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Wednesday January 26, 2011

Call it meaningful, or call it mean, he believed in the right-wing rhetoric

'The Margaret Thatcher of Manitoba' cracked down on welfare, ended rent control and slashed civil service and hospital budgets

Special to The Globe and Mail

Throughout his career as Manitoba politician, premier and jurist, Sterling (Red) Lyon led a life of contradictions.

The child of a single mother, he implemented a crackdown on Manitoba's welfare moms.

After campaigning as a neo-conservative and deficit slayer, he ran up record deficits.

He won the largest percentage of votes in the history of Manitoba during the 1977 election, but became the province's only one-term premier.

And, after years of warning that federal Charter rights guarantees would allow courts to overturn provincial legislation, he served for 15 years as a federally appointed Manitoba appeal court judge.

He died on Dec. 16 of natural causes after a year of declining health.

Lyon was born on Jan. 30, 1927, in Windsor to Ella Mae (Cuthbert), a stenographer, and David Rufus Lyon, a lawyer. When his parents separated six months later, his mother moved back to her hometown of Portage La Prairie, Man., to live with her parents on upscale Dufferin Street. Her father, Sterling Roy Cuthbert, was a member of the Portage establishment, and worked for the local exhibition board.

It was on Dufferin Street that the young Lyon came under the influence of neighbour Calvert Miller, a conservative lawyer who encouraged him to enter law school.

After graduating in 1948 from United College (now the University of Winnipeg), Lyon spent a year as a police reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press before entering the University of Manitoba's law school. Upon graduation in 1953, he married Barbara Mayers, a bank clerk who lived in his boarding house. After working four years as a Crown attorney, Lyon entered politics as a Conservative MLA in 1958.

Two months before the election, he attended his final trial as a lawyer - defence attorney for Kikkik, an Inuit mother charged with the murder of a shaman and the death of one of her children. The trial was an international sensation and won Lyon a place in the North's legal lore. Appearing before a sympathetic judge and jury, Kikkik was acquitted of all charges despite admitting to stabbing her husband's murderer to death at a fishing camp and later abandoning two of her children, one of whom died, in a makeshift igloo while struggling across the barren lands to seek help.

As an MLA, Lyon won seven provincial elections, regularly garnering more than 60 per cent of his ridings' votes.

In 1958, he became attorney-general, the cabinet's youngest minister, and assumed the role of outspoken neo-conservative in a party of Red Tories. The Winnipeg Free Press wrote in 1982 that he "did the gutter fighting and spoke the strong words" for premier Dufferin Roblin.

After losing a bid for his party's leadership in 1967, Lyon gave up his seat to become corporate counsel for retailer General Distributors, but returned to provincial politics in a 1976 by-election. He won the party leadership the following year.

Eighteen years before Mike Harris brought his Common Sense Revolution to Ontario, Lyon rode his right-wing rhetoric of "acute, protracted restraint" to a stunning victory in Manitoba's 1977 election. He won 49 per cent of the popular vote - a provincial record - and claimed 33 of 57 seats.

Citing a provincial debt that had ballooned to $3.5-billion under the NDP, his government laid off almost 10 per cent of the civil service and cut social spending and the budgets of hospitals and universities before the realities of politics slowed the Lyon revolution to a crawl.

A short, bullet-shaped straight shooter who used to tell his colleagues that he "would rather be right than be premier," Lyon scrapped most of the cabinet and central planning committees and gave decision-making power to his ministers.

His caucus had mixed feelings about his leadership style. One frustrated insider told a Winnipeg magazine in 1980 that after consulting his advisers, "he would go against all advice to follow his own instincts and intuition." Another told Canadian Magazine that he was tops at delegating responsibility but also "demanding and hard on failure with a tightly controlled temper."

Today, his youngest son Jonathon, chief of staff for Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen, remembers that Lyon always had lots of time for family. His regular Saturday excursions to Safeway with his children took longer than most, as he always took time to talk to the constituents who interrupted his grocery shopping.

His right-wing principles often led to controversy.

When a 40-year-old welfare mother of five won a court ruling to prevent welfare officials from recouping the value of a vacation given her by friends, the Conservatives drafted the headline-grabbing Social Allowances Act to deduct personal gifts from welfare payments. An end to rent control resulted in double-digit rent increases, angering tenants throughout the province.

After the Supreme Court ordered the province to restore French language rights to 60,000 franco-Manitobans, Lyon refused to provide government services in French.

Looking back at the Lyon years, Howard Pawley of the NDP recalls, "He was probably the most eloquent speaker I ever heard in my political life and he certainly honestly believed in what he was saying. On the other hand, he would create cleavages."

The NDP's Len Evans used stronger language to Maclean's magazine in 1980: "There is a meanness around here. The government has been mean, negative and unimaginative."

Lyon's personal dislike of prime minister Pierre Trudeau fuelled his charge against a national charter of rights that he felt would override the will of provincial and federal legislators.

Ignoring an upcoming provincial election, Lyon took centre stage in the nation's 1980-81 constitutional crisis. As chair of the 1980-81 Council of Premiers, he became a spokesman for provincial rights, putting himself squarely in the path of Trudeau's Charter. Along with seven other premiers, Lyon argued that the protection of the citizenry should be left in the hands of elected legislatures and not appointed judges administering a charter.

Former transportation minister Don Orchard told the Winnipeg Sun recently that the stand at first baffled the cabinet. "How could you be against a charter of rights? But by the time Sterling finished his explanation ... you then understood why he had to take up the fight."

Sixteen days before the November, 1981, election, Lyon joined the other premiers and the prime minister in Ottawa to hammer out a deal. He played to his home audience with a string of anti-Trudeau invectives, calling him "a mid-Atlantic person with a mindset somewhere east of Iceland."

Meanwhile back home, the election was no longer looking like an easy victory. The economy was sputtering in light of high interest rates, rising bankruptcies and unemployment, so Lyon hurried home for the final days of campaigning - one day before a constitutional compromise was reached. Although he signed the notwithstanding clause that would allow any province to opt out of specific parts of the Charter, his election advisers decided their leader's resistance to Charter rights had become a liability and focused on local issues only.

Lyon's return to the campaign trail failed to stop the NDP and within two weeks of his return, he found himself leader of the opposition again. The $251-million deficit for his final year in office was a provincial record.

Pawley remarks that he had ignored the economy. "He was busy trying to repatriate the Constitution but should have been repatriating the thousands of sons and daughters who left the province looking for work."

For the next two years, Lyon returned to his socialist-bashing rhetoric and managed to block the government's French-language-rights legislation by forcing premier Pawley to prorogue the legislature in 1984.

He retired from politics in 1986 and was appointed to the Manitoba Court of Appeal by prime minister Brian Mulroney. In Ottawa, the opposition complained that he was "sexist and racist." The Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson reminded readers that Lyon had "vigorously opposed including a Charter of Rights in the Canadian Constitution" that he was about to defend.

With his appointment to the bench, Lyon kept a lower profile, visiting Portage la Prairie and his cottage at nearby Delta Beach often to hunt and relax. Two weeks after retiring from the court in 2002, he was involved in a near fatal car accident, sustaining injuries that affected him until his death. He was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2009.

Daughter Nancy Matthews, an assistant deputy minister in the Ontario government, says her father was not particularly interested in his political reputation. "He valued public service so his accomplishments were measured in that context."

Lyon leaves five children and six grandchildren. His wife Barbara predeceased him in 2006.

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