I share retiring MP Alex Atamanenko’s sense of disquiet at the state of governance in Canada. He believes an NDP government can save our nation from further undermining of our democracy at the highest level. At this time I’m not convinced any of the leaders have the will, integrity and wisdom required to bring about the change we need. I do respect Alex’s views though and if his party wins, I hope I will be proved wrong.
During an hour long conversation last week, Alex spoke candidly about his life and experience as an Opposition MP. He has an understanding of the turmoil that can overtake a nation. “My father was Ukrainian and my mother Russian,” he said at the outset. “My grandfather was executed by thugs released from prison by the Bolsheviks. My father was an officer in the Imperial Army, fighting against the Bolsheviks.”
Alex was born in New Westminster. He obtained a BA in physical education, a teaching diploma and an MA in Russian. He has taught Russian, French and English in Canada and America. His community involvement has included the Boys Club of Vancouver and instructing at the Castlegar Karate Club.
Concerning his entrance into politics he said, “I had become disenchanted with the Liberal government. Over dinner in a Medicine Hat restaurant on a trip across the prairies in 2003, I told my wife Ann I was thinking of running as a federal NDP candidate. She told me I was crazy, but she’d support me.” In the 2004 election he was narrowly defeated. “I just continued campaigning,” he said. “In 2006 I ran again and won.”
Initially, when Parliament was in session, Ann accompanied him on his pretty much weekly pilgrimages between the riding and Ottawa. His schedule permitted too little time together though. “It’s the most intense job I’ve ever had,” he said.
As NDP Agriculture Critic he met with farmers and farm associations. In his constituency he and his staff helped with a variety of individual issues such as obtaining a passport or dealing with a taxation matter. “As a final resort I’d write a letter to the minister and deliver it personally.” They were always very receptive. In Ottawa he participated in creating and examining legislation.
When possible, he collaborated with members of other parties, dealing with issues of concern to his constituents. “If I was touring in another member’s riding, I always sent advance notification. In many ways, our system of government is working. Our riding is receiving grants, even though it is represented by a party not in power.”
In spite of positives he is troubled by “an increasingly partisan and bitter tone in Parliament.” The NDP and Liberals suggested more than 20 amendments to strengthen the Food Safety Bill, he recalls. “The government rejected all of them.”
Alex found the corporate forces contending for free trade to be extremely powerful. During 9 years as an MP he proposed a number of bills, some designed to protect the health of Canadians. Only one made it to committee stage. “In one instance I suggested an economic impact study to determine if farmers would lose money if further GMO products were introduced. A representative from the biotech industry told me they didn’t want my bill to come before the House.” Some fifty lobbyists descended on the MP’s, pressuring them to vote against the bill. Initially the Liberals supported the bill but due to the intense lobbying, when it came to the committee level they sided with the government to defeat it.
In another agriculture related issue, he considers it a victory that by employing a seldom used maneuver, he was able to protect the Canadian Grain Commission from being dismantled for almost a year.
He believes proportional representation would eliminate many current abuses of power. Also, he would like schools to invite politicians to meet with students so they will become educated participants in our democracy.
In spite of concerns, in his final address to Parliament he said, “the privilege of serving as an MP has undoubtedly been the most enriching and rewarding experience of my life.”
It is my belief that Alex Atamanenko, like early party leaders J.S. Woodsworth and Stanley Knowles, is a man of integrity, without guile. A Canadian statesman.