LIVES LIVED – Douglas Harlton

Robert Thomas

From Farmer to political campaigner to local coffee-goer, Doug Harlton was always thinking about others.


Every once in awhile, there seems to be someone you know whose official obituary does not even come close to doing them the justice they deserve. Such is the case with Doug Harlton.

Doug was one of my friends. We met regularly for coffee. We had originally met when he overheard me mention to one of the seniors, at coffee, my family’s involvement with former Prime Minister John G Diefenbaker. It is often forgotten, that before he went on to represent Prince Albert, Mr. Diefenbaker represented the riding of Lake Centre – today part of the Moose Jaw – Lake Centre – Lanigan riding. 

If you look at Doug's official obituary, you learn that he was just an ordinary, everyday, retired farmer who led a simple life, but in reality, he was one of the few who took a risk and helped change the political future of Saskatchewan.

But how can this be? 

How was it that an ordinary, everyday, retired farmer, who drove a Ford Focus station-wagon, managed to shape the future of politics in this province? You have to go all the way back to the era of the 1970’s and the rise of the Progressive Conservative Party of Saskatchewan. A party which, for decades, had not held a seat in the Legislature. In those days there were only two choices for most people; either the NDP if you voted to the left or Liberal if you voted to the right. The Progressive Conservative Party of Saskatchewan was struggling, but with the rise of Allan Blakeney and the NDP, accompanied with the western alienation sparked under Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the PC’s fortunes were about to take flight.

Doug’s family typically voted Liberal, provincially, but had supported, like many, John G. Diefenbaker, federally.

“Jack Harlton, Doug’s father, was a strong Diefenbaker man. He came from the federal PC side. Fiscally conservative but socially progressive…they weren't that hard over the right wing,” said Rick Swenson PC Party leader. 

“Doug was more of a progressive person, who believed in helping people who needed a hand,” Swenson said. 


In the 1970’s, Doug was very politically active and was on very friendly terms with Jack Harrington and former PC leader Dick Culver – who proceeded Grant Devine as PC Party leader.

“He (Doug) would be one of the first ones on the east side (of the then Thunder Creek constituency) to support the PCs provincially,” Swenson said, adding that Doug’s family continued to support the Liberals.

In the 1975 election, Doug would serve as campaign manager for Don Swenson in Thunder Creek and almost pulled off a nearly impossible victory, narrowly losing to Colin Thatcher by only 178 votes. Thatcher was then, provincially, a Liberal, and his campaign manager was Lyle Stewart. The 1975 campaign would set off a series of political battles between the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, until the destruction of the Liberal brand forced Thatcher to switch sides and join the PCs.

Doug told me some of the stories of him and Don Swenson out visiting farms near Pense. Many of the farmers were none to friendly. Doug spoke fondly of those days and never criticized those who didn't welcome him. Chalking it all up to politics.

Rick Swenson – Don’s son – would later capture the constituency. Rick described Doug as a great support to the younger Swenson, when he ran in Thunder Creek. Today the area is represented by Lyle Stewart.

Doug told me lots about the political conventions he had been to and how, when John Diefenbaker lost the federal PC Party leadership, he hung with him until the very end. I found it hard to believe, but one day Doug brought some old photos to coffee and there he was standing right along side John Diefenbaker, Joe Clark and others.

Doug had been there.


But Doug’s real contribution to Saskatchewan political history wasn't just being a reliable person to answer the phones and attend political functions. He did something much more valuable. Doug used to farm near Stony Beach, but later sold the land to the Belle Plaine Hutterite Colony, whom he remained on very close terms with; this made him well known in the area.

Right next door to Stony Beach was the constituency held by Liberal MLA Gary Lane. What Doug did was social; he began to meet, over an extended period of time, with Gary Lane’s people, and eventually with Lane himself, and through his actions Doug was highly instrumental in getting Lane to switch sides and join the PCs. Doug would later approach Colin Thatcher’s people. I confirmed these facts from independent sources about two years ago. Both Lane and Thatcher would cross the floor to join Grant Devine’s government as ministers.

You had to know Doug, he believed in negotiation and compromise, telling me often it's the best way to just take it easy and slow “you don't have to break out the sledgehammer to get what you want. In the end you get what you want and both sides are happy about it.”

In the late 1990’s, he gave up on politics to devote more time to farming.

Throughout the years I knew him, Doug and I would talk about a lot of things, covering many different topics.

His mother, in her later years, became ill. Doug's role as her caretaker fostered in him the empathy that would highlight his, very own, later years. 

Doug taught me about the back rooms, the conventions, the behind-the-scenes stuff in both provincial and federal politics; a massive insight into government most people will never hear about. He was very interested in aviation and very proud of his Father, who had flown in the Battle of Britain. He told me many stories about local men who risked it all to fight Hitler. Air shows were his favourite. He liked driving down to 15 Wing Moose Jaw to watch the Snowbirds practice.

Doug was well read up on the F-35 controversy and was not very happy with the federal government’s decision to abandon the jet. His favourite term for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was “Mr Tight Pants.” 

Doug was not very happy about the carbon tax and what that was going to do to area farmers.

In areas such as social services and helping out the poor, he spoke about the need to get rid of the bureaucrats, who received 80 per cent of the funding, and get more money to those who needed it the most. He spoke about the need for parole, because without hope of getting out of prison, it made it a very dangerous place for guards and others to work.

Doug was a great defender of the Riverside Mission, saying it was necessary. That people who are down on their luck need hope and a hand up in times of despair, a way off of the streets and a chance at a fresh start. He called it the “Christian thing to do.” He believed strongly in helping others.

Despite his not being involved any longer in politics, Doug would still talk about setting good business conditions and helping out those who needed it to have better lives.

Doug would also serve as “a consultant” when I ran for the Rhinoceros Party of Canada. He gave me lots of pointers on how to run a political campaign. “Keep it light hearted, keep it funny and don't take cheap personal shots. Have fun, make it humorous and just get people laughing,” he advised.

His whole consultancy fee for 40 plus hours worked out to pizza and coffee at my political defeat party. Doug later would tell me the Rhino Party campaign was by far the most fun he had ever had in politics.

The last time I saw Doug was just before Christmas. He joked that he had saved enough stickers for a free premium drink, but couldn’t drink it all, so he asked me if I would split a hot chocolate with him. We spoke about the news of the day and he reminded me, as he always did, “not so much negativity. I want to hear some positive stuff.” Doug advised me to write about those free Christmas dinners at St Andrew’s Church and Bobby’s Place because they were good things people should know about.

I thanked Doug for splitting the hot chocolate and wished him a Merry Christmas.

Doug passed away Christmas Day, 2017.