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the lunch

Saskatchewan Premier Brad WallAnthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Premier Brad Wall wants to make one thing perfectly clear about his position on potash: It is not a campaign for prime minister.

At least, that's what he says now.

But when you're the leader of a small, resource-rich province, standing up to the world's largest mining company while wrapped in the Canadian flag, the future-prime-minister label starts to stick.

Over a fast-food lunch recently in his office in the majestic, Beaux Arts style legislature building in Regina, the 44-year-old premier claims to be "quite sick" of himself. The public, however, appears to feel otherwise. Since his government rejected BHP Billiton Ltd.'s bid for the province's largest potash producer, Canadians can't seem to get enough.

Just a few months ago, Mr. Wall was a little-recognized politician outside the Prairies, riding the wave of a resource boom and warming up national audiences with jokes about his conservative religious upbringing. ("We were like the Mennonite version of the Kennedys, but maybe with not as much partying," Mr. Wall deadpans, repeating a joke he often uses to describe his politically influenced upbringing - a five-term city councillor father and a mother who served years on the local school board.) Today, the self-described political nerd has transformed himself into a People's Premier. He did it with the help of an even geekier subject - a fertilizer ingredient that, until now, most Canadians never thought twice about even as they sprinkled it on their lawns and gardens. Potash has suddenly become a Canadian symbol, gaining almost as much recognition as the beaver and maple syrup.

Mr. Wall made that happen.

"I feel very proud," the premier says. Seated at the former cabinet table where his predecessor Tommy Douglas mapped out Canada's public health-care system, Mr. Wall bites into his favourite lunch, pork souvlaki on a bun with fries from Tim's Souvlaki in Regina's Golden Mile Centre.

The office is decorated with the usual political possessions, books, plaques and antique furniture, but with a few personal touches, including a collection of football helmets, each with their own story. The premier is a rabid Saskatchewan Roughriders fan (don't engage him in a conversation about the Canadian Football League team unless you have time on your hands), and coaches minor football in his hometown of Swift Current in what little time off he has these days.

His other hobby is muscle cars, including his "mid-life crisis," a 1967 Dodge Coronet 500, a model of which he has in his office. He also owns a 1970 Chrysler Newport convertible.

On a coffee table sits a huge bowl filled with Dubble Bubble gum wrapped in bright pink packages (a gift from British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell). The mantel beside his desk, piled high with papers, is also filled with pictures of his family, including wife Tami and their three children, aged 12 to 17. In a prominent position are two chunks of pink potash.

As he chews on his sandwich, his BlackBerry vibrating repeatedly on the table in front on him, Mr. Wall says he realizes his government's decision to reject BHP's $38.6-billion (U.S.) bid to buy Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc. has put its federal Conservative peers in a tight spot. But he claims his position, which he describes as non-partisan, had to be made for the long-term benefit of Saskatchewan, no matter who's in charge.

"I am not betting with my own money here. None of this belongs to me. It's the people of the province," he says, before grabbing another French fry from the takeout tray in front of him.

He plays down his new image as defender of Canadian resources. Instead, Mr. Wall says he's just happy to be here, representing a population that recently surpassed one million, and a province blessed with resources the world wants.

In fact, Mr. Wall sees himself as the steward of what comes out of the ground in a province that he quips is "easy to draw and hard to spell."

"We are in the middle of a $200-billion-plus company trying to take over a $40-billion-plus company, and Wall Street and Main Street and Bay Street … everyone is watching. Our job has been to carve out a position of strength for Saskatchewan's resources."

It's a mantra Mr. Wall has repeated around the clock in media interviews and meetings since making that now-famous Oct. 21 speech in which the province officially said no to BHP.

The speech was broadcast across the country and monitored around the world by the dozens of investors and others who have a stake in what happens to the BHP bid.

While many Canadians were roused by Mr. Wall's nationalist tone, there has been some backlash. The Premier has been accused of being anti-business, setting back both the province and Canada a number of years on their work to attract foreign investment.

"That is just nonsense," Mr. Wall fires back. He cites Australia, where BHP is based, and the United States as countries that have turned down foreign takeovers and yet continue to lure international investors.

He is taking that rebuttal on the road, making speeches to business leaders across the country, including one in Toronto on Friday. He told the Bay Street crowd that his government hasn't changed its political stripe or its pro-business stance. His sales pitch is that the province's decision is not only about lost money, but about losing a strategic position in a prized asset.

Could Mr. Wall channel his new political power into a bid for the country's top political position some day?

"Oh gosh no," he responds, lowering and shaking his head in emphasis.

Is the fact he doesn't speak French the problem? "Absolument, non," he said lowering and shaking his head again.

The job he claims he really wants, he says - "when the people of Saskatchewan are sick of me" - is Canada's Ambassador to the United States. However, that dream faded when former Manitoba Premier Gary Doer got the appointment last year.

"He's wrecked that now," Mr. Wall joked. "There won't be another Western Premier asked for a long time."

Other post-political career choices, he claims, include CFL commissioner or doing voice-over work for Disney because in that gig, "You can be whatever character you want to be."

For now, the character of impassioned protector of Canadian resources appears to be a good fit for Mr. Wall. It also means he can stick close to his hometown of Swift Current, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Regina.

There, despite the odd political debate in Safeway's produce section, he says the people see him simply as "Brad." It keeps him grounded, he says.

Mr. Wall tries to keep up community activities, including helping to coach his son's football team. He was forced to cut back on full-time coaching after landing the job as Premier. When he offered to work as an occasional referee, Mr. Wall's son intercepted.

"He said, 'Really? But you're a politician. You are going to referee, dad? Do you think that's smart?'" Wall recalls. "Smart kid."

It's one field where the Premier has no choice but to stay behind the bench.



The man: Born November 24, 1965, 44 years old.

14th and current Premier of Saskatchewan. Elected Nov. 21, 2007.

Born and raised in Swift Current, Sask. Has an honours degree in Public Administration and an advanced certificate in Political Studies from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. Also earned the Investment Funds Institute of Canada certificate.

Home life: Married to Tami; they have three children, Megan, Colter and Faith.

Resume: Began his career as an MP's assistant on Parliament Hill before returning to Saskatchewan to work as a Ministerial Assistant at the Legislature.

After returning to Saskatchewan in the early 1990s, was director of business development for Swift Current. He also started a seasonal tourism business.

First elected to the Saskatchewan legislature as the MLA for Swift Current in 1999. He was re-elected in 2003, became leader of the Saskatchewan Party in March, 2004. Elected Premier in the November 2007 election.

Quote: "In the interests of jobs for Saskatchewan families, in the interests of the quality of life that we prize that is funded by revenue to government, and in the interests of the place of our province and our country in the world, we must say no to this hostile takeover." - October 21, 2010 speech outlining Saskatchewan's decision to reject BHP's bid