Even for a reasonably seasoned reporter, Saskatoon in 1991 was something of a shock. It was a prosperous place - the "jewel of the prairies" - yet some inner-city streets were still unpaved. Did you know about this, the visitor asked the province's newest premier, Roy Romanow, the cerebral New Democrat who had just taken the big broom to the free-spending Tories. "Oh yes," he said, dropping that famous guard. "That's my old neighbourhood."
It was hard to say what was more surprising: that at the rich end of the 20th century, a serious Canadian city could still have an entire neighbourhood with dirt streets; or that one of the country's more enduring political figures could emerge from such a poverty-stricken ethnic ghetto without having constantly capitalized on his humble origins. Romanow seemed to arrive on the political scene fully blown: telegenic, savvy, a bit of a technocrat, ever eager to solve the problems of the moment. And when he took his leave last week - at 61, after nine years as premier, nearly 30 in the legislature and with a knack for being at history's front door - he did so in much the same detached way. "In practical, intellectual terms, the time was right," he told Maclean's. Emotionally? All he will say: "It's going to be an interesting journey."
By resigning now, after heading a surprise coalition government with three Liberal MLAs for the past year, Romanow gives his successor the option of enlarging the arrangement with the Liberals - what the Europeans call the Third Way of a united centre-left - or ending the deal and toying with an election. Romanow himself could have forced the issue: he has had a long-standing offer from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to run as a federal Liberal. But Romanow says he is not convinced the Third Way will work in Canada. And besides, he fought too many tough fights as a New Democrat. "I could never turn my back on those people."
Romanow's career mirrors the history of modern-day Saskatchewan. He was around in 1964 when the NDP's forerunner, the CCF, took on the doctors and created medicare: he had taken a break from law school to carry Tommy Douglas's bags. He was Saskatchewan's attorney general in the early 1980s when the Constitution was patriated from Britain with a charter of rights. Romanow's new and very real friendship with his fellow attorneys general - Chrétien in Ottawa and Ontario's Roy McMurtry, now a judge - was instrumental in forging one last assault on a deal that had seemed just out of reach. At the time, Romanow mused privately, it was as if the three forces of Canadian society - the French, the English and the new arrivals - had somehow found their champions. It was the observation of someone who had just been admitted to a club.
Saskatchewan's first Ukrainian (first non-Anglo) premier, Romanow has always been something of an outsider. "It explains his politics," says friend and former adviser Howard Leeson, a political science professor at the University of Regina. "When you come from a minority, you are always trying to grow your political forces. You don't have time for class politics, or left versus right." That may also have contributed to his undoing. "There is no question he paid a price" for his assault on the huge $15-billion debt he inherited from Grant Devine's Tories, observes political scientist David Smith of the University of Saskatchewan. "Often, the most critical have been the lifelong NDPers who accuse him of 'abandoning' the true roots of the party." In his first term as premier, Romanow raised taxes, cut programs and, the biggest test of his resolve, closed 52 mostly rural hospitals in a province where medicare was a sacred trust. The hospital closings led to some innovations in preventive health care. But rural Saskatchewan in particular was fed up with seeing its institutions whither away. And so it turned on the boy from the big city where, rumours to the contrary, not all the streets were paved with gold.
Maclean's October 9, 2000