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Brian Pallister: A personal look behind the PC leader's public persona

Brian Pallister is the first to admit he is a tough guy to get to know. Just ask his wife.

Pallister explains his personality, political 'gaffes' and why he doesn't like to smile

Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister sat down with CBC's Donna Carreiro last week to talk about his life in politics. It was the third such interview with a party leader in the lead up to the April 19 provincial election. The fourth and final interview, with Manitoba Green Party Leader James Beddome, will be published later this week. (CBC)

Brian Pallister is the first to admit he is a tough guy to get to know. Just ask his wife.

"She said, 'Oh, Brian. It took a good four years for my family to like you,'" Pallister said. "I put on a brave face, but people don't know me necessarily."

I put on a brave face, but people don't know me necessarily.- Progressive Conservative leader Brian Pallister

So began a candid interview with the Progressive Conservative leader of Manitoba; part of a series of profiles CBC News is producing on all the provincial party leaders.

During the one-on-one conversation, Pallister made it clear very little was off-limits. ("Unless you've got something on me that I don't know about," he said, laughing).

He talked about the search for Chase Martens, the two-year-old toddler who went missing and whose body was found on Saturday.

"Unbelievable ... doesn't get worse, doesn't get worse," Pallister said.

Family friend, missing Manitoba woman 

He revealed a personal connection to another missing Manitoban in Amber McFarland. She is from Portage la Prairie and was last seen in 2008; RCMP presume she has been murdered,

"Amber McFarland lived in my [childhood] house, she slept in my bedroom," Pallister said, adding her parents worked at his family farm. "She went out in the night and she never came home. Not a trace of her. Horrible, horrible. Can't imagine."

He also talked about his own childhood, growing up at his great-grandparents homestead in the small village of Edwin, Man., on what he called "300 acres of the best dirt in the RM of Portage la Prairie."

His father, a polio survivor, farmed as best he could and took part in local politics.  

"He came home one night and I think he had been at a school board meeting that night ... and he had obviously lost a debate," Pallister recalled. "And he said, 'You know, son, the more I work with people, the more I like my cows.'"

His mother, a teacher, also lived with arthritis. 

"I can remember her marking papers late into the night and her hands were just gnarly," he said.

As for Pallister himself, he suffered his own challenges. He was the tallest kid in the smallest school around. His teeth were so bad he could neither eat well or easily smile.

"I don't smile easily just because it was years of that, " he said, adding even though he's had dental surgery, he is still reluctant to show his teeth. "Not feeling good about how you looked, so those are old habits. And old habits die hard, I guess."

Not feeling good about how you looked.....those are old habits.- PC leader Brian Pallister.

He said he was so "mercilessly" bullied that he dreaded going to school Monday mornings.

"It was tough, it was hard," he said. "I had trouble sleeping Sunday nights. For a long time, getting to sleep."

He talked about his teen years, too. He was so broke that he would hitchhike his way to Brandon, Man., in order to go to university. He tried out for basketball teams without any shoes on his feet and used a paper bag to carry his equipment.

"Look, I'm not complaining, but it was hard," he said.

Controversial comments explained 

Then there were his political years (he's been a Progressive Conservative MLA,  a Canadian Alliance MP, a Conservative MP and now provincial PC leader), and the perceived gaffes he's made in office.

Like the time, during a CBC interview, when he told the reporter he was giving a "woman's" answer, being "fickle."

His takeaway from that?

"Don't tease a reporter, OK? Wiser for that experience."

Or the time he referred to same sex marriage as a "social experiment."

"Very few countries had actually adopted the word 'marriage' for same sex unions [at the time]," Pallister said. "Which was really the debate in some respects. The debate was an experiment at that time. Now generally accepted and good."

But one of the biggest misunderstandings, Pallister said, is how those who don't know him perceive him. Aloof, affluent and uncaring.

"Because we've found success in our lives, people might think I could care less about those who haven't," Pallister said. "That's totally backward. Any government under my watch is going to be concerned with the weak first and the strong later."

For more on this story, tune into CBC Information Radio at 8:10 am Monday.

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