Guest Commentary

Allan Blakeney, In Memoriam

Mister Douglas

(Editor’s note: Former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney died in 2011 at age 85. He was a Rhodes Scholar who served 30 years in public life, including a term as provincial Minister of Education in Tommy Douglas’ cabinet in 1960. In a January 16, 2008 interview with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan, Blakeney recalled his years with Douglas. Blakeney was candid and animated. Following is a transcription of his remarks.)

Tommy Douglas could be an unreasonable person and a son-of-a-bitch. My oh my, he could be a hard man to work for. He was no saint. Most saints in the classic lexicon of saints are quiet, gentle people without a backbone. Douglas was not this type. He knew who his enemies were. This was a fighter and he was willing to fight.

He didn’t do anything by halves or quarters. He wanted everything done now, but people forgave him; his anger was never personal. It was an expression of impatience. I didn’t have any trouble with Tommy but I knew many people who did.

When I was a public servant I called him Mr. Douglas in accordance with the custom. When I became part of the cabinet I called him Tommy, and he called me Allan. He was not as collegial as I was. As premier I tried to get all cabinet ministers to express their point of view before I waded in. Douglas was more direct than that. He was a little quick at making decisions, as though he didn’t want to waste time.

A friend tells the story of driving with Douglas on a gravel road, late for an evening meeting, and the car in front wouldn’t let them by. Finally Douglas leans out the window and tries to get the plate number on the car in front, uttering a few choice words. He had to be pulled back into the car.

He had what they call a Type-A personality, like he was on a mission to do what he thought should be done. He gathered people around him who he hoped were on this same mission: “Why aren’t we doing more?” “Why aren’t we getting this done?” People got used to Tommy. Many would say, “Oh, come off it, Tommy.” They tried to humour him a bit.

Tommy was good-tempered almost all the time and bad-tempered sometimes. He had a good sense of humour. He wasn’t so funny to deal with every day, but nobody on the platform was funnier than Tommy Douglas. He was an orator without peer in Canada, I would say.

He would give a speech to a crowd that disagreed with virtually everything he had to say: the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. And he’d warm them up with five, ten, a dozen jokes in succession till they got off their hands and began to laugh – first at him, then with him. Then he’d try to give them the message. He was good.

My wife died at a young age and left me with small children. After the funeral I saw Douglas in a hallway; he came over and said: “Oh, Allan, how are the children?” This is a pastoral technique of comforting someone who has suffered a tragedy, of underlining something that is good in their life – the children. It underlines the positive and makes you count your blessings. It’s a technique that is not obvious to a lot of people who simply accepted Douglas as a warm personality.

Douglas would have cared for my troubles, but the most he can give me is hope. When you’ve suffered a personal tragedy and begin to feel sorry for yourself, “Oh, the world has come down on me”, hope is a good basis for moving forward. We all have to move forward. That day, it’s what Douglas was doing with me.

Douglas had done this all his life. He was charismatic and formulated his message in a way that captured the ideas of ordinary people. Saskatchewan was terribly downcast after the 1930s and he gave them hope. He gave them a sense of a bright future. Human nature is often selfish: “Oh, there’s nothing we can do”. Douglas wouldn’t have that. He was the first to say, “We can do better.”

He was clearly the Number One premier Saskatchewan ever had. I don’t think it’s any contest. There aren’t any others who are in the same ballpark.

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