A fine pair of cowboy boots like these, hand-made in Alberta, can be hell to break in, but it’s worth the effort, especially if you’re a finance minister (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

While nervously awaiting Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews’s budget tomorrow, let’s spare a thought for the uniquely Canadian tradition of finance ministers buying new shoes to wear on Budget Day. 

According to the Wikipedia, Walter Edward Harris, who served a spell as finance minister in Louis St. Laurent’s Liberal cabinet, was likely the first to deliver his budget speech while freshly shod.

Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

As the American author Tom Wolfe observed, traditions are often established instantly, and whether intentionally or just because he fancied a pair of new shoes, this may have been the result of Mr. Harris’s footwear choice in 1955. 

At any rate, Conservative Donald Fleming did the same thing in 1960, so that’s a tradition right there in modern journalistic terms. It beats bringing the budget in a tatty red box, whatever you may think of the idea. 

However, the tradition seems to have been honoured as often in the breach as the observance. Walter Gordon, a Liberal, ignored it three times in the 1960s. Mitchell Sharp, also a Liberal, brought it back in 1966 and subsequently ignored it, complaining that, “later, I learned there was no tradition behind it at all.

And so it has haphazardly gone since then, in Ottawa as well as provincial and territorial capitals.

Here in Alberta, I kid you not, one finance minister delivered his budget speech in a pair of roller blades, although whether or not they were new has been left unrecorded. That would be Stockwell Day, Alberta finance minister from 1997 to 2000. 

He later disgraced himself as new leader of the paleo-conservative Canadian Alliance Party by racing away from a news conference on a jet ski clad in a skin-tight wetsuit, as inauspicious a Day in Canadian political history as one can imagine, even now difficult to unsee. 

Alberta’s present finance minister, Mr. Toews, decided to forgo the tradition in 2019 and wore his old cowboy boots instead. 

Walter Harris, who was federal Liberal finance minister in 1955 (Photo: Arthur Roy, Public Domain).

At the time, Mr. Toews, like most would-be iconoclasts, claimed principle and symbolism as the reasons for his choice. “To me, these boots represent a part of our heritage and speak to the practical and resilient character of Albertans,he said at the time. “I am committed to fighting for Albertans by ending overspending and by living within our means.” Yadda-yadda. 

Me, I’m skeptical. Mr. Toews is an accountant who runs a corporate cattle ranch, but that’s close enough to farming to be able to get away with wearing cowboy boots and a suit at the same time, I guess. But as anyone who’s bought cowboy boots knows, breaking in a new pair can be hell. I suspect he just didn’t want his feet to hurt. 

Hitherto, it appears there has been no widely accepted penalty for breaking the tradition, and that’s actually what I wish, Dear Readers, to speak with you about today. 

No one can deny that since Mr. Toews read his budget speech in 2019, things seem to have headed rapidly downhill for Premier Jason Kenney, the United Conservative Party, and perhaps the finance minister himself.

Stockwell Day, Alberta finance minister and Canadian Alliance leader, at one of the most horrifying moments in Canadian political history (Photo: Winnipeg Free Press).

Could it be that Mr. Toews’s failure to fork over enough for some nice new boots was the source of all the UCP’s troubles since that date? 

I admit, the more likely explanation is hubris, incompetence, and stubborn adherence to an ideology that clearly doesn’t work. Just the same, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for independent shoe stores and Canada’s footwear industry if Canadian finance ministers got the idea they’d better wear new shoes on Budget Day!

I’ll leave it there except to say that Mr. Harris, the apparent originator of the tradition, was a Great Canadian. He will forever be remembered as the man who gave us Registered Retirement Savings Plans!

He once wrote a letter of resignation as finance minister because a journalist claimed the budget speech had been leaked. It was soon revealed, fortunately, that the leak was a rumour started by one journalist to embarrass another, an early example of what we now know as fake news. 

Alas, unlike new shoes on Budget Day, the honourable tradition that finance ministers should step down if their plans leak in advance has no life left in it at all.

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13 Comments

  1. I have mixed feelings about the new shoes “tradition”. First of all, if you want a bit of pomp, maybe a bright red box is a better tradition. The Minister’s footwear choice seems a bit self absorbed and trivial. Should we really be focusing on his feet, while he is giving a supposedly important speech?

    On the other hand, I get that tradition often can arise from small incidental things. And no doubt, you are probably right one reason Mr. Toews went wilh broken in footwear was for comfort. Does one really want to be wincing in discomfort while trying to convincingly convey a brighter future?

    So I suppose springing for new footwear can be taken as a sign of optimism and confidence in the future or a sign of folly and extravagance. I will not blame Mr. Toews footwear choice last year for the dismal results of his budget, but then again it sure didn’t seem to help either. So perhaps the best option would to be to try something different this year and see if things go any better this time.

  2. I usually have something to say about Stockwell Day and his friends the dinosaurs, but today finds me bereft. Today feels more like waiting for Chicxulub.

  3. Mr. Toews has spoken of “correcting” nurses and teachers salaries. Am not expecting to hear that his fifty eight dollar a barrel oil forecast will be corrected. If he’s learned anything about being a smarter minister there’s little chance of another unlikely prediction.
    Regarding the nurses. Seven hundred and ninety eight were disciplined this budget delivery week with twenty seven suspended from work. Coincidence?

      1. My error and my apologies Dave. The disciplined and suspended AHS employees are AUPE members involved in last October’s one day walk out protesting health service cuts. Thank you for the clarification.

        1. Those AUPE members who walked out in that one-day wildcat strike back in October were mostly general support employees: laundry & linen workers, who will soon be laid off when that work is all contracted out by AHS — along with clerical, housekeeping, maintenance, supply, etc., plus some in the Auxiliary Nursing bargaining unit: health care aides, & a few LPNs.

          The LPNs disciplined face potentially the most severe consequences of all: as regulated health care professionals, any suspensions or terminations issued must, by law (the Health Professions Act), be reported to the regulator, the College of Licensed Practical Nurses of Alberta (CLPNA), and AHS has the option to also report those disciplined but not suspended or fired to the College as well.

          This kind of professional regulatory disciplinary action, which is in place to protect the public from irresponsible or incompetent practitioners, not to be used as a club in labour relations, can have long-term implications for a nurse’s career. Let’s hope the College’s investigation finds no need to impose professional sanctions on those nurses.

  4. I’ll be mixing up a big batch of Triple Black Swans for Zoom cocktail hour after the budget today. Can anyone tell me if there’s a virgin version of this drink? I don’t have anything in the liquor cabinet, or a liquor cabinet, for that matter. Oops, I don’t seem to have Zoom, or actual black swans, either. TY.

  5. Don’t expect a bed of roses with this UCP budget. It will be nothing pleasant, and Albertans won’t see any benefits, in the short term, or in the long term.

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