My friend Allan Blakeney, the former premier of Saskatchewan, died in April 2011 at age 85. I describe him as a friend and he was, although I am aware that he had many friends of longer duration and also many admirers. As a CBC Radio host, I interviewed him on numerous occasions but did not know him well. As you will see here, all of that was to change.
Allan Blakeney was an incredibly good premier who was on office for 11 years between 1971 and 1982. After his rout at the hands of the Conservatives in 1982, he stayed on to lead his rump of eight MLAs, rebuilding the party and fighting another election in 1986. The NDP won in the popular vote although not in the seat count, but the party was back as a credible force in opposition and he could take his leave. I was co-hosting CBC Radio’s morning program in Saskatchewan by then and shortly before he left the legislature I went over with a sound technician and taped a 30-minute interview with him. We broadcast a much-edited version of it. I remember several things from that interview. One is that he appeared more relaxed than I had ever seen him. Another was his saying when we had finished the interview that he wished journalists would work in this kind of depth more often. It was a comment that was to remain with me.
In the spring of 1988, I contacted him and said I was interested in writing a political biography. I asked if he would agree to some conditions. One, that he provide me access to the papers that he had deposited with the Saskatchewan Archives Board. Secondly, I asked if he would write a letter that I could provide to prospective interviewees, saying that he was cooperating with the project and would have no objection to them talking to me. Thirdly, I said that while I would be vigorous in accuracy and fact checking, I did not want to show the manuscript to him prior to publication. He agreed to all of the conditions and was, predictably, as good as his word.
In June and July of 1988, I conducted about a dozen taped interviews with him at a townhouse that he and his wife Anne bought when they gave up their home in Regina. Each interview lasted for about three hours and was punctuated about half way through by our stopping for tea, served with lemon in his case. Anne, who studiously avoided intruding upon our space during the interview sessions, would join us for tea. I discovered that behind her outward reserve there existed a friendly and gracious person. The interviews were lengthy and unhurried. There were no tell-all tales about his former caucus and cabinet colleagues, although I did get some of that information from the approximately 100 other interviews that I undertook for the book.
Civil servants and even cabinet ministers in the Blakeney government were always apprehensive about briefing the premier because they would be grilled and cross-examined by one who usually knew more in detail about their proposals than they did. That tension was not much in evidence during our interviews, although he would challenge or correct me on facts if he thought I had them wrong. He could also be impish. On one occasion I asked if he would mind my asking who he had supported for the federal NDP leadership in 1988. “No, I don’t mind your asking,” he said and paused, “but I’m not going to tell you.”
My book, Promises to Keep: A Political Biography of Allan Blakeney, was published in September 1989. By that time, my wife Martha and I had moved with our young children to Ottawa. Three of the four Blakeney offspring lived in Ottawa as well and Allan and Anne always visited them over Christmas. We began in the early 1990s to hold a house party each year in the Christmas season. We invited Allan and Anne to one of the first and after that they came every year but one. They were good company and our friends enjoyed them.
We found, as old friends of Allan’s had told me when I researched the biography, that he liked sing-alongs. He and Anne certainly enjoyed singing carols and he seemed to remember all of the lyrics. He had grown up steeped in a Baptist tradition in Nova Scotia. He retained a fondness for that background and a respect for religious faith, although he was always cautious about expressing those sentiments publicly for fear he would be seen to be using religion for political purposes.
When I talked on the phone to Anne and Allan in November 2010, they told me that he had cancer and had lost a good deal of his energy, but that they would be coming to Ottawa for Christmas. I suggested that they might not want to attend a party if his health did not allow it. “Oh no, I want to come,” he said. “This being sick is boring.” They did come and they sang the same old songs with us. I mentioned to our guests that they had Allan (and others) to thank for the fact that they do not have to reach for their wallets when they go to the doctor. That led to a flurry of questions and Allan held forth with a few stories from the Saskatchewan doctors’ strike in 1962. He was deeply involved on the government side in that dispute and became health minister soon after.
I was in Saskatoon in March 2011 and visited with Anne and Allan. He looked gaunt and was obviously weak but he was entirely lucid. As I was leaving, I said to him: “I am pleased that I decided to write that biography.” “So am I,” he said. “It led to a warm friendship.” Those are parting words that I will always cherish.