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.