“He understood the art of the possible.”
– JIM DOWNEY
It was 1996 and the Progressive Conservative government had just removed the central desk sales monopoly from the Manitoba Hog Producers Marketing Board.
Hog farmers at a producer meeting in Selkirk were on their feet screaming abuse at Agriculture Minister Harry Enns, who engineered the unilateral move so Maple Leaf Meats would come to Brandon.
The atmosphere was hot and heavy. Some feared violence from the hostile crowd. But Enns never turned a hair.
Cooly and calmly, he told the group the decision had been made and the only thing to do now was prepare for change.
Some politicians would have folded under the pressure. Some might have seen their careers destroyed. But not Harry Enns, who even his opponents acknowledged was a consummate politician – able to roll with the punches, carry out his government’s wishes and shake hands afterwards. It was a job. It wasn’t personal.
“He separated people from the issue,” said Gerry Friesen, who, as incoming hog board chairman, had to work with Enns to break up the board into two separate entities.
“He had a job to do and I had a job to do. But we still respected each other.”
That’s the general consensus about Enns, who died suddenly last week following heart surgery. He was 78.
“We fought hammer and tongs at times. But I considered him a friend,” said Bill Uruski, a former NDP agriculture minister.
“He didn’t engender a lot of enemies. He was generally liked and respected, even though he sometimes had to do unpopular things.”
A long-time Conservative MLA, Enns was called the dean of the Manitoba legislature when he retired from politics in 2003 after serving Lakeside (previously Rockwood-Iberville) constituency for 37 years.
First called as a cabinet minister in 1967, Enns served in five different portfolios under four PC premiers, including Duff Roblin, who died in late May at 92.
Several times minister of natural resources, Enns spearheaded the development of the Oak Hammock Marsh interpretive centre and national headquarters for Ducks Unlimited in 1993.
But many feel Enns, a cattle producer, left his main mark as an agriculture minister, first from 1967 to 1968 and then from 1993 to 1999.
Uruski recalled first meeting Enns in 1968 as a young turkey farmer leading a group of producers seeking a vote for a turkey marketing board.
Enns agreed and stickhandled the formation of the provincial turkey board through the legislature. He also shepherded legislation for broiler and egg marketing boards.
“He was part of Duff Roblin’s progressive group,” Uruski said.
Jim Downey, who served with Enns in cabinet, called him a natural politician.
“He understood the art of the possible,” said Downey, a PC MLA from 1977 to 1999 and former deputy premier.
“In politics, if you don’t understand that, you don’t go very far.”
Downey recalled Enns as an old-fashioned politician who was “a great stump speaker. He could get up and speak on any subject at any time.”
Although passionate and opinionated, Enns didn’t demonstrate the vindictiveness that sometimes permeates politics today, Downey said.
“He could debate very strongly about his beliefs and afterwards have a friendly discussion with the individual he was debating with, even though it may have been pretty rancorous in the House. That’s an ability that everybody doesn’t have.”
Others remember Enns for his malapropisms and colourful turn of phrase.
He always insisted on referring to the Peak of the Market vegetable board as “Vegetable Peak.” And he became famous in pork circles for once remarking that if hog manure smelled like raspberry jam, there would be no difficulty in building hog barns. [email protected]