The most significant premier of Manitoba in the 20th century, Duff Roblin, a pragmatic visionary, died in Victoria General Hospital on Sunday. He was 92 and had been in good health until last fall. He was elected premier of the province for three terms and later served in the Senate.
"So little had been done for so long," said Manitoba political scientist William (Bill) Neville, explaining Mr. Roblin's impact in Manitoba in the 1950s and 1960s. "When Duff became Premier [in 1958] it was the end of conservative government by Progressives and the beginning of progressive government by Conservatives."
Prof. Neville said that Mr. Roblin "had an enormous grasp of the issues facing the province. From the time he become an MLA in 1949, at the age of 31, he "spent hours and hours and days and days in the legislative library" reading departmental and Crown agency reports. "He was probably better informed than most ministers." Finally, "he had a sense of vision and a profound belief in the potential that was there if the province had a government that was prepared to lead."
Mr. Roblin not only knew his statues and the inner workings of government departments, he also understood the electorate and the province. He had a reputation as a teetotaller, but once told a magazine interviewer this was simply a matter of self-defence. "When I started beating the bushes for candidates," he said, "a typical morning would start with wine at the priest's house, home-brew beer at the first farm, straight whisky in a town merchant's office. I'd be tiddly by noon and dopey all afternoon. I felt it wasn't good politics to refuse hospitality but I knew I'd never finish the course that way, so I assumed the role of a strict teetotaller."
A conservative in dress, he loved to wear a kilt and to play the bagpipes as he wandered down the empty halls of the massive Manitoba Legislature, the keening sound reverberating off the stone walls. For him it was a way to alleviate stress, but it tended to alarm the cleaning staff, and gave rise to talk in some quarters that he was an eccentric.
"He was an exceptionally active premier, after a long period of less active governments," said historian Gerald Friesen. During his premiership, from 1958 to 67, he introduced a range of reforms that really changed the province, according to Prof. Friesen. "That isn't extraordinary on a world scale, but on a Canadian scale, he was like [premier]Louis Robichaud in New Brunswick."
As premier, Mr. Roblin changed the tenor of the times and "inquired deeply, and I mean deeply, into all aspects of provincial life through committees and commissions on everything, from local government to schools," said Prof. Friesen, saying that he made changes that "pulled rural Manitoba into a new sphere." These innovations happened over time of course and were part of a post-Second World War expansiveness across the Prairies, but "Duff really put a point on it."
Mr. Roblin, who came from Loyalist stock, had politics in his DNA. His ancestors settled in the Bay of Quinte area of Eastern Ontario after the American Revolution and three of them were politically active in the affairs of what is now Ontario. An ancestor, Phillip John Roblin, sat in the Upper Canada Assembly of 1809 and two other Roblins - John P. and David, were in the Union Parliament of the 1840s and 50s.
His grandfather, Sir Rodmond Palen Roblin, moved to the roaring west as young man and was premier of Manitoba from 1900 to 1915. He is best known for building the massive limestone Manitoba Legislature, exchanging barbs with suffragist Nellie McClung over his refusal to extend the franchise to women, and for scandals surrounding the cost overruns on the legislature and subsequent allegations that he sloughed off building materials to erect his own showcase stone farmhouse near Carman, Man. By contrast, his grandson was pragmatic, progressive, and public-minded. "His grandfather was a man of his time, and he was ahead of his time," said Prof. Neville.
Charles Dufferin Roblin was born in Winnipeg on June 17, 1917, one of four children of businessman Charles Dufferin and Sophie (Murdoch) Roblin. At first, he was educated at St. John's College, an elite private school, but family finances suffered during The Depression and he eventually went to Kelvin Technical High School for Grades 10 and 11. There he became involved in the rough and tumble of student politics, serving as a conservative on the communist-dominated Winnipeg Youth Council.
He dropped out of the University of Manitoba after a year and instead enrolled in a local business college before heading south to take courses at the business school of the University of Chicago. Eventually, he moved back to Winnipeg to study for a diploma in agriculture at U of M. Equipped with this motley assortment of courses and qualifications, he made an appointment with the president of the U of M and proposed that he had fulfilled the requirements for a university degree. The president begged to differ and quickly showed young Mr. Roblin the door.
When the Second World War erupted in 1939, he enlisted in the Canadian Army as a private. Longing to become a pilot, he took private flying lessons and achieved a transfer in the spring of 1940 to the fledgling Royal Canadian Air Force. His eyesight wasn't good enough for him to qualify as a pilot, but he was shipped overseas as a junior officer in 1942 in a tactical and operations unit. Deeply involved in the tactical planning for D-Day, he landed in Normandy on June 30, 1944, and helped chase the retreating Axis forces through France into Holland, all the way to Hamburg, Germany. By the time he was demobilized in 1946, he had the rank of a wing commander in the RCAF.
After the war he returned to the Prairies, began working in one of the Roblin family businesses and joined the Masons and the Royal Canadian Legion. Although he later wrote in his memoirs, Speaking for Myself and Other Pursuits, that from childhood he had planned to be premier, he showed little interest in running for political office, preferring to complain instead about the coalition government formed by the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberal Progressives.
At a social gathering, some time in 1949, some friends challenged him to put his name on the ballot in the upcoming election. He did, running as an Independent anti-coalition Progressive Conservative, and handily defeating the official Progressive Conservative candidate on Nov. 10, 1949, to win a seat in the provincial legislature as the member for Winnipeg South. He was re-elected six times and became leader of the Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party in 1954, defeating leader Errick Willis at a leadership convention.
As a politician, Mr. Roblin believed in using government to serve the needs of the people. Ideologically, that made him a Red Tory and positioned him further left on social issues than the premier of the Day, Douglas Campbell and his Liberal Progressives. Four years after becoming leader, Mr. Roblin, led the Progressive Conservatives to a minority government on June 16, 1958, the day before his 41st birthday. That was the same year he married Mary MacKay, a journalist who had worked as a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and a producer of children's programs for the CBC. They eventually had a son Stephen and a daughter Jennifer.
After winning a resounding majority in 1959, Mr. Roblin set about transforming Manitoba, improving roads, building hospitals and homes for seniors, establishing provincial parks, revamping local government and instituting a metropolitan form of government for Winnipeg. He overhauled local education, founding two new universities, introducing a comprehensive social welfare system, and building the controversial multimillion-dollar Winnipeg Floodway to tame and divert the raging annual spring runoff from the Red River that often threatened to drown low lying parts of Winnipeg.
Having hefted his share of sandbags in his youth, Mr. Roblin held his ground against local opposition and finally won the day when he succeeded in persuading the federal government to share the costs. "Duff's Ditch," as it was called, more than earned its keep during the "Flood of the Century" in 1997 when it was estimated that the floodway prevented billions of dollars in damages and incalculable disruption to hundreds of thousands of residents.
After a decade as premier, he resigned his seat and belatedly let his name stand in the leadership convention to succeed John Diefenbaker as leader of the federal Progressive Conservative Party in September, 1967. Proficiently bilingual, a believer in the "deux nations" policy, and Mr. Diefenbaker's preferred successor, he was an excellent candidate. Nevertheless, he was narrowly defeated on the fifth ballot by Robert Stanfield, premier of Nova Scotia.
Prof. Neville says that Mr. Roblin waited too long to enter the fray, adding that the late political organizer Dalton Camp, who had courted both Mr. Roblin and Mr. Stanfield as leadership candidates, once said: "Duff wanted to wait until all the presents were under the tree." By the time Mr. Roblin finally declared, Mr. Stanfield had entered with the backing and organizational commitment of the Camp organization. "From that point it was uphill," said Prof. Neville.
Having lost the federal leadership, Mr. Roblin ran federally in Winnipeg South, supposedly a Conservative stronghold, which included part of his old provincial riding of Wolseley. "He was the wrong man in the wrong party at the wrong time," said Liberal E.B. Osler, the victor on election night, June, 1968, acknowledging the power of Trudeaumania in giving the Liberals a majority government and local displeasure at a provincial sales tax that Mr. Roblin's provincial government had instituted the year before he stepped down as premier.
In 1970, he joined the corporate world as director, executive vice-president and then president of Canadian Pacific Investments Ltd. in Montreal. Four years later, he again made a run for political office, winning the Conservative nomination for the federal riding in Peterborough, Ont. As a popular and distinguished former premier of Manitoba, Mr. Roblin failed to anticipate the opposition he encountered, not only from the local Liberal candidate, Hugh Faulkner, but from The Peterborough Examiner, the town newspaper, which took editorial exception to what it considered parachute tactics by the Progressive Conservatives.
Even Mr. Roblin admitted in his memoirs that he showed a significant error in judgment in letting his name stand in that particular riding. He was defeated handily, but returned to public life when prime minister Pierre Trudeau appointed him to the Senate in 1978. After Brian Mulroney became prime minister, he named Mr. Roblin leader of the government in the Senate in 1984, which gave him a seat at the cabinet table for the next two years.
A progressive to the core, Mr. Roblin was a vocal supporter of Senate reform. In 1987, he wrote a letter to The Globe and Mail in which he stated that "the present body is responsible in no parliamentary sense and representative in no democratic sense. ... In my opinion, an elected Senate is the preferred and obvious reform we need." He stepped down from the Senate in 1992 when he reached 75, the mandatory retirement age.
Almost immediately, he accepted an appointment as chairman of a provincial commission into postsecondary education in Manitoba. After that, he largely retired from public life, although he continued to play squash, play the bagpipes and to enjoy vigorous, but not partisan, discussions about politics, history and contemporary events. "Even into his nineties we had wonderful conversations, said Prof. Neville, a friend for more than 30 years. "He was a remarkably well-read man."
Mr. Roblin leaves his wife Mary his two children, two siblings and his extended family. There will be a private family funeral on Thursday.