Fiery Joe

21 June 2017

Fiery Joe: The Maverick Who Lit Up the West
by Kathleen Carlisle, with Eileen Forrieter
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
$39.95 ISBN 978-0-88977-485-8

Fiery Joe: The Maverick Who Lit Up the West is a fascinating story of an incredible man. For those with a political bent, Joseph Lee Phelps was a man of many accomplishments. For those just interested in a good story, his standout feature is his personality.

Author Kathleen Carlisle has produced a well-documented character study of an intensely political man. She credits Eileen Forrieter as co-author because her master’s thesis forms an integral part of this book. Using interviews with Phelps and his contemporaries, Carlisle brings him to life on the page.

Phelps’ heart was firmly planted in the soil. Actively involved in numerous farm organizations, he juggled work as a telephone lineman in the Wilkie district and tended to his growing family. He later served as president of the Saskatchewan Farmers Union and was instrumental in establishing Saskatchewan’s Western Development Museum.

After Phelps was elected to the Saskatchewan legislature as the member for Saltcoats in 1938, a Leader-Post columnist described the rookie: “He is a fighter. He has punch. He has a fine fire of indignation. And best, under fire he is as unruffled as a billiard ball.”

As an opposition member, Phelps was a thorn in the side of the Liberal government, sometimes irritating even the Speaker. On one occasion, Phelps proposed a motion, then, after debating the matter, voted against it. The Speaker chastised him for wasting the Legislature’s time. On another occasion, Phelps refused to take his seat, and the Speaker ordered the Sergeant-at-Arms to escort the offending member from the Chamber.

When the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation under Tommy Douglas formed the government in 1944, Phelps became Minister of Natural Resources. Later that year, Douglas added industrial development to Phelps’ portfolio, substantially increasing his workload. An incessant workaholic, Phelps often returned home only for supper and a ten-minute nap, then he was back at his office in the Legislative Building. His secretary believed he even worked on Christmas.

Phelps was unpredictable. Even his cabinet colleagues didn’t know what to expect from him. Idealistic, impulsive, and impatient, he seemed to generate ideas in his sleep and didn’t hesitate to phone his staff in the middle of the night to bounce ideas off them, reasoning that if he worked 24/7, his staff should be available at all hours too.

As a cabinet minister, Phelps helped establish numerous Crown corporations. Perhaps his most important achievement was to develop a provincially owned and operated power system that electrified rural Saskatchewan.

With a foreword by former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, this 364-page book has an index, notes, bibliography, and eleven black and white photos. Although this is a scholarly study, backed up with impressive research, it will also appeal to the general reader.

More than a chronicle of Saskatchewan’s growing pains under the first socialist government in North America, Fiery Joe is a political biography of a legendary Saskatchewan firebrand who, literally, lit up the West.


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