WINNIPEG — The man who wants to take over as Manitoba’s next premier is a study in contrasts.
Brian Pallister came from humble beginnings and now owns one of the biggest homes in Winnipeg. He’s a politician with an imposing height who clearly remembers being bullied as a child, a focused and disciplined taskmaster with a history of verbal slip-ups and gaffes.
Since becoming leader of the Progressive Conservative Opposition in 2012, Pallister has made his mark by driving staff and caucus members hard, rebuilding constituency associations and boosting party coffers to prepare for the April 19 election.
“Halfway measures don’t get you where you need to go,” Pallister said in recent interviews. “An important part of work, of life, of politics is showing up. Show up, do your job.”
He grew up on a small farm near Portage la Prairie — the homestead of his great-grandparents. There wasn’t a lot of money, he says, so his mother took a teaching job.
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Pallister, 61, stands a towering 6-foot-eight. He remembers he and his brother Jim playing sports.
“We had one ball when we were kids, and we played everything with that ball — football, basketball, baseball — everything we could imagine. We golfed with that ball.”
He made a name for himself as a teenager playing fastball. He hitchhiked to Brandon University and tried out for the school’s basketball team. His coach remembers a young man, fairly overweight, who played above his talent level thanks to determination.
“The biggest thing we wanted to do was get some of that weight off him and he ran hard every day,” Jerry Hemmings recalls.
“Many times I would put garbage cans in each corner of the court, and tell him if he got sick, to pick up one of those garbage cans and puke in it and keep on running.”
The puke came. Pallister kept at it.
“He probably lost a good 30 pounds … and he’s been super-fit ever since,” Hemmings says.
Pallister graduated and took a teaching job briefly, but then started an insurance and investment firm out of his car. He and his wife, Esther, grew the company over three decades and used the proceeds to buy a $2-million, 9,000-square-foot mansion in Winnipeg.
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He also became involved in politics. He was elected to the Manitoba legislature in 1992 and later became minister of government services. He ran unsuccessfully in 1998 for the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives. Two years later, he was elected as a member of Parliament for the Canadian Alliance.
He left the Commons in 2008 and, in 2012, ran unopposed for the leadership of the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives —a party that was on the ropes after four consecutive election losses.
Pallister made it known that he would be something of a drill sergeant. At a meeting of a dozen party members looking for staff jobs, he drew names from a hat and assigned each person a constituency in which to sell memberships. Applicants were also subjected to an on-the-spot essay contest. About half of those in the room left. One compared the meeting to a “Survivor”-style reality show.
Pallister assigned caucus members a second constituency to build the party’s profile. The moves did not endear him to everyone, but the party has raised more funds than the governing NDP in recent years and is in fighting shape.
The one area where Pallister’s discipline has slipped is when he is making speeches.
While delivering an off-the-cuff holiday message in 2013, he extended well-wishes to “infidel atheists.” He quickly added that he believes in the rights of both religious and non-religious people to mark the holiday season in whatever way they choose.
During his time in Parliament, he once dodged a question by saying he was giving “a woman’s answer … a sort of fickle kind of thing.”
In a lengthy speech in the legislature in 2014, he veered into a diatribe in which he said he hated Halloween because it is bad for children’s integrity.
“I don’t work from prepared texts all the time,” Pallister says.
“I’ve done several thousand interviews … so if I said a couple of embarrassing things, I didn’t say them to hurt anybody.”
Pallister stands by his dislike of Halloween. He was 6-foot-three when he hit his teens, and no disguise could mask his identity, leading to taunts from other kids.
“I’ve learned, too, from my slip-ups. I’m being quite frank with you that I’m evolving, I’m learning too. I was never a political party leader before.
“But I know how to build teams and I know how to build trust … and I want more Manitobans to know me.”