He has served as Premier of Manitoba (1969–1977) and Governor General of Canada (1979–1984) and ran for election to the House of Commons in the 2006 federal election, the first former Governor General in Canadian history to do so. His attempt to unseat a Conservative incumbent failed, however.
Schreyer attended Cromwell Elementary School and Beausejour Collegiate Secondary School, and studied at United College, St. John's College and the University of Manitoba. He received a Bachelor of Pedagogy in 1959, a Bachelor of Education in 1962, a Master of Arts in International Relations and a second Master of Arts in Economics in 1963. He served as a professor of International Relations at St. Paul's College of the University of Manitoba from 1962 to 1965. Schreyer is an honorary member of the Royal Military College of Canada Club, H14513.
In the provincial election of 1958, Schreyer was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba as a member of the Manitoba Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), representing the rural constituency of Brokenhead. He held the riding until 1965, when he resigned to run successfully for the House of Commons. Schreyer returned to provincial politics in 1969, and was elected on June 8 as leader of the New Democratic Party of Manitoba, the successor to the Manitoba CCF. (See New Democratic Party of Manitoba leadership conventions.) He led his party to a watershed electoral victory in the 1969 provincial election, and served as Premier of Manitoba from 1969 until 1977.
Schreyer differed in many respects from the previous leaders of Manitoba's New Democratic Party. From a rural background, and not committed to socialism as an ideology, he was able to win the support of many centrist voters who had not previously identified with the NDP. A German-Austrian Catholic (his maternal grandparents were Austrians who emigrated from western Ukraine), he was the first leader of the Manitoba CCF/NDP who was not of an Anglo-Saxon and Protestant background.
Schreyer's government initiated many important changes during its first term in office, from 1969 to 1973. It amalgamated the city of Winnipeg with its suburbs, introduced public automobile insurance and significantly reduced medicare premiums. The government's second term (1973 to 1977) was marked by less innovation, though it introduced mining tax legislation in 1974. In 1977, Schreyer's New Democrats were defeated by the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba under Sterling Lyon.
As Premier, Schreyer sometimes favoured policies distinct from those of the federal New Democratic Party. In 1970, he supported Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's decision to invoke the War Measures Act in response to the October Crisis in Quebec, despite the opposition of federal NDP leader Tommy Douglas.
Schreyer was appointed Governor General by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1979, and moved into Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Ontario. He was the first Governor General from Manitoba, and at the age of 43, was the youngest Governor General since Lord Lansdowne in 1883 (38 years old). Also in 1979, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada along with his wife Lily Schreyer.
As Governor General, Schreyer championed women's issues, the environment, and official bilingualism. During his first year in office, he established the Governor General's Award in Commemoration of the "Persons Case", recognizing the efforts of Emily Murphy and others to ensure that Canadian women would be constitutionally recognized as persons. He instituted the Governor General's Conservation Awards in 1981, and in 1983 created the Edward Schreyer Fellowship in Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto. Also in 1983, he presided over the first Governor General's Canadian Study Conference (which has subsequently occurred every four years).
Upon retiring from the Governor-General's position in 1984, Schreyer announced that he would donate his pension to the Canadian Shield Foundation, an environmental organization. He was sworn into the Privy Council later in the year, and was subsequently appointed Canadian High Commissioner to Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. He held those positions until 1988.
Schreyer then returned to Winnipeg and worked as a national representative of Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit housing organization. He is also an Honorary Director of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, and Honorary Advisor to the Canadian Foundation for the Preservation of Chinese Cultural and Historical Treasures, and a Founding Member of the Winnipeg Library Foundation.
Schreyer came out of political retirement in the 1999 provincial election to support the New Democratic Party under Gary Doer. He delivered strong criticism of the Progressive Conservative government of Gary Filmon, and made headlines by accusing the Progressive Conservatives of spreading false information about the criminal record of Tom Nevakshonoff, the NDP's candidate in Interlake. Schreyer's comments were not approved in advance by the Manitoba NDP, and were regarded at the time as very surprising. His position was vindicated in 2001, when local Tory organizer Heather Campbell-Dewar pleaded guilty to defaming Nevakshonoff's character and making a false or misleading statement to the police. Schreyer supported Bill Blaikie during his bid to become leader of the federal New Democratic Party in 2002-03, but was not actively involved in the campaign (Winnipeg Free Press, 18 June 2002).
If the 70-year old Schreyer had won, it would have marked the first time a former Governor General had been elected to the House of Commons. There have been past instances of provincial Lieutenant Governors taking political office after their terms by accepting seats in the Canadian Senate and sitting as party members. Richard Spink Bowles, who was the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba when Schreyer first became premier, campaigned for the Liberal Party of Canada in the 1972 federal election after leaving office. There are also examples from the era of British-appointed Governors General where former viceroys returned to a political career in Britain by sitting with party affiliations in the House of Lords and, in some cases, taking positions in the British cabinet. In 1952, Lord Alexander of Tunis resigned as Governor General of Canada to accept an appointment as Sir Winston Churchill's Minister of Defence. Lord Lansdowne and the Duke of Devonshire both served in British cabinets following their vice-regal careers. Lansdowne also went on to serve as leader of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords for over a decade.
In 1987, Schreyer was quoted describing homosexuality as an "affliction" This comment was raised by his opponents in the 2006 campaign, as his party, the NDP, supports same-sex marriage. Schreyer did not apologize for his remarks, but said he supports same-sex marriage as the existing legislation does not force religious institutions to marry same-sex couples. He also said, "It was 19 years ago, and I didn't -- even for a split second -- suggest that there was no need to ensure that there was equal protection of the law with respect to the people who are homosexual. In fact, I defy anyone to suggest otherwise." (National Post, 19 December 2005) Party leader Jack Layton defended Schreyer, observing that many people's views on the subject have changed in the last twenty years (Broadcast News, 17 December 2005).