?"
I was very busy, thankfully, with a new career that I had carved out doing some consulting and being on corporate boards and serving on the Security Intelligence Review Committee ... and I really couldn’t see myself devoting the time to it that it required.
But about five years ago, I started to write little anecdotes, as I would call them. They were just discussions and stories that were anywhere from four or five pages, to 30 or 40 pages when you got into some of the bigger items.
And I started to collect those and eventually I had 37 of these anecdotes written, and I thought "yeah, I think I’ve got the making of a book here."
So I worked with someone who provided me with some editorial advice and we got the anecdotes essentially put in chronological and topical order and we had the makings of a manuscript. And then it was just a matter of continuing the edit process until we felt it was readable.
SUN: What kind of previous writing experience did you draw on to make this 280-page volume a reality?
GF: I’ve always been an avid reader, all the way back to the time I was in junior high school … and that carried on through my life.
In doing that, I think I became a bit of an aficionado on the written word. And so I decided that I’d test my own skills and my own approach to writing and see whether or not anybody liked it.
So I showed some of the things that I had done to other people, whether they be friends or acquaintances or actually people with writing backgrounds.
And the positive response I got said to me that maybe I did have some writing ability. Therefore, I went forward with it.
SUN: So is this really your first big writing project?
I wrote a mini-book for my grandchildren about two years ago, which really formed what is the first couple chapters of (this new) book.
It was to tell them my history, so that they knew our family history and my own experiences as a child. They were fascinated by it. At least the ones who were old enough to be in high school or university loved it.
So that said to me, again, that there were the makings of a book here.
SUN: Having read parts of the book already, it features many anecdotes about both your family life and political career that are peppered with very specific details. So what kind of work went into recalling these details and putting them onto paper? Was it all memory or was there research involved in this process?
GF: It was a combination of the two.
I had a very vivid memory of everything I’ve written about. But I did a lot of fact-checking because many of the things that I’m talking about were covered by media, or were the result of reports or written recommendations or all those things that come to make policy issues.
I also met with former senior staff members (to check) their recollections against mine. So, ultimately, what you see is the product of the ways in which I wanted to verify that my memory was accurate.
SUN: Your anecdotes fluctuate between personal stories and stories about your political career. So between your personal stories (like about your wife’s cancer diagnosis) and political recollections (like the Meech Lake negotiations), what was the most difficult subject to write about?
GF: Emotionally, for sure, it was Janice’s cancer diagnosis and treatment and the effect that it had on me personally and on our family. For sure, that was the most emotional piece there.
The stories of many of the events I talked about, whether it’s Meech Lake, whether it’s the Flood of the Century, the loss of the Jets, they were examples of the really stressful things that I had to deal with and the kind of pressure that somebody in a leadership role is put under.
And, at the same time, recognizing that you do these things under the microscope of the public watching you and the media and what goes along with it makes it even more stressful.
SUN: You spent a couple chapters recalling your time working as an area manager for UMA Engineering in Southwestern Manitoba, and how the job helped you gain "an appreciation for our political leaders." In this sense, would it be accurate to say that the origins of your political career can be traced back to the Westman region and the time you spent living here?
GF: I think that’s accurate.
And the reason that it is accurate is that I really did not, as I explained in the book, come from a family who really spent any time with politics, aside from (championing) the sanctity of the vote. Because they had come from Eastern Europe, where they didn’t get a chance to vote, and it was not a very democratic place to live.
So it was not a natural thing in my family to be politically involved or active. And I suppose I became more and more involved as a result of observing those that I was dealing with in the Westman area.
I actually joined a political party for the first time when I lived in Brandon.
SUN: You mentioned in the book that one of your keys to election victory as a city councillor was face-to-face interactions with your voters. Do you think this is still a viable election strategy in the age of COVID, where we’re being encouraged to socially distance?
GF: That’s a difficult question, in that social media and all the different ways in which, electronically, people gain their information these days, would suggest that more and more people’s decisions are being made by the greater (social) media involvement in their lives.
I believe, still, that there is a certain level of comfort and credibility in the face-to-face approach to it.
So I still believe in either picking up the phone and talking to somebody or meeting them on their doorstep, and I think that has a great deal more power of persuasion even than the electronic means.
SUN: Throughout parts of the book, you emphasize the importance of maintaining a civil discourse with your political opponents and opposition party leaders. Given how polarized and partisan the world of politics seems right now, do you think this style of governing will die out in the future?
GF: It’s an interesting thing. I have spent more than 20 years getting myself out of active politics, so I don’t want anything that I say to be considered a criticism of those who are there today.
But I do believe that we did have much more collaboration, more consultation and friendly relationships with not only opponents but certainly people of different political stripes from across the country.
There was a level of collaboration and respect that I think probably doesn’t exist today.
SUN: What do you think happened? What changed that since you got out of office?
GF: It’s very difficult for me to judge what has caused that. I guess part of it is the tendency of people to speak through the filter of social media and all of that. That’s probably not as good as picking up the phone and having a straight conversation.
SUN: Do you have any predictions about how the current PC leadership race will go next month? Do you have any advice for whoever becomes the next premier?
GF: I’m going to be very careful to ensure that I stay out of any discussion about those things, just simply because I think it would probably be unfair to those who are in the contest and actively involved as politicians.
So I really won’t be making any comment on or giving any advice on the current circumstances.
SUN: To follow up on that a little bit, what do you think Brian Pallister’s legacy will be now that his run as premier has come to an end after five years?
GF: When I left politics, as I say in my book, and I was asked what my legacy will be, I said I’d let history decide that, and I would say the same for Brian or anybody else.
History will be the judge of what we do when we’re in public office. It’s not fair to make a judgment on the basis of current knowledge or current circumstances.
SUN: Is there anything else you wanted to add about this book or the work that went into writing it?
GF: I’ve been very happy that I did decide to do it.
It took a long time for me to make the decision to finally write about ... both my personal life and public life.
Having done it, I’m really happy that I did and I just hope it’s a contribution to the understanding of what life was like in the ’90s and the time leading up to that.
Filmon will be visiting Brandon on Sept. 22 to take part in a book launch at the Riverbank Discovery Centre. The event is scheduled to run from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Proof of vaccination will be required to attend.
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