U of R Press book launch remembers fiery politician

By Costa Maragos Posted: May 15, 2017 6:00 a.m.

Kathleen Carlisle is the author of Fiery Joe: The Maverick Who Lit Up the West published by U of R Press.
Kathleen Carlisle is the author of Fiery Joe: The Maverick Who Lit Up the West published by U of R Press. Photo courtesy of Vistara Sidebottom

Joe Phelps just might be the most outgoing and influential Saskatchewan politician you’ve never heard of.

That won’t last long.

Phelps’ colourful life is told in great detail in the book Fiery Joe: The Maverick Who Lit Up the West, by Kathleen Carlisle and published by U of R Press.

The book will officially be launched Tuesday, May 16 at 7 p.m. at Innovation Place located on campus.

Phelps meteoric rise and fall in the rough and tumble world of Saskatchewan politics, happened in a span of 10 years, during the day when the CCF ruled Saskatchewan under the leadership of Tommy Douglas.

Fiery Joe Book
Joe Phelps was the "ultimate Saskatchewan archetype, embodying grit and determination" - Kathleen Carlyle - Author.

A lot has been written about Douglas but little is known of Phelps whose influence on Saskatchewan can be felt to this day.

“Phelps was a fascinating, engaging and charismatic person,” says Carlisle, who graduated from the U of R with an Education Degree in the 1980s and earned her Master’s in Education in 2010. She is currently Literacy Consultant with Living Sky School Division in North Battleford.

“He was the ultimate Saskatchewan archetype, embodying grit and determination. Some have called him the most colourful and memorable Saskatchewan politician in the history of the province. Descriptions such as human dynamo, volcanic and impulsive speak to his fiery personality.”

After serving a term in opposition, Phelps burst onto the political scene in a big way in 1944, when as a CCF M.L.A. in the Saltcoats Constituency, was appointed Minister of Natural Resources and Industrial Development.

It was a critical portfolio.

Phelps was faced with the challenge of turning around Saskatchewan’s near-bankrupt economy.

He didn’t waste any time.

With support from Douglas, Phelps moved quickly and decisively, pushing forward the CCF’s economic reforms.

“Phelps was the driving force behind the economic plan that created our provincial crown corporations and numerous other enterprises that stabilized the Saskatchewan economy after the great depression,” says Carlisle. “Phelps believed that the revenue derived from the development of natural resources and the establishment of crown corporations and other value added industries should be shared collectively and used to improve the quality of life for all.”

There was more.

He developed northern airlines, spoke up on women’s issues and the environment, advocated for indigenous rights and established the groundwork for rural electrification which brought a reliable power source to thousands of farm families.

“He was a powerful speaker and he had an amazing ability to mobilize people at the grassroots level,” says Carlisle. “From the other side of it, I think he was moving too quickly for the more conservative element both within and outside of the party who favoured a cautious or more conventional approach.”

Phelps’ political star fell about as quickly as it rose.

He lost his seat in the general election in 1948, even as the Douglas government was re-elected. However, he remained active in his post-political life. He played a pivotal role in developing Saskatchewan’s Western Development Museums. He revitalized the Saskatchewan Farmers Union and served on the Royal Commission on Agriculture and Rural Life in the fifties, and in his later years advocated for seniors’ rights.

“Phelps played a pivotal role in the Douglas government’s innovative socialist experiment to develop and diversify the economy,” says Carlisle. “In turn, he transformed social relations within the province, a historical precedent that continues to both excite and confound scholarly inquiry.”

However, as Carlisle is quick to point out, Phelps was a complex individual and somewhat misunderstood.

“I don’t want to oversimplify or misrepresent him. Best if folks read the book and make up their own mind,” she says.

We agree.

The book launch, May 16, will feature a talk by Carlisle as well as Phelps’ grandson Dr. David Goranson and former Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert.

The book’s foreword is written by former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow.

Event:     Book Launch – Fiery Joe: The Maverick Who Lit Up the West
Date:       Tuesday, May 16
Time:       7 p.m.
Location: Innovation Place Rotunda
                10 Research Drive – Main Campus

The event is free and open to the public; wine & refreshments will be served.

A book launch will also be held in Saskatoon at McNally Robinson on Wednesday, May 17 at 7 p.m.

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