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Thatcher, Wilbert Ross (1917–71)

Ross Thatcher.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-A8359

Ross Thatcher was born on May 24, 1917, in Neville. Thatcher’s father, Wilbert, went into the hardware business in the Moose Jaw area during the 1920s. He was successful and his chain of stores expanded even during the depth of the Depression. While attending school Ross Thatcher helped in his father’s stores and established his business skills. Thatcher graduated from high school at the age of 15. He attended Queen’s University, graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce at the age of 18. Thatcher landed a job as the executive assistant to the vice-president of Canadian Packers in Toronto. By the late 1930s his father called him home to work in the family business. Thatcher’s father fell ill and the running of the businesses fell on Ross.

He was attracted to the CCF’s activism and its interest in economic development. Thatcher believed that private business was not spurring the type of economic development that Saskatchewan needed, so the government had to step in. In 1942, he was elected to Moose Jaw city council on a labour-reformist slate and served a two-year term. Thatcher won the federal riding of Moose Jaw for the CCF in 1945.

Thatcher was not a natural fit with the CCF. As an MP, Thatcher was clearly on the right wing of the CCF caucus. His interest in business and the importance of the profit motive were so dominant that his relationship with the party was uncomfortable. In 1955 he broke from the CCF over its policy on corporate tax rates. After initially sitting as an independent, Thatcher contested the 1957 election campaign as a Liberal in the riding of Assiniboia. During the campaign Thatcher attacked the Saskatchewan CCF’s record in creating Crown Corporations. The attack upset Premier T.C. Douglas, who challenged Thatcher to a debate. Thatcher accepted, and the debate took place in May 1957 in Mossbank and was broadcast across Saskatchewan. The debate itself was largely regarded as a draw; however, the mere fact that Thatcher stood toe-to-toe with Douglas was a victory. It gave Liberals a hope that they had found someone who could finally challenge Douglas.

Thatcher lost to CCF candidate Hazen Argue in the 1957 election and again in 1958, but he was viewed as the possible saviour of the Saskatchewan Liberal Party. After leader Hammy McDonald was forced out of his position in the summer of 1959, Thatcher contested the party leadership and won on the first ballot. Thatcher brought to the party the zeal of a convert in attacking his former party. Thatcher led the party into the 1960 election where he fought Douglas over the issue of Medicare. Although he increased support for his party, he failed to defeat the CCF.

The Liberals were gaining momentum, and the opposition and protest against medicare helped to solidify anti-CCF opposition. Thatcher also worked to incorporate many Conservatives and Socreds into his party in order to defeat the CCF. The Liberals won three by-elections from the CCF during the term. In 1964, Thatcher’s work paid off as he defeated the CCF for the first time in twenty years.

Thatcher believed that government needed to control spending by reducing what he saw as waste and inefficiency. He reduced taxes and sold several of Saskatchewan’s Crown corporations. He further set out to promote that Saskatchewan was “open for business” to outside investors who, he believed, had been scared away by twenty years of socialism. He attracted investment that resulted in the rapid expansion of the potash industry and provided subsidies for the development of pulp mills in the north.

Thatcher’s relationship with the federal Liberals was a stormy one. He demanded complete control over the party in Saskatchewan and resented both Pearson’s and Trudeau’s attempts to establish a separate federal organization in the province. Further exacerbating the difficulties were disagreements over federal agriculture policy, which upset many farmers and hurt provincial Liberal fortunes.

Thatcher was re-elected in 1967, but shortly afterward his government began an unannounced austerity program that caught even senior Ministers off guard. In the 1968 budget, Thatcher cut government programs, raised taxes, and introduced widely unpopular utilization fees on medical procedures. The cuts were accompanied by a downturn in the agricultural and potash industries. Thatcher became increasingly combative with friends and foes alike. His government became isolated and increasingly vulnerable and was defeated by Allan Blakeney and the NDP in 1971.

On July 22, 1971, three weeks after the election, Thatcher died of a heart attack at his Regina home.

Brett Quiring

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Further Reading

Eisler, Dale. 1987. Rumours of Glory. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers; Smith, David. 1975. Prairie Liberalism: The Liberal Party in Saskatchewan 1905–1971. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
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