When Canada celebrated its centennial in 1967, I was a sophomore at the Globe and Mail and could name from memory the premiers of all ten provinces. They were W.A.C. Bennett (British Columbia), Ernest Manning (Alberta), Ross Thatcher (Saskatchewan), Duff Roblin (Manitoba), John Robarts (Ontario), Daniel Johnson (Quebec), Louis Robichaud (New Brunswick), Robert Stanfield (Nova Scotia), Alex Campbell (Prince Edward Island), and Joey Smallwood (Newfoundland). Sadly, I can’t manage this feat anymore (I’ve tried), and not just because my memory isn’t what it used to be. So what is it, then? Why, with rare exception, do the men and women who occupy the premiers’ offices today cast smaller shadows than their most accomplished predecessors?
At the time of Confederation, the country consisted of four provinces—Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia—none of whose first premiers made lasting impressions. In the years since, however, a few of those who came after have become, if not household names (we’re careless about our history in Canada), at least important enough to capture the attention of book publishers. Nearly all of the provinces are represented in this pantheon, which includes—in addition to the aforementioned Bennett, Manning, Robarts, Roblin, Stanfield, and Smallwood—such luminaries as Allan Blakeney, Robert Bourassa, William Davis, Tommy Douglas, Richard Hatfield, Peter Lougheed, Jean Lesage, Frank McKenna, Roy Romanow, Ed Schreyer, and Danny Williams. I’m sure I’ve overlooked a few others.
Some of these men were notable if only for the length of their tenures. Ernest Manning served as premier of Alberta for a quarter of a century, the second-longest term for a premier in Canadian history (a stalwart named George Murray governed Nova Scotia for twenty-six years). Smallwood and Bennett came close, at twenty-two and twenty, respectively. Since 1867, twenty-three premiers have held office for more than ten years in a row, which might suggest an era when provincial politics were less volatile. But it’s not that simple. Regional predilections come into play: Alberta, for example, has had only fourteen premiers since it joined Confederation in 1905, whereas British Columbia, which became a province in 1871, has had thirty-five (no wonder it’s hard to remember their names). And unforeseen events often enter into the equation: in periods of adversity—during recessions, say—electorates are more inclined to want a change of horses. In the end, a premier’s tenure is determined for the most part by the ability to convince voters that he or she knows the best way forward.
It’s called leadership, a quality Peter Lougheed had in spades. He was premier of Alberta for fourteen years, winning four elections, and by the time he retired in 1985 the Alberta Tories had a lock on the province that endures to this day. Lougheed was a political superstar; in 2012, the year he died, the Institute for Research on Public Policy named him the best premier of the past forty years. Like his nemesis Pierre Trudeau, the man responsible for the National Energy Program he so vehemently opposed, Lougheed was elegant, articulate, intelligent, innovative, and principled. The two also shared a love of country. Lougheed was a Canadian as well as an Albertan, a statesman as well as a politician. He believed that no region should succeed at the expense of another, and that a stronger West would make for a better Canada—ideas he passed on to Alison Redford, Alberta’s fourteenth premier and the subject of Katherine Ashenburg’s profile in this issue (“Her Way”).
Like Lougheed, Redford aspires to play a role beyond Alberta’s borders. She muses publicly about reaching out to the rest of the country to forge a national energy policy, to promote innovation in health care, and to create provincial economies that rely less on the extraction and export of resources. Whether she will succeed is another matter. It’s not easy for a premier—any premier—to pursue a Canadian agenda when the prime minister of the day keeps the national stage to himself. (While many of his predecessors held first ministers conferences almost annually, Stephen Harper hasn’t called one since 2008, preferring to deal with the premiers one on one.) Let’s also acknowledge that there’s more competition for the political limelight than ever before, the mayors of some of our major cities having built profiles as large—and, in a few cases, larger—than some of our more parochial premiers.
Still, I wouldn’t bet against Alison Redford. A few years ago, she was a long shot to succeed Ed Stelmach, whose name I struggled to remember. I’m having no trouble remembering hers.
This appeared in the April 2013 issue.
John Macfarlane is the editor and co-publisher of The Walrus.
Beata Kruszynski has been published by Lone Wolf, Uepa, and Wax Poetics magazines, as well as in The Walrus.