Political Leadership and Democracy in Manitoba: The Roblin Era and Beyond

Article excerpt

The following was the 2011 Templeton Lecture on Democracy, given on 4 April 2011 at St. John's College at the University of Manitoba. Dr. Thomas" lecture was held in conjunction with a daylong conference entitled "A Duff Roblin Legacy: Enhancing Civic Engagement in Manitoba." Eds.

Let me begin with a gigantic understatement. It is truly a great honour to have been asked to deliver the Templeton Lecture on Democracy, especially when the lecture is being given as part of a daylong event examining the policy legacy of the Honourable Duff Roblin.


It was my great good fortune to know both Carson Templeton who inspired and endowed the lecture series and Duff Roblin who provided the lead funding and allowed his name to be attached to the position of the Roblin Professor of Government, a position which I held for a decade.

As an original member of the organizing committee for the Templeton Lecture, I found it wonderful to encounter the public-spirited initiative, imagination, curiosity and generosity of Carson Templeton. There was always a twinkle in his eyes when we talked about the state of democracy in Canada and elsewhere. Knowing his aspirations for the lecture series and the stature of past lecturers, I have tried my best to prepare some remarks that he would find interesting and that are worthy of this occasion.

Turning to Duff Roblin, my first awareness of him as a leader occurred when I left a new high school in East Kildonan in 1961 and headed off to a growing University of Manitoba. For me this represented far more than a bus ride across the city. As the first-ever member of my family to attend university, the experience provided me with the knowledge, skills and aspirations to have a rich and fulfilling life. As happened for thousands of other young Manitobans from that period, so my life, too, has been a product of the social investments and opportunities created by the Roblin governments of the late 1950s and most of the 1960s.

This indirect, historical connection came to mind in 2000 when I was very fortunate to be appointed as the first Duff Roblin Professor of Government. This appointment was the highlight of my academic career. Even before this honour was bestowed on me, I regarded Duff Roblin as the greatest Premier this province has ever had. In the many recent celebrations of his life there has, in my opinion, been insufficient recognition that he was also a thoughtful, enlightened and influential statesman on the national, political stage. I always felt that having his name on my business card and being introduced here and across the country as the Roblin Professor of Government gave me credibility beyond what I had earned. In addition to the symbolism of the title, there were also the very generous material benefits of reduced teaching, the opportunity to collaborate with exceedingly bright young Roblin Graduate Fellowship holders, and the financial resources to conduct research and to stage events. Holding the professorship made the past decade the most productive and satisfying of my 40-plus years (nearly 50 if you count student days) at the University of Manitoba. I owe a great deal of whatever I have achieved to Duff Roblin, his governments and his friends who supported the establishment of the professorship. On this public occasion, I am pleased to say thank you, which hardly seems adequate.

Before discussing Roblin's political leadership in the context of Manitoba democracy, let me suggest that Duff and Carson Templeton had important values and beliefs in common. Both were individuals of outstanding character and integrity. They were wonderful "citizens" in the broadest meaning of that term. They believed in and lived by such virtues as responsibility, duty, loyalty, integrity, respect for others and commitment to the collective good of society. Both were deeply interested in the ongoing dialogue over the ideas and public purposes which should guide change and progress within a pluralistic, democratic society. …