Conservatives in Battlefords-Lloydminster have given Gerry Ritz his long-awaited fond farewell.
It happened at a dinner in his honour in Lloydminster Wednesday night, to raise funds for the Battlefords-Lloydminster Conservative electoral district association.
The event attracted a who’s who of political people from the riding and across the country, including several of Ritz’s former colleagues in Parliament.
They were there to celebrate Ritz’s 20-year political career, and his eight-year stint as Minister of Agriculture in the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.
Ritz departed the Commons a year earlier, but to relatively little fanfare at the time. This event stood in stark contrast, as one speaker after another paid tribute to Ritz’s political achievements. The event also was in advance of Ritz’s induction into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame in November.
Included were video tributes from former prime minister Stephen Harper, the current Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and Manitoba premier Brian Pallister.
The event wasn’t so much an emotional farewell as it was a “roast,” with much laughter, which was fitting for the former ag minister.
“People genuinely like Gerry because he likes people,” said Jason Kenney, leader of Alberta’s United Conservatives who made a six-hour trip from Calgary to be at the event.
“And he’s authentic, he’s real, there’s no phoniness or artifice,” Kenney added. “Sometimes his bluntness and humour got him into trouble, but I’d rather hear that unvarnished Saskatchewan homespun wisdom than the fakeness that comes out of Ottawa too often.”
One of the times Ritz got in trouble was at the tail end of his career, when he referred to environment minister Catherine McKenna as “climate Barbie” on Twitter.
That controversy was brought up by Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt, who had fun at Ritz’s, and more particularly, at Liberals’ expense.
She presented Ritz with three dolls depicting environment minister McKenna, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie. “The Barbie jet, the celebrity chef and the Indian costumes (worn during Trudeau’s India trip) are not included,” Raitt added.
Just in case any Liberals took offence, Raitt then called them out for comments they had made recently.
“By the way, I know that it could be a little risqué bringing up these things, given what Gerry was criticized for. But I can tell you this in all seriousness, I’ve been called a ‘Neanderthal’ by Bill Morneau and I’ve been called a ‘ambulance chaser’ by the prime minister himself.
“So you know, at least Gerry does it with some sense of humour,” said Raitt.
A Rich Legacy
Raitt and Ritz were close cabinet colleagues who worked together on one of the biggest issues Ritz faced in his time in politics — the grain backlog of 2014. She was minister of transport at the time, and recalled that had the potential to clash with Ritz’s stance in his agriculture portfolio.
“Gerry was there for the farmers, and I … brought the perspective of rail to the table. And Gerry won everything. He was passionate about making sure that we put the appropriate systems in place to get that grain moving. And he was dogged, it was remarkable to watch him.”
Raitt said her respect for Ritz grew through that process. “At the end of the day, he convinced me that the farmers needed to have the breaks they were given.”
Kenney’s own history with Ritz goes back even further. They were original seatmates in the House of Commons when they were first elected.
“We were classmates elected together in June of ’97 and we became fast friends,” said Kenney.
“I always loved his razor-sharp wit. He never took himself too seriously. But we also became fighters together, fighting for western Canada at the cabinet table. He was a guy who always spoke his mind, and I think he was the best agriculture minister Canada’s had since the Second World War.”
There was little doubt among those in the room what Ritz’s main legacy in public life was. Raitt said unhesitatingly “getting rid of the Wheat Board.”
Kenney pointed to “the marketing freedom for prairie grain farmers, (and) massive expansion of export markets for Canadian farmers. Those are big legacies.”
“He got the job done,” said Ritz’s successor as Battlefords-Lloydminster MP, Rosemarie Falk. “Gerry did so much for Western farmers in particular, in getting them their access to market with their own timing, what worked best for their business.”
Falk presented Ritz a special gift at the end of the evening. It was a photo of Ritz at the moment the “Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act” had passed in the House of Commons, one that was displayed in the Commons lobby.
“It’s very humbling when people go back and dissect your life,” said Ritz. “There were some real highlights along the way and that’s what people concentrated on tonight.”
He admits the flood of memories “will be coming back to me for the next two or three days.”
Ritz seemed happy and content with his decision to return to private life. He said he’s reconnected with his wife Judy and his kids and grandkids over the past year, and has enjoyed life on the farm.
“I’ve done a lot of work around the yard this past year, it’s been needing it.”
All the while, Ritz has stayed close to the happenings of the political world. He is active on Twitter, and has kept in touch with friends and contacts from around the world, who called him up for advice and thoughts during recent trade negotiations with the United States and Mexico.
“It’s nice to stay in touch,” said Ritz, who added “I’m hooked, and I will be for life, hanging on to what my friends and colleagues continue to do.”