It has been almost 30 years since the Saskatchewan public last saw Dick Collver.
While in Saskatoon on another matter, he was subpoenaed to testify for the Crown in the first-degree murder trial of his old Progressive Conservative caucus colleague Colin Thatcher.
Under the advice of his legal counsel Ron Barclay — now, Saskatchewan’s Conflict of Interest Commissioner — the former leader of the PC party testified that Thatcher once asked for advice on hiring a hitman to kill his ex-wife JoAnn Wilson.
After that, Collver faded into political obscurity — until his death earlier this month in Thailand at age 78 years.
But when it comes to Saskatchewan’s political history, Collver was anything but obscure.
Sure, the one-time Nipawin MLA elected PC leader in 1973 never rose beyond the heights of opposition leader. And yes, he will rightly be remembered by many for his outlandishness behaviour.
One incident involved shooting a firearm off the balcony of his Regina apartment in a late-night stupor — an offense that then Thatcher lawyer and now judge Gerry Allbright raised at the trial to dissuade the jury of Collver’s credibility.
And, of course, there was Collver’s less than eloquent departure from Saskatchewan politics after losing the 1978 election to the NDP. Soon after resigning as Tory leader, he and fellow Conservative Jack Hamm formed what they called the “Unionest Party” — a Western separatist movement whose goal was to have Saskatchewan and Western Canada join the United States.
The NDP retroactively changed legislation so that they could not enjoy the benefits of party status in the Saskatchewan Legislature that included public funding. That resulted in Collver holding a 38-hour filibuster to block the bill.
Such antics might normally have confined Collver to realm of political oddity. But this really only tells half the story, as Dick Collver really does represent half the Saskatchewan story.
“There’s no question he was a pivotal figure in Saskatchewan politics,” said Dale Eisler, former Leader-Post political columnist who once occupied this very newspaper space.
“He, more than anybody else, revived the Progressive Conservative Party ... which had been moribund for generations.”
As Eisler rightly noted, it was Collver and his ability to political organize and rally people that very much paved the way for Grant Devine’s win in 1982 and perhaps even Brad Wall’s success in the past seven years.
“One of the offspring of Dick Collver is the Brad Wall government,” Eisler said.
It is for that reason that Wall issued a statement last week describing the quirky Collver as “a strong conservative voice who led the PC Party from zero seats to official Opposition status.” Similarly, current PC leader Rick Swenson praised Collver for his “boundless energy and enthusiasm,” that awoke the Saskatchewan PCs from their “40-year electoral malaise.”
Again, it’s all a little odd that a politician whose strange behaviour and ideas including ending Saskatchewan as we know it would be so lauded by these political luminaries.
Perhaps this outpouring of affection from conservative politicians has something to do with the way Collver re-awakened the dormant conservative side of this province.
Seven years after Collver’s last public appearance in Saskatchewan in 1984, an old nemesis — Roy Romanow — would regain power for the NDP from the scandal-plagued Devine Tories. He would accomplish the 1991 NDP campaign entitled “The Saskatchewan Way.” And for decades, the NDP in this province whole-heartedly believed the NDP way was the Saskatchewan way.
But this province has actually benefitted from both the co-operative/commonwealth philosophy from the NDP and the free-enterprise spirit that governed PCs, Sask. Party and Dick Collver.
Collver had a big role in writing that other half of the Saskatchewan story. For this, he should not be forgotten.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.