When Elijah Harper made a surprise visit to Gary Filmon’s office on the morning of June 12, 1990, Manitoba’s premier at the time had a pretty good idea what it was about.
Canada was in the midst of a constitutional crisis and Manitoba was one of the holdout provinces to approve the Meech Lake Accord.
"The hair rose on the back of my neck," Filmon wrote in his new book Yes We Did: Leading in Turbulent Times. "I suspected what it was about."
Indigenous leaders had not been consulted on the proposed constitutional changes. Harper, the NDP MLA for Rupertsland, told Filmon in person he planned to block it. He was going to deny unanimous consent of the house, a procedural requirement needed to pass the accord in Manitoba’s legislative assembly.
It was a historic moment for Indigenous rights and one Filmon, now 79, documents in the 280-page book that’s been five years in the making.
Filmon, who served as Manitoba’s premier between 1988 and 1999, provides previously unpublished details of the meetings and conferences that dominated the Canadian political landscape in the late 1980s, as the Meech Lake Accord was unravelling. The lobbying of Manitoba was fierce, Filmon recalls. Joe Clark, then external affairs minister, and Lowell Murray, a Tory senator, even flew to Gimli (where Filmon has a cottage) on government’s Challenger jet one long weekend, insisting they meet with him personally.
"I never thought of it as stressful at the time," Filmon said in an interview with the Free Press. "But looking back, I know that there was certainly a lot of pressure on me from many different angles."
Filmon recalls one Meech Lake meeting where Alberta premier Don Getty, a former CFL quarterback, physically prevented Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells from leaving the room, after P.E.I. premier Joe Ghiz insulted him.
"I’ve known you since law school at Dalhousie, Clyde," Ghiz blurted out. "You were an a—hole then and you’re still an a—hole."
Filmon delves into a wide range of topics in the book, published locally by Heartland Associates, including the privatization of the former Manitoba Telephone System, the 1997 Flood of the Century and the public inquiry into the vote-rigging scandal that rocked the Tories in 1999.
"It was like water torture — drip, drip, drip until all the gory details had been revealed," Filmon wrote of the inquiry.
Like many books penned by former politicians, Leading in Turbulent Times is written through a partisan lens. The former premier pulls no punches in tearing down his political opponents. At the same time, it offers a rare glimpse into what drove some of the decisions the province made in the 1990s.
It also reveals the personal hardship Filmon endured when his wife and current Manitoba Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989. "I could not share the news without crying openly and unashamedly," he wrote.
"I can remember standing with Doer to watch the Icelandic Festival Parade in August of 1985, where we heckled (then–NDP premier) Howard Pawley as he passed by in his open convertible. We had become both friends and political soulmates."
Meanwhile, it was widely known Filmon shared a friendship with his political nemesis Gary Doer, the former NDP premier, before the two did battle on the political stage. Less known was how close that friendship was (they lunched together twice a month, "double dated," and hung out with family and friends at the beach) and how deeply hurt Filmon was when Doer ran for the NDP.
"I can remember standing with Doer to watch the Icelandic Festival Parade in August of 1985, where we heckled (then-NDP premier) Howard Pawley as he passed by in his open convertible," Filmon wrote. "We had become both friends and political soulmates."
When Doer, former president of the Manitoba Government Employees’ Union, called a surprise press conference to announce his NDP candidacy, Filmon was crushed. He telephoned Doer and hung up on him.
"I’m not sure what was more upsetting for me," Filmon wrote. "Was it the anger over his treachery or my bitter disappointment at being played for a fool? Without question, it was the most difficult lesson in trust and human nature that I have ever had and despite the painful nature of the lesson, I guess it made me stronger."
The book is a must-read for political junkies and a valuable contribution to the Manitoba and Canadian political record. It hits the bookstands this weekend.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.