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Romanow, Roy John (1939–)

Roy Romanow (right) with Roy McMurtry and Jean Chrétien, the authors of the “Kitchen Accord”, 1979.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-A22517-2

Roy Romanow was born in Saskatoon on August 12, 1939. His parents were Ukrainian immigrants who had settled on the west side of Saskatoon. Despite English being his second language, Romanow performed well in school and entered the University of Saskatchewan in the fall of 1957 to study political science. After completing his first degree, he entered the university’s College of Law, graduating in the spring of 1964. While at university, Romanow was heavily involved in student politics, becoming president of the Students’ Representative Council. He was also an outspoken advocate of the provincial CCF and its introduction of Medicare.

Romanow began practicing law but had his eye set on politics. In 1966, he secured the CCF’s nomination for the Riversdale constituency in Saskatoon and was successful in the provincial election the next year. Recognized as a top debater in the Legislature, he was the natural leader of a new group of MLAs who encouraged him to run for leadership of the party when Premier Woodrow Lloyd resigned in 1970. The party establishment’s surprise at his willingness to challenge the old guard turned into astonishment when Romanow forced the contest into a third ballot, almost beating former Lloyd Cabinet Minister Allan E. Blakeney. As a major asset in the NDP’s election victory the following year, Romanow was appointed Deputy Premier, House Leader and Attorney General by Blakeney.

The 1970s were a time of innovation and expansion for the Saskatchewan government. Romanow initiated the province’s first human rights code and accompanying commission, a new ombudsman office, the first provincial legal aid plan, the Indian constables program with the RCMP and the Meewasin Valley Authority to enhance Saskatoon’s riverbank environment. By 1979, national unity had become a priority for the Blakeney government and Romanow became Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and one of the chief negotiators of a new Constitution for Canada. The compromise “Kitchen Accord” bringing together all the provinces (except Quebec) and the federal government was handwritten by Romanow in an eleventh-hour set of negotiations involving federal Justice Minister Jean Chrétien and his provincial counterparts including Roy McMurtry of Ontario.

Many in Saskatchewan felt that the Blakeney government had been overly preoccupied with the Constitution, and the NDP was routed in the provincial election of 1982. Narrowly defeated in Riversdale, Romanow used his time out of office to reflect on his career and he co-authored Canada Notwithstanding, a book about the making of the Canadian Constitution. In 1986, Romanow re-entered political life, winning back the Riversdale constituency and taking over the leadership of the NDP after Blakeney resigned a year later. In Opposition, he fought against the privatization initiatives of the Conservative government led by Grant Devine. Then, on October 21, 1991, the NDP swept to a massive victory, setting the stage for a decade-long government headed by Romanow.

As Premier, Romanow inherited a government that was almost bankrupt after years of fiscal mismanagement and a struggling agricultural economy. Tackling the debt crisis with a speed and commitment that surprised almost everyone, Romanow insisted on restoring the public’s confidence in the ability of government to manage its finances. At the same time, his government pioneered major reforms in health care, including regionalization. By the mid-1990s, Saskatchewan was beginning to register budget surpluses, leading a trend that was soon followed by other jurisdictions in Canada. Health reform had also achieved some success although the closing and conversion of dozens of rural Hospitals drew much criticism.

Romanow pursued an incremental economic strategy for the province that encouraged private sector initiative with only modest public investment in the 1990s, eschewing both the mega-development strategy pursued by Devine that had produced so much debt in the 1980s and the active expansion of the Crown corporation sector as had occurred under Blakeney in the 1970s. He initiated a major review of the future of the Crown sector that ultimately called for greater investment outside Saskatchewan and in a more competitive business and regulatory environment within the province. In agriculture, he favoured more market-sensitive safety nets that would encourage even greater diversification. He pushed through a forest strategy that required partnerships with new Aboriginal businesses in the province. He also introduced welfare reforms aimed at encouraging independence through earned income supplements and training initiatives.

By his second term in government, Romanow was able to turn some of his attention to national issues. He was a leader in the social union negotiations that ultimately produced the National Child Benefit and the Social Union Framework Agreement (SUFA). He tirelessly fought against the threat of Quebec’s secession in the federation, trying to forge a balance between Ottawa’s centralism and the radical decentralism urged by Quebec and Alberta. He had Saskatchewan intervene in the Quebec secession reference before the Supreme Court of Canada to make it clear that decisions on the future of Canada triggered by Quebec’s separation must involve provinces like his own, and he supported the federal government’s Clarity Bill on the rules surrounding any future referendum on separation.

Romanow’s government emerged with a minority in the provincial election of 1999. Years of budgetary constraint along with deteriorating relations with rural voters facing an increasingly uncertain future and organized labour following a bitter nurses’ strike had taken their toll. Romanow initiated a coalition with the three sitting Liberal members to provide some stability for his government. A year later, Romanow decided to announce his resignation, making way for a leadership convention. After Lorne Calvert was selected leader, Romanow left the Premier’s office in February 2001.

After only three months in retirement, however, Romanow was asked by Prime Minister Chrétien to become the sole chair of a Royal Commission. He accepted on the condition that it would be directed from Saskatchewan, beginning an eighteen-month inquiry on the future of health care in Canada. Conducting multi-layered consultations that captured the attention of Canadians and the media, as well as initiating extensive research, he delivered his major report, Building on Values, in November 2002. Romanow is an Officer of the Order of Canada, and a recipient of the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.

Gregory P. Marchildon

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Further Reading

Barnhart, Gordon L. (ed.). 2004. Saskatchewan Premiers of the Twentieth Century. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center.
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