Outlandish gimmick

A relic of Winnipeg’s controversial past has been flushed down the proverbial toilet. 

It was at the site of the now demolished “Broadway Biffy” in Memorial Park that one of the most comical protests by Winnipeg’s most media savvy mayor had taken place.

In March 1973, Mayor Steven Juba erected an outhouse near the Manitoba Legislative Building to protest the plan of provincial Public Works Minister Russell Doern (NDP-Elmwood) to build a public washroom in Memorial Park without consulting the city. On the front of the outhouse was a sign proclaiming, “The deserving Office of Hon. Russ Doern, proposed by Mayor Steven Juba.”

The message to Doern was that the mayor had no intention of letting him p** in his backyard.

In a famous photo of the event, now in the collection of the Western Canada Pictorial Index and taken by Jack Ablett, Juba is seen with a wide grin on his face while standing in front of the “biffy” supplied by A1 Sewage Services. He is apparently holding a permit from the city against the outhouse’s door that allowed him to erect the outdoor privy. The photo shows it to be only a one-seater, hardly utilitarian for a park in Winnipeg’s downtown where thousands gather daily to work and play.

At a time in the province’s history when rural municipalities were in the last stages of providing sewage services to their residents and outhouse burning ceremonies were celebrating the change, Juba was bringing back the outdoor “biffy” to make a point.

Journalist Paul Grescoe in 1977, when Juba left politics, summed up the mayor’s strategy: “Be jealously protective of the city’s reputation, pick an easily identifiable issue, attack a single recognizable enemy, use an outlandish gimmick that will attract the attention of photographers, and raise an outrageous ruckus that will command headlines.”

The mayor’s “biffy” publicity stunt was arguably the most famous bit of upstaging of a provincial cabinet minister in the annals of the city’s history and was the perfect example of Grescoe’s summation of Juba’s philosophy. The media coverage brought hoots of laughter and comments to the effect, “What will Steve do next!” Winnipeggers and Manitobans relied upon the flamboyant mayor to bring them a continual stream of outhouse humour.

Then  Manitoba Premier Edward Schreyer would years later refer to Juba as “a capital-C cute politician.”

Duff Roblin, another premier who sometimes was the brunt of Juba’s antics, wrote in his autobiography, Speaking for Myself, “He had a way with the media that any politician would envy, along with the capacity few could match of attracting the support of the citizens.”

In particular, Roblin had a fight on his hands when  his Conservative government attempted to acquire the property that now is Memorial Park. In 1958, Roblin believed the property was owned by the province, but found out former Premier Douglas Campbell had turned it over to the city and Juba didn’t want to give it back.

“I was only able to retrieve it by offering him a considerable solatium (monetary compoensation) to soothe his feelings and bolster Winnipeg’s treasury. In due course, in 1962 we dedicated this pleasant space as a memorial park to those who had served Manitoba in days gone by.”

Juba’s deputy-mayor at the time, Bernie Wolfe, told the WREN that Winnipeg’s longest-serving mayor had the ability to manipulate  the media “in classic style and he did it in a hilarious way.”

Wolfe told the story of another confrontation by Juba with Schreyer’s NDP government. Sid Green, a cabinet minister, had come out opposed to spraying mosquitoes with chemicals. 

In a fit of indignation that the province’s was perceived to be intruding upon city jurisdiction, Juba rounded up his Executive Policy Committee, which included Wolfe, and all the city’s mosquito-spraying equipment and headed for the legislature. Juba dumped the equipment on the legislature’s front lawn where he encountered Green.

“You want to fight the mosquitoes,” said Juba to green. “It’s yours.”

“And, then he left it there,” explained Wolfe. “You should have seen the look on Sid Green’s face.”

The fracas on the front lawn of the legislature attracted the attention of Schreyer, who went outside, assessed the situation and prevented an escalation of the publicity stunt by telling Juba and his entourage to fight the city’s mosquito population in anyway they saw fit, proclaiming to all in attendance that the province would not interfere with the city’s war on the pesky bugs. 

Juba won the mosquito-spraying battle, but he failed to win the battle to stop the province from building the public washroom in Memorial Park. While Juba had the support of war veterans — Memorial Park is a provincially-administrated tribute to Canada’s war dead — who felt the washroom demeaned the fallen’s contribution, he wasn’t able to stop the province from declaring the restroom a public necessity. 

Juba’s outdoor biffy was removed (whether it was also ceremonially burned to mark the occasion is not readily determined), and Doern had his comfort station built to provide relief for visitors to the park across from the legislature.

Before its recent demolition, the Memorial Park public washroom had been in disuse for two years. The province cited safety and sanitation reasons for its closure — vagrants taking up residency, grafitti and sometimes people were assaulted. 

The province now says it has no plans to resurrect the facility.

Perhaps Juba is now smiling in his grave (he died on May 2, 1993), having finally gotten rid of what he had originally believed would become a haven for drug users and other undesirables. 

Meanwhile, those visiting the park and needing relief will now have to take a brief jaunt across the road to use the legislature’s public washroom.