As Saskatchewan heads into an election this fall, the face of the ruling Saskatchewan Party will see considerable change with numerous MLAs announcing their intention to step out of provincial politics. None would be more recognized that Deputy Premier, Minister of Finance and long-time local MLA Donna Harpauer. Like her departing colleagues, Harpauer delivered a heartfelt and emotional farewell on the Legislature floor last Wednesday.  

Harpauer candidly stated that she wasn’t going to name names in her departing address so as to avoid the emotion of personal farewells. That she would save for later, she said. She confessed she found it difficult to pen a summation of 25 years in provincial politics that she could cover in 20 minutes.  

Her narrative headed back to 1999, the proverbial fork in the road for her. The then Watrous Constituency in which she lived had been a swing riding having gone Liberal, NDP and Conservative. 

“And then there were organization meetings for this new party, and I attended two of them,” Harpauer recalled, “And after the second one, I was invited to go to the bar with Bob Bjornerud and June Draude. And at that time, as we sat in the bar, they asked me if I would consider running, which was a ridiculous idea. I was a stay-at-home housewife and very actively involved in the family farm. I was the equipment operator, quite frankly, all the way through harvest. And it had never, ever occurred to me to look at political life.” 

Draude persisted that Harpauer should run against then NDP cabinet minister Eric Upshall, so Donna admittedly didn’t fancy her chances. Undaunted, she received $800 from the party, collected another $6000 from supporters, and launched into the race.  

“There were no templates or signs. There were no brochures. I was told I had to get a campaign manager, so I did. I think I saw him once after that somewhere along the line through the campaign. I asked my neighbour if he’d be my business manager. And I hit the doorsteps with my girls. My girls were 10, 13, and 15 at the time. I think everybody thought we were Fuller Brush salesmen or Amway, one or the other, because here we were. I’d load them up in the vehicle and away we’d go. And we’d go door knocking with myself and the three girls.” 

Despite the pundits' predictions, Harpauer came out on top and found herself swept into the flurry of provincial politics. It was a turbulent time with the formation of a coalition NDP/Liberal government and unrest in the ag community over farmland taxation. It necessitated the first fall session, and a sudden shift in focus for the fledgling MLA.  

“I had no clue what I had gotten myself into. I was so overwhelmed, and I was leaving my girls behind. I cried, I swear, for the first six months. Driving to Regina I’d cry half the way, leaving the girls behind.  

And I’m a Christmas fanatic. And here we are going into a fall session, and I am a Christmas fanatic. And my girls must have known, even though they were so young, that I was traumatized. And they bought me one of those little 6‑inch Charlie Brown Christmas trees out of the dollar store and put it on my desk in the building.” 

Harpauer recalled early debates against the likes of Roy Romanow, known for his oratory and question period savvy. Harpauer held her own, eventually being named to cabinet as the Social Services minister, a post she says was incredibly rewarding.  

“But my most memorable day was the day that we announced the SAID program, the Saskatchewan assured income for disabilities program. It was basically having a separate program from what was deemed at that time ‘welfare.’ We now call it ‘income assistance.’ And the individuals with disabilities and their families wanted this program so badly because they wanted the dignity of a separate income stream that wasn’t considered welfare. And I will never forget the day that I announced it, because there were tears in that room and so much gratitude. And that will stay with me forever.” 

Through six elections, numerous ministerial posts, constituency boundary changes, Harpauer emerged on the other side with the distinction of being one of the longest serving women in Canadian politics.  

“I thank my constituents for their confidence in me all these years. I can’t thank the two premiers enough. Neither one figured out that I really don’t know a lot. They kept on giving me different portfolios and I’m going . . . Like I have kept them so fooled all this time, that I’m nothing special. You guys keep giving me more and I . . . It’s amazing.” 

It was that earnest belief in her mission, her sense of humour, her humility and her adaptability that earned her the respect of her colleagues and laid the foundation for a political career that won’t soon be matched.