I see now that I never had a chance. Politics stalked me, even as a child. It sat in stacks in the den where, as kids, we played board games. Conservative icons like Frank Meyer, George Nash and Barry Goldwater stared down at us from oak shelves and, as I would learn much later, from across the ages.
In the late 1960s it would be unusual for a Canadian to belong to the U.S.-based Conservative Book Club. It was stranger still that the Conservative Book Club had a member in Rosetown Saskatchewan. It’s probable that my dad, Stan, was their sole customer for a hundred miles in any direction.
I couldn’t escape politics even when hustled out to the backyard. Our next door neighbor was George Loken, our MLA. He was a Liberal. Of course in those days the Progressive Conservative Party barely existed in Saskatchewan, and Saskatchewan Liberal Party leader Ross Thatcher was about as conservative as they came. Once a member of the socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Thatcher came to oppose the CCF with the zeal of the converted. He ended their 20-year reign in the 1964 election, and when dad started the radio station in Rosetown two years later it was Premier Thatcher who cut the ribbon.
As often as not politics was the topic at our dinner table. Political luminaries, some only dimly lit and others brighter, occasionally gathered in the living room. Whiskey was served. Insights were proffered. Luminescence yielded to full illumination.
Politics also inhabited our kitchen. For my entire childhood and teenage years a can of beer labelled Gold Water sat in our fridge. It was a souvenir from the 1964 Republican convention where Senator Barry Goldwater accepted the GOP nomination. That was the same convention where an actor named Ronald Reagan first came to national prominence, but that is a story for another day. I was too young to care or understand much of this at the time, but I divined from that can of beer that my dad had different interests than some of the other dads, and my own interest was piqued.
That refrigerator heirloom came from my father’s great friend Bill McVeigh, whose passion for conservative politics on both sides of the border kindled dad’s interest in what would become a key theme in his life.
Bill even collected vinyl records of William F. Buckley talking politics and interviewing guests, probably recordings of his long time TV show, Firing Line. Naturally Bill also subscribed to Buckley’s National Review, surely the only subscriber in Drumheller, Alberta. As the Cadillac and Olds dealer in Drumheller, Bill had the means to make what was then the exotic journey to the Cow Palace in San Francisco for that 1964 Republican convention. There he collected a can of beer for his friend Stan.
A few months later dad and Bill were in the radio station in Drumheller watching the teletype spit out the results from the presidential election, as close to live coverage as you could get in Canada in the 1960s. Goldwater was crushed by Lyndon Johnson. Conservatism had been dealt a blow, but Ronald Reagan’s career had been launched, and dad’s appetite was whetted. Whiskey was served to soothe the hurt. A small boy gathered in these stories and began to wonder at their meaning.
The first time I recall campaigning was in 1971. I was 13. My sister was 11. We had been pressed into service to drop campaign literature on behalf of Mr. Loken. Child labour was warranted because the NDP were massing at the gates, and they were at war with capitalism.
I didn’t appreciate the seriousness of the situation, and it didn’t apply to me anyway. I was expecting to be drafted to the NHL, especially with all those new teams coming into the league. Yes, I was a dreamer, but being a dreamer was to have its political advantages.
George Loken held the seat that year, barely, but province-wide the NDP won a huge majority. Allan Blakeney was the new premier. My father grieved that an ill wind was going to howl across the Saskatchewan prairie and blow down what the private sector had built up. Businesses would be nationalized. Investors driven out. And unions given the keys to the province.
This coincided with the rise of the eccentric Dick Collver, the new leader of the revived Progressive Conservative Party of Saskatchewan. Dad worked locally for the PCs, and took me to see Collver speak to a packed audience at the Rosetown Community Hall. Then Collver came over to the house, and the whiskey bottle came down from the cupboard.
The local PC candidate was Roy Bailey. Dad was Roy’s campaign manager, and as an amateur pilot, he often flew Roy to campaign events around the riding. One day during the 1975 campaign they ran into a bank of fog and dad tried to land on a gravel road. They hit a railroad crossing and flipped the plane over, but both walked away unhurt.
Collver ended up winning 28 percent of the vote and seven seats in the 1975 election campaign. Roy Bailey won our Rosetown riding, launching a long political career that eventually led to he and I serving together as Reform Party MPs in the House of Commons.
By my late teens I had started thumbing through some of those books in dad’s library, and first became acquainted with the ideas of conservative thinkers like Milton Friedman, Russell Kirk and James Burnham.
One friend shared my political interests was a brilliant student named Joel Shortt. When not talking about girls we debated politics, often while cruising the back roads with a case of beer sitting on the console of my 1968 Buick Skylark. In 1978 Joel and I were roommates at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. At dad’s instigation, we drove to Unity, Saskatchewan to vote in the Kindersley-Lloydminster federal Progressive Conservative nomination. Our candidate, Bill McKnight, won the nomination. Bill would go on to win the riding and become one of the most competent and respected ministers in Brian Mulroney’s government.
I left university to work in the family radio business. Joel went on to become a well-known and fearless litigator in Calgary. Whenever we got together beer and politics were on the agenda.
By 1979 dad had had enough of Allan Blakeney’s socialist paradise. He sold the radio station in Rosetown, packed up the family, and returned to his native Alberta. A couple years later he sold his Alberta radio stations to Toronto broadcasting giant, CHUM. I stayed on to manage them for a while, but it was the mid-1980s, Alberta was a simmering cauldron of western conservative discontent, and I felt the call to political action.
A major catalyst for me, and many others, was the 1986 decision by the Mulroney government to award a big CF-18 maintenance contract to Montreal-based Bombardier, even though Winnipeg’s Bristol Aerospace submitted a cheaper, better bid. The west erupted. Alberta Report magazine gave voice to our anger. Led by Ted and Link Byfield, the Report took on the issues that other media outlets avoided or downplayed, and always from a conservative perspective.
The Byfields were supported by a stable of brilliant young writers, some destined for the editorial pages in Canada’s largest newspapers. Every edition of Alberta Report landed like a bomb. I read them all, cover to cover.
It was in those pages, in the early months of 1987, that I first read about a conference in Vancouver designed to bring together conservatives who felt alienated from the mainstream political parties. Later I read the Report account of the event and learned how Ted Byfield, Stephen Harper and Preston Manning were developing a vision for a different kind of Canada. By the fall of that year their vision had given birth to the Reform Party of Canada. Western discontent had a political vehicle to express itself. Canada was about to change.
Around the same time my friend Joel introduced me to Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of The American Mind, a reflection on the philosophical roots of western civilization. It was an unlikely bestseller and a major volley in the culture wars of the 1980s. Bloom was anything but an easy read, but I was intrigued. It was a book that I would read half a dozen times. Thanks to Bloom I began to see the connection between the great ideas of history, the modern political state, and the equality and freedom that marked western civilization.
In August of 1988, once again it was my dad who would be instrumental in my political life. He stood at the front reception desk at the radio station in Drumheller and sold me my first membership in the Reform Party of Canada. Soon after I joined the board of the Medicine Hat Reform Party riding association.
By that time I was ploughing through the great books of the conservative canon. Digging through Calgary’s used bookstores was a favorite pastime. I would occasionally stumble across a conservative book which somehow had made it to Canada. It all felt vaguely subversive. On my first ever trip to Washington D.C. in the late 1980s, I went to the Barnes and Noble in Georgetown and picked up Russell Kirk’s Prospects for Conservatives, a book I have since read at least four times. Kirk’s ideas made and continue to make such an impression on me that with every reading I can’t resist restating them in my own hand in the margins of the book.
By the early 90s the Reform Party had taken full flight. Preston Manning’s manifesto The New Canada became a Canadian bestseller and mandatory reading for young conservative political activists.
In 1993 I won the Reform Party nomination in the riding of Medicine Hat by two votes on the third ballot. Soon after I would be elected to the House of Commons. Without question I owed my victory to many people who got me nominated and then elected. They sold memberships for me and then twisted arms to get my supporters out to a nomination meeting. Six months later they helped me win my seat in the general election. A populist wave swept across the prairies, and I rode it.
But just as clearly my victory would not have happened had it not been for the conservatives who influenced me: my father, his friend Bill, and my friend Joel. But it was also the conservative men of ideas: the Byfields, Preston Manning, Allan Bloom and Russell Kirk, and so many others whom I first encountered on those oak shelves, in that den in our house in Rosetown, fifty years ago.
Monte Solberg, a Calgary-based Principal at New West Public Affairs and a Sun Media columnist, was the MP for Medicine Hat from 1993 to 2008, as a member of the Reform, Canadian Alliance and Conservative parties. He served as Minister of Immigration and Minister of Human Resources under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.