Preston Manning’s long record of public service includes work as founder of the Reform Party and as a Member of Parliament. He is a dedicated champion of democratic and political reform and the visionary founder of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.
Ernest Preston Manning was born in Edmonton on June 10, 1942 to Ernest and Muriel Manning. Preston, as he came to be known, was raised in a deeply religious Baptist home that stressed faith in God and dedication to service. Preston's father, Ernest came to Alberta from Saskatchewan to study for the Christian ministry and met his future wife, Muriel Aileen Preston, at the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute. Although he had planned on a career as a minister, the elder Manning found himself increasingly engaged in politics as he witnessed the devastating effect that the Great Depression had on so many Albertans. He stood as a Social Credit Party candidate and was elected as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta in 1935. In doing so, he set in motion a long family record of political service that would span two generations and cover a significant portion of the Alberta story.
Ernest Manning became Premier of Alberta in 1943 when Preston was just a year old. In his early years, Preston enjoyed the opportunity to walk from his elementary school to the Legislature to eat lunch with his father. These were among the many opportunities Preston had over the years to learn valuable lessons in both the importance of public service and the realities of a life in politics. Preston may have been witness to history in the making as the son of its provincial leader, but he also enjoyed a privilege that escapes some families with a high public profile. When Preston was in the sixth grade the family moved to a dairy farm east of Edmonton on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. The farm allowed for a balanced and private family life for both Preston and his elder brother, Keith, who suffered from cerebral palsy. Preston was generally spared any scrutiny related to his father's position and was accepted on his own merits at school and with his neighbourhood friends.
In his teen years, Preston made his own personal commitment to serving God and faith has remained a central part of his life. He attended the University of Alberta, earning a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Economics in 1964. A year later, at the age of 23, Preston made his first run at a seat in the House of Commons as a member of the federal Social Credit Party. He was unsuccessful and turned his attention to building a management consulting business.
In 1967, Preston married Sandra Beavis whom he met through the College and Career class at the Baptist church they both attended. For the next for 20 years, Preston built his consultancy, specializing in long-range strategic planning for the energy sector, native and community development and federal-provincial research. Over the years Preston and Sandra’s family grew to include five children, Andrea, Avryll, Mary-Joy, Nathan, and David.
By the late 1980’s, Preston felt that political and social change might be on the horizon and he became fully reengaged in federal politics. This time, rather than throwing his hat in the ring as a potential member of an existing party he began exploring the possibility of building a new one. Preston helped to organize a conference in Vancouver in May 1987 to discuss whether the West should advance its interests by working within existing parties or by forming a new movement in the same tradition as the Depression era parties that defined his father's career. The conference developed an agenda that featured elements such as fiscal responsibility through balanced budgets, stronger regional representation for Western Canada, Senate reform and a more grassroots approach to decision making. The new entity was the Reform Party of Canada and Preston Manning became its leader.
After running the party out of Preston’s office in Edmonton, the Mannings moved to Calgary to make better use of the growing corps of Reform volunteers that had taken shape in that city. The party ran 72 candidates in the 1988 federal election and, although none of them won, the results were encouraging enough to keep trying. Later that same year, the first Reform Member of Parliament won a seat in a by-election. In 1993, the number of Reform members grew to 52 and by 1997 the party held 60 seats in the House of Commons with Preston Manning as leader of the Official Opposition. In that role, he found himself traveling the country in a concerted effort to transform the party from a western Canadian stronghold to a nation-wide presence. Preston credits Sandra with keeping the home base stable and functioning while his work kept him away from Calgary for 300 days of the year.
In 2000, the need to create a broader appeal led to a name change from the Reform Party to the Canadian Alliance and, with that change, the party elected a different leader. Change continued as the Canadian Alliance Party merged with the Progressive Conservatives to create the new Conservative Party of Canada. In 2011, the movement that Preston had been central in starting 25 years earlier became a majority government that espoused the basic principles of his original vision. Preston left behind his career in Ottawa having inspired a generation of Alberta and Canadian leaders.
In 2005, Preston and Sandra opened the Calgary-based Manning Centre for Building Democracy. The goal of the national not-for-profit centre is to support political research, education and communications in order to develop the necessary infrastructure and knowledge base to further the vision of a democratic society guided by conservative principles. Preston also works to further the goal of social, political and economic development as a Senior Fellow of the Fraser Institute and the Regent College Marketplace Institute at UBC.
Preston Manning has received many honours in recognition of his service. He is a Companion of the Order of Canada and holds honourary degrees from the Universities of Calgary and Toronto, as well as York University, Tyndale University College and Seminary and SAIT Polytechnic. Preston has served as Distinguished Visitor in Political Science, Public Policy and Canadian Studies at the Universities of Calgary and Toronto.
When describing the importance of being an engaged citizen Preston says “democracy in my view starts with values and principles and one of those values is that the ordinary citizen is of enormous importance. The hallmark of democratic politics is that people be free to say what they believe and have the opportunity to convince others. Democracy is precious and I think people should value it more.” Preston Manning has committed his life to being a powerful agent of change. In doing so, he has been a key player in Alberta’s longstanding tradition of forging new trails and his work has had an indelible impact on the political life of the country and the democratic ideals of his fellow Canadians.