Preston Manning (Profile)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on September 22, 1997. Partner content is not updated.

The view from Reform party headquarters in Calgary is of the Canadian Rockies, but inside the sixth-floor conference room the words are from Virginia, courtesy of Thomas Jefferson.

Manning, Preston

The view from Reform party headquarters in Calgary is of the Canadian Rockies, but inside the sixth-floor conference room the words are from Virginia, courtesy of Thomas Jefferson. "I can think of no safer depository for the ultimate powers of society than in the people themselves," Preston MANNING paraphrases reverentially. "And if you think them unfit to exercise self-government with a hope of discretion, the remedy is not to take self-government from them, but to inform their discretion." The Reform party leader embraces the words, penned in 1820 by the third president of the United States, as a personal creed and the foundation for a political movement that, in 10 years, has evolved from a western fringe party to the status of Canada's official Opposition. And for a fleeting moment, it is as if he has exposed his soul and, evoking one rudimentary concept of democracy, provided a glimpse into what motivates him as a politician.

If only it were that simple. The perception of Manning as democrat is tempered by other, less flattering, descriptions. Hero to some, villain to others, he has been called a populist, a visionary, a right-wing ideologue, a pragmatist, a religious zealot, a democrat, an anti-Quebec bigot, a power-seeking authoritarian and a defender of Canada. Some celebrate him as a leader with great empathy for all people; others denounce him as a voice for intolerance. But enough voters have embraced Manning to give his party 60 seats in the new House of Commons, compared with 52 before, and send him to Stornoway, the official residence of the leader of the Opposition. And one thing is undeniable - the politician's son with the twangy voice has become one of the country's most influential politicians, with a new heightened platform from which to spread his gospel.

So far, the message has been unequivocal. Manning has called for nothing less than a revolution in traditional federal politics: arguing for the recall of politicians, more free votes and an elected Senate with equal representation from the provinces. And at the core of his agenda is the drive to reconfigure Canada from a union of two founding nations - French and English - into a federation of 10 equal provinces. As Opposition leader - and facing the need to expand his party beyond its western power base - will Manning become more moderate? Liberal insiders are certainly counting on that possibility. "He may want to change politics, but to change politics he has to get elected beyond the West," says longtime Liberal strategist Jerry Yanover, senior policy adviser to Liberal House Leader Don Boudria. "That means he must spend time on issues his region does not represent." And that has left Reform facing a "Gordian knot," according to Peter Donolo, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's director of communications. "They must try to expand their support in other parts of Canada, while not losing their western base," Donolo says. "The risk is if they try to appeal to others, they alienate those who support them. If they don't, they run the risk of remaining a western party that slowly dwindles."

Manning insists that his voice will continue to be heard, loud and clear - and that far from Ottawa changing him, Reform is already changing Ottawa. In some respects, he has a point. After the 1993 election, Reform helped to force the deficit onto the federal agenda; now, the emphasis is on national unity. Manning has long argued that Quebecers must be made aware of the potentially dire consequences of separation - an approach that some observers say is mirrored in the federal Liberals' more hardline stance on Quebec, known as Plan B. And last week, after a 75-minute private meeting with Chrétien, Manning emerged to tell reporters that the Prime Minister appeared to be coming around to Reform's contention - expressed in a speech by Manning 20 months ago - that any recognition of Quebec as a distinct society must not confer special powers on the province, and must protect Quebec's linguistic minorities while reaffirming Canadian unity. "I do think they're trying to do something to the distinct society motion along the lines that we've suggested," Manning said. And he claimed: "There is some movement in the government's position."

Who is doing the moving, though, remains an open question. To some ardent Reformers, Manning's more conciliatory tone smacks of a further compromising of principles. And for many Canadians, policy is not the issue - Manning himself is. After 10 years on the political scene, he still elicits deeply contradictory reactions. "The Preston I know is a humble guy who cares deeply about his country and those in need," says Don Hamilton of Edmonton, a former United Church minister and longtime friend of Manning. But that is not the Preston that Richard Chambers knows. A former Reform activist from Saskatoon, he burned his membership card in disgust last year. "Preston Manning is a dangerous man," Chambers warns, "nothing short of a ruthless dictator."

Manning remains a paradox: a man guided by the "objective truths" of his deeply rooted Christianity, yet one who says he is subservient to the democratic will of the majority. A political figure who seems to lack passion and often appears aloof, yet is able to evoke powerful emotions. In truth, few people profess to know Manning well, or consider themselves among his close circle of friends - if such a circle even exists. "It's really quite amazing - I don't think anyone truly knows Preston Manning," says Ted Byfield, founder of the newsmagazine Alberta Report and an influential conservative who helped found the Reform party. "He's just not the sort of person you feel you get to know, feel close to, the way you might with other people."

Two large concrete pillars mark the entrance to the new suburban development on the edge of a golf course about 10 km south of Calgary's city limits. The Manning family moved from the city to this neighborhood of sprawling homes and generous yards late last year - a setting that allows Manning to pursue his love of horseback riding, fishing on the nearby Bow River and pickup games of touch football. But the family home remains strictly off-limits to the media. Manning is determined that his wife, Sandra, and their five children - three daughters and two sons, aged 17 to 29 - be spared the sometimes painful intrusions of political life.

In that sense, he has carefully protected his family's privacy as his father, Ernest Manning, did during the 25 years he spent as Social Credit premier of Alberta. A towering figure in Alberta politics who died in February, 1996, at age 87, the elder Manning also kept his political and private lives separate. "My father was not the type to come home and talk about what was going on in the office," Manning recalls. "So in that way, he created a neutral background in our home life. Politics was something he did at the office."

But Manning's quest to continue that family tradition and keep his private life out of the public eye has, in some ways, robbed him of a human dimension. "Through the eye of the camera, he comes across as a hectoring know-it-all," says veteran Alberta writer Frank Dabbs, whose book Preston Manning: The Routes of Reform will be published in October. "But when you get a chance to meet him, it's a different portrayal." The private Manning, acquaintances say, is a down-to-earth, warm individual with a strong and easily triggered sense of humor. That, at least, is the impression of Calgary's John Andreasen, who operates an outfitting service for fly fishermen, and his wife, Bethe, a former editor of the fishing magazine Trout Canada. They met Manning six years ago and have developed a warm, personal relationship. "He's a very kind, relaxed guy, the sort of person who will start gathering the dishes after we eat," Bethe Andreasen says. "And he's very inclusive - always wanting to make sure others are included and no one feels left out."

That is also the Manning that Ed Wilkins remembers from the days when they were friends at Horse Hill High School, northeast of Edmonton, in the 1950s. Wilkins recalls Manning as a gangly but athletic teen with a strong sense of fair play, even in schoolyard games of football and baseball. "Preston always wanted to make sure the sides were even, so everyone would have a fair chance," says Wilkins, now an elementary schoolteacher who no longer keeps in close touch with his former high-school chum.

Manning's athleticism has continued to this day - even though his physical presence is deceptive. He looks almost frail, but is in fact lean, with the strong arms and legs of someone accustomed to farm chores. Growing up on the family's dairy farm northeast of Edmonton with his older brother, Keith, who suffered from cerebral palsy and died at age 47, he was raised by a larger-than-life father and devoted mother in a strongly evangelical Christian home that clearly left its imprint. And in spite of Ernest Manning's determination to keep politics at the office, it seemed almost preordained that his son would follow in his footsteps - although in some ways Manning seemed ill-suited for political life. "Preston was always kind of shy, not the sort who sought the limelight," Wilkins says. But, he adds, "I'm not surprised he has become a political leader. It was in the family blood - you could see it in him even then."

There is no doubt that Ernest Manning's evangelical Christian values and conservatism shaped his son's personal habits and political beliefs. In fact, much of the framework for the Reform party is drawn from a 1967 book entitled Political Re-alignment. Written by Ernest Manning after he stepped down as premier, and researched by his son (who earned an economics degree from the University of Alberta in 1964), it called for a new federal conservative movement, founded on 20 principles of social conservatism, that would unite the Tories and Social Credit. As envisioned by the Mannings, the movement would link the humanitarian concerns of the 1960s with free-market economics - to offset growing support for left-leaning parties.

The book appeared at a time when many believed that Preston would carry on the Manning political tradition in Alberta. But when Peter Lougheed's Tories emerged as the true heirs of Ernest Manning's conservative dynasty, Manning charted his own course into federal politics. And unlike his father, who saw federal politics as a struggle between left and right, Manning has largely used the cleavage over Quebec's place in Canada as the cornerstone for a new party. "Ultimately, I think that is what motivates Preston," says one Manning associate. "He wanted to not only live up to his father's expectations, but to become a politician in his own right, on his own terms. He's done that and escaped from his father's shadow."

But has he? Manning is acutely deferential, at times almost self- effacing - perhaps a product of growing up under the influence of such a powerful father. Unlike most politicians, he often seems ill at ease around people. "Preston is not a glad-hander in the traditional sense," says Ron Wood, a street-smart Manning media adviser since 1990. "He finds it difficult to move through a crowd because he relates to people on a one-on-one basis. I've often said that if he could meet a majority of voters individually, he would win in a walk."

Manning seems most comfortable in a crowd when he blends in with those around him, as he does regularly on Sunday mornings at the First Alliance Church in southwest Calgary. At a recent Sunday service, a casually dressed Manning and his wife sat inconspicuously in the balcony. They left quickly, while others in the congregation mingled and chatted in the church lobby and on the front steps. "You would never know Preston was a major political figure," says First Alliance pastor Ray Matheson, who has known Manning for eight years. "He is unassuming, and very reticent to talk politics when he comes to church. He's not the sort of person who would go to the front row."

But Manning has pushed himself to the front row of politics - and he has done it as an outsider. Even in Alberta, where he worked as a consultant brokering deals between oil companies and Indian bands before the founding of the Reform party, Manning is not considered part of the business establishment. Unlike other politicians, he does not have a network of prominent business figures as confidants and supporters. "I think the appeal of Reform is more to the individual than business, and as a result the business community doesn't really have a relationship with Manning," says Doug Mitchell, former president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and co-chairman of the Alberta Economic Development Authority.

What better credentials for presenting oneself as an alternative to the established power structure? There is, however, an inherent risk in representing an "alternative" party. Reform is firmly in the tradition of other western populist movements, such as the Progressives of the 1920s and Social Credit, feeding on widespread alienation from a federal political structure. But past western parties were unable to transform their populism into truly national political parties. In the wake of last June's election, which solidified Reform's power in the West but left the party shut out of Central and Atlantic Canada, Manning now faces the same kind of barrier. "There is a sociology to Reform that is very much part of western Canadian politics," says David Taras, a political scientist at the University of Calgary. "It's rooted in Prairie protest and a kind of evangelical fervor, but that mind-set doesn't sell well in Ontario."

Such historical truths are not lost on Manning. But he seems undaunted by the lessons that suggest western populism will flourish briefly, then wither on the federal vine. Rather, he sees himself following in the footsteps of others who laid the foundation for the Canada he now seeks to change. Among the political figures he admires are Robert Baldwin and Louis LaFontaine, two mid-19th-century reform politicians who were among the architects of Confederation. "People who wanted change in Quebec got together with people who wanted change outside of Quebec, and they literally changed the nature of government," says Manning. And he sees other parallels between the 19th-century reformers and himself. "They were trying to change the system, not just individual policies," Manning says,"and they took an enormous amount of abuse - pilloried by the Establishment of the day."

History, in fact, constitutes the bulk of Manning's reading. While still a teenager, he read Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization, as well as Carl Sandburg's multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, who emerged from the backwoods of Illinois to steer his country through the challenge of secession by the southern states and the bloody Civil War that ensued. That fascination with the assassinated American president and the pre-Civil War period has endured, as Manning searches for lessons to be learned and applied to the ongoing threat of Quebec secession. In particular, he is drawn to the 1858 debates between Lincoln and southern states rights proponent Stephen Douglas, when the future of the union and the principles it should be based on were passionately argued. He claims the same has not happened in Canada, in the days leading up to the last Quebec referendum, and particularly during last spring's federal election campaign. "It seems to me our debate on this subject has been so shallow compared with what has been debated in other countries," says Manning.

After years of debating the national unity issue, many Canadians may find that opinion disingenuous - and self-serving. Others perceive more ominous undertones in Manning's historical interests. Michael Fellman, a professor of American history at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., accuses Manning of having a "superficial understanding" of the pre-Civil War period - and its consequences. "The Lincoln-Douglas debates and the rise of the Republican party heightened tensions and contradictions in the United States," he says, "and led to civil war because they couldn't solve the problems of the nation." George Melnyk, a Prairie historian and lecturer at the University of Calgary, wonders if Manning sees himself as a Canadian equivalent of Lincoln. "Personal mythologies are not light matters," says Melnyk, who has known the Reform leader since the 1970s. "If Preston Manning truly believes that he may one day have to play the role of Abraham Lincoln as the preserver of the unity and integrity of Canada, then the scenario of civil war is not farfetched."

Manning disavows the use of force should Quebec attempt to secede, although he seeks a frank debate over the terms of secession and believes an independent Quebec could be partitioned. But the perception that such a hardline approach could plunge the country into greater turmoil works against Reform in some parts of Canada. So does the notion that the party has become a repository for the politically disillusioned - often people motivated by single issues such as gun control legislation, the wheat board monopoly, crime control, lower taxes, capital punishment and moral conservatism.

Manning's task has been to somehow harness those disparate voices into a coherent political movement that resonates beyond the West. He must also fight a rearguard action against some members of his own party, who have been variously labelled as bigots, sexists and worse. During the last election, Reform actively courted visible-minority candidates, and the party's new 60-member caucus features five nonwhites. Now, as Opposition leader, Manning believes he has the stage to overcome the extremist label and become the single dominant voice for conservatism in Canada. "On some of these criticisms - for example, that Reform is racist - what are our media opponents going to say when they look at our caucus and see that it is more racially diverse than the caucus of the Bloc Québécois, NDP and Conservatives combined?" Manning asks. "We have big ammunition to knock those misconceptions out of the heads of people."

But attempts at presenting a more mainstream image can backfire. During the campaign, Manning suggested he would turn Stornoway, the official Opposition leader's residence, into a "bingo hall." But after the June election, he decided to move into the 34-room mansion. Abandoning Stornoway, he now says, would be seen in Ontario as "insulting" the position of Opposition leader (one Liberal insider says Manning "bit the bullet" on Stornoway in his desire to establish his identity as a national leader). But by moving into the official residence, which underwent $68,000 in renovations prior to his arrival, Manning runs the risk of being seen as part of the same Ottawa establishment that Reform has condemned - and alienating western voters who have helped turn the party into an organization to be reckoned with.

Religion has long been a powerful current within western populism. First came former Alberta premier (Bible) Bill Aberhart, whose weekly Back to the Bible radio broadcasts became the platform to launch the Social Credit's blend of evangelical Christianity and political conservatism during the Dirty Thirties. On the other side of the political spectrum were left-wing proponents of the social gospel, such as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation's Tommy Douglas, a Baptist minister who became Saskatchewan premier in 1944 and eventually national NDP leader. Manning also professes strong religious beliefs - and how they affect his approach to public policy concerns those who believe matters of state and religion must be kept separate in a pluralistic society. For left-wing Vancouver author Murray Dobbin, who wrote a book on the rise of Reform and for three years has been publishing a regular newsletter named Reform Watch, Manning's religious and political views cannot be separated. "You have to start with religion - everything about Preston Manning flows from his religious beliefs," he argues.

But Manning openly acknowledges that his religion and politics are intertwined, and believes matters of faith should be part of political debate. "In Canada, we keep saying these are private things," he says. "The public would be better served if this question were asked of every political leader rather than just pretending deeply held values are not relevant to people's political positions." Would Preston Manning, as the head of government, try to impose his religious and moral beliefs on others? Absolutely not, he insists, and to do so would in fact be unchristian. "The conception of God advanced by historic Christianity is that God did not coerce people into following him," Manning says. "I think this is an inherent part of genuine Christian faith, to respect people's freedom to choose." Abortion is a case in point. Manning is firmly against the practice, but he would put the question - and others, such as capital punishment - to a national referendum. Besides, he says with an evangelist's fervor, "there has to be some kind of objective truth in these areas." And Manning, it seems, believes that if Canadians simply debate matters enough, they will reach that objective truth - meaning his religious-based truth.

But the emphasis is still on choice. "Manning is not going to legislate his fundamental religious beliefs," says University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan, a former Reform policy adviser who has become critical of some of Reform's policies, believing Manning lacks consistent conservative principles. "He believes you respect the majority." That notion has clearly been the source of Reform's strength - since its founding convention in Winnipeg in 1987, Reform has presented itself as a party that reflects the popular will of its members.

But Reform's populist label is itself a matter of great controversy. Some argue that the party is in fact fully in the clutches of Manning and his acolytes. Others say Reform's populism has resulted in a party that lacks a consistent set of principles. "Ask yourself what Preston Manning really believes in," says one former political associate. "I don't think that beyond a few socially conservative views, you can answer that." And while Manning has enjoyed political success, his brand of politics also produces those who feel deceived and manipulated. Andrew Flint is a 29-year-old former paid party organizer from Toronto who has gone from devotion to disillusionment. Flint was among the first 200 party members in Ontario and a member of Reform's Ontario expansion committee. But eventually, he came to see the party as a vehicle completely controlled by Manning, his closest advisers and senior party staff in Calgary. "It's a cadre of people who are complete Manning loyalists," says Flint, who resigned last September. "It was a bitter realization knowing that Manning is nowhere near being grassroots."

According to Flint and other Manning supporters-turned-critics, the party hierarchy will not tolerate dissent - or even independent action. In the years leading up to the last election, many Reform workers in Toronto's Scarborough East riding - a former stronghold of Reform membership in Ontario - chafed under the steady stream of orders from Calgary. Some quickly became targets for speaking out. "What happens is you're told 'charges' have been levelled against you," Flint says. "There is never any evidence presented, but it's their way of forcing you out if they think you're too independent."

Others, such as Richard Chambers of Saskatoon, voice much the same criticism. The former Reform constituency president says that, rather than being open to grassroots opinion, the party forbids dissent. Anyone who dares question the organization becomes the subject of a smear campaign. Chambers admits to "a particular loathing of Preston Manning and the nuts who support him," claiming that the leader relies on a network of mostly evangelical Christians who carry out his orders to maintain strict control of the party. "There is hero worship involved here, but in actual fact Manning is the most ruthless politician I've seen or heard of," Chambers says.

Chambers quit after what he says was a "whisper campaign" instigated by party officials. He claims they accused him of having Nazi sympathies, an allegation he categorically denies. But Harry Meyers, Reform's chief operating officer, says Chambers refused the party's directive to hold off nominations before the last election so that as many candidates as possible would step forward. "In the final result, all he did was trash Preston and the party," Meyers says. "As far as I'm concerned, he could not work for any party." Meanwhile, Reform senior strategist Rick Anderson, a onetime federal Liberal activist, says the allegation that Reform is a political vehicle under Manning's tight control is nothing but the opinion of a few "cranks." "When some people don't get their way, they lash out," Anderson says. "This party is far more grassroots-controlled than any other in Canada."

The image of a western populist who brings an evangelist's fervor to his political quest has served Manning well. It has carried him from the fringes of federal politics to the office of Opposition leader. The question now is whether he can convert non-westerners to his message and unite Canadians with a vision of provincial equality. So far, the goal of expanding Reform's power base has eluded him, but his new position may give him the platform he needs. Ten years ago, Manning was written off as irrelevant - and then went on to change the political landscape. To dismiss him is to dismiss what moves many Canadians; to underestimate his zeal has already proven dangerous for his rivals.

Maclean's September 22, 1997