Allan Blakeney versus Stephen Harper: Nation builder versus nation destroyer

Politicians come and go but some go leaving a genuine legacy and that is the case with former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney who died yesterday at 85. Unlike too many ex-NDP premiers, he didn’t take on the job as ambassador to the US or get suckered into moderating some right-wing prime minister’s image by accepting some other appointment. He mostly withdrew from politics but occasionally engaged when he thought it was important enough.

One of those occasions was in response to Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s outrageous statement that Medicare was designed to deal with catastrophic illness only. Blakeney called a news conference along with other key figures in the creation of Saskatchewan’s Medicare program and put Chretien in his place. Medicare, said Blakeney, was always intended to be comprehensive – anything less was a violation of its basic principles.

Blakeney was unique amongst NDP premiers – many of whom got knocked off track by conservative bureaucrats who manipulated them with dozens of reasons why they couldn’t do what they had promised to do.

But Blakeney was a senior civil servant before he was a politician and there wasn’t a bureaucrat in the Saskatchewan civil service who could hold a candle to his intellect. He knew too much to be put off by spurious arguments about what was possible or impossible.

And he was fearless when it came to facing down the biggest resource companies in the country. He insisted that Saskatchewan receive 60% of the value of oil in royalties, a huge percentage compared to today’s blatant giveaway – Saskatchewan now gets something in the range of 14%. When the oil giants threatened to stop pumping Blakeney raised the bet – and threatened to charge them thousands of dollars a day for each well they closed down. The big, tough oil companies backed down. They had forgotten they couldn’t take the oil with them.

When the potash companies refused to pay higher royalties and threatened a decade of court battles, Blakeney nationalized them, creating a new source of revenue for the province. Tragically, the Conservative government of Grant Devine sold them off at less than half their value. Had they remained in provincial hands, Saskatchewan would have had billions in revenue for a whole new generation of social programs.

Blakeney wasn’t perfect and I remember writing fiercely critical articles on a number of issues where I thought he caved in too soon, or failed to follow through on commitments.

But he was a nation builder, a man who more than any modern political leader really understood the positive role government could play. He worried about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because, as he told me in an interview for an Ideas series, it is not just governments that violate citizens’ rights – corporations do, too. And he predicted that corporations would use the Charter by accessing their “persons” status to claim freedom of speech and other rights. He was right – they have done so, to the detriment of society and democracy.

Compare this amazing leader to the vicious, dishonest, sneering excuse for a leader we have as a prime minister today. Both intelligent men, one turned his brilliance to building a humane, egalitarian, and fair society in his province. The other is applying his intelligence to a project of diminishing a nation, crushing the opposition and slandering and bullying anyone who dares exercise their democratic rights.

The death of Blakeney represents the end of an era – one we should remember and recreate once we rid the country of our version of Vlad the Destroyer.

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