Back to Blakeney

8 October 2019

Back to Blakeney: Revitalizing the Democratic State
edited by David McGrane, John D. Whyte, Roy Romanow, and Russell Isinger
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
$34.95 ISBN 9780889776418

Back to Blakeney: Revitalizing the Democratic State is the political biography of Allan Blakeney, a political giant who served as Saskatchewan’s tenth premier from 1971 to 1982.

This 342-page volume stems directly from a 2015 conference held at the University of Saskatchewan in which fifteen academic essayists discussed and evaluated Blakeney’s legacy to the democratic state in Canada. It’s wholly appropriate that academics discuss Blakeney as he himself was an academic, achieving early distinction as a Rhodes scholar.

As the subtitle suggests, this study harks back to Saskatchewan in the 1970s, a difficult but in some ways a better time. It was better because Blakeney stuck to his principles in trying times. The editors applaud Blakeney’s “openness to other views” and “his ability to extend courtesy in debate” – rare phenomena in today’s politics.

In paying tribute to Blakeney’s many achievements, this scholarly study reveals a certain slant in perception; the editors acknowledge that Blakeney was a personal friend of theirs. One of the essayists and editors is Roy Romanow, a former Saskatchewan premier who worked closely with Blakeney.

Back to Blakeney contains fourteen chapters divided into three sections. The first looks at Blakeney as a statesman, public administrator, and social democrat. The second section evaluates Blakeney’s constitutional legacy. Chapters in the third section discuss how to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

The editors view Blakeney’s policies as a bulwark against the right-wing populism so prevalent in politics today. Learning lessons from the past, they say Blakeney’s “career is a handbook for those interested in achieving good governance and the revitalization of the contemporary democratic state.”

Blakeney was an idealist and a pragmatist; his idealism was tempered by the practicalities of wielding political power. He knew that achieving power and exercising that power while in office were two different things.

Some of Blakeney’s policies courted controversy, like the resource wars of the 1970s over the extraction and taxation of potash and, to a lesser extent, uranium. The other major issue of contention was over Medicare in the early 1960s, which Blakeney later described as “the most defining political experience of his life,” according to essayist Gregory P. Marchildon. Blakeney’s influence also extended beyond Saskatchewan, notably in the “notwithstanding clause” in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This collection of essays contains endnotes, bibliographical references, brief biographies of the essayists, and an index.

Sometimes answers to current and potential future problems can be found by examining the past and how leaders handled the problems of their day. In looking at the achievements and legacy of a great man, Back to Blakeney: Revitalizing the Democratic State looks back to find a way forward.


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