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Elwood Lorrie Cowley was born on August 2, 1944 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to William and Edwina (Call) Cowley. He was raised in Kinley, and received his elementary and secondary education at Kinley and Perdue Schools. Cowley earned Bachelor of Education (1965) and Bachelor of Arts (1967) degrees from the University of Saskatchewan.
Cowley's interest in provincial politics began while he was attending university. He served two terms as president of the University of Saskatchewan Campus New Democrats (1963-1965), and president of the Saskatchewan Young New Democrats(1965). In 1970, Cowley was an organizer for Roy Romanow's leadership campaign and at the leadership convention was elected provincial treasurer of the Saskatchewan New Democratic Party (NDP).
Prior to his election to the Saskatchewan Legislature, Cowley was a teacher at Assiniboia Composite High School (1965) and Thom Collegiate in Regina (1967-1972). He was active in the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation.
Cowley was first elected to the Saskatchewan Legislature in the 1971 general election and served as a NDP MLA for the Biggar constituency until 1982. Cowley served in the Allan Blakeney Government as Minister of Finance (1972-1973, 1975); Minister of Mineral Resources (1973-1975, 1980-1982); Provincial Secretary (1975-1982); and Minister of Economic Development 1979-1982). He was Minister Responsible for Government Finance Office (1974-1977); Saskatchewan Oil and Gas Corporation (1974-1978, 1980-1982); Municipal Financing Corporation (1975); Board of Revenue Commissioners (1975); Saskatchewan Computer Utility Corporation (1975); Treasury Board (1974-1975); Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan (1975-1978); Liquor Board (1978-1982); Liquor Licensing Commission (1978-1982); Crown Investments Corporation (1978-1982); and Saskatchewan Mining Development Corporation (1978-1982).
After losing the riding of Biggar in the 1982 provincial general election to Harry Baker (Progressive Conservative), Cowley returned to teaching and worked as an investment broker in Saskatoon. In 1989, he established his own consulting company, Cowley Consulting Ltd. In 1990, Cowley was a member of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (Lortie Commission).
Cowley currently (2009) resides in Saskatoon.
Cowley married Delores Major on June 26, 1965. They have three children: Sherry, Carla and Scott.