If the adage "it takes one to know one" is true, Don Leitch's appointment to the top job in Manitoba’s civil service is being viewed as the "perfect choice."

If the adage "it takes one to know one" is true, Don Leitch's appointment to the top job in Manitoba’s civil service is being viewed as the "perfect choice."

Since Leitch's "reappointment" as clerk of executive council — a position he held from 1988 to 1999 — and secretary to cabinet was announced Sunday, the top bureaucrat who succeeded him said he's heard from nearly all former Manitoba clerks appointed by PC and NDP premiers that Leitch is "a perfect choice because of (his) knowledge, experience and integrity."

Jim Eldridge, who was appointed clerk by NDP premier Gary Doer in 1999 and retired in 2004, said Wednesday he's a big fan and a close friend of Leitch, who was appointed by Progressive Conservative premiers Gary Filmon in 1988 and Sunday by Kelvin Goertzen.

Leitch replaces David McLaughlin (above), who served as campaign manager for the PCs in their provincial election victories in 2016 and 2019. (Colin Corneau / Brandon Sun files)

Leitch replaces David McLaughlin (above), who served as campaign manager for the PCs in their provincial election victories in 2016 and 2019. (Colin Corneau / Brandon Sun files)

Leitch replaces David McLaughlin, who served as campaign manager for the PCs in their provincial election victories in 2016 and 2019. McLaughlin's appointment as clerk of the executive council by premier Brian Pallister had been criticized by some who called it the politicization of the civil service.

"I think it’s an excellent appointment," said Paul Vogt, who served as the clerk of the executive council from 2005-13 and was later president of Red River College (2015-19).

"Don is highly respected across the public service and in the business and arts communities," said Vogt, now president of the College of the Rockies, headquartered in Cranbrook, B.C.

Leitch's first public function as clerk was Tuesday, when he presided over Premier Heather Stefanson's swearing-in ceremony with Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Leitch's first public function as clerk was Tuesday, when he presided over Premier Heather Stefanson's swearing-in ceremony with Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Leitch's first public function as clerk was Tuesday, when he presided over Premier Heather Stefanson's swearing-in ceremony with Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon.

On Wednesday, Leitch attended his first meeting as secretary to cabinet and did not respond to a request for comment.

The clerk of the executive council is the premier's right hand, head of the civil service, on call 24-7 for a crisis and in charge of making sure the government runs, no matter what, said Eldridge.

Whether it is the 1997 "Flood of the Century" that Leitch dealt with, or the aftermath of 9-11 that was on Eldridge's watch, the clerk is in charge of organizing government response, he said.

"The premier and the cabinet rely on him to put a bring the right parts together. When you've had experience, you just know who you should look to — not necessarily the individual, but the procedure," Eldridge said.

Jim Eldridge, who was appointed clerk by NDP premier Gary Doer in 1999 and retired in 2004, says he's a big fan of Leitch. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Jim Eldridge, who was appointed clerk by NDP premier Gary Doer in 1999 and retired in 2004, says he's a big fan of Leitch. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"A simple way of putting it is: you're the deputy minister to the premier and cabinet secretary which means that you're privy to what happens in in the cabinet and in our system," he said. "You're in between the political side and the bureaucratic side, making sure that the orders are known and followed."

Leitch's leadership style and reputation might convince members of the shrinking civil service to stick around, which and would be good for all of Manitoba, Eldridge said.

"Anybody who's worked with him, I think, would tell their colleagues he's really a first-class boss and very, very sensitive to individual people's situations," the former top civil servant said. "Even when people need to be moved or something like that, he was always very certain to to give them every every potential benefit that was coming to them.

"He got the reputation of being a good person."

With the province in the middle of a health crisis (COVID-19) and a civil service demoralized after five years under a combative premier (Pallister) who was driven to reduce their ranks and their pay, why would Leitch, who is 72, want the job?

"He knows that he can make a contribution because he understands the way the Manitoba system works, and a lot of the legislation that's relevant," Eldridge said.

Leitch has also had the benefit of seeing from inside how other governments work. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Leitch has also had the benefit of seeing from inside how other governments work. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Leitch has also had the benefit of seeing from inside how other governments work: in B.C., he served as deputy minister for economic development, international investment and trade, small business, and tourism; in Alberta, he was in charge of setting up Travel Alberta as a Crown corporation and was its first chief executive officer.

"He knows a lot of different areas of public policy and is interested in it," said Eldridge. "When you're able to get a job like that, you have the chance to do some really positive things by knowing what buttons to push to get something done and get it done quickly."

From 2014 to 2020, Leitch was president and CEO of the Business Council of Manitoba.

"When we deliver messages to government, it is not about how do you do something that will better our members' companies," Leitch said in a Free Press interview in 2020. "It is about how to better the province and how to benefit the economy so we can all grow."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.