They are, depending who you listened to over the past few weeks, either the Silent 13 or the 13 Stooges. They have been accused of hiding behind "Velcro lips." They refused, it is said, to stand up for the province that elected them to federal office. They have been called "clueless and unhelpful." One letter writer compared electing them to "sending them into outer space."
But for all the attacks they sustained, there is little doubt among even their harshest critics that the massive BHP Billiton bid for Potash Corp. thrust these 13 people into a position of unusual importance.
They served as a conduit from the workshops and wheat fields of Saskatchewan to the halls of federal power, transmitting the discontent that spread across the province among those opposed to the deal. On Sunday, frustrated at its inability to convince the Conservative government in Ottawa that its proposed takeover would be of "net benefit" to Canada, BHP dropped its bid.
The decision came as a vindication of sorts for the Conservative Party, and especially to the men and women of the party's Saskatchewan caucus - a deeply right-wing group that includes preachers and farmers, a police officer and a geophysicist - and which holds all but one of the province's 14 seats in the House of Commons.
Their refusal to take a public stand in the weeks following BHP's Aug. 17 bid has made them the object of intense criticism at home. In the past few days, however, several other MPs have come forward to defend their "extremely large" contribution to the eventual decision to reject the deal. On at least three occasions, the Saskatchewan caucus met with Industry Minister Tony Clement, and individual MPs maintained daily contact with the minister. Several personally lobbied Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"We were very, very frustrated [at not]being able to speak out publicly when many people in our own ridings wanted us to do just that," said Regina MP Tom Lukiwski. His caucus colleagues, he said, "could have been charged criminally" had they publicly interfered with the process. Some in Saskatchewan have disagreed with that reading of the law, although the provincial government has said the MPs were right to stay silent.
Even so, Mr. Lukiwski said, "we were extremely active on the file. We were extremely vocal on the file and Minister Clement heard from all of the 13 MPs on several occasions loud and clear."
The MPs weren't the only ones with access to the ears of the powerful who were aware of the unease in Saskatchewan. Senator Pamela Wallin, the high-profile former broadcaster, visited her home province frequently in the run-up to the decision. She was impressed by the emotional attachment that people still feel for a company that was privatized 20 years ago. More than once, a friend or acquaintance warned her that they would vote against the Conservatives if the government approved the takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan.
Still, some of the MPs admit they did not at first fully grasp the significance of the bid.
"When the story first broke, it seemed like a story - that these things happen and it goes to the shareholders and the shareholders either approve or disapprove," said Andrew Scheer, the MP for Regina-Qu'Appelle.
For some, at least, it took nearly a month to realize the ramifications. On Sept. 16, the Tory MPs convened a caucus meeting attended by Brad Wall, the Premier, and Bill Boyd, Saskatchewan's Energy Minister and Mr. Wall's lieutenant in the province's fight against the takeover bid.
"That's when they kind of walked us through the impact that this proposed transaction could have on the province, and the fact that this was something they were treating very, very seriously," Mr. Scheer said. "Once that meeting took place … I think it's safe to say the Saskatchewan caucus became very engaged."
Mr. Lukiwski acknowledges that a decision to approve the sale could have cost the Conservatives politically. Mr. Wall's Oct. 21 speech urging Ottawa to turn down the bid was a watershed moment, triggering hundreds of messages from Mr. Lukiwski's constituents alone.
"Without question, it had all the probability in the world of turning into a significant issue in the upcoming federal election," he said. "It would be safe to say that as a collective Saskatchewan caucus, we're very satisfied with the government's position on rejecting this bid."
It is not clear, however, that the province's MPs spoke with one voice. Federal records show that BHP Billiton lobbied all of Saskatchewan's MPs - including its lone Liberal, Ralph Goodale - and the MPs themselves said they would have been happy with a decision either way. "All of us, including myself, from time to time we'd go back and forth and back and forth," Mr. Lukiwski said. "I can certainly argue both sides of this issue very easily."
Even Mr. Boyd, the provincial Energy Minister who met several times with the Conservative caucus, said he's not sure they were all on board - though overall, "I believe they put forward a position that agreed with the position that the province took."
Yet while the MPs say their silence was an effective way to maintain the trust of people like Mr. Clement, critics say they could have been more persuasive by taking a stand in public.
Mr. Goodale recalls being heckled in the House by Saskatchewan MPs just two weeks before Ottawa announced its decision.
"The one I heard precisely was, 'What do you care, Ralph? It's just an American company.' And that really, I think, tells you where they were at," said Mr. Goodale, who credits outspoken business leaders like Dick Haskayne, rather than the MPs, with influencing the eventual decision to reject BHP. "They were just totally absent."
With a report from Shawn McCarthy