Economist extraordinaire

leokistjanson

Story by Karen Morrison

When others are hanging their “gone fishin’” sign Leo Kristjanson is contemplating how to save the western economy.

The former president of the University of Saskatchewan retired to Gimli, Manitoba, this past year to try to slow down the advance of Parkinson’s disease. But he hasn’t spent the time idly watching the boats go by in this sleepy resort town.

He renovated a brother’s home and daughter’s basement with his wife Jean, while continuing with fund raising efforts for the University of Saskatchewan’s new agriculture building. Somewhere in between, he found time to create The Western Institute for Public Policy.

He had planned to take a one year’s leave and see if his health improved, but as the Kristjansons conceded they have since decided to move the furniture to Gimli.
The transition has been no less difficult for jean, whose schedule was kept busy raising their four children, and in volunteer activities. Playground equipment in the backyard indicates time is now spent enjoying the next generation of six Kristjanson grandchildren.
Leo credits much of his success to having Jean at home to keep the home fires burning when he was away. In retirement, Leo laments that time away from his family. “He did a lot on the job and did a lot of extra things,” said Jean, a self-proclaimed feminist who chose to give up nursing and raise a family. “In order to do those extra things someone had to be at home.”

“Jean gets very little credit for what I did at university but it would have been impossible for me to act as I did without that understanding and participation,” said Leo, who was quick to point out his family member’s many accomplishments alongside his own.

His latest project, the public policy institute, is comprised of academics, businessmen and lawyers seeking to generate research and challenge fiscal policies of the Bank of Canada and government.

Calling such work good therapy for both the mind and body, the conversation quickly becomes more philosophical as he launches into a long-winded explanation of what the institute’s goals are.

“It emerged because a group talked about the nature of the response to insufficiencies and inadequacies in society,” he said, noting most reactions have been too stereotyped.
“You have people wanting to turn the clock back to solve the problems of the future or turning the clock back to something that didn’t exist,” he said. “They didn’t really have a complete grasp of what’s happening.”

Privatization is espoused as the answer to our current economic woes, but he said letting the market rule doesn’t work any better than the total government involvement of Eastern Europe.

He said the answer is to find what is appropriate to solve particular problems of society, with the main goals of his group being western solutions to western problems.
Leo’s personal goals for individuals to live with dignity, self –respect and equity are also the goals of the institute.

The group produced a research paper examining growth, income, immigration and investment levels over the last decade called the “State of the West Report”.

They have plans to do it annually, commissioning studies on a code of ethics for public officials, on the state of housing in the West, examining ways of creating equal pay for women in the workplace, and on poverty and health care systems.

Downplaying his role in the group Leo said, “I agreed to chair this group for a little while, but we need to let people in with more ideas than I have.”

He encourages that innovativeness because it is a means of helping people feel some control over their own destiny, as opposed to having Main Street Canada impose what it feels best for Canada on the West.

“Instead of asking what we can do, there is a tendency to ask what programs are available for this purpose,” he said. “I think things can be done that are uniquely western and unique to a particular region.”

Lobbying Ottawa to create programs is the traditional approach, but Leo said solutions might be more available through purely local action. “Politicians will try to solve it when it really is more suitably handled at the local level,” he said.

Leo warned against universities fueling this bureaucratic solution to problems by producing people enslaved to systems, citing the dehumanizing effects of assigning student numbers and enrollment quotas.

“A number is unique but if you don’t deal with it as a unique individual, then you lose students with particular characteristic,” he said.

“People look at them as the 30 to 500 who didn’t get in—it’s not 500 people whose careers might be affected,” he said, reiterating his desire to treat people with dignity. He noted he might have been one of those denied education opportunities when he applied to do a PhD in economics with a master’s degree in history.

He felt a greater share of the country’s gross national product should be invested in education in the West to solve current funding crises.

He expressed concern over the urban orientation of the University of Saskatchewan, publicly funded by a largely rural, agricultural tax base. There has to be special effort made in extension services for this rural community, building it into the workload of the staff, he said.

One of six boys and two girls born to Hannes and Elin Kristjanson, Leo’s support for the grass roots approach and the co-operative movement and his sense of responsibility towards community and family came from his Unitarian upbringing. His parents brought the family as children to Manitoba from Iceland.

Today the Kristjanson siblings continue to gravitate there to t heir summer and year-round homes and to the original two-story homestead, in which Leo and Jean now live. “It’s where we belong,” said Leo simply.

While his sisters Maria and Alda chose careers traditional for the time, in business and nursing, Leo and his brothers all pursued doctoral degrees. Baldur was an agricultural economics professor, Larry, assistant chief commissioner of the Canadian Wheat Board, and Kris was chairman of Manitoba Hydro and Great-West Life Insurance Company. Albert worked as a sociology professor and Burbank was once the agricultural advisor to the Shah of Iran. They were raised to challenge world issues, but also to help one another and their fellow man.

Leo’s goal while university vice-president and president was to enhance the agricultural component, by establishing the centre for agricultural medicine and a new $75 million agriculture building now nearly completion.

For the immediate future, he looks to upgrading the sprawling 1914 retirement cottage on the lake in which he was born and raised, taking time off only to accept such prestigious recent honors as being named to the Saskatchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame and Order of Canada.

Published on WDValgardsonKaffiHus with permission from The Western Producer and Western People magazine, Nov. 1, 1990.

Keeping It Cool

dennis and fred

Dennis Anderson with his brother, Fred, writer, painter

Fred Anderson has published a new book, edited by his sister, Marjorie Anderson: Keep It Cold and Other Good Advice. It is a collection of fifty short anecdotes from a widely varied group of people who have responded to a request for “memorable words of advice that have made a significant difference in your life”.

David Arnason, poet, fiction writer, filmmaker, former head of the Icelandic Department at the University of Manitoba has written the forward. He says “They tell of the moments, the words, the flashes of insight that have altered their lives in meaningful ways….Sometimes, it comes from incidental encounters – with a teacher, a workmate, or an older self looking back on childhood reactions….It is a testimonial to the human spirit.”

There was a capacity crowd at the launch of Keep It Cold at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg on November 27. Various people who have written pieces for the book read their contributions. Jim Anderson, Fred’s brother, said that Audrey Waytiuk’s reading about her lifelong challenge of living with depression touched everyone in the room. The most important piece of advice she’d ever received was from an uncle who told her that what she needed to do was to “Keep trying to try”.

Fred’s anecdote, “Advice on Ice” is about a interview he and three fellow university students conducted with Otto Zwigg, the owner and CEO of Provincial Cold Storage. Mr. Zwigg provided Fred with the title to this book by replying to every question about his business practices with some variation of the phrase “keep it cold.” He was obviously teasing the students, but, in the end, “keep it cold” is brilliant advice if you are running a cold storage business. And it became a mantra that Fred could apply in other aspects of his life.

Fred is the youngest of the eight children of Asdis Guttormson and Thorsteinn (Stony) Anderson of Poplar Park (now Libau) MB, that isolated marshland behind the south shore of Lake Winnipeg. In his forties, Fred developed Parkinson’s – a terrifying disease that compromises muscular strength and mobility. And, over time, remorselessly attacks both body and mind. The younger someone develops Parkinson’s, the more severe it usually is. His family members, many of whom are writers and editors, joined in helping him achieve the publication of this book.

Fred’s Parkinson’s started with stiffness – frozen is the word. The dopamine level in his brain was not high enough to keep his muscles flexible. The Parkinson’s meds added dopamine, but it was difficult to keep the level balanced, and as the disease progressed, the stiffness could last for up to ten hours. There’s no cure for Parkinson’s, but over the last twenty-five years there have been many attempts to help Fred medically. He has had electrodes implanted into his brain and has undergone many different drug therapies .

Faced with a debilitating disease he began to write. His first published book was White Flashes on Charcoal, a book of poems. When he was young he had started to paint. Defying the effects of his Parkinson’s, osteoporosis and stints in a wheelchair, he’s continued to paint, and now sells his paintings at Lynnwood Capital Care facility in Edmonton where he lives.

Born in 1946 in Poplar Park, Fred did everything right. Academically brilliant, he won the Governor General’s medal and was the valedictorian at his high school graduation from Selkirk Collegiate. He went on to distinguish himself as he earned Bachelor and Master’s degrees in business and worked for the Manitoba Government, Northern Life Insurance Company, Ladco Development Corporation, and then his own property development firm, Jason Properties Limited, located in Edmonton.
In spite of contracting Parkinson’s in his early forties, Fred continued to operate his property development company for another ten years. Only when his mobility was severely compromised did he move into assisted living and then into Edmonton’s Lynnwood Capital Care complex.

Ray Taylor, in the last anecdote in the book, writes about Fred. Ray was blinded in an industrial accident. He knows about Fred from visiting the complex where Fred lives.

I had often felt sorry for myself. Blind, you know…lots of extremity pain…tremors and the usual “why me?” attitude—all the normal aspects of depression one goes through with a disability. But then I’d think of Fred: How many trips to the hospital, how many setbacks, and how many recoveries? Where did his spirit and tenacity come from? And, what the devil did I have to complain about!”

His brother Jim answers by saying that Fred never gives up because, “he remains interested in people and the world.” His brother Dennis claims, “Fred does not have the word ‘despair’ in his vast vocabulary”. Fred is an inspiration to everyone who knows him.

I’m pleased to have had a small part in this book. I provided one of the anecdotes. The brief narratives are heartfelt and inspiring. Time after time, the problems and the advice touched me. I came away from reading the book, thinking, “There are good people in this world.”

Keeping It Cold can be purchased from McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg (www.mcnallyrobinson.com) or Tergesen H. P. and Sons in Gimli (e-mail: tergesen@mts.net).