Brad Wall is retiring from his position as premier of Saskatchewan after 10 years leading the province.
The 52-year-old from Swift Current was first elected to the legislature in 1999. In 2004, he was acclaimed as Saskatchewan Party leader. In 2007, he led the young party to a historic victory, becoming the 14th premier in the province’s history.
CBC spoke with all three living former premiers of Saskatchewan to get their take on his time in office. We also heard from politicians, columnists, Wall’s colleagues and his friends.
In their own words, here are their thoughts and feelings about the man who remains Canada’s most popular premier.
In 1999, Brad Wall was the Saskatchewan Party candidate for Swift Current. He defeated John Wall (no relation) of the NDP to become the MLA for his hometown. In only a few years, he would leap into the forefront of the political sphere and onto the radar of people across the province and country.
Reg Downs (longtime friend and senior adviser to Premier Wall)
“I met Brad in our first year of university. I became his adviser shortly after that; I believe it was the night before his first stats final. He hadn’t studied much, or at all, and he needed some help. Now I don’t want anyone to think Brad wasn’t a good student — he was — and he is an extremely bright guy, a quick study and he can pick things up quicker than anyone I’ve ever met. And I’m sure he ended up doing very well on that stats exam. It’s just that he did have a tendency to kind of procrastinate, leave things to the last minute; particularly with subjects he didn’t care for that much. Sometimes I tell people that and they say, ‘Wow, he must have really gotten a lot better at that now that he’s premier.’ No, not really.”
Ken Krawetz (founding member of the Sask. Party)
“I spoke to some of Brad’s acquaintances after he was selected and I found out that this man had tremendous oratory skills. He was a great communicator and we know that now, 10 years later, that he’s the best this province has had.”
Lorne Calvert (former NDP Premier)
“I think my first impressions were formed when Brad was elected and took his seat for Swift Current in the house and we all knew here was a very able — in those days young —man who would very likely have a career trajectory that would take him into leadership of the Sask. Party. I think it was pretty obvious right from the beginning.
“Brad’s ability to communicate, I think that has been his great, great strength. And I think we could see that right from the start. I think his ability to communicate was based, first of all, [on] an ability to read his audience, and to, in many ways, read the public. And then he has a gift of phraseology, a gift of saying the right thing at the right time.”
Roy Romanow (former NDP premier)
“I would say when he was elected to the legislature in 1999...I really didn’t see him as being a standout performer.
“Clearly there was talent — you could see that — and it just sort of didn’t really, in his first year, penetrate through the political fog which sometimes exists in the questions and the answers. Goes to show you how good a judge I am of political talent.”
In the late 1980s, Wall worked as a ministerial assistant during the Grant Devine government.
Grant Devine (former Progressive Conservative premier)
“I’ve always liked Brad Wall. I knew him as a teenager. He was always very friendly, affable, nice smile, just a kind sort of guy and engaging. My first impressions were very positive and that’s one of the reasons we were lucky to have him come into government as a young fellow, and he certainly has contributed.”
Don McMorris (Sask. Party MLA, first elected in 1999 with Premier Wall)
“I remember very distinctly (Wall’s) maiden speech at that time and I thought at that time, ‘Oh wow. My God, am I over my head? I am nowhere close to that.’ Certain athletes, when they step on the ice, you can tell right away. Artists, when they go on the stage, they demand respect. And you can tell as soon as he stood in this house that very first time that he was something special.”
“I remember sitting in committees different times, the CIC committee (Wall was Crown Investments Corporation critic), and going up against people that had been in charge of these Crowns for many, many years and just going after them. I was amazed that he had such a communication skill, and such a debating skill that he’d go after Don Ching on SaskTel — ‘What are we doing, investing outside of this province?’ — and John Wright on different issues with SaskPower. And then I remember him going after Ron Clark at SaskEnergy about a gas variance account and I think maybe that one time he might have overstepped (laughs).”
Rex Murphy (Political commentator)
“My first acquaintance with this gentleman was ‘telephonic’. We were trying to get him on Cross Country Checkup. Charles Shanks, who is the producer, he came to me and said that they made contact with the office people and that Premier Wall … would be giving us an interview during the show, but that he would be doing it from the driver seat of a snowmobile.
I said ‘Well you know something, there’s a possibility that this man might be sane. This could possibly be a human being.’ And if you’ve been dealing with the creatures that throng Parliament Hill, you realize how rare that encounter is.”
Christy Clark (former premier of British Columbia)
“As soon as I met him, I knew we would have a lot in common. Brad and I share the same ideological bent, which is that low taxes, strong economy, small government all lead to jobs. He was one of the most effective voices around the premiers’ table. It turned out he was the best ally you could have.”
Wall’s longtime friend and adviser Reg Downs told a story at the Saskatchewan Party convention in Nov. 2017. He said when Wall met members of the public who addressed him by his title, he would say, “Call me Brad. It’s just Brad.” And for many people, that was, and is, Wall’s appeal. He was the minor football coach, a card-carrying member of Rider Nation and a Simpsons fan. He likes classic cars and country music. He is a father to Megan, Faith and Colter. He married his college sweetheart, Tami, and they raised their family in Swift Current.
Nancy Heppner (Saskatchewan Party MLA addressing Wall on his final day in the assembly)
“I see you cringe when people call you Premier Wall because you just want to be Brad. That is the most important thing that you have surrounded yourself by is the humility — and people see it, they know that. That’s why they want to be your friend; that’s why they want to go for coffee with you.
“I had asked to be out of cabinet a few years ago so I could spend more time with my girls, and that request was met with such amazing grace from you and a genuine care and understanding of what we were going through and that my girls needed me at home — and there was never any judgement. This job always comes second. As important as it is, it is not the most important thing.”
“Almost every Sunday morning, he takes a couple of verses out of the Bible and he writes a devotion. And then he emails it around to his family and a few of his friends. It’s always very thoughtful and heartfelt and wise. Just some of his thoughts and some lesson he has taken from the word of God and how it applies to his life or his job, or just the world in general.
“I’ve seen him get angry. But I’ve never seen him stay angry. He is just not someone that holds grudges or harbours any resentment or ill will towards anyone, less so than pretty well anyone I’ve ever met.
“But politics has never been the most important thing to Brad. The most important thing to Brad is his family — his kids, and even before that, his relationship with Tami.”
“He made that trip...each and every day back and forth to Swift Current, because spending time at home with the kids as they were growing were paramount. It’s just an amazing effort to get home.”
Murray Mandryk (Regina Leader-Post columnist)
“I think it was 2011-12 when they produced their economic statement. He spoke directly about one particular individual, a First Nations guy he went to school with in Swift Current, that he was quite moved by. The guy had recently passed on, too, and it was this guy who...incited Brad Wall’s interest in First Nations skill training and programs and the guy helped with development. I thought it would be a good idea to do a column about this guy and the influence he had on Brad Wall’s life. I did an interview with (Wall) and I said, ‘How does a kid from Swift Current, where there aren’t very many First Nations kids around, get to know this guy?’ And he told me the whole story about [how] the guy been adopted out as a Sixties Scoop kid and how he got to know him.
“It turns out Brad Wall was wrong and it turns out I was an idiot for not double checking. Obviously, the parents were very upset over what I had written in the paper, so I sent them a personal letter of apology and corrected it in the newspaper. But the amazing thing is so did Brad Wall, and he took ownership of it, saying, ‘It wasn’t the reporter’s fault. I had given this information. It really was my fault.’ But doesn’t that say a hell of a lot about the guy? I didn’t ask him to. He just felt really bad about it. It was a misconception he was under. I was quite moved and touched that he would have gone to all that trouble. It just speaks volumes to the guy.”
Dustin Duncan (Saskatchewan Party MLA addressing Wall on his final day in the assembly)
“People ask what it’s like to work for Brad Wall...he’s got vision, he’s got passion and compassion, he’s smart — smrt, I mean smart, for those that are Simpsons fans. He’s just been so supportive.
“This past summer, I was at a family reunion in Medicine Hat and I introduced myself to a great aunt who I haven’t seen in years. She knew that I was in politics back here in Saskatchewan and her first question to me, with a big smile on her face, was ‘Do you know Brad?’ ”
Don Morgan (Sask. Party MLA)
“To all of us he’s been not just a colleague, but also a friend. He knows who has health issues, who is dealing with aging parents, who is dealing with children. He cares, and it shows. The incredible kindness and amazing statements following the deaths of MLAs Parent and Phillips demonstrates his humanity and how much he cares. His humour and kindness are special.”
“I hope I’m not breaking any confidences, but we’ve had several discussions when he was active as a premier and had not announced his intentions to quit. I don’t know whether I assisted him in any of the comments or advice that I would give, but I found that it was a very, very generous and actually very smart thing to do — to reach out to somebody who’d been there before. I’m not saying me, necessarily, but just a generous thing to do and a smart thing to do, because we’ve been through the fire and he’s been through the fire. And I’m hopeful that the next premier will reach out to him and get the benefit of his advice.”
THE DEFINING MOMENT
Arguably the biggest moment of Brad Wall’s time as premier came in the fall of 2010. BHP Billiton attempted to take over Saskatchewan-based Potash Corporation. The story received national and international attention. Wall successfully lobbied the federal government to block the takeover.
“He just stood strong and said, ‘Potash Corporation is our Royal Bank and the headquarters are going to stay here in Saskatchewan and that’s just the way it’s going to be.’
“That was one of the things where Saskatchewan people were proud of what he did and I think Canadians generally agreed.”
“In this particular circumstance, he knew where the majority of Saskatchewan people were on the issue. I think so did the federal government of the time. I remember the speech he made, I think to a Chamber of Commerce group, that was very powerful and, I think, career shaping in some ways.
“That event, certainly I think was a pivotal event for Brad Wall and his government. I think he benefited actually from a threat that the federal Conservative Party felt coming —interestingly enough, from some New Democrats in this province. I think that may have swayed the decision in Ottawa. But certainly Brad had taken the right position, had voiced clearly what I think would be the position of the vast majority of us in Saskatchewan, and took advantage of that moment.”
“There were a number of conservatives that didn’t particularly like his position — but he took a really strong Saskatchewan position on it, and I think that was really the moment he really solidified the legacy of what he was going to be as premier.
“He would look for those compromises within the confines of his pretty strong conservative beliefs. He wasn’t always successful, but I think he always tried to find that middle ground approach.”
Tammy Robert (Saskatchewan political commentator)
“It did change the trajectory of the province one way or another and it was a big issue to manage.
“People perhaps don’t take into consideration the political risk that would have came along with had he approved and championed that change. He already had the Grant Devine legacy looming over him and, if he allowed PotashCorp to go completely, it could have been political suicide — and there’s absolutely no way that that didn’t play a factor.”
HITS AND MISSES
While many point to the BHP takeover attempt as one of Wall’s highlights as premier, under Wall’s watch the province took on major infrastructure projects, including building new hospitals, schools and major roadways.
His supporters also commend him for his ongoing fight with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over a federally imposed carbon tax, his championing of the country’s resource sector and his fierce promotion of pipeline projects.
Wall also won three straight majorities, garnering more than 60 per cent of the vote in 2011 and 2016.
But there were also areas of criticism. The province took on labour in a fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and lost.
Much of the criticism has come in the last 18 months with the controversial GTH land deal, the debate about ownership of the province’s Crowns, the recent austerity budget and the lack of an apology for the Sixties Scoop.
“He was proudly unapologetic about leading the fight against the carbon tax. He was really effective in creating space for all the premiers that disagreed with the federal approach, and I was definitely one of them. The country is better for having had Brad Wall.”
“There is only one politician so far across this country, provincial or federal, who is willing to break that airy agost clouded consensus that the idea of saying a good word about Canada’s national energy industry is not some form of heresy. The gift that Brad Wall gave to politics in Canada is that he was not ashamed to say what is actually obviously true.”
“I don’t fault too terribly much with labour. The 3.5 (per cent wage cut) thing, to me that was always a stunt. There’s no reasonable person that would have considered that was actually ever going to happen — there’s just no way. It inflamed the relationship. He never had the hardcore labour vote, but he did gain the significant middle labour and I think he still has it.
"He had it easy when it was (Prime Minister) Harper and he didn’t when the Liberals came in. To his credit, he tried to figure out how to have a relationship with them but he’s surrounded by people who didn’t want one. He does defer a fair amount to the same core people who never changed and I don’t think that’s extraordinarily helpful.
“His blind spots were always related to people. And if you look at the mess he allowed himself and his government to get into on the Global Transportation Hub, it was simply policy driven and his refusal or acceptance that one of the people he liked, or that was his friend, could have possibly done something incorrect or wrong in this particular situation — and he hung too long to that particular policy.
“I don’t know if he perfectly got the Indigenous file, if you look at what happened to NORTEP and some other things under his watch.
“There are successes in terms of job training. I will remember him for taking a really strong stand to a tough audience on the Colten Boushie file when this province really needed someone to stand up in a right and proper way and say, ‘What you’re saying out there right now, in the wake of a horrible incident, is racist.’ In essence, that’s what Brad Wall did and I don’t think he always gets enough credit for that kind of stuff. But that is showing real leadership, more so than trying to change 150 years of social policy —which isn’t often in the realm of provincial government anyway and is very difficult to change under the tenure of one premier, even one that’s lasted as long as 10 years.”
Heather Bear (Vice-Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations)
“There was a significant boom in the province. I really feel our First Nations people were left out of that. The First Nations people never felt the recession or the boom because they’ve been in a recession for so long, which saddens me.
“I think he was a respectful man face-to-face. He was respectful to me. Overall, what has he done for First Nations people to try and close the gap when it comes to poverty? He’ll be remembered for a very difficult time when a lot of things got cut and a lot of people who were suffering suffered more.
"I wish he had a better understanding and visited our communities more and paid attention to the issues that impact everybody. It’s been a dark time. A very dark time for our people.”
“I think a major weakness, when Brad indicated his regret about the state of the finances of the province — I share that regret. And I think if there is a significant weakness or two, it would be in the inability to manage the downtime.
"It’s not a big challenge to manage good times. It’s a much greater challenge to manage the downtime. And I think the fiscal and financial management has been lacking over the last number of years and has brought us back to a position of considerable debt. And that’s got to be a concern to all of us."
“I think Premier Wall, to his credit, poked at and prodded at a variety of sacred cows, which we’ve had to see how relevant they are for the current period. And he very wisely, I think in almost all the decisions, at least from my judgement, pulled back where he felt that it just simply wasn’t right thing to do or the Saskatchewan public didn’t want it to be done.
“I am concerned, obviously, that we may have begun another era of large-scale deficit and debt. I don’t know what the numbers are, so I have to be careful about that. I hope I’m wrong — really hope I’m wrong — but if that’s the case, then it’s déjà vu all over again.”
“He’s handing the next premier a party in great shape, lots of memberships and very excited to lead and carry on his legacy. We all make some mistakes. That goes with life and goes with politics. It’s how you deal with them and how you work through them and how you come out the other side. I believe he came out the other side very, very well and people honestly know that.”
During Wall’s time as premier, the province experienced unprecedented population growth and, for most of his tenure, a strong economy buoyed by a robust oil and gas sector. The province also continued a record in population growth, with an estimated 1,168,000 people in 2017. Many credit Wall with attracting new residents to Saskatchewan.
“Brad’s number one legacy should be — and I think it will be — not what he did for the economy in this province, but what he did for the spirit of this province. He made it cool to be from Saskatchewan again. He had a lot of lucky breaks. He had absolutely nothing to do with resource pricing or demand. He got a lucky break when it came to the economy, and now it’s not so lucky. He really did elevate the mood around here, which it was desperately in need of in 2007, and he managed to maintain that for quite a while.”
“I think he’ll be remembered as a kind, capable, conscientious premier and one of the most popular that we’ve had ever. He had a good sense of right and wrong and he helped put Saskatchewan on the map.”
McMorris (speaking to Premier Wall on his final day in the assembly)
“Mr. Premier, through your passion and compassion, through your humour and wit, for your absolute love of this province and the people of this province — you have changed this province’s attitude. You have changed the way we look at ourselves. You’ve changed the way we have confidence in ourselves. We are no longer the poor cousin to Ontario and Quebec. We are the leader in the country, and a leader in the world in job security, food security, energy security. You have put us on the map.”
“I think Brad Wall has, in some ways, exceptionally been able to hold his party somewhere closer to the centre of the political equation. I’m not so sure that’s going to be possible with a new and different leader, but I think Brad was particularly gifted at keeping the party between the guard rails.
“I also know it’s not easy to maintain a good, strong home and family life and I think Brad has managed that as well as any of us over the years. And I really only wish him and Tami and their whole family well now at the conclusion of this.
“And I repeat: They love you when you’re gone.”
“Saskatchewan punched way above its weight on the national stage with Brad Wall as premier. There’s just no question about it. Saskatchewan is a smaller province with a smaller economy and Brad Wall found a way to capture the national spotlight.”
“I think history will look pretty fondly upon him because of the economic situation. Whether it neatly coincided with his time in office or not, or it was just coincidence, or he did actually bring the precise tone and tenor to Saskatchewan politics at that time when there was opportunity for economic growth, will be debated. His legacy will be that one of population growth, of high-performing economy, of maybe even solid budgets in the early years, although that will be severely tainted by what has happened in the last three to five budgets, in particular.
“His success went beyond being the average everyday guy to being the average everyday guy that could also do other things and could certainly communicate that without being over the top or tiresome. People can really smell out insincerity and there isn’t much insincerity to Brad Wall.”
With files from: CBC's Stefani Langenegger, Alec Salloum, Joelle Seal and Alex Soloducha