Former Saskatchewan Liberal senator Herb Sparrow, who died Sept. 6 from complications of a stroke at age 82, was a Senate icon — a symbol of the patronage system and also of Senate independence.
His work was also was an example of how the usually background Senate can produce reports that literally change the face of rural Canada.
As chair of the Senate agriculture committee, Sparrow’s name was attached to a 1984 report on soil erosion that became the most circulated Senate report ever and a major influence on prairie farm decisions to reduce summerfallow.
The Soils at Risk report was shipped around the world, including a request for 400 copies in Australia after a 2004 drought.
Sparrow, in an interview as he prepared to leave the Senate in 2005, recalled the report as a highlight of his career. It was triggered by his experience as a North Battleford-area farmer and the evidence of salinization on fallow land.
It also made him famous, leading to an award from the Soil Conservation Council of Canada and an Order of Canada membership.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” said Sparrow. “Farmers were ready for the message when they might not have been earlier. And I busted my ass, travelled a lot and spoke to anyone who would listen. But it worked.”
For his Senate work and local charity projects, he was also named North Battleford’s Citizen of the Decade for the 1980s.
When he was forced to retire from the Senate in 2005 at age 75, Sparrow was the longest-serving senator, appointed at age 38 by prime minister Lester Pearson after a term as Saskatchewan Liberal party president.
Critics of the Upper House used him as an example of egregious patronage.
But Sparrow also showed an independent streak, often angering the Liberal party by siding with the opposition, in one case casting the decisive vote that killed a Liberal bill to cancel a Conservative deal with Toronto airport developers without compensation and forcing Ottawa to pay hundreds of millions of dollars.
Sparrow, a part-time stand-up comedian, also raised Liberal eyebrows when he spoke to a 1989 Reform party convention.
Reformers had a serious hate on for the un-elected Senate and here was a Liberal who already had 21 years of Senate sinecure under his belt.
“The Senate has some nice digs,” he told the crowd, which included Stan Waters, soon to be appointed as the first “elected” senator from Alberta.
“It sleeps 104.”