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Larry Desjardins in 1981. (Jim Haggarty/The Canadian Press/Jim Haggarty/The Canadian Press)
Larry Desjardins in 1981. (Jim Haggarty/The Canadian Press/Jim Haggarty/The Canadian Press)

Gentle giant of Manitoba politics championed French-language rights Add to ...

Larry Desjardins was the burly Manitoba health minister who resigned in 1988 rather than allow Dr. Henry Morgentaler to open an abortion clinic in Winnipeg and whose departure from cabinet contributed to the subsequent defeat of Howard Pawley’s NDP government. A devout Roman Catholic and a champion of French-language minority rights, Desjardins was also the political kingmaker who in 1969 enabled Ed Schreyer to form the province’s first NDP government.

Desjardins, who died on Feb. 8, at the age of 88, held a number of portfolios during the three decades he sat in the legislature. He was also the first chairman of the Manitoba Lottery Commission.

“He was like a heavy mass around which light waves bend, 240 pounds of raw emotion, and an independent, vitriolic, sensitive, self-confident brawler,” is the way author Herb Schultz described him in The View From The Ledge, a history of Schreyer’s seven years as premier.

“He had a huge impact on shaping modern Manitoba,” Schreyer who went on to become Governor-General, told The Globe and Mail. “He was there on the ground when we were in the process of introducing major, ground-breaking legislation, not cosmetic stuff. For example, we were the first in Canada to introduce homecare. The two issues closest to his heart were restoring French-language rights to Manitoba, and funding for parochial schools. Larry helped draft the bill which in 1970, Manitoba’s centennial year, ended 90 years of discrimination and indecision against Franco-Manitobans. He also helped us bring in Autopac, the public automobile insurance scheme.”

Laurent Louis Desjardins was born in St. Boniface on March 15, 1923. He was educated at St. Boniface College and at St. Paul’s College. His nickname “lefty Larry,” had nothing to do with his political leanings, but to his prowess as a left-handed pitcher with the St. Boniface Juveniles. A natural athlete, Desjardins played amateur hockey, then professional football with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. During the Second World War he enlisted in the navy and served aboard HMCS St. Boniface. After the war he studied at the Cincinnati College of Embalming and returned to Manitoba to work in the family-owned funeral business which his grandfather, Antoine, had started in 1906.

His political career began in 1951 when he was elected to St. Boniface city council. He won election to the Manitoba Legislature as a Liberal in 1959 and for 10 years remained in opposition. When Ed Schreyer fell one seat short of majority in 1969 Desjardins agreed to support him on the understanding that Schreyer would make the effort to redress French-language grievances, which had divided Manitoba for almost a century. He officially joined the government in 1971 and was given the culture portfolio. In 1972 Schreyer introduced legislation to study funding for parochial schools but the bill was defeated in a free vote in the legislature. Desjardins had a sharp wit, and in debate gave as good as he got. Once, when a member suggested he would rather die than see a certain piece of legislation pass, Desjardins whipped out a tape measure and quipped, “before you do, can I interest you in a pre-arranged funeral?”

Desjardins lost his seat by one vote in the 1973 provincial election. The results were, however, were overturned and he retained it in the subsequent by-election. He was then appointed Health Minister. By the time Schreyer’s government was defeated in 1977, Desjardins was dean of the legislature. When the NDP under Howard Pawley were returned to office in 1981, Desjardins again was named to the health portfolio with responsibility for fitness and amateur sport. Desjardins had often clashed with his cabinet colleagues over the party’s support for abortion. After the 1988 Supreme Court ruling, which said provinces could no longer restrict a woman’s right to have an abortion, Desjardins resigned in protest. His departure left the Pawley government with a one-seat majority in the 57-seat house. When Jim Walding, a disgruntled NDP backbencher voted with the opposition against the NDP’s budget, Pawley’s government fell.

“Larry did not intend to contribute to our defeat, but he did precipitate it by resigning when he did. He left us in a precarious position,” Pawley told The Globe and Mail. “He was very principled and expressed his religious beliefs quite strongly. His principles were faith-based, but, politically, his resignation was ill-timed.”

Although Desjardins was a New Democrat provincially he remained a Liberal federally. He supported Lloyd Axworthy’s successful campaign to win a seat in the House of Commons in 1979. “He was big and boisterous and a good guy to get along with,” said Axworthy who is today president of the University of Winnipeg. “I always thought he was the ultimate Liberal. He was the ultimate parliamentary gentleman who worked to improve the social welfare of the community.”

Desjardins served as general manager of the St. Boniface Jr. Canadians and was a scout for the Montreal Canadiens. He was inducted into Manitoba’s sports hall of fame in 1990. Desjardins led a review of Manitoba’s lottery commission in the 1990s and argued against expanding casinos in the province. “They’ve got music, lights and everything works on your mind, even some kind of perfume that gets you excited,” he explained. “When I was minister, I allowed only one casino, and it was open for only so many hours, and not open all night.”

Senator Rod Zimmer, who was vice-president of communications and marketing for the Manitoba Lotteries Commission when Desjardins was in charge remembered him as “a gentle giant. He was a good listener, he gave good direction, he had a sound business sense.”

He leaves two daughters from his first marriage and his second wife Malvina, whom he married in 1972 and his step-son. He was predeceased by his first wife and two of their daughters.

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