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Fight or flight: Greg Selinger on finding the Zen point

Premier says he keeps going to help improve the lives of the less fortunate


 
Chris Young/CP

(Chris Young, CP)

WINNIPEG — Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger admits that during the dark days of a very public caucus revolt he contemplated quitting.

Already feeling voter anger over his NDP government’s 2013 sales tax increase, Selinger was dealt another blow in the fall of 2014 when five of his most senior cabinet ministers — people he trusted and in some cases promoted — went public with calls for his resignation.

He had to make a choice: fight or flight.

“There was a point where I wondered whether it was worth the headache,” Selinger recalled in a recent interview.

He compared the trying time to running a marathon.

“There’s kind of a point in there … where you either quit because you’ve hit the wall, or you find that second wind and you hit … that Zen point where you’re prepared to accept the outcome whatever way it goes.”

Selinger rejected critics who said he should step down and give a new leader a chance to revive the party’s fortunes. His opponents’ backers said the party was headed for electoral slaughter unless Selinger quit.

But the premier was advised by his supporters to stay on and fight.

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He did. The party organized a leadership race and Selinger survived with 51 per cent of the votes on the second ballot.

That perseverance — what his critics call stubbornness — is not unusual for Selinger, who overcame childhood poverty and trying times on his way to Manitoba’s top political job.


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Selinger, 65, was born in a rough part of Regina. When he was a preschooler, the family moved to Vancouver, where his parents’ marriage fell apart.

His mother, Margaret, moved back to Regina and tried to find a way to take care of her children. Selinger was sent to live with his grandparents for one year in rural Saskatchewan.

His mother decided to move to Winnipeg. She opened a small clothing store in the St. James area. Becoming a business owner was a bold move for a woman in the early 1960s, but she was determined to make it work.

There were setbacks. A close relative was diagnosed with schizophrenia. But the family stuck together and worked to build a middle-class lifestyle.

Selinger went on to study social work and was employed in Winnipeg’s inner city. He saw the effects of poverty, addiction and loan sharks, which embedded in him a desire for social justice. Decades later, he introduced laws to protect low-income earners, including strict guidelines for payday loan companies.

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“What motivates a person like myself is to be able to see significant progress for people that, for many decades, have been left out.”

In his 20s, Selinger helped establish an economic development agency for low-income earners that exists to this day. He taught social work at the University of Manitoba and went on to graduate studies — a master’s degree in public administration from Queen’s University and a PhD in social policy and administration from the London School of Economics.

He served on Winnipeg city council in 1989 and made an unsuccessful run for mayor.

He was first elected to the Manitoba legislature in 1999. He served a decade as finance minister before taking over the premier’s chair following Gary Doer’s departure.

Selinger has stayed on despite internal strife, external criticism, the departure of most of his senior advisers after the caucus revolt and poll numbers that suggest his party could fall to third place in the April 19 election.

Selinger could leave politics and enjoy more time with his wife, Claudette Toupin, and their two grown sons. But he wants to keep going out of a desire to manage the province’s economy during troubled times — deficits have been run in the name of job-creation and infrastructure repair — and improving the lives of the less fortunate.

Selinger points to a recent announcement of an all-weather road to the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation. The reserve was cut off from the mainland a century ago when Winnipeg built an aqueduct for drinking water.

Selinger’s wife’s grandfather worked on the aqueduct, and the premier sees the new road and similar projects as a way to address long-standing basic needs in First Nations communities.

“We’re starting to see people understand the history of the country and how we can work together. I think on a lot of fronts we can move forward together.

“Canadians want to move forward.”


 

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