What I remember most about Duff Roblin, who passed away last week at age 92, is how gracious and approachable he was when I periodically called him to discuss some historical event that occurred during his premiership for the Heritage Highlights section of the WREN. He never refused and was very enthusiastic — although extremely humble — in relating this period in Manitoba’s history. More often than not, his comments centred on the achievements of, as well as some anecdotes about, other prominent individuals rather than his own weighty impact on the province’s history.
“Duff Roblin brought Manitoba into the modern era,” said Bill Neville, a University of Manitoba political science professor, during the 1992 ceremony inducting the former Manitoba premier into the WinnipegREALTORS®-established Citizens Hall of Fame.
“His government modernized the education and health systems,” said Premier Greg Selinger shortly after the announcement of Roblin’s passing, “launched a regional government for Winnipeg, introduced crop insurance for farmers and a social allowance for the disadvantaged, built new highways and created Grand Beach and Birds Hill provincial parks.”
In fact, Roblin arrived on the political scene just in the nick of time as Manitoba had been stagnating under a so-called “Progressive” coalition government, which had made few investments in Manitoba’s economy and the well-being of its citizens. If there was a true progressive in Manitoba, it was Roblin, the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party.
“All of his actions improved the lives of Manitobans and set this province on a course that it would thrive,” said Selinger.
“We cannot always be satisfied with what we have done,” said Roblin at the time of his induction into the hall of fame, “but we can be proud of it.”
In the context of his major contribution to Winnipeg, Roblin was “proud” to have defied his critics in order to build what later became affectionately known as “Duff’s Ditch.” At the time, Roblin was continually ridiculed for thinking that digging a massive ditch around Winnipeg would prevent a reoccurrence of the devastation caused by the 1950 flood. But in his mind, Roblin knew he was right and defiantly squared off against his bitterest critics, who called the proposed floodway “Roblin’s Folly.”
The first signs of trouble in 1950 came on April 4 when flooding occurred in North Dakota and Minnesota — the same harbinger of things to come that Manitobans were to dread in 1997. By Monday, April 24, the Red River was out of control on the Canadian side of the border with most of Emerson under water. On April 27, the entire population of Morris had to be evacuated. As news of the disaster imperilling outlying communities reached the city, Winnipeggers feared the worst. By Tuesday, May 2, water was within inches of the top of the Elm Park Dike and inundating streets in West Kildonan.
May 5 would come to be known as “Black Friday” as pouring rain added to the burden imposed on the dikes. When the rain continued into Monday, dikes were breached and water flowed over sandbags, forcing the evacuation of entire neighbourhoods. During the flood, 10,000 homes were inundated and one-eighth of Winnipeg was under water.
When the 1950 flood struck, Roblin was an opposition MLA in a province run by a Liberal-Progressive coalition led by Premier Douglas Campbell, whose government’s slow action to declare an emergency during the flood and lack of decisive action for protection in the wake of the flood were highly criticized.
“I knew a 1950 flood could come again,” wrote Roblin in his autobiography, Speaking for Myself. “Naturally I demanded action. Every year that passed brought us closer to another crisis.”
A 1953 report released by federal engineers proposed a number of options. The engineers particularly favoured the floodway as “the only positive means of flood protection.”
The report remained on Campbell’s desk for three years, and he only acted when public pressure mounted. Campbell asked Ottawa for a cost-benefit study, but the federal government refused. A cost-benefit study was commissioned by the province in 1956, but it wasn’t ready until 1958, which came up with the same recommendations contained in the 1953 federal report.
In the 1958 provincial election, Roblin, leader of the Conservatives since 1954, made flood protection a major campaign issue. He won the election but only formed a minority government. Only after a hastily-called election in 1959, did he achieve a majority.
Roblin wrote that even his own caucus was not convinced of the merits of a floodway, but he eventually won them over. He said “political opposition in the legislature was vocal. They were skeptical of the plan. They rejected the cost. The whole proposal was unnecessary. A flood like 1950 — to say nothing of a greater one — was quite unlikely ... That prompted one of them to coin the epithet ‘Roblin’s Folly’ to underline their disapproval.”
In the floodway sweepstakes, Roblin had an ace to play — the newly-elected George Diefenbaker Conservative government. Sitting in a Winnipeg hotel room with the “Chief, he persuaded Diefenbaker to come up with a greater share of federal money for the $63-million floodway. Roblin managed to wrangle a 55-per-cent federal and 45-per-cent provincial cost-sharing agreement.
The first bulldozer began work on the floodway on October 6, 1962, and the project was completed in 1968, stretching from St. Norbert to near Lockport — on schedule and on budget. Since its completion, the floodway has protected Winnipeg from major flooding on numerous occasions.
“The 1950 flood was a traumatic and defining experience for Winnipeg and Manitoba,” said Roblin. “My part in that test made me determined to do what might be necessary to deal with a similar future threat to life in the valley ... Duff’s Ditch is there, and Duff’s Ditch works.”
During his hall of fame induction ceremony, Roblin referred to the floodway as “a reminder of what has been done in this community and what will be done in the future for this community.”
No one can quibble with the statement that Duff Roblin was a visionary who defied his critics and got the job done when it was needed. Manitobans have a great deal to be thankful for by having had Roblin acting in their best interests. As Selinger pointed out, Roblin’s “deep reforms and initiatives in many areas of government ... have benefited many generations.”