Top B.C. civil servant not tied to one political party

So you think it contrary to British Columbia’s heated political culture that Don Wright, deputy minister to Premier John Horgan, has served both NDP and Liberal masters? Worry not. Far from a fatal failing, it’s a trait embedded in Wright’s DNA.

Wright’s installation as top civil servant in B.C.’s new government, viewed by some as unusual because of his ties to more than one political regime, would have delighted Wright’s dad, long-serving former Saskatoon mayor Cliff Wright. It would also have provided the elder Wright with a perfect opportunity to share one of his views of public service.

Wright — the mayor — would have made a great schoolteacher.

Every conversation with Mayor Wright was a lesson — a parable, a principle, a proverb. He was one of those rare people who recognized teachable moments and took the time to share his insight not just with his kids, but with once-young reporters, such as me. For that act of generosity, he is one of my heroes.

Many of Wright’s lessons will be ringing in the ears of son Don as he takes the helm of B.C.’s civil service.

In his new role, Don Wright was being asked the same questions by the citizens of B.C. as his dad was once asked by citizens of Saskatoon, including me. Many of the answers he gives are likely to contain the trademark life lessons of the elder Wright.

As his appointment was announced, it was viewed with some fascination — even alarm — that Don Wright has served both NDP and Liberal governments and received plaudits for his work from both. He is credited with ending the War in the Woods — the protests that once paralyzed the coastal forest industry. He has run private companies and public enterprises, and is apparently equally skilled at both. (He is a respected former deputy minister in Saskatchewan.)

The answer to questions about his ability to operate across the political spectrum is no great mystery. Deputy minister Wright is following in the footsteps of his dad.

In the early 1990s, no longer mayor, he called to suggest I attend a press conference. I was editor of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix at the time, so it would be more likely for a reporter to attend than me, but Wright had never steered me wrong, so I showed up.

At the event, NDP premier Roy Romanow unveiled a major announcement: Health care was being redesigned, with the introduction of independent regional health districts across Saskatchewan. The Saskatoon Health Board was first to be created and Cliff Wright was its first chair.

Naïvely, I asked Wright if it was unusual that he had been asked by an NDP government to assume a senior and sensitive role. As head of Wright Construction, he didn’t look like much of a socialist to me. My silly question ignored the lessons of his varied career. Earlier, he had been appointed chairman of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan; later, he would serve as treaty commissioner. At both provincial and federal levels, governments of all political stripes trusted the man from Saskatoon who served four consecutive mayoral terms.

Wright believed passionately in noblesse oblige, the concept rooted in Roman times that if you have done well in life, if you have prospered in your community, if you have enjoyed good luck and good fortune, you have an obligation to give back. Not merely a responsibility, an obligation.

The furthest thing from his mind was who was asking for help — political affiliations were largely irrelevant to Wright. What mattered was that a worthy issue needed support. In our subsequent discussion — my lesson — it turned out it was a matter of considerable pride that he had been appointed to high-powered government positions by every Saskatchewan premier from Ross Thatcher in the mid-1960s to Romanow in the 1990s.

The people of B.C. need not be unduly upset or unnerved at the prospect of someone — Don Wright — being capable of speaking the language of both Liberals and NDP. It’s not a political poltergeist, but rather the lessons of the father being delivered by the son.

Peterson, now a resident of North Saanich, is a retired partner in Saskatoon strategic communications firm Creative Fire, former editor and publisher of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and former publisher of the Prince George Citizen.