Friday, December 17, 2010

The Life of Former Premier Sterling Lyon

Former Premier Sterling Lyon died yesterday after a short illness. He had a long history of public service to Manitoba including 16 years on the Manitoba Court of Appeal.

Lyon came from the right contingent of the Progressive Conservative party and rose to leader in 1975. The jury is still out on Hugh McFayden but by most reckoning, Lyon was the last from the right to command the PCs. When he won in 1977, it was more about fatigue with the NDP government of Edward Schreyer than an endorsement of a return of a time that existed before Duff Roblin.

The free enterprise laissez-faire approach of Sterling Lyon ran smack into the reality of a recession that hit Manitoba particularly hard. Large manufacturers such as Swift's and Canada Packer went under during their watch. The Winnipeg Tribune also collapsed. Thousands of Manitobans were out of work and an exodus of people to the more recession proof energy provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta accelerated. Most embarrassing for the Progressive Conservatives was that their restraint program still produced a huge a deficit and didn't produce a big economic turn around.

To make matters worse, Sterling Lyon was engaged in important but distracting national meetings on the Constitution. While Lyon was able to get the "not withstanding" clause added to the document, he did so while away from his province at a critical time economically. The pugnacious attitude of Lyon during this time certainly had its critics. Still, in 1981, the PCs led in the polls that is until Lyon referred to women as "good breeders."

The "Don't Stop Us Now" campaign slogan for the PCs was in reference to some of the megaprojects they planned to build Manitoba but for many people, the slogan felt like further brutal cuts were pending. Liberal support in Manitoba collapsed and this proved to be the boost the NDP needed to push Howard Pawley's party into power.

Lyon was tossed from power after one term. It would be the last time a right of center faction member of the PCs would lead the party till this day.

There is no doubt that the Sterling Lyon was a committed Manitoban. His time spent on the Constitutional file helped assert that elected legislatures had a final authority over the Charter.

Lyon's departure and the return of the NDP emphasized an urban, rural and northern divide. Nowadays elections are fought over only a few key ridings.

The Progressive Conservatives, always strong in rural areas, realized that they needed to focus on Winnipeg. And to do that usually entailed looking for more progressive and urban members of the PCs.

The years that Lyon spent as a judge were certainly less controversial than those spent in elected office. By all accounts, he was a hard working and respected member of the judiciary.

The latter few years of his life were marked by the ill affects of a car accident suffered years earlier. When he passed away, he was surrounded by his large and extended family.

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