The response to two signal events in the history of Saskatchewan - the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II - fell largely to the Liberal government of Premier William Patterson, which was in power from 1935, when James Gardiner departed to serve in the federal Cabinet, until the landslide victory of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in the provincial election of 1944.
The sixth Premier of Saskatchewan, Patterson was the first Premier to be born in the province, the first to have seen military service, and the first to take office as a bachelor (he did not marry until 1937). Patterson himself was described as a popular, if lacklustre, leader. His government was successful in obtaining financial assistance from Ottawa to fight the Depression, made a forceful contribution to the reappraisal of federal-provincial relations at the time of the Rowell-Sirois Report, and passed important legislation in areas such as health care, taxation and labour standards which helped to establish the legislative framework familiar to citizens of Saskatchewan to this day.
Yet Patterson failed to make a strong or lasting impression as a public figure. Even at the time, he felt compelled to defend the record of what some called a “do-nothing government,” and to point out that his government had managed to maintain public services and government credit in the face of adversity.
William Patterson was born at Grenfell, in what was then the Assiniboia District of the North-West Territories. His father, John Patterson, a railway section foreman, began work on the Grenfell section of the CPR in 1882. His mother, Catherine Fraser, had traveled out from Scotland. They built a small house at Grenfell with lumber brought overland from the end of the railway line at Broadview, and William, the first of their five children, was born there May 13, 1886.
After leaving school at the age of 15, Patterson worked in a bank, and then for the provincial Department of Telephones, before enlisting as a cavalry officer in 1916. He served in France, and was wounded in September 1918, in the same week that two of his brothers were also wounded in action. Returning to Saskatchewan, he studied law for a year with Grenfell lawyer G.C. Neff, and then moved to Windthorst where he opened an insurance and financial agency.
Patterson had displayed a precocious interest in politics, attending the first provincial leadership convention in 1905 before he was old enough to vote. In 1921, he was elected as the MLA for the Pipestone constituency, and served in a number of Cabinet portfolios in the Gardiner governments. He became leader of the Liberal Party and Premier of Saskatchewan in 1935.
Facing the serious crisis of the Depression, the Patterson government sought to preserve and extend social programs that would relieve the financial difficulties of citizens and municipalities, while at the same time protecting the fiscal reputation of the province. The government instituted a sales tax to assist the beleaguered education system, extended pension and debt relief legislation, and expanded publicly funded care for tuberculosis, cancer and polio. The government also enacted legislation supporting the establishment of credit unions, permitting workers to form and join trade unions, and improving labour standards with respect to such issues as hours of work and days of rest.
Though Patterson believed strongly in encouraging the initiative of individuals, he also believed that government could play a vital role in society, particularly in assisting those who faced difficulties as a result of financial adversity or ill health. He saw the taxation revenue necessary to support well-administered government programs as a good investment, and placed great importance on careful management of public resources.
Though the Patterson government, and Patterson himself, were respected as conscientious and fiscally prudent stewards of provincial resources, the government faced growing competition from populist political parties based in western Canada, particularly the Social Credit Party and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The CCF, under the leadership of T.C. Douglas, swept the Liberals from power in 1944. Patterson stepped down as party leader in 1948, and resigned from the Legislature in the same year to take up a post with the federal Board of Transport Commissioners. He was appointed as the first Saskatchewan-born Lieutenant-Governor in 1951, and served in that position until 1958.
Patterson faced straitened circumstances in his retirement, as there was no pension coverage for his years in the Legislature. In March 1958, Premier Douglas introduced a special bill that would provide a pension to Patterson at the maximum level provided under recently passed legislation. Patterson lived in quiet retirement until his death June 10, 1976.