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Former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney, in an undated photo.The Canadian Press

A former Saskatchewan premier who was instrumental in the creation of Canada's publicly funded health care system and the patriation of the Constitution has died at the age of 85.

Allan Blakeney died Saturday morning following short battle with cancer, Saskatchewan's NDP said in a statement.

Mr. Blakeney served as Saskatchewan's tenth premier from 1971 to 1982 and leader of the provincial New Democrats for 17 years. Before that he was a cabinet minister in the NDP government in the 1960's, helping to steer the introduction of medicare through a no-holds barred political debate in the province.

Former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, who served in Blakeney's cabinet and was a close friend, said it's hard to single out any single accomplishment.

"He really is a nation builder, one of Canada's really outstanding leaders," Mr. Romanow said in an interview.

Mr. Blakeney viewed his work on implementing medicare while a cabinet minister as his biggest contribution in public life, said Mr. Romanow who visited Mr. Blakeney in hospital shortly before his death.

"He said, 'but we finally won the day and we established a great plan for health care for the people of Saskatchewan and Canada,' " recalled Mr. Romanow of the conversation the two men had.

The medicare contribution was singled out by Federal NDP leader Jack Layton, who dedicated the rest of his party's federal election campaign to Mr. Blakeney's memory.

"Were it not for him, medicare, Tommy Douglas's dream would have never come to pass," Mr. Layton said on Saturday while campaigning in St. John's NL. "We all owe him a great debt of gratitude."

While premier Mr. Blakeney was also a major player in the late-night dealing in an Ottawa hotel that led to the patriation of the Constitution in 1982. He was considered one of the few first ministers of his era who had the intellectual horsepower to earn then prime minister Pierre Trudeau's respect.

"It was a treat, it was full of tension, but a treat to watch these two intellectuals debate," said Mr. Romanow, who also played a high-profile role in the constitutional talks while serving as Mr. Blakeney's attorney-general.

"I think there was a certain testiness between the two of them," Mr. Romanow said. "I think the respect factor was there, but in these emotional settings very often it's like two heavyweights in the ring and not one is going to give up until his argument is the one that's accepted."

"I think without question, Mr. Blakeney played a very important role, almost a pivotal role," Mr. Romanow said of Mr. Blakeney's contribution to the constitutional talks.

Mr. Blakeney also was at the table when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was hammered out during the same period. On the anniversary of the signing of the agreement, he said the document had fulfilled a promise of protecting individual rights, but had also allowed the courts into areas of public policy.

Former prime minister Jean Chretien, who was Mr. Trudeau's justice minister at the time, also worked with Mr. Blakeney during the constitutional negotiations.

"He was a gentleman," Mr. Chretien said in a telephone interview Saturday.

"He was a very serious person. You know, everything was important for him and very meticulous. And a pleasant chap too. So I keep a very good souvenir of his public service. He served so well Saskatchewan and Canada."

During patriation negotiations, Mr. Chretien said Mr. Blakeney championed the interests of resource-based western provinces.

"He defended the interests of his people very well. He was making all the time a very good contribution."

The soft-spoken son of a Nova Scotia grocer, Mr. Blakeney went to Dalhousie University's law school. He won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford in England, where he studied from 1947-49.

Mr. Blakeney was recruited by Tommy Douglas in 1950 as a civil servant in the Saskatchewan government. He switched to the political arena in 1960 as a member of Mr. Douglas's government. A year later the CCF became the NDP and Mr. Douglas resigned to become leader of the federal party.

Mr. Douglas's successor, Woodrow Lloyd, won the bitter and emotional battle to bring in Canada's first publicly funded health-care program.

Mr. Blakeney was appointed health minister and given the job of administering medicare.

"That was hard work, but it was rewarding," he once recalled in an interview. "I thought, 'This is something that's for real."'

He also took turns in the education, finance and industry portfolios before the Liberals won government in 1964.

Mr. Blakeney won the party leadership in 1970 and a year later led the NDP back to power.

Grant Devine, who as leader of the Progressive Conservatives defeated Mr. Blakeney's New Democrats in 1982 in a landslide, called his opponent "brilliant," saying he did his homework and knew his issues.

"You had to really know your stuff to take him on on any sort of academic or theoretical issue," Mr. Devine said in an interview from his home in Caron, Saskatchewan.

"A man of integrity, he had good core values, he was kind, but he was tough in the sense that he had a great mind and he was well trained," Devine said Saturday.

Mr. Layton, who spoke to Mr. Blakeney two days before his death, described the former premier as "one of the most gentle, wise, humorous and effective public administrators in this country."

"It was clear that he had reached a point of pretty significant illness, but he still offered wise and thoughtful advice," Mr. Layton said of the conversation he had with Mr. Blakeney.

Mr.Layton's rivals in the election campaign also paid tribute to Mr. Blakeney, issuing statements. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Mr. Blakeney played an important role shaping modern Saskatchewan. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff called Blakeney "a champion of public health care in Canada and dedicated to the province he loved."

Many premiers turned to Mr. Blakeney for guidance, Nova Scotia's New Democrat Premier Darrell Dexter said in a statement.

"He was one of the country's leading experts on management of governments and he was a trusted advisor to me and many other Canadian premiers."

After his crushing electoral defeat in 1982, Mr. Blakeney decided to stay on as opposition leader because he wanted to rebuild his shattered party. He failed to regain power in 1986 and retired from politics in 1988 to enter academic life as a professor of law, teaching at Osgoode Hall at York University in Toronto until 1990. Then he took up the same post at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon where he remained until he took ill.