If there was one guarantee during the federal and provincial election campaigns I covered during my decade as a newspaper reporter (before going over to the dark side on the Montreal Gazette night desk), it was this: Sooner or later, they would make everybody sick.
Early wakeup calls to follow stumping politicians on their buses or in media vans, late nights filing stories from cheap dives and roadside motels, fast food and the odd bottle of something bracing, inevitably took a toll on even the hardiest immune system. By the second week of a spring or fall campaign, a pernicious cold or virulent flu bug would be ravaging the press corps, party aides and the grimly smiling politicos themselves.
I don’t remember any of the boys and girls on the bus ever taking a sick day. The campaigns were nasty, brutish and long. Newsroom resources were stretched thin, even in those halcyon years. And on the Prairies, at least, it wasn’t like you just bail in Ponoka and hop on the métro or the TTC to get home.
Welcome to the Hôtel-Dieu California. Now suck it up, buttercup.
My dance with the flu that plagued the Saskatchewan general election campaign of 1986 began while I was among a small contingent of journalists travelling with Progressive Conservative Premier Grant Devine. This was his first shot at re-election after ousting the tired and entrenched NDP government of Alan Blakeney four years before.
My whimsical front-page story in that sunny October day’s Saskatoon Star-Phoenix — about how the Devine entourage had been mistaken by alarmed Mounties for bank robbers in the small city of Melfort — hadn’t played well with the chronically nervous, suspicious, shifty-eyed premier. That was the least of my worries, though, on a day focused on dicey bowel control and sussing out discreet places to vomit.
The usual practice during such campaigns was for male reporters to share motel rooms during overnight stops (two single beds, a phone, a TV and a dingy bathroom, just to be clear). But as we rolled in for the evening to the Sportsman Motel in Kelvington (gateway to local attractions in the small town that spawned NHLers Wendel Clark, Barry Melrose and the Kocur brothers ), I was relieved to learn that an extra room had been procured where I could spend a night in a glorious diarrheic privacy. My intended roomie was ecstatic.
After filing my copy and enduring a couple of wild rides on the porcelain pony, I felt a bit better and collapsed into bed for a fitful sleep — only to be awakened a few hours later by the man in the next room, yelling into a telephone line.
The initial annoyance drained out of me, replaced by fascination, as I recognized the strained and reedy voice as Devine’s. He was warning some high muckamuck in Ottawa — I’m not sure who — that his PCs were in danger of losing the election and that things were “going to be tough for Mulroney” in Saskatchewan in the next federal election unless help were forthcoming. Pronto.
The premier had good reason to be concerned. His government’s hard-hearted cuts to welfare programs and workers’ rights, selloff of several state-owned enterprises, and a socially conservative agenda out of touch with most urbanites had alienated many Saskatoon and Regina voters. Devine’s royalty holidays and tax reductions for the oil industry helped spike the province’s debt from the $3.5 billion he inherited to $12 billion during his premiership — all while preaching fiscal responsibility as an aw-shucks “farmer who just happens to have a PhD in agricultural economics.”
Above all, Devine had the misfortune to govern during some of the worst droughts the province had seen since the Dirty Thirties. That wasn’t his fault, but it meant the overwhelming rural support that had propelled the Tories to office in 1982 was starting to teeter this time around. Rural Saskatchewan was in desperate need of a lift.
And that’s exactly what it got that afternoon when — mirabile dictu — Prime Minister Brian Mulroney announced a billion-dollar aid package for Saskatchewan farmers.
So what to do with my early-morning wakeup call? I consulted with my editor, then met with Devine and his press officer to tell them that the paper would go with a story the next day relating what I’d heard and making the obvious link to the sudden federal largesse. Devine said nothing, but I could see the political-calculation wheels turning as I left.
As a billion dollars usually will, the promise of a big payout went a long way toward quelling the angst in grain country. Blakeney’s comeback bid as leader of the NDP was essentially over, since he obviously couldn’t match the federal clout enjoyed by Devine, whose government was returned for a second term with a reduced majority in the Oct. 20 vote.
My sick-bed peek at how the sausage gets made soon wound up as fodder for journalism ethics classes at the University of Regina, where students debated my actions. Should I have covered my ears as soon as I realized who was bellowing in the next room? Should I have pretended that it never happened? It’s not like I was standing at the wall with a glass cupped to my ear.
In any case, it was the article about the faux bank robbery caper that turned out to be more prescient than anyone could have guessed. Though he never faced criminal charges himself, Devine presided over the most corrupt government in Saskatchewan history during that second term in office.
Eventually, 13 out of 55 PC MLAs and staffers would be charged with expense account fraud amounting to $837,000 in pilfered government funds. A handful would be acquitted. Some would serve prison terms, including the powerful deputy premier, Eric Berntson, who effectively ran Devine’s government and would serve as Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Canadian Senate after his appointment by Mulroney.
Devine, whose gormless defence came down to the fact that he had no idea what was going on within his own caucus, was crushed by the resurgent NDP under Roy Romanow in the 1991 election. When Devine attempted a comeback as a federal Conservative in 2004, the party denied him the right to seek a nomination. When he ran (unsuccessfully) as an independent anyway, they booted him out of the party.
Five years later, with former premier Brad Wall at the helm of another decidedly right-wing government that has ruled Saskatchewan ever since, Devine would receive the Saskatchewan Order of Merit for his many contributions to the province.
Hate to be such a nattering nabob, but I wonder where Devine’s unwavering support for his social services minister, Grant Schmidt — a strong proponent of the right of employers to fire gay employees purely on the basis of their sexual orientation — would rank among those contributions.
My interviews with Schmidt always left me wanting to crawl into the nearest motel bed and pull the covers over my head. If only those walls couldn’t talk.