Former Manitoba premier Duff Roblin dies

Former Manitoba premier Duff Roblin, who led the charge to create the Red River Floodway around Winnipeg, has died.
Duff Roblin served as Manitoba's premier from 1958 to 1967. ((Canada's Historical Society))

Former Manitoba premier Duff Roblin, a national figure who led the charge to create the Red River Floodway around Winnipeg, has died at age 92.

Roblin was the province's 14th premier, serving in that role from 1958 to 1967, and later became a prominent senator.

He died early Sunday evening at Winnipeg's Victoria General Hospital.

Bill Neville, a friend, told CBC News that Roblin hadn't been well lately and had been in hospital for the past 10 days.

"I think those of us who were seeing a lot of him were conscious of the fact that he was in significant decline, and certainly he was aware of it," Neville said.

Roblin's death came the same day the floodway was put into operation after near-record rainfall on the weekend unleashed torrents of water into the Red River and left Winnipeggers drenched and many basements soaked.

Roblin's quest to construct the floodway began while he was a Progressive Conservative opposition backbencher in the Manitoba legislature, shortly after Winnipeg was devastated by a flood in 1950.

The floodway redirects water around the eastern side of Winnipeg through a 48-kilometre channel, between St. Norbert in the south and Lockport in the north. ((CBC))

A federal inquiry and a royal commission, set up in the wake of the flood to investigate options to save the city from future floods, recommended a water diversion channel be dug to divert the Red River's overflow around the city.

The plan required the expropriation of hundreds of parcels of land, mostly farms, and created a 48-kilometre channel — nearly as wide as the Red River — around the eastern side of Winnipeg.

Roblin pushed for it as a backbencher, but the governing Liberals opposed it.

As the newly elected premier of Manitoba in 1958, Roblin stepped up the effort to build the floodway against vociferous Liberal opposition.

Construction of the channel started on Oct. 6, 1962, with Roblin breaking ground at the site. Completed in March 1968, the project was a major undertaking, with 76.5 million cubic metres of earth excavated — more than what was moved for the Suez Canal.

At the time, the $63-million scheme was the second largest earth-moving project in the world — next only to the construction of the Panama Canal.

The inlet gate for the floodway, which has been credited with saving Winnipeg more than 20 times between 1968 and 2009. ((Manitoba Floodway Authority) )

First used in 1969, the floodway has been credited by provincial authorities with saving Winnipeg more than 20 times between 1968 and 2009, and preventing an estimated $10 billion in flood damage.

"You know, in politics you don't get everything right, that's the first thing I have to say. But I think with respect to the floodway, that's one thing I did get right," he told CBC News in 1999.

Provincial flood forecaster Alf Warkentin said officials from flood-threatened communities all over North America now come to Manitoba to study what is affectionately known as Duff's Ditch.

Floodway expansion

After the 1997 flood, Manitoba officials decided to launch a $600-million-plus expansion project to deepen the channel and increase the level of protection from major floods with a one-in-90-years probability to those with a one-in-700-years probability.

The expansion was started in 2005 and completed in 2009.

The floodway can now protect more than 450,000 Manitobans — more than 140,000 homes and 8,000 businesses — and prevent more than $12 billion damage to the provincial economy in the event of a one-in-700-years flood.

Education spending a priority

While Roblin will be remembered for the floodway, he had many accomplishments that changed the face of the province, said Neville, a history and political science professor at the University of Manitoba.

Roblin's government upgraded highways, created parks, modernized hospitals and strengthened social welfare programs.

It also promoted urban development by consolidating the various municipalities in the Winnipeg area into a single metropolitan entity.

But it was education that received much attention from Roblin's administration. His government reintroduced French-language instruction in schools, expanded and improved post-secondary education, created the modern system of school division in the province and helped create the University of Winnipeg and Brandon University, which had been colleges.

As well, Manitoba's rural system of one-room schoolhouses moved into the modern era with the building of consolidated schools.

"[He] greatly increased funding for all sorts of educational enterprises," said Neville.

Politics in the blood

Politics was in Roblin's blood, as the grandson of Sir Rodmond P. Roblin, Manitoba's ninth premier who served from 1900 to 1915.

He was first elected in 1949 as an MLA for the riding of Winnipeg South. He was elected party leader in 1954 but had to rebuild the bruised Progressive Conservatives, which had only won 12 of 57 seats in the 1953 election.

Within four years, he took the party from Opposition to governing status and saw it re-elected with landslide victories in 1962 and 1966.

He decided in 1967 to resign from provincial politics and take aim at the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative Party. At its 1967 leadership convention he ran a strong campaign, but placed second to Nova Scotia Premier Robert Stanfield.

Roblin was appointed to the Senate by Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1978 and served until 1992, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75. During that time, was Senate leader in the PC government of Brian Mulroney.

A vision for the province

Premier Greg Selinger said he and other politicians can learn a lot from Roblin, regardless of political party.

Roblin had vision and pushed forward to change the face of Manitoba, Selinger said.

"I think he worked across all party lines to develop a program for the province that was broadly supported," Selinger said.

"He always had a vision for moving the province forward and then he acted on it, which is sort of the key. He made things happen and, so, in that regard he's a good example for all of us."

Roblin always had a dignity about him, Selinger added.

Flags on all provincial government buildings will fly at half mast until sunset on June 3 and a book of condolence will also be set up at the Manitoba legislature as well as online through the Government of Manitoba website.

As well, a single white rose is being placed on every MLA's desk in the Legislative chamber Monday in memory of Roblin, Selinger said.

In 1970, he was named a companion of the Order of Canada. And in 2008, he was named the Greatest Manitoban in a contest organized by the CBC and the Winnipeg Free Press.

"To be dignified in this way is just very, very generous," he said when given that honour.

There are also buildings, streets and parks in the province that bear Roblin's name.

A private funeral service will be held later this week for Roblin's family and close friends.