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Gordon Ritchie was born in Dauphin, Manitoba in 1918. He attended Mountview school, Dauphin Collegiate, and Manitoba Medical College. He practiced medicine in Dauphin and throughout the Swan River valley for several years before entering the political arena in 1968. He ran for the Progressive Conservative Party and was elected with an 1,800 vote plurality and again with larger pluralities in 1972 and 1974. Ritchie was very active in parliament as a critic of government policies, particularly in tax reform and unemployment insurance. He sided with several conservative causes and even opposed his own party's support for various aspects of bilingualism. Following his political career, he returned to Dauphin to continue his medical practice. He died in 1998 at Dauphin.
Biography of Gordon Ritchie:
A native of Dauphin, Manitoba, Gordon Ritchie was born 27 September 1918, son of John Ritchie and Jane Helena Dinniwell. He attended Mountview School, Dauphin Collegiate, and Manitoba Medical College where he obtained his education in medicine. In 1951 he married Mary Margaret and the couple had one daughter, Rhea Brette. For several years he practiced medicine in Dauphin and throughout the Swan River Valley. But the lure of politics always attracted him. As early as 1957 he contested the Progressive Conservative Party Federal nomination for the Dauphin riding but was unsuccessful. However, eleven years later, in 1968, when M.P. Elmer Forbes retired, Ritchie made his second and more successful attempt at entering the political arena. The 1968 election saw Ritchie elected with an 1800 vote plurality, and with larger more comfortable pluralities in 1972 and 1974. However, during the Joe Clark victory of May 1979, Ritchie’s margin of victory over the popular N.D.P. candidate, Laverne Lewycky was razor thin and apparently was a significant factor in the party’s decision not to renominate him for re-election for the December 1979 election. Dr. Orville Heschuk won the P.C. nomination but was in turn defeated by Mr. Lewycky.
Mr. Ritchie was very active in Parliament as a Conservative critic of government policies, particularly in tax reform and unemployment insurance. He sided with several conservative causes and even opposed his own party’s support for various aspects of Bilingualism. Some contend Mr. Ritchie was too conservative in some issues for even his own party.
Following his political career he returned to his Dauphin riding to continue, though at a somewhat slower pace, his medical practice.
To provide the researcher with a better insight into the man and his work, and edited version of Mr. Ritchie’s informal after-dinner speech entitled “My Years in Parliament” is herein included. This paper, given at the Second Annual Archives Symposium of the Department of Archives and Special Collection, was designed to feature some of the highlights of Mr. Ritchie’s career and is one of the few recorded informal speeches of this Member of Parliament, made shortly after his departure from politics.
MY YEARS IN PARLIAMENT By Gordon Ritchie, M.D.
Tonight, I thought I would give you some idea of the things that happened to me as a member of Parliament.
I was relatively late when I entered the political field – almost 50 when first elected. When I first arrived in Ottawa in 1968, I found a great many young, and idealistic people, a few in their twenties and many in their 30’s and 40’s, that were out to change the world! And even at my age I realized that the world wasn’t going to be changed over night, but it was nice to see all the enthusiasm.
I was first elected to Parliament in 1968 at a time when we were worrying about pollution and motor cars and various other environmental concerns, but by the time I left, we were more concerned about getting gasoline, or if we could find any, whether we would be able to pay for it.
Trudeaumania was in vogue and Conservatives were not particularly popular. A few of us hung on in the strictly rural areas where some of the Trudeaumania didn’t wear quite so well and in my own case, Mr. Trudeau actually helped elect me because he brought up the Liberal vote at the expense of the N.D.P. So, I slipped down the middle and got to Ottawa. Mr. Trudeau was elected on the “Just Society” and after the throne speech which quite impressed me, I heard Mr. Diefenbaker out in the hall say, “Well, if you believe what Mr. Trudeau meant but a just society it is just for Grits”.
I must say it was a great experience to go to Ottawa and one that I shall value as long as I live and I hope that I contributed in some small way to the running of the country. One doesn’t ever contribute very much – several of us were asking ourself one day, “What do politicians do?” “Well, some said, “they’re just like horseflies around the horse. They may sting him and move him a little bit but – you don’t really change him very much. The horse sometimes is galloping along and at other times merely loping.” In many ways that is what society is like, and that’s what politicians are like. When society is active, politicians are active and when society’s placid they tend to be the same.
I soon learned, as anyone will who watches the television broadcasts of the House proceedings, that politics is confrontation. I must say, in passing, that I’m not happy with live parliamentary broadcasts because I don’t believe the general public understand the House of Commons and its rules. They often see it as childish, which it is to outsiders, but it’s a stylized debate, the accepted way of political sparring. Unlike the medieval tournaments where they once hit each other over the head with clubs, politicians try to do it with works. We keep scoring points which many outsiders probably don’t always appreciate. Televised broadcasts of Commons debates may sully the public’s image of respectable law-makers and damage the popular sense of trust in and respect for our leaders. That is why I question if broadcasting sessions of Parliament is beneficial to all concerned.
After arriving in Ottawa in 1968, one of the first issues we grappled with was bilingualism. Mr. Trudeau was trying to make bilingualism mandatory in the civil service. Outwardly it seemed like a good idea in some ways but the language of our civil servants had been predominantly English. In the very early days of Confederation the balance between the two language groups in the civil service had been roughly the same, since Cabinet Ministers from Quebec installed their own people in the civil service. But, starting in 1917 when Sir Robert Borden brought in the merit system to the civil service, quality improved but at the price of a bilingual service.
At any rate, I was one of the few who voted against the measure because I did not think it would work. I still maintain that history’s showing that it is not working very well although, perhaps, better than I was willing to accept at the time. It was espoused by the general Conservative caucus in Parliament except for 17 of us who voted against the language bill. I myself was certainly willing to see some sort of proportion quota instituted, but this was not accepted. It created quite a schism in our party and hard feelings for it was difficult to vote against our own party leader. One may, in caucus, tell him all that is wrong, but it is a very grave thing to be against him publicly. I suppose the world didn’t end that day, but for some of us we thought it might. Certainly it was a major issue and Mr. Stanfield never quite recovered and certainly never forgave those of us who took issue with him on the language problem. He felt that for his party to succeed politically, it had to get some support in Quebec. If not, he would never gain power. In retrospect I suppose he was right.
One of the things that intrigued me when I first went to Ottawa was the nature of Canada, its makeup and regionalism. Angus McLean, now Premier of Prince Edward Island and a friend of mine during those years, once said to me, “Well, Canada’s always been what Ontario and Quebec decided on and they never really cared very much or bothered very much with the peripheral regions of the country, mainly the West and the Maritimes.” Gordon Churchill, who was well-known to many of you here and another political associate of mine, believed much the same way. He passed the comment that when faced with problems of the “so-called” West against central Canada, Ontario, when its economic interests were threatened, always, turned to Quebec for a compromise solution and turned against the West. I once asked him about western separation and its prospects for success. His comment was, “We’ve been protestors, we always go to Ottawa. We lie on the floor and we scream and we want a better deal. We’re happy if they give us something and then the issue dies down until the next one arises.” I think in many ways he’s right. Of course at present there is much talk in Alberta about separation, but it is nothing new, merely an interesting sideline.
Later I became very interested in revisions to the Unemployment Insurance Act. Mr. Bryce Mackasey, a former labour leader in Quebec, had been given the task of changing the Unemployment Insurance Act to make it more expansive and inclusive. A soft-hearted Irishman, Mackasey brought everybody in, including University staff, nurses, and civil servants of all kinds who previously were not included under the terms of the Act. the provisions were very generous.
In the process I became sort of the financial voice of our party. We were in opposition, naturally, and with Link Alexander, the negro member from Hamilton, spear-headed our side of the debate on the Unemployment Insurance Commission. During this time, an accountant came to me, and Ottawa accountant (he was referred to me by a friend of mine whom I had got to know) and said, “The government figures were all wrong. They are going to cost much more than what the Department says, two billion more.” He then presented me with a batch of figures and estimated that the over-run in the first year of the new Act would be a billion dollars. Without indulging the source of our information we presented these figures during committee proceedings which Mr. Mackasey and his advisors hotly disputed. Their electronic model showed that there wouldn’t be any cost over-runs at all like what we had been suggesting. The Act was eventually passed, but I had the satisfaction of learning that the cost of the expanded coverage was over a billion dollars more than the government’s original estimate.
Being a rural M.P. from western Canada, I was inevitably involved in wheat and other agricultural concerns of interest to my area. Without western wheat Canada would have been a much smaller country. The Ontarians would have immigrated to the American south and the Quebecers over the border to the mills in New England. But, with the opening of the west, settlers from Ontario came west in large numbers along with other immigrants. Subsequently, wheat became the dominant force, the spark plug of the economy of Canada. Up until ten years ago, it used to be said there had been more speeches on wheat than on any other subject in the Canadian parliament.
I always think of the story they tell in Ontario. When we westerners start talking wheat, everybody else leaves, all the Ontarians and the Quebecers go home. But it is said that during one such speech on wheat, an Ontario Liberal wrote a short limerick to a Conservative colleague which said, “To the bird on the wing, the sweetest word is tweet, tweet, tweet; to the girl in love, the kindest word is sweet, sweet; but the damndest word I ever heard is wheat, wheat, wheat.”
One other recent controversy in which I got involved was the so-called cost-sharing and block-funding programs. About three years ago the Government decided that the 50/50 deal on Medicare, hospitalization and, I guess, education at the Universities should be changed to a so-called block-funding system. This was viewed with considerable alarm by the various Provincial sorts and created in our Caucus and our group quite a discussion on what our stand should be. I must say that I was always one who believed that the provinces should be responsible for their share of the costs. I supported the Government idea of allowing the Provinces to have different cost-sharing programs and had quite a bit of trouble in my own caucus to convince them that they should support the Government in this. It is now coming out because the recently announced budget is directly tied to theses cost-sharing programs and the legislation that was passed around three years ago.
Finally, let me say something about the day the Clark government fell. Politics is largely accidental as, I suppose, is much in history. The morning hours were filled with the debate on the N.D.P. amendment to the budget of the Clark Government. There was a possibility that the Conservatives could be defeated at that time. When I went down to the House in the afternoon – it started at 2:00 – there were no cabinet ministers around, but when don Mazenkowski, Minister of Transport, came down I went over to him and said, “I think we’re going to be defeated tonight.” He replied, “Oh no, I don’t think so.” But, my response was “Where’s the horses?” since Flora McDonald was in Brussels, and Lloyd Crouse, the member from Halifax was in the south seas and on his way home from Australia, then I said, “Is anybody talking to the Social Credit?” (There were then five Socreds in Parliament). “They’ll probably support us.” “Well,” he said, “what do they want?” “Well,” I said, “they would like to have a tax rebate of ten cents, the same as the farmers got for their loggers. So let’s give it to them. For ten cents we could stay in power. You had better get some of those cabinet fellows back here.”
So Don phoned Joe Clark who was down in Mississauga explaining the budget and wondered if they could talk to the Socreds. Mr. Clark was non-commital. Some time later Don Mazenkowski told me that on the morning of that day during the usual meeting Mr. Clark had with his staff (that is two or three cabinet ministers, the senior ones and two or three of his personal staff including Nancy, his researcher). Nancy was reputed to have said (and Jim Gillis was one of them, he was a member and professor of economics at Toronto there), “Gentlemen you’re going to be defeated tonight.” So they said, “Oh no, we don’t think so.” But intuition soon proved correct.
I believe Mr. Clark and his group thought the Liberals wouldn’t turn out. The day before, Wednesday, the Liberals had their Christmas party and whether it was the wine or not, they all came fired up on Thursday to defeat the Government. Mr. Clark, I think, thought that since Mr. Trudeau had stepped down as leader, and the Liberals were looking for a new party leader, that they didn’t want to contest an election with a lame-duck leader in limbo; rather he thought they would wait for a new Liberal leader such as Mr. John Turner which most of us feared. However, the Quebec wing of the Liberal Party was very unhappy and could see no better leader than Trudeau. In talking to some of them since, I learned they chose to vote the Clark Government out of office because they were quite sure Mr. Trudeau would come back, would have to come back. They saw no other alternative. So that’s a little side-light on history.
These are the way things go. Canada is a very difficult country to govern. It’s so regional, so many diversities and fortunately or otherwise, whatever your preference may be, has two huge provinces in the centre of the country, both very strong by our standards and very powerful economically. The peripheral regions are only now coming into their own. Their resources are becoming valuable. It wasn’t very long ago you had to pay people to go and dig holes in the ground to find ore, and oil and gas, but now these resources are very valuable and have changed our way of living and thinking here in Canada. They are changing the country. It’s really a very exciting time to live.
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Revised by N. Courrier (April 2019).