Fifty years ago this week, a popular Calgarian went down to federal electoral defeat as the incumbent MP for Calgary South. It would be the last time this western city would have a Liberal cabinet minister for half a century.
That long and lonely drought came to an end Wednesday when Kent Hehr, newly elected Liberal MP for Calgary Centre, was appointed minister of Veteran Affairs in the new cabinet of Justin Trudeau.
Harry Hays must be looking down with amazement.
Hays was a popular mayor of the City of Calgary when Liberal Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson recruited him to run in the 1963 election. Hays accepted the challenge, won the seat – indeed, was the only Liberal elected in Alberta and Saskatchewan – and was rewarded with the job of minister of Agriculture.
He was, however, an authentically western politician.
Born in the little Alberta town of Carstairs, he was an auctioneer, rancher, breeder and radio broadcaster. During the Second World War, he led the Canadian Swine Breeders in the Bacon for Britain campaign, increasing pork production in the war effort.
As a politician, his style was “down to earth”, in the spirit of the legendary Ralph Klein, known for off-colour comments and shaky grammar. And, according to records, Hays didn’t let a job in Ottawa prevent him from continuing on in his job as mayor of Calgary. He also kept working as an auctioneer.
In his classic rough talk, he once said he wanted “a flush-toilet, not an outhouse, farm economy for Canada.” He sought a minimum guaranteed income for farmers and a system of marketing boards (later adopted), and expanded crop insurance. Regardless of his pro-farm advocacy, however, farmers were not impressed with his opposition to farm subsidies.
Hays lost his seat in the 1965 election but the Liberals quickly appointed him to the Senate. Today, a federal building in downtown Calgary bears his name as a lasting snub from previous Liberal governments to a city and entire region of the country that turned its nose up on the Grits.
There was a smattering of Liberals in other prairie cities but they were notable because there were so few. The long separation from the Liberals meant much of the prairie West had little or no representation within the ruling party. One notable exception was “Landslide Annie” McLellan, who narrowly held onto her Edmonton seat for the Liberals, and served as Justice Minister from 1997 to 2002 and then Deputy Prime Minister in Paul Martin’s government in 2003.
Looking at the decades of prairie alienation from the Liberals, it is easy to see how Preston Manning’s Reform Party’s rallying cry – “the West wants in” – carried such power. Westerners found their way in, not through the Liberals, but by bringing disparate conservatives together and forming a party that better represented their values and beliefs (at least, at the time).
Calgary did well under the Conservatives, with a prime minister (Stephen Harper) and a high profile cabinet minister (Jason Kenney) both calling this city home. With the demise of the ruling Conservatives and Harper’s abrupt departure, it appears westerners will have a Liberal government to deal with for some time to come.
Hehr’s job, and that of his fellow MP Amarjeet Sohi representing Edmonton (as well as the Liberal MPs in Saskatchewan and Manitoba), is to ensure that this new government does not lapse into old habits, putting the concerns of central Canada above all else.
It is a daunting challenge but Justin Trudeau’s cabinet offers hope that the West has a seat at the table. Harjit Sajjan and Carla Qualtrough are both from British Columbia, Hehr and Sohi from Alberta, Ralph Goodale represents Saskatchewan and Jim Carr and MaryAnn Mihychuk are from Manitoba.
In a small Liberal cabinet, these strong voices assure that western provinces retain influence in proportion to their size. I never knew Dan Hays but I’m willing to bet he would be pleased.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.