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LETTER: Lewis laments the loss of a 'true patriot and statesman'

'Maz' was proof that in Canada, no matter where you come from and who you know, anything is possible through hard work, integrity and compassion, says letter writer
don mazankowski
Don Mazankowski speaks in the House of Commons in 1986. Screenshot

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Canada lost a true patriot and statesman, Alberta and the West lost a strong supporter, and I lost a friend and mentor, with the passage of Don Mazankowski or “Maz” as he was known to everyone.

Maz rose from humble beginnings in rural Alberta to become Deputy Prime Minister in the government of Brian Mulroney from 1985 to 1993. I was fortunate to work closely with Maz from 1985 to 1990, but more about that later.

Prime Minister Mulroney relied on Maz extensively to run the government. Maz did that by hard work and an approach to people that was something to see and marvel at. He got things done, but at the same time didn't make enemies during the cut and thrust of politics.

His advice was sought on all issues. He heard everyone out and if there was room or cause for compromise it was there. “Check it out with Maz” was the theme of the times.

He had a modest educational background, which he overcame with a doctorate in people skills.

Maz never put on airs and stayed grounded. Despite his huge influence on politics in the 1980s and 1990s he was always approachable by friend and foe.

At one of our Christmas caucus parties, Maz took over the microphone and sang Johnny Cash's, Sunday Morning Coming Down as well as Johnny, to the roar of the crowd.

At one caucus meeting, Maz came in to the room at the last minute and took his seat at the front desk on stage. He casually reached for the two bottles of sparkling water on the desk, then snapped the cap off one bottle with the cap of the other. Once again, we all roared.

My close work with Maz started in the fall of 1985. The Progressive Conservatives had been elected in September of 1984 but the first year hadn't gone well as we adjusted to governing. I was personally disappointed in a very unsatisfactory year as a Parliamentary Secretary and was seriously considering my options.

I ran for Speaker in the fall and finished a close third. That didn't help, but shortly thereafter I got a call from Maz requesting a meeting. We met and after the pleasantries Maz offered me the job as Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader, a position which he also held. I was overwhelmed by the opportunity and accepted immediately.

That was the start of the most memorable working relationship that I was ever to experience in Parliament. My job was to get done what Maz and the Government wanted done without bothering Maz as much as possible and taking as little credit as possible.

We met almost every day and often several times a day. Gradually, Maz brought order out of confusion. I learned so much and, better still, enjoyed the challenges he gave me.

By the fall of 1987, I was in Cabinet as Minister of State to the Government House Leader and Secretary of the Treasury Board. Then in the fall of 1988 after we won the “free trade” election there was another challenge: How to get the necessary legislation passed before Christmas. Fortunately, my team and I were able to work out a strategy to get the legislation passed.

Early in 1989 Maz asked me what I wanted to do in the new administration. I remember saying that if it was in the cards I would like to be Minister of Justice. However, if that wasn't possible and he moved on I would like to be Government House Leader. He said: “Leave it with me.”

When I was called for a meeting at 24 Sussex as Cabinet was being formed, my son Justin drove, as I was understandably nervous.

When Prime Minister Mulroney offered me the appointment as Minister of Justice I accepted, of course, and after thanking him prepared to leave. Mulroney then said “And by the way, I would also like you to serve as Government House Leader.” Once again, I thanked him.

When I got in the car Justin said: “How did you do, Dad?” I replied: “I hit the jackpot.” Once again Maz had delivered.

Now Maz has gone. Young men and women have only to read about his career to realize that in Canada, no matter where you come from, who you know, and what your educational background, anything is possible through hard work, integrity and caring about the people you serve and work with.

Doug Lewis