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Over the past 40 years, there have been many important politicians on the federal level for Canada. Some have served as Prime Ministers, others as leaders of party. Arguably, one of the most influential would be Preston Manning. While he never served as prime minister, the party he would create would reshape Canadian politics forever, and its effects are being felt to this very day.
The son of Muriel and Ernest Manning, Ernest Preston Manning was born on June 10, 1942, in Edmonton. His father was one of the most important premiers in Canadian history, having led Alberta as the leader of the Social Credit Party from 1943 to 1968, followed by time in the Canadian Senate from 1970 to 1983. Preston’s grandparents had come from England earlier in the century.
For the first 12 years of his life, Manning lived in Edmonton where his father obviously worked as premier.
Manning would say of his early life and famous father quote:
“The family itself did not play that great a role in politics in those days. But at a very early age, I began looking at things from a governing point of view because my father was the leader of the government.”
In 1954 the family moved to a 900-acre dairy farm east of Edmonton and Manning would attend Horse Hill High School. During his high school years, Manning would write short columns about the school for the Edmonton Journal. In 1957, he took home a governor-general’s bronze medals for high marks in Grade 9. He would also be declared grand champion at a 4-H competition for his shorthorn calf named Touchdown. Unfortunately, once Touchdown was fat enough, he was sent to the meatpackers.
Manning would say years later quote:
“It was a traumatic experience.”
Living on the farm, Manning would get his first job hauling manure at the farm. He stated quote:
“My first job was driving a honey wagon at a nickel a load. Seventy Holstein cows produce a lot of that stuff.”
Originally drawn to physics, Manning would end up graduating with a degree in economics in 1964 from the University of Alberta. As a young man, Manning was seen as someone who would follow in his father’s footsteps.
Inspired by his father, Manning attempted to get elected to the House of Commons in 1965 at the young age of 23 as a member of the Social Credit Party.
On Sept. 30, 1965, the Red Deer Advocate would write quote:
“It is pointed out that by running federally Mr. Preston Manning cannot be accused of wanting to use his father’s position to help him progress up the political ladder.”
Despite his name recognition, and his father still serving as the Premier of Alberta, Manning was unable to defeat his Progressive Conservative opponent, finishing second with 6,000 less votes.
In 1966, Manning would take a job as a researcher at the think tank National Public Affairs Research Foundation. While there, he would work on several projects including a proposal for re-aligning Alberta provincial politics through a merger between the Social Credit Party and the Progressive Conservative Party that was quickly rising in popularity. Both party leaders rejected the proposal. Manning would also work on the White Paper on Human Resource Development for The Social Credit Government in Alberta. This white paper would lead to the creation of the Department of Youth, the Human Resources Council and the Alberta Service Corps.
Manning would state quote:
“My father always tested any decision from a government’s point of view. Would it stand up? Not for a week or two but as a government policy for the long term. That made a big impression on me.”
One year later in 1967, he would marry Sandra Beavis, a musician and nursing student from the University of Alberta. Together, the couple would have five children together.
In 1968, just after their marriage, the couple would travel to Asia on a fact-finding mission to determine if the involvement of the United States in the region was justified. He would come away with a reaffirmed commitment to conservatism. He would state quote:
Following his father’s retirement as premier in 1968, Manning would join forces with his father to create Manning Consultants, a new management consulting firm. The firm would have some of the largest energy companies in Alberta as clients.
Manning would not forget about his political hopes at this time either through the Social Conservative Society and the Movement for National Political Change. While neither organization made many waves, they would help to lay the foundations for policies that would be incorporated into the Reform Party.
Manning’s choice to start movements rather than join one came down to watching his own father’s party go down in flames after his father left as premier. He would state quote:
“Even then I did not want to be involved with the Liberal and Conservative parties. I decided I would rather wait to get in on the beginning of the next movement, instead of being on the tail end of the last one.”
Throughout Manning’s life, the Bible and his faith was extremely important to him, and he would appear often on Back to the Bible Hour, a Western Canadian radio show launched by Premier William Aberhart, and continued by Manning’s father during his time as premier.
Manning would say quote:
“I have always been interested in relating religion to business, science, politics and conflict resolution.”
Throughout his life, Manning was also a teetotaler and had an allergy to cigarette smoke, which required those who worked for him to find somewhere else to light up. A lover of fishing, he would spend days on the Red Deer River with his sons, and he also had a deep fascination with the events that led to the American Civil War.
One aide would say of Manning’s fishing quote:
“He is so painfully honest. I bet he measures every fish he catches in case they are undersize.”
Those who would work for him through the years would find him to be a level-headed individual. Brian Hay, who worked with Manning in the 1970s stated quote:
“He is very open, very down to Earth. I have never seen him lose his cool. What you see is what you get.”
By the mid-1980s, the political landscape of Canada was changing. Brian Mulroney was serving as the prime minister of Canada through an alliance of the various conservative groups across the country under the Progressive Conservative Party. In the west, there was growing discontent with the party and the talk of western separatism was on the rise as well. Seeing that the political climate was changing, Manning would meet in Calgary on Oct. 16, 1986, with four others, including two oil sector lawyers, the president of Canada West Foundation and a prominent Progressive Conservative. The group decided that they would hold a conference in the spring of 1987 to develop a Western Political Agenda.
At the subsequent conference, the Western Political Agenda was adopted, which included electing the Canadian Senate, entrenching economic rights, pushing for more free trade and allowing free votes in the House of Commons. Manning would also present his idea for a new party, which 77 per cent of attendees voted in favour of, with a Founding Convention to be held in the fall.
In that conference, held from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1, 1987, attendees voted to create a new federal party in the west, while adopting a draft constitution and choosing the name of The Reform Party of Canada. At the conference, Stephen Harper, future prime minister of Canada and an early member of the Reform Party, would give an address on regional fairness in national decision making. Manning was elected as the first leader of the new party. He would serve as the only leader the party would ever have.
For people in the west who were disillusioned with the Mulroney Government, there was a great appeal to the pillars of this new party.
In the 1988 federal election, the first for Manning and the Reform Party, he ran in the Yellowhead Riding against former Prime Minister Joe Clark. Manning would finish second in the election, with Joe Clark taking 6,000 more votes. The Reform Party would run in 72 ridings, losing in every single one.
During his race against Clark, Manning found some time for some fun. Knowing that Clark was coming to Jasper by train, several Reform staffers came up with the idea of meeting the train as a posse on horses. They would speak to Manning about it assuming he would not be in favour of it. Virgil Anderson would state quote:
“We put it to Preston, thinking he would not be in it. In fact, he led the 20-strong posse, on his horse, with a poster saying ‘Wanted: Joe Clark alias Joe Who for failing to represent the constituency.”
Unfortunately, due to a train problem, Clark never arrived in Jasper but by all accounts, Manning still had a good time.
On March 13, 1989, Deborah Grey would win a by-election in Alberta, becoming the first Reform MP in the House of Commons.
For the next four years, Manning would raise his profile in Canada, especially through his opposition to the Meech Lake Accord, as well as its successor the Charlottetown Accord.
With the demise of Meech Lake, Manning would state quote:
“It’s finished and Ottawa will be the last to know.”
Manning would state that Quebec needed to stay on precisely the same terms as every other province, or it needed to leave. He would state quote:
“The old Canada is dying. We need a new Canada.”
Manning would also speak out against the policies of multiculturalism and bilingualism. He would state quote:
It should be noted that Manning was not anti-French, but he followed the style of John Diefenbaker, in advocating a One Canada policy, with Canada as a homogeneous entity.
Manning would state quote:
“Quebec is the only province that can crack the Canadian Constitution wide open. It is our hope in the west that Quebec does crack it open. We have some fundamental changes to propose as well, and our fist will be quite different from Quebec’s.”
Christine Whitaker would recall the first time she heard Manning speak in support of the Reform Party. It was in 1990 in a small meeting in Fort Qu’Appelle. She would say that she was disgusted with the government of Brian Mulroney and Manning’s speech struck and immediate chord with her. This would be the case for many people. She would say quote:
“Everything he said made sense to me. He invoked the way we think about these kinds of things.”
Many responded well to Manning and the Reform’s grassroots campaign. Party members would stay in inexpensive hotels and keep costs down. At one point, Manning was flying from Calgary to Ontario when a passenger in the executive class noticed him in 1990 and stated:
“I suggested to the cabin crew that the Reform leader be upgraded but he refused. He had paid for economy class and would stay there.”
Manning would add to this by stating quote:
“All across the country people are trying to balance their budgets. I know families of Alberta oilfield workers whose hourly wages have shrunk from $17 to $11, and they make do. Yet in Ottawa we have government after government that refuse to pay their way.”
Even outside the west, Manning found support. During one Halifax meeting with 30 people in attendance, half of those who attended paid $10 for a party membership, including Eileen Stubbs, the former Dartmouth mayor who stated quote:
“I have never been as disgruntled with a federal government as I have with this one.”
Manning would routinely attack the Mulroney government. He would state quote:
“Trudeau’s vision was very different from what we wanted but the West respected him for having a position and sticking to it. With Mr. Mulroney, they don’t see any vision at all.”
Throughout the late-1980s and early-1990s, Manning travelled the backroads of Canada, outside of Quebec, drumming up the cause of the Reform Party, often to small audiences but as time went on, those audiences would grow in size, especially in the west.
As his party continued to grow in popularity, Manning was asked about his chances of becoming prime minister. He would state quote:
“My expectations are more modest. Maybe leader of a party with up to three dozen MPs in Parliament. I will be pleasantly surprised if my expectations are exceeded.”
Manning continued to push the Reform message throughout western Canada and that work would prove to bring success in the 1993 election, one of the most pivotal elections in Canadian history.
Manning would attack the Conservatives heavily in the election, hoping to bring their voters over to his party. At one point on the campaign trail, he would state quote:
“If you have a weatherman who predicts sunny skies tomorrow for nine years in a row, and all that ever came is rain, hail, sleet and snow, would you now be considering replacing him?”
During the debate, Manning, who could not speak French, only giving an opening and closing statement and said nothing else in between.
In that election, support for the Progressive Conservatives would collapse throughout Canada. In Alberta, 22 of 26 seats were won by the Reform Party, along with 24 of 30 in British Columbia, four in Saskatchewan and one in Manitoba. Now running in Calgary Southwest, Manning would be elected to the House of Commons in a massive victory over incumbent Bobbie Sparrow. In that election, Manning took 61 per cent of the vote in the riding, and nearly 30,000 more votes than Sparrow. Overall, the Reform saw its seat count rise from one to 52, finishing only two back from the Bloc Quebecois for Official Opposition Status.
Manning would state on election night quote:
“Tonight, the political landscape of Canada has been significantly altered. A different political era has begun in our country. The task of representing real grassroots democracy will be taken up in the next Parliament by Reform members.”
During his first term in the House of Commons, Manning would pressure the government over Senate Reform. On April 20, 1998, Manning would give one of the longest speeches in the House of Commons in the 20th century when he argued about defects in the Senate and the behaviour of its members.
Leading up to the 1997 election, there was a concentrated effort to change the style and appearance of Manning. He was much more comfortable in speaking; his French was improving, and he would have laser eye surgery, so he did not need to wear glasses anymore. His hair was also combed differently to transform his appearance. He would also work with a voice coach. Some would speculate that Manning had also picked up the habit of smiling every few minutes. Gary Poole, a Simon Fraser University psychologist would say at the time, quote:
“He does it very deliberately in mid-sentence. Somewhere along the line someone has told him to smile every few minutes.”
Manning would attack Chretien for his age during the campaign stating quote:
“During the first week, he’s virtually disappeared. He went for a walk in the woods and took a rest. This is not exactly the vigorous kind of energy that’s required to take a country into the 21st century.”
Manning would have issues when protestors during a Guelph speech who yelled “Racist”, “Sexist” and “Anti-Gay”. Unable to talk over the protestors, Manning would leave before his speech was finished.
Manning’s mother, Muriel, would even get involved, attacking Chretien after the prime minister cited her deceased husband Ernest, who he said wouldn’t support Preston’s campaign. She would say quote:
“Is Mr. Chretien so desperate to defend his position that he has to drum up support from the grave?”
In the 1997 election, Manning and the Reform Party increased their seat total to 60, which put them into the Official Opposition and made Manning the new Leader of the Official Opposition. Manning, despite campaigning across Canada and only spending one day in his home riding, still took the riding by 18,000 votes.
On election night, Manning would state quote:
At the time, all of the Members of Parliament for the Reform Party were in western Canada. In an effort to combat this and give the party a strong chance of forming the government in the next election, Manning would initiate the United Alternative movement, which proposed a merger of the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservative Party, much as he had once proposed in the 1960s. Joe Clark, after a hiatus away from Parliament, was back in as leader of the party and he was against the idea of a merger. For some, their anger towards the Progressive Conservative Party they had once supported now made them go against a possible merger with the shattered party.
The process of uniting would be unpopular with some of his party members, including some who began to rebel against his plan. Manning would state that the uniting was needed so the party could make headways into Ontario, which would help improve its chances of winning a federal election. He would state quote:
“The way you achieve what we want to achieve is to get 150-plus members of Parliament. At the end of the day, there are a large number of people who want to see something done, whatever it takes, to implement our policies.”
Manning would add that many times there have been stories of the Reform Party shattering, but the party always made it through. He would state quote:
“Every time there are these stories that it’s going to blow apart but each time, we have emerged stronger, rather than weaker.”
A second United Alternative convention would be held, and Manning would state he did not want to lead Reform anymore, only the new party. At that convention, Manning won 74.6 per cent of the vote in a leadership review. Soon after, the party voted to become the Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance, which was a mixture of some Progressive Conservatives and the Reform Party.
The name was soon dropped when it was found that Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance Party would spell CCRAP, or crap, and the name of the Canadian Alliance was chosen.
On March 10, 2000, Manning resigned as the Leader of the Opposition in order to run for the leadership of the new party. Deborah Gray replaced him, becoming the first female leader of the Official Opposition and I will be talking about her next week.
Manning would state upon his resignation quote:
“I give few things in public life more importance than seeking and obtaining a democratic mandate from electors. Accordingly, I wish to be as free as I can possibly be over the next few months to meet with members of the new alliance to discuss issues with them, to share ideas, and to ask for support.”
In the first Canadian Alliance leadership election on July 8, 2000, Stockwell Day defeated Manning to become the leader of the new party with 63.6 per cent of the vote on the second ballot. Manning finished second with 36.6 per cent of the vote. I’ll be talking about Stockwell Day in two weeks.
Following his defeat, Manning would say quote:
“The operation was a success, but the doctor died.”
He would add quote:
“It is easy to believe in democracy when the vote goes our way, but the real test is our commitment to democracy, our acceptance of the result when the vote goes the other way.”
For 10 days following his defeat, Manning rode on horseback through the Rocky Mountains, followed by a visit to Vancouver Island for a vacation.
Manning would say months later, quote:
“The hardest thing is not the disappointment. It’s that when you’ve been going on nerves and adrenaline for so long and you stop, the doctors say your immune systems goes down. There’s a kind of withdrawal phenomenon you go through. I just dealt with it as best I could.”
Throughout the 2000 federal election campaign, Manning would campaign for Canadian Alliance candidates, but gone were the groups of reporters who followed him through the 1990s. During one visit to Victoria to campaign for three candidates, he would say of the loss of the limelight quote:
In the Nov. 27, 2000, election, Manning would be elected in his riding once again but soon after he announced he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. On March 21, 2001, Manning made the decision, due to his health and turmoil in the party, to resign from federal politics. He would leave Parliament in January of 2002.
He would then found the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, a not-for-profit political think tank and advocacy group that promotes conservative principles.
In 2016, Manning resigned from executive functions with the organization, but he was still involved until 2020 when he announced he was retiring from the centre to spend more time with his family.
Over the course of his life, Manning has received nine honorary degrees and in 2007 was awarded the Order of Canada. In 2012, he was awarded the Alberta Order of Excellence and in 2013 he was appointed to the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Wikipedia, Red Deer Advocate, Edmonton Journal, Huffington Post, The Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, National Post,