Ed Tchorzewski's nickname was "Torch." It played on his challenging surname, but it also seemed like an appropriate reference to the symbolic torch he held in Saskatchewan politics for almost 40 years, serving the provincial and federal New Democrats as an MLA, cabinet minister, deputy premier, provincial secretary, chief of staff and political adviser. Known for a fast, lethal wit and a strategic mind, he was first elected in 1971, and at the age of 28, became one of the NDP's youngest ministers.
He had the particular distinction of being the last finance minister in Allan Blakeney's government and the first finance minister of Roy Romanow's. In the latter position, he was hailed for bringing Saskatchewan back from the brink of bankruptcy, although some of his measures, such as higher taxes, spending cuts and hospital closures, were initially opposed by his party and the public.
Later in his career, Mr. Tchorzewski left elected office and became president of the federal New Democrats. In 1992, he was recruited as chief of staff for leader Alexa McDonough.
"I can't think of anyone in recent Saskatchewan politics who has been involved in public life as long as Ed was," said Fraser Needham, editor of The Commonwealth newspaper. "Politicians and backroom players come and go, but Ed was involved with the Saskatchewan NDP and public service in one capacity or another for almost 40 years."
Edwin Laurence Tchorzewski was the third youngest of nine children born into a struggling Polish Canadian family in Alvena, northeast of Saskatoon. The family moved north to Hudson Bay, Sask., a few years later and joined a fledging community of grain farmers at a historic fur-trading post established by the Hudson's Bay Co. in 1757.
Mr. Tchorzewski had a humble start in life, living in a tiny three-bedroom house with no electricity - years later, he told stories of how all the threadbare clothes came down the sibling line to him. But he won early distinctions in both local schools and, as a young man, travelled to university in Saskatoon. He was the only university graduate among his siblings.
"He grew up poor in Hudson Bay," said his son, Dion Tchorzewski. "... There was something that drove him, with no real role models in his family, to finish high school and then to travel five hours to the University of Saskatchewan."
Mr. Tchorzewski graduated in 1969 with a bachelor's degree in political science and a teacher's certificate. While in teachers' college, he met Shirley Stasiuk, and in 1966, they were married in Preeseville, Sask., during a torrential rainfall. They went on to have four children. After briefly teaching in the separate school system, he shifted into politics. In 1971, he was elected as a New Democrat in Humboldt, then appointed a year later as minister of culture and youth and minister for consumer affairs in Mr. Blakeney's government. He became known as one of the NDP's golden boys, and was re-elected in 1975 and again in 1978, holding several portfolios along the way.
Indeed, he was a non-stop workhorse and worried constantly about the impact of his government's measures. He felt guilty if he took the odd Sunday off. According to Mr. Needham, Mr. Tchorzewski's longevity and social impact was due in part to his flexibility as a thinker. "Many backroom players tend to be wedded to a certain framework of ideas," he said, "and once these ideas grow stale, so do they."
In 1982, however, Mr. Tchorzewski was defeated as the Blakeney government was replaced with Grant Devine's Conservatives. But in a 1985 by-election, he was re-elected in the constituency of Regina Northeast. He reportedly knocked on the doors of every household in the riding, paying particular attention to dwellings tucked away in tiny hamlets and remote neighbourhoods, the kind of places for which he long had affinity. "As kids, in the summer, we would constantly be at some sports day or a fair of some kind in the littlest towns," his son said.
In 1987, Mr. Tchorzewski was front runner to take over leadership of the Saskatchewan NDP from Mr. Blakeney. He decided to throw his weight behind Mr. Romanow instead. "We both thought someone like us should be the next leader of the New Democratic Party," said Mr. Romanow, who was ultimately acclaimed as leader and won the 1991 provincial election. "I can't tell you how glad I was to know that someone like Ed Tchorzewski would be working as part of my team, and not against me." Mr. Tchorzewski was elected in the new constituency of Regina Dewdney.
In 1991, he was appointed minister of finance and deputy premier and is said to have brought Saskatchewan out of a nearly billion-dollar deficit left behind by the Conservatives. Mr. Tchorzewski said debt was crushing the province.
"Saskatchewan stands at a critical crossroads," he said in 1992. "Today, all of our community will have to pay for the mistakes of the past. The mortgage has come due." His measures were unpopular and included a fiscally tough budget loaded with tax increases, spending cuts and cuts to social programs.
While going through his father's journals from that time, his son recently learned about his father's anguish about the budget. "The last two weeks have been long and hard," he wrote. "Phase II of budget finalization was a heart-wrenching exercise. Our task ahead is almost impossible, but we must have the courage to do it. Although each day I feel that I will not be able to handle it, I guess I know that I must, to leave now would let a lot of people down."
In 1993, just as he was putting the finishing touches on the controversial budget, Mr. Tchorzewski developed shingles. At the time, one reporter said the open sores on his breast burned so badly that he wasn't even able to put on a dress shirt. He decided to resign as finance minister and take a less demanding position: provincial secretary for the NDP, which he kept until 1995. He also became the associate minister of finance.
When Mr. Romanow's government was re-elected in 1995, Mr. Tchorzewski returned in a more permanent way, representing Regina Northeast (the former Regina Dewdney) and holding the position of deputy premier. He also continued in his position as provincial secretary. But later in the year, he resigned these positions. Some critics suggested it was due to a rift with the premier; others pointed to health and personal reasons. His journals describe the stress he experienced during this time.
"On several occasions I have been on the verge of resigning because of the pressure, personal doubts ... I miss spending time with my family. I miss enjoying our nice home." He went from tireless workhorse to exhausted politician.
In 1995, he became president of the federal New Democrats. Two years later, he and Shirley moved to Ottawa, where he became chief of staff for Ms. McDonough's federal NDP. But they missed Saskatchewan, and returned to the Prairies after just nine months. In 2002, he became a special adviser to premier Lorne Calvert and executive officer of the provincial NDP. He co-chaired Mr. Calvert's re-election campaign in 2003.
During his last working years, Mr. Tchorzewski left politics and returned to his original career as a teacher, taking a job at St. Theresa Elementary School in Regina, perhaps grooming his own golden boys and girls for future Saskatchewan public service. He also found himself with time for children and grandchildren, and as he had long wished, he was finally able to put his feet up, coffee in hand, at the family's cabin at Crystal Lake, Sask.
Edwin Laurence Tchorzewski was born April 22, 1943, in Alvena, Sask. He died June 6, 2008, in Regina, from cancer. He was 65. He is survived by wife Shirley (Stasiuk) and children Dion, Raquel, Sharla and Shaunda. He also leaves mother Frances, seven siblings and nine grandchildren.