Laurent Desjardins (born March 15, 1923 in St. Boniface, Manitoba) is a politician in Manitoba, Canada. He served as a member of the Manitoba legislature for most of the period from 1959 to 1988, and was a cabinet minister under New Democratic Premiers Edward Schreyer and Howard Pawley.
Desjardins was educated at St. Boniface College, St. Paul's College and the Cincinnati College of Embalming. He subsequently worked as a funeral director, and was the President and Managing Director of Chapels, Ltd. He also joined the Knights of Columbus and the Canadian Council of Christian and Jews during the early years of his career.
Desjardins began his political career at the municipal level, serving as an alderman on the St. Boniface City Council from 1951 to 1954, and also serving on the St. Boniface Hospital Board for a number of years. In the Manitoba general election of 1959, he was elected to the Manitoba legislature in the riding of St. Boniface as a Liberal-Progressive. This was the year of Progressive Conservative Premier Dufferin Roblin's first majority win, and Desjardins joined ten other Liberal-Progressives in the official opposition.
In 1961, Desjardins emerged as one of the leading parliamentary supporters of government funding for private and denominational schools. A Roman Catholic and a francophone, Desjardins regarded such funding as necessary for redressing anti-francophone legislation that had been pursued by previous Manitoba governments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Roblin government took some steps on this front, but the issue was still unresolved by the 1970s.
Despite the Roblin government's popularity, Desjardins had little difficulty being returned in the elections of 1962 and 1966 (the Liberal-Progressives had changed their name to the Manitoba Liberal Party in 1961). In the election of 1969, Desjardins faced stronger-than-usual competition from his New Democratic opponent (one Kam Gajdosik), but won by 3365 votes to 2040.
The 1969 election was a watershed Manitoba politics, and resulted in a dramatic shift in Desjardins's career. Under Edward Schreyer's leadership, the social-democratic NDP moved from third to first place, winning 28 seats out of 57 in the assembly. This was one short of a majority, and there was initial uncertainty as to which party or parties would form government. There was some consideration of an "anti-socialist coalition", which would have brought together all parties except the NDP under the leadership of former Liberal leader Gildas Molgat. This, however, did not occur. The impasse was ended when Desjardians announced that he would offer parliamentary support to the NDP, and change his party affiliation to Liberal-Democrat.
Desjardins's change of affiliation was significant, and on some levels surprising. He had previously been known as an opponent of socialism, and Manitoba's francophone population had not traditionally been supportive of the New Democratic Party before this time. Nevertheless, Desjardins was able to form an alliance with Schreyer (himself a centrist New Democrat), on the understanding that he would be able to continue to work in favour of denominational school funding on the government side. Desjardins became Schreyer's legislative assistant in 1969, and formally joined the New Democratic Party in 1971.
On December 1, 1971, Desjardins was appointed Minister of Tourism, Recreation and Cultural Affairs. In July 1972, his efforts in support of denominational schools were dealt a setback when a government-sponsored bill to permit funding was defeated by a free vote in the legislature. (The Schreyer government did, however, make administrative agreements with certain private schools to provide them with access to public monies.)
Given the lack of historical francophone support for the NDP in Manitoba, it was unclear if Desjardins would be re-elected in the provincial election of 1973, and his riding was targeted by a right-wing "citizen's" group in the amalgamated city of Winnipeg (which included St. Boniface). This group convinced the Progressive Conservative and Liberal parties to withdraw their candidates in certain ridings, so as to provide a single "anti-socialist" alternative to the NDP.
Desjardins's sole opponent in June 1973 was Liberal candidate J. Paul Marion. Following a very close race, Marion was declared the winner by a single vote (4301 to 4300). This result was disputed, however, and was subsequently overturned by the Controverted Elections Act. In December 1974, Desjardins defeated Marion in a by-election by over 600 votes.
Schreyer's New Democrats were re-elected in the 1973 campaign. Desjardins had resigned from cabinet on January 28, 1974 during the ongoing controversy concerning the St. Boniface results, but on December 23, 1974, he was re-admitted to cabinet as Minister of Health and Social Development. On January 8, 1975, he was also given responsibility for the Manitoba Lotteries Act.
Desjardins was easily re-elected in the 1977 election, although Schreyer's New Democrats were defeated provincially by the Progressive Conservatives under Sterling Lyon. Desjardins sat as a member of the opposition for the next four years.
The New Democrats were returned to power in the provincial election of 1981 under the leadership of Howard Pawley, and Desjardins was personally re-elected without difficulty. He was re-appointed to cabinet on November 30, 1981, serving as Minister of Health and Minister of Recreation and Sport, with responsibility for the Lotteries and Gaming Control Act. On November 4, 1983, Recreation and Sport was dropped from portfolio status, and Desjardins's extra-ministerial responsibilities were renamed as Sport, the administration of the Box and Wrestling Commission Act, the Fitness and Amateur Sport Act and the Manitoba Lotteries Foundation Act.
During the 1980s, Desjardins was a prominent supporter of Howard Pawley's efforts to expand and entrench french-language services in Manitoba.
On January 30, 1985, Desjardins was shifted to the Ministry of Urban Affairs. He was again re-elected without difficulty in the 1986 provincial election, and on April 17, 1986, he was re-appointed Minister of Health and Sport (once again holding responsibility for the Boxing and Wrestling Commission Act and the Fitness and Amateur Sport Act).
Desjardins resigned from his cabinet positions on February 10, 1988, and announced that he would be leaving the legislature to take a job in the private sector. His seat was not formally declared vacant, but he stopped attending sessions of the legislature after this period.
Ironically, just as Desjardins had helped bring the NDP into government in 1969, his decision to leave the legislature in 1988 played a major role in the party's unexpected fall from power. In his absence, the legislature was almost evenly divided between government and opposition members; as such, NDP backbencher Jim Walding's decision to vote against his government's budget was enough to defeat the Pawley ministry in the house. The NDP lost the election which followed, and did not return to power until 1999.
During his time in the legislature, Desjardins was known as a personable figure (fellow New Democratic cabinet minister Russell Doern once called him a "Rabelasian character"). He was regarded as cautious and pragmatic, and was often more supportive of small-business interests than others in the New Democratic Party. Desjardins held a membership in the federal Liberal Party for most, if not all of time in the provincial NDP, and openly supported Liberal Lloyd Axworthy's successful bid to enter the Canadian House of Commons in 1979.
During the 1990s, Desjardins led a policy review group which studied Manitoba's lotteries system, and argued against the expansion of Manitoba's casino economy. In 2002, he wrote an open letter on health-care reform in, arguing that money alone would not resolve the problems within the system. In March 2003, he participated in a discussion on health-care funding at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, in which he argued that Canada's provinces should be permitted to enact user fees and expand the role of the private sector in health-care provision.