'Bland sells': Former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney

Former Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney has written a memoir of his days in political life, chronicling his battles over medicare, mineral resources and the constitution.

Former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney has written a memoir of his days in political life, chronicling his battles over medicare, mineral resources and the Constitution.

Blakeney, who was premier between 1971 and 1982, has studiously avoided backroom gossip in his book, An Honourable Calling: Political Memoirs, which was released in Regina on Tuesday.

He told reporters that as a politician he was more concerned with policy than image.

"I did try to be rather bland at my news conferences," Blakeney said during a news conference at Tommy Douglas House, the Regina headquarters of the New Democratic Party in Saskatchewan, "because, as Bill Davis, the highly successful premier of Ontario says on many occasions, 'bland sells.'"

Since retiring from public life in the mid-'80s, Blakeney, 83, has been teaching law and travelling to different parts of the world providing advice to emerging democratic governments.

He started his book about four years ago to "relive some of the victories and hopefully forget some of the defeats and simply put it down to see whether it might be of use or interest to anyone else."

Blakeney entered politics in 1960 after serving the CCF government of Tommy Douglas as a civil servant.

He told CBC News that he arrived in Saskatchewan from Nova Scotia in 1950 with the notion of checking out the Douglas government and providing temporary service.

"I had no intention of staying in Saskatchewan," Blakeney said, "Saskatchewan was the end of the Earth to me in 1950.

"But I'd come out temporarily, because this Douglas government was doing some interesting things," Blakeney added, "and I wanted to see whether this was a place for me. Well, I'm still here!"

Medicare struggle

His first cabinet portfolio, Health, had Blakeney facing down Saskatchewan doctors over the province's implementation of its medicare legislation.

In the 1970s, as premier, Blakeney tangled with resource companies over what was characterized by industry as an anti-development royalty regime.

In recalling those battles, Blakeney said he was right all along.

"The resource battles of the 1970s indicated that a provincial government can hang tough on some high royalties and get them," Blakeney said on Tuesday. "And the message is: Don't give away the resource. They ain't making any more of it."

Blakeney also kidded with reporters about the current NDP leadership contest in Saskatchewan.

"I've completed my political life," Blakeney quipped, "I'm not going to throw my hat into the ring for the leadership of the New Democratic Party of Saskatchewan."

On a more serious note, the former premier lamented that many people were not engaged in the political process.

"I think that the current level of voter participation is unsatisfactory to the point of being dangerous," Blakeney said.

"You're not going to get a healthy democracy or hardly a viable democracy if we have less than 50 per cent of the people who are even participating to the extent of voting. That's not good enough."

Grey Cup gaffe

While Blakeney maintained his characteristic reserve during his book launch, he did share one anecdote from his days as premier that brought a smile to his face.

It concerned his attendance at the 1976 Grey Cup championship game between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the rivals and host of the big game, the Ottawa Rough Riders.

"I was watching along with [Prime Minister] Pierre Trudeau and [Ontario Premier] Bill Davis," Blakeney recalled.

"The custom was for the Grey Cup to be presented immediately after the game. And for the prime minister and the premier of the province of the winning team to be on hand."

As history recorded, the Saskatchewan team was leading as the game was coming to an end. With that, Blakeney said, he and the prime minister made their way to field level to be ready for the presentation ceremony.

Upon arrival, however, "I heard a great roar," Blakeney recalled. "It was completing a pass to Tony Gabriel [and] the Ottawa Rough Riders scored a touchdown, went ahead and I had to slink back to my seat, hoping that nobody would recognize me."

"That wasn't my finest hour when it came to Grey Cup games," said Blakeney with a chuckle.