Who is Brian Pallister?

Brian Pallister is, in many ways, a Renaissance man – someone with many and diverse talents and interests. He is poised to lend those talents to the leadership of our province.

By Dorothy Dobbie
By Dorothy Dobbie

Brian Pallister, the 6-foot-8 leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba, is not shy, but he is private, even though he seems willing to share his life and his thoughts. He has learned over the years to talk about himself, but it doesn’t come naturally. That lends a hint of awkwardness to how he presents.

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Brian Pallister, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba.

Like most rurally-raised kids, he views life through the eyes of realism, but his view is coloured by a certain idealism. He has strong views, strong ethics. He believes in hard work, in excellence, meaning that you always strive to do the very best you can. He feels deeply.

He’s an achiever. That comes from his mother, Anne (Poyser), a school teacher, perfectionist and the indefatigable driver of the family fortunes, even though she suffered with arthritis from her late 30s onward. It also comes from the necessity of rising early to milk the cows before school. Hard work brings rewards. “There is no substitute for honest hard work,” Brian Pallister says.

Brian’s father, Bill, had polio at an early age, leaving him with a severely withered leg, but he steadfastly farmed the half-section homestead settled by his own grandfather near Edwin, where Brian started school in a two-room schoolhouse. The Pallister work ethic was instilled in all three kids, two boys and a girl, of which Brian is the oldest. “We never went hungry,” says Brian, “but there was nothing extra.” His sister Peggy is now a teacher and his brother Jim is a successful bean farmer – one of the biggest in Western Canada.

It wasn’t only work ethic that drove the Pallister family. They were governed by the principles of life-long learning, of being readers, of loving music (Brian plays the piano, sings and is a jazz lover – at university, he minored in music and history) and of playing to win at sports. Playing to win is a lot of what he is about.

Brian was a fastball player in his younger years. He pitched in a couple of dozen national championships and also played and won internationally. He is a curler and a basketball player. These are all team sports and he feels that being a team player and team leader defines his style. “I learned through sports how teamwork and collaboration works,” he says, and he has focused on instilling a team spirit among his colleagues since taking on the leadership.

He also has definite views about leadership, ideas he honed over the years as a business person and later a politician, working his way from the bottom up. He started Pallister Financial Group 35 years ago, in 1980, from the front seat of his car. Today, he has been successful enough to afford a house on Wellington Crescent, an achievement in which he takes justifiable pride. He also likes to be the boss and is perfectly capable of making a decision when the chaos of conflicting views are in play.

Brian learned to be aggressive to protect himself, and that showed in the early days of his political career when he had a reputation for aggression. Still tough and determined at 60, he has mellowed, demonstrating more patience, more willingness to listen and learn.

He says he has learned to laugh at himself, a talent that often comes to super achievers as they get older. He has developed more empathy toward political foes, and he sent Greg Sellinger a letter of sympathy during the recent NDP caucus revolt. Nor did he place his foot on the neck of the injured premier, remaining quiet during the whole debacle.

That is not to say that he pulls any punches when it comes to attacking government policy. He decries the Bi-Pole III Hydro deal, he is appalled by the state of social services under a government that claims social policy as its forte, and he is quick to point out that the province’s finances are out of control and that in spite of the extra $500 million injected by the PST increase the government is still running a deficit.

Brian Pallister with his wife Esther Johnson. Photo by Dorothy Dobbie.
Brian Pallister with his wife Esther Johnson. Photo by Dorothy Dobbie.

Basketball, Brian says, requires diligence and perseverance and he loved the game. It introduced him to Esther Johnson, his wife, a beautiful 6-foot-3 woman who has a quiet presence reminiscent of Michelle Obama. He says, with obvious pride, that she is “artsy and outdoorsy”.They met at a basketball game in 1984, and he has never looked back.

Brian says Esther is his closest adviser, but then that is natural for a man whose greatest influences growing up were his mother and his grandmother. “I loved my dad and my grandfather, but my mother and especially my grandmother were the people I admired most,” he says.

This positive attitude about women and his respect for them and their contributions colour his political life. He is making a committed effort to ensure that women form at least half of his caucus in the next election. There is a long list of very strong, well-qualified women on the PC nomination roster.

Carrying on the tradition of strong women in the family are his daughters Quinn, 23, graduating from the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba this year and working as an actuary for Great West Life, and Shawn, who is just 18 and still at the University of Winnipeg, where her parents met 30 years ago.

Everyone is the sum total of their experiences, good and bad. Growing up, it wasn’t hard work or deprivation that formed Brian Pallister: it was his height and what he calls his “geekiness”. In Grade 6, he was six feet tall, a foot taller than the average 12-year-old, and his interest in music, math and reading set him apart.

“I didn’t have a lot of friends,” he confesses. Early on, he had to come to terms with being different, and while he was figuring this out he was bullied by his tough, farm schoolmates. Subjected to bullying, some kids become shy and withdrawn; Brian became a sports star. “Music and exercise became my escape,” he says. For a time as a young adult, he also cultivated a beard and let his hair grow.

Graduating from the University of Brandon in 1976, Brian taught school in Gladstone for a time, taking on what today seems an odd role as the local union rep. In 1979, he went back to university to take a teaching degree, although he turned his attention to finances soon after when he started to sell insurance.

His return to university marked a way of life that continues to this day. “I am a lifelong learner,” he says, and he has been taking courses, mostly financial, for the past 20 years.

Brian Pallister is a thinker. He is a doer. He grabs life with both hands and gobbles it up. His intensity can sometimes astonish people. He reads voraciously – right now, mostly politics and books on governance. He has written financial columns. He has sung at weddings – many, many of them. He studied poetry as a kid.

He says he got into politics to make a difference, stimulated by the payroll tax bill and because as a small businessman and a member of the chamber of commerce, he believed in fair taxes and fair regulation, two issues he felt were being abused.

He got elected to the Manitoba legislature in 1992 when Ed Connery stepped down. He ran against Joe Clark in Joe’s second bid for the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative Party in 1998. He was later elected an MP, in 2000, serving through the tumultuous years of the Reform-Alliance-Conservative party battles. He served first as a Progressive Conservative and later as an Alliance member and then as a Conservative member after the merger.

Throughout his political lifespan, Brian Pallister was an active and sometimes controversial member. His forte was always in the financial realm, although he was once ruled out of order in the House of Commons for singing a parody of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part Two”, having adjusted the lyrics to attack the spending habits of cabinet minister David Dingwall and the Liberal Party.

He is sometimes unorthodox, and although he is a conservative, he says he is not a “blue-blood” conservative. He may be referring to the fact that his grandfather was a Douglas Campbell liberal. (Doug Campbell told the writer that he was “never a Liberal”. He governed as a member of the Progressive Party of Manitoba and in his later life was involved with the Confederations of Regions Party, the Reform Party and Sid Green’s Progressive Party).

Perhaps, as with his grandfather, there is a streak of the original thinker in Brian. That is not a bad trait for a leader in a province which is desperately looking for new ideas. Brian himself fell in love with PC chief Robert Stanfield when his 4-H leader took him to his first political debate.

Brian calls himself a professionally trained planner, but he admits that “people don’t follow plans, they follow visions”. His vision is for a Manitoba where excellence, as in always being the best you can be, is rewarded.

He doesn’t understand the rush to the middle, to mediocrity. His vision includes a caring society, where people look after each other, offering a helping hand up rather than a demeaning hand out. He believes that Manitobans epitomize that kind of society, and he says that helping is not just about spending, “It’s about making sure that the spending actually works.“

Brian has tremendous pride in province. “Manitoba is unique,” he says, citing the energy and creativity of our people, the way we work together, the tremendous resources. “We are a microcosm of Canada and we offer endless opportunities.”

It hurts him that we have such a national black eye in Canada right now, with the media painting us as racists. “Racism is there,” he says, “but if anyone can rise to the challenge of overcoming it, we can in Manitoba.”

He resents Winnipeg being called the poverty capital. “All great cities attract people coming for opportunity and that creates pockets of poverty as they adjust. But the opportunity is here and that’s why they come.” He thinks the PCs have to reach out to newcomers, to women, to urban dwellers.

Brian believes that leadership is about empowerment. If we create the right environment, Manitobans will respond with the vigour and creative leadership they have always shown. With that, we can move ahead and return to being first, instead of dead last on so many lists, including education and health waiting times.

He doesn’t understand why government would want to be in competition with non-profit organizations that do so much good in the city and the province, citing the troubles encountered by the Osborne Women’s Centre and the Manitoba Jockey Club in dealing with the current NDP government. He is eager to hear what people think and he quickly links what he hears to his endless supply of anecdotes. A natural raconteur, he has the rural Manitoba flair for a good story well told.

As Brian talks, you can see him winding up. His eyes sparkle. He flashes a natural grin. His excitement is contagious. Talking about what Manitoba could and will be if his PCs win the next election clearly moves him.

Known as ‘Pally’ to his friends, Brian Pallister is gregarious and focused. His early childhood has had a profound effect on his character today. Moving from the angry-young-man stage into the thoughtful, self-aware person he has become is a journey that many never make. And he is determined to keep getting better.

“You never stop growing,” he says. “If you stop growing, you start dying.” Brian Pallister hopes to take that energy to the top job on Broadway next year. Meanwhile, he intends to continue to grow.

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