Category Archives: Politics

Can’t Afford Christy Clark Dinner

February 14, 2016 -  BC Premier Christy Clark. Photo by Dave Chan.
February 14, 2016 – BC Premier Christy Clark. Photo by Dave Chan.

A few days ago I received an e-mail from the B.C. Liberal party. It began as follows: “We’re honoured to invite you to the 2017 Vancouver Leader’s Dinner on April 10 in support of Premier Christy Clark and Today’s B.C. Liberals.”

Naturally I felt flattered that they’d think of me, a little white haired guy living in an obscure community, far from the centre of provincial power. Before I could even briefly savour the moment or make plans to attend, Linda read the rest of the message. Her words quickly doused my euphoria. “Listen to this,” she said, a tinge of regret in her voice. “I don’t think you’ll be able to attend. Single tickets are $500. For a seat at the Premier’s Circle Table, where I know you’d like to be, it’s $10,000. This is for people in the big leagues. They’re looking for high rollers, like Jimmy Pattison.”

I suppose, even after many years, I’m still hoping those holding the reins of power want to hear from average people like me. I should have known immediately though they weren’t really enthusiastic about having me there, unless I came with pockets full of high denomination bills.

Lately there has been much discussion by political pundits and members of the opposition concerning Liberal fund raising. The party has attached a hefty cost to the privilege of access to the Premier and elite members of her cabinet. Certainly this dinner is not for average citizens striving to feed children, pay rent or property taxes, maintain a vehicle, contend with constantly rising government fees and a plethora of other expenses.

It isn’t surprising that polling suggests the connection between ordinary citizens and governments is in serious disrepair. An Ekos poll revealed that at the national level, the proportion of Canadians who trust their government to do the right thing decreased from 60 percent in 1968 to 28 percent in 2012. In 2013, participants in a Leger poll rated politicians as the second least trusted professionals. Only psychics ranked lower.

In Tragedy in the Commons, Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan state “there is a growing sense among Canadians that conventional politics are not working quite as they should.” They add “for well over a generation, in election after election, voter turn out has declined.”

Compared to the NDP, the Liberals are already lavishly funded. (In one recent week, London Drugs, Copper Mountain Mine, Ernst & Young LLP, among others, each contributed $10,000.) The fact that it will be primarily the wealthy who attend the fund raising dinner suggests the party will be under a huge obligation to corporations.

Having at times expressed the belief that one individual can make a difference, I have sent the following note to Premier Clark.

Dear Premier,

I feel honoured by the invitation to your Party’s 2017 Leader’s Dinner. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend, due to the cost.

My wife Linda and I would certainty like to meet you, however, and undoubtedly would enjoy a conversation with you. We’d like to invite you to our home in historic Hedley when you are campaigning in this area. We’d be happy to serve lunch, or any meal.

I write a column for two Black Press papers, the Similkameen Spotlight and The Review (Keremeos). Often my focus is on individuals doing important things in the Similkameen Valley and in our country. I’d be happy to write some positive things about you. Stopping in Hedley would almost certainly attract the attention of big city media.

Linda and I look forward to hearing from you.”

If you’re thinking this is a “long shot,” I won’t argue with you. If you consider it silly, I won’t argue with that either. I realize Christy Clark’s campaign bus may not even pass through our community, and if it does she isn’t likely to visit Linda and me. I do feel though she needs to hear from average citizens.

As I’m writing this, Linda has just informed me the Premier’s Circle Table is already sold out. Don’t despair though, for a mere $500 you may still be able to sit close to Mike Dejong or Rich Coleman.

My hope is not that Christy Clark will visit, even for a few minutes. Rather, I feel a responsibility to remind her she needs to govern for the benefit of all people, even quiet folks hidden away in the Similkameen Valley.

Visit From A Homeless Girl

Homeless Girl (morningadvertiser.co.uk)
Homeless Girl (morningadvertiser.co.uk)

Some years ago, on a frigid day in early January, I came upon a young homeless girl huddled under a tree against the wall of our Abbotsford condo.

Surprised, and sensing her misery, I asked “are you OK?”

“Yes,” she responded. Her voice suggested she meant “no.”

“You look cold,” I said, pulling off my thin gloves and handing them to her. She protested a moment and then accepted them willingly. Skinny as an anorexic fashion model, she seemed incredibly vulnerable. Giving her a pair of skimpy gloves was a meager gesture.

“Would you like to come in and get warmed up?” I asked.

She nodded.

In our condo, Linda turned up the fireplace. “Sit here,” she said. “I’ll bring you hot chocolate and a sandwich.”

“Complexa” seemed eager to talk about her life. We learned she was only 16, and for the past year her home had been a couple of tarps and blankets under some trees. Without any prompting, she volunteered she had done some drugs, including crystal meth. “I haven’t done a lot of meth,” she said. “I don’t have much money. I don’t sell my body.”

Still, we observed considerable twitching as she talked and ate. We attributed this to the meth.

Thinking she needed a thorough warming, Linda asked if she wanted a bath or shower. This thought appealed to her and she spent a good two hours in the tub.

We became concerned she might have taken drugs in with her and overdosed. Linda asked several times, “are you OK?”

Possibly the long stint in the bathroom was to forestall going back to the snow-laden streets.

We had a commitment that evening and couldn’t leave her in the building alone, so when she emerged from her long sojourn in the bathroom, we attempted to help her find a place for the night.

“Does your mom live around here?” Linda asked.

“Yes,” Complexa replied, “but we don’t get along. I haven’t seen her in over a year. Her cell number is out of service.”

“Do you have a dad?”

“My dad faded out of my life quite a few years ago,” she responded. “I don’t know where he is.” There was no indication of regret.

“Any brothers or sisters?”

“I have one brother,” she said. “He’s in prison.”

“What about grandparents?”

They were separated and living somewhere in Ontario. We attempted to find a phone number for them, but without success.

I phoned Community Services, the Salvation Army and the Abbotsford Police. I learned that only one small facility took in young girls. No answer there.

In the end, Complexa asked to use our phone and someone agreed to take her in. This person frequented a “drug house” in our neighbourhood.

Before leaving, she ate a bowl of hot stew and a bun, then thanked us warmly. When she walked out of our door, she walked out of our lives. In more than four hours, she had not smiled once.

Living in a strata building with strict rules, I’m not sure we could have done much more for Complexa.

Although I was aware of our limitations, I felt great unease knowing this 16-year-old unsmiling girl must wander about with no hope, no real destination and no connections outside the drug scene.

The social ills that were already prevalent in Abbotsford at that time have also been creeping into the Similkameen valley. In Hedley, addicts freely visit the much complained about drug house on Daly Avenue. Several are reputed to be making drugs available to teens. It seems that as a society we are capable of building impressive edifices, but we do not know how to create a future for drug addicted,homeless youths. The recent provincial budget, in spite of its many spending promises, will not change this.

Can we do more than wring our hands over this condition that is festering in the bowels of our society?

If our community and our larger society are to be healthy and vibrant, we must make a serious commitment to individuals and families in trouble, before they walk too far along this perilous path to utter hopelessness.

In spite of the scarcity of resources, I’d like to say to the addicted homeless Complexas in our communities, “don’t stop looking for help. It’s always too soon to give up.”

John Horgan Up Close

In conversation with John Horgan in Shades at Main, Penticton. Photo by Josh Berson
In conversation with John Horgan in Shades at Main, Penticton.
Photo by Josh Berson

When I called the provincial NDP office in early December to request an interview with party leader John Horgan, I considered it a “long shot.” With a provincial election looming, would he want to talk with a small market columnist? I suggested to his effervescent press secretary, Sheena McConnell, that he is well known as a politician, but not as a person. My interest was in writing about his non-political life. She said, “Let’s set something up in a couple of months.”

Sheena McConnell, Press Secretary
Sheena McConnell, Press Secretary
Photo by Joshua Berson

On his early February whirlwind swing through the Okanagan Valley, we met in the Shades on Main restaurant in Penticton. He turned out to be everything I had not expected in an NDP leader.

Upon entering the restaurant, he walked briskly to our table accompanied by Sheena. He had already been interviewed at 8 a.m. by CBC Kelowna, also by Kamloops and Victoria stations. He had met people in two Kelowna coffee shops and one in Osoyoos. In spite of the travel and interviews, he exuded energy and congeniality. I would learn that at age 57 he has the concentration of an NHL goalie.

In response to my question about family, he said “my father suffered a brain aneuyrsm on Christmas Eve and passed away a few months later. I was an infant and have no memories of him. My mom didn’t have a drivers licence or job. A few years later, I’d come home from school, turn on the tv and make myself a peanut butter sandwich.”

There were serious hurdles before he found sure footing. “I went off the rails in grade 9”, he said. “I started smoking and hanging out with a bad crowd. I skipped classes and failed math, science, typing and French. The principal, counselor, and basketball coach worked hard to keep me in school.” In grade 12 he was elected president of the student council and captain of the basketball team. “In basketball, soccer and lacrosse, I learned a lot about personal discipline. I came to understand the importance of working together.”

Along the way he got experience that seasoned him and helped him understand people with limited means. “I’ve worked in mills,” he said. “I’ve worked in construction. I know what it’s like to live paycheque to paycheque.”

On his first day at Trent University, he met Ellie. “She was gorgeous and she was kind.” They have now been married 33 years and have 2 sons. He rarely takes Ellie along campaigning. “I’m concerned for her,” he said. “It’s too distracting.” He needs to be away a lot so he doesn’t see her as much as he’d like. He says, “Even so, she’s my oasis in all this madness.”

John didn’t hesitate when I asked if we could talk about his bout with cancer. “Sure,” he said. “I was diagnosed with bladder cancer at age 49. I’ve had surgery since and it went well. It helped me understand that every moment is precious. We need to make an impact and try to help others.”

He had thoughts of social work when he began undergraduate studies as a psychology major at Trent University in Ontario. This changed when he attended a talk by Tommy Douglas. Then about 82, this iconic political elder kindled a flame in him. “He was a small, frail man, but I was impacted by the power of his voice, his speaking skill, and his message. He spoke of compassion and empathy, the importance of protecting the less fortunate. I shook his hand, convinced I could make a greater difference in policy development.”

John switched to political science and history, and went on to attain an M.A. in Australia. In 1983 he joined the NDP.

Having grown up in a politically conservative family, I’ve long been wary of NDP policies. I decided to ask a few political questions. His responses suggested he might be closer to median voters like myself than I had anticipated. He said, “A linear spectrum of politics doesn’t work anymore. The needs of business people and working people are the same. Seniors aren’t concerned about ideology. Students aren’t interested in manifestos.”

We need investment in industry. Workers understand that to have jobs, business must prosper.”

After 35 minutes he needed to hurry to a meeting with the Chief and Council of the Penticton Band. In his values, especially his concern for all people, John Horgan caused me to think of J.S. Woodsworth, respected founder of the CCF, now the NDP.

Government Paralysis Not Fatal

I’ve observed that politicians and bureaucrats at times appear to develop an instant case of political paralysis when citizens seek help in protecting their community. This is likely what prompted my friend Suzanne to adopt a confrontational approach in her numerous quarrels with government.

A gentle, generous white haired lady, now a grandmother, she has been a community activist much of her life. She decided early that being nice got her no respect or results. When I suggested it would be less stressful if she backed off a tad, she just smiled, probably thinking I was astonishingly naïve. She was certainly right about that. However, subsequent experience has convinced me hers is not the only strategy, or the most effective.

Corky Evans (Nelson Star photo)
Corky Evans
(Nelson Star photo)

Meeting former MLA Corky Evans in Hedley recently, I was reminded of a few lessons I learned in the early1990’s about community activism. It began when Linda and I became aware of a plan to develop a mushroom composting operation on the periphery of our Abbotsford neighbourhood. I wasn’t concerned until I was invited to visit a similar operation on Sumas prairie, east of Abbotsford. The plant was situated no more than 200 paces from the home of an elderly couple, Joe and Angie. They had lived there some 20 years. The odour from the plant was so obnoxious that, to retain their physical and mental health, they needed to go away for several months at a time.

Soon I received a visit from Roger. He ardently urged that we gather a few neighbours and picket the local plant. I was willing, but argued we should do it only when we had sufficient numbers so we appeared strong. To this end,we partnered with others in the neighbourhood and developed a motivated, cohesive group. We then linked up with a group irate about a large composting plant in Surrey.

John van Dongen (photo Abbotsford Today)
John van Dongen
(photo Abbotsford Today)

On a wet Saturday morning we began picketing the plant being built in our neighbourhood. A car pulled onto the shoulder of the road. It was John van Dongen, then a Liberal MLA and Opposition Critic for Agriculture. For an hour he stood under a large umbrella and explained the Farm Practises Act. We were deeply troubled by what he told us. The Act gave immense protection to agriculture. It seemed to have the power of an 11th Commandment. For us it was the beginning of an understanding that the government would not be able to simply move a few political chess pieces to produce the results we wanted.

In the ensuing months, John van Dongen came to understand our concerns. Although deeply committed to farmers, he agreed to represent our issues to Corky Evans, then NDP Minister of Agriculture. We stressed we didn’t want it to become a partisan issue. That would cause the government to close ranks and adopt a defensive position. Van Dongen patiently worked behind the scenes and Evans began to understand we had a legitimate cause.

We came to understand that governments are constantly dealing with expectations and demands from various quarters. If we didn’t continue to apply pressure, the politicians and bureaucrats would turn their attention to other pressing issues.

Unlike the feisty Suzanne, we didn’t make disparaging remarks about political decision makers. We did continue to picket strategically though, giving the impression of large numbers and drawing favourable media attention. Those in positions of power began experiencing the discomfort that comes from public attention and scrutiny. The agricultural engineer who had initially discounted us, now spoke with near awe of our impressive numbers.

Seeking further allies, we asked Environment B.C. to intervene. We also did a presentation to City Council, with many supporters present. The mayor agreed to our request for a committee of stakeholders, including representation from council.

We kept up the picketing and stayed in touch with Corky Evans through John van Dongen. When the political dust had settled, the owners of the large Surrey composting plant threw in the towel and moved to a sparsely populated area. Due to pressure from the City and the legal efforts of Environment BC, the operation near Joe and Angie also relocated. The plant being constructed next to our neighbourhood collapsed under a heavy snowfall and was not rebuilt.

I still think Suzanne could be less combative and more cooperative with government officials. She’s a loving grandmother but I think feistiness must be in her DNA.

Donald Trump Phenomenon

Similkameen Valley (photo Similkameen Valley.com)
Similkameen Valley (photo Similkameen Valley.com)

Does the Donald Trump phenomenon have any relevance for us in our peaceful Similkameen Valley? Certainly many of us have been perplexed by recent U.S. political developments. We wonder why American Republicans cheered on a bigoted loud mouthed renegade billionaire as he brazenly shouldered aside more experienced, more reasonable candidates in the pre-election primaries.

Donald J. Trump
Donald J. Trump

The U.S. political and social environment has been in a state of uncertainty and flux for a number of years. Some Americans fear their leaders aren’t capable of coping with critical issues such as the frightening domestic racial strife or international terrorism. Already during the Obama versus McCain election campaign in 2008, Peggy Noonan, conservative leaning Wall Street Journal columnist suggested there was a sense of unease in her country.

In “Patriotic Grace” she wrote, “I think a lot of people are coming around in their hearts to a belief the wheels may be coming off the trolley, and the trolley off the rails.” She then added, “I think in some fundamental way, things are broken, and can’t be fixed, or won’t be any time soon.” She may have been foretelling and reflecting the present American mood when she said, “I believe we have to assume something bad is going to happen, 10 times, or 100 times as bad as 911.”

Trolley Car (enwikipedia.org)
Trolley Car (enwikipedia.org)

Governments in America and Canada have ballooned to the point where dialogue with the electorate is scant, virtually non-existent. Political leaders almost inevitably promise open, transparent government. Then, just as inevitably, they find reasons to ignore the wishes of the people who entrusted them with the responsibility of managing the affairs of the nation.

In America and Canada, governments have for some time been relentlessly re-engineering significant societal structures. They have entered into overly cozy relationships with multi-national corporations. According to Tom Parkin (Toronto Sun, July 17, 2016) “There’s been a lobbyist explosion in Ottawa. Over 8,000 lobbyists are plying their trade there.” Many of these represent corporations.

One result of corporate pressure is the (yet to be ratified) 12 nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Once ratified, this agreement will allow foreign corporations to sue any level of government if they believe regulations are likely to limit their profits, either in the present or the future. According to organizations like the Suzuki Foundation, we will lose much of our ability to protect the environment that is so crucial to our well being and that of future generations. Doctors Without Borders have expressed alarm that the TPP will adversely impact affordability of pharmaceuticals.

Peggy Noonan says, “there is a sense that the old America in which we were raised is receding and something new and quite unknown is taking its place, a sense that our leaders have gone astray. Some young people don’t know if they have a future.”

Donald Trump has skillfully tapped into the growing sense on the part of some, that the American dream is fading and losing its once magnificent, compelling allure. He has urged Americans to believe that a festering corruption at high levels is frittering away the nation’s greatness. Even if he is right, does he have the experience, ability, or wisdom to fix what he believes is wrong with America?

Trump has certainly not attempted to disguise his disdain for the practises and policies implemented by Republican and Democratic presidents over the years. His supporters seem determined to vent their anger and disgust by voting for someone, possibly almost anyone, who promises a new approach to governance.

As voters we at times over react against a leader or party we have come to distrust and even despise. This happened in the 2001 B.C. election when we gave the Dosanjh NDP only 2 seats because we had been angered by the previous Premier, Glen Clark. It is possible, at least in part, that support for Trump is rooted in such a reaction.

Peggy Noonan states “Political leaders can know what our priorities are only if we tell them, again and again.” This week I have written our local MP Dan Albas stating my concerns about the TPP, and also the profligate squandering of funds by some Senators. Even in the Similkameen valley, we can help keep the wheels on the trolley, and the trolley on the rails. We can be far more forceful in communicating our expectations to all levels of government. When a nation is governed well, bigots like Donald Trump will find fewer receptive minds.

Doctor Assisted Suicide

Unless we’ve endured traumatic physical, emotional, or psychological distress, the current debate concerning doctor assisted suicide may be of little interest to us. It’s an issue I began thinking about some years ago as the result of a difficult personal experience.

A medical practitioner performed a maneuver on me that seriously disturbed my sciatic nerve. Over several days an excruciating, burning pain began radiating downward from my back to my toes. I wasn’t told one of my pain prescriptions could induce suicidal thoughts. The prospect of living out my years with this throbbing, burning pain almost unhinged me. I sat on the floor of our living room many nights, thinking about dragging myself to the nearest busy street and waiting for a large truck. It was a realization this act would be grossly unfair to Linda that held me back. Fortunately, a couple of people urged me to visit a doctor who had helped them and in time my condition improved.

Dad visiting with his grandson.
Dad visiting with his grandson.

I didn’t feel I had handled my adversity well. Then my 89 year old Dad broke a hip and was placed in a longterm care facility where all residents required wheelchairs and extensive help. This presented me with an opportunity to observe the response of people living with extremely depleted health.

Some, like Ruby, felt they had been betrayed by their bodies. A former airline hostess, she still retained vestiges of the startlingly good looks that must have once turned the heads of male passengers. Now in her early 40’s, she had MS and the bitter tone and words suggested she considered her life finished. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a support network to sustain her.

In the room next to Dad was Ron, whose ALS was already well advanced. He and his wife understood the illness would relentlessly destroy his ability to function. During the half year I knew him, Ron was rarely alone, except at night. A virtually endless stream of family and friends visited, even though they could no longer understand his words. He loved the people and they loved him. Their presence seemed to give him a reason to live.

One of my favourite residents was Susie. Now in her early 80’s, she had fallen out of a cherry tree several years ago. An adventuresome soul who had loved action, she now sat quietly in her wheelchair in the dining room, unable to propel herself. In spite of this cruel twist of fate, her eyes twinkled and she smiled when I crouched beside her to visit. A few days before she passed away, she reached for my hand and pronounced a blessing on me in her native tongue.

Dad’s response to the unkind ravages of life gave me a further example that has impacted my thinking. He had once been a respected heavy equipment operator and active in the community. Music had long been a passion and now in the facility he still played the cello, although with enormous difficulty.

At night 2 care aides used a lift to place him in bed. In the morning they dressed him and lifted him into his wheelchair. On bath day the lift lowered him into the tub and an aide washed him. He required assistance for going to the bathroom. Toward the end, he was too weak to feed himself.

Because of his age and helpless state, several nurses said, “you need to give him permission to die.” Very reluctantly, I followed this advice. “No,” Dad said firmly, “I still like to live.” He never became bitter, never let the experience take away his sense of dignity.

Like Ron and Susie, Dad had gathered inner strength, built strong relationships with the extended family, and resisted feeling sorry for himself when circumstances turned against him. He had come to a place of deep inner contentment which served him well in this state of virtually complete helplessness.

Having experienced pain myself, I cannot argue with those who long to die because their bodies are wracked by intense, uncontrollable pain. Nor with those who know their condition will deteriorate into a vegetative state. I do feel though that our society may be rushing too quickly along a path fraught with dangerous and unanticipated perils. My hope is that we can be wiser, more compassionate in offering help to incapacitated people. At least in some cases, there may be happier options than suicide.

Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)

At the conclusion of negotiations that produced the far reaching Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), local cartoonist Vince Flynn provided a rather unflattering and sobering assessment of the pact. His cartoon showed then Conservative Trade Minister Ed Fast saying, “I think we gave them everything they asked for.” The text of the 12 nation agreement had not yet been made public and I hoped the cartoon was more for the sake of humour than to convey an accurate portrayal of what was agreed upon.

Vintage Harold Anderson Calendar Picture
Vintage Harold Anderson Calendar Picture

All we knew at the time was that the agreement had been negotiated in almost total secrecy behind tightly closed doors, as though the various governments understood they were doing something enormously shameful. To me it smacked of young boys guiltily puffing on their first cigarette behind the family barn. Although we might want to believe its tentacles will not reach into our beautiful valley, the agreement has the potential to impact each of us directly.

Most of us have little understanding of the international trade regulations that already enable foreign corporations to extract huge sums from our governments. One example of this is the terms the World Trade Organization used to rule against a successful clean energy program in Ontario which had created thousands of jobs. Similar regulations targeted a moratorium on fracking in Quebec. The Sierra Club says the TPP will impose further limits on government efforts to combat climate disruptions.

The agreement has already been signed by the Liberal government. If ratified by Parliament, it will give foreign corporations even greater powers to sue governments for billions over laws and policies they contend will limit their profits.

To me it is incomprehensible that corporations will be able to challenge our environmental laws, not before a Canadian court, but before a tribunal of private lawyers. These 3 lawyers will not be accountable for their decisions and there will be no appeal process. They will have the power to order governments to pay firms for future profits they could have hypothetically earned if the protective policies were not in place.

Siphoning off of public funds is one way each of us will be impacted. It will ensure governments have even less resources to maintain our already stressed medical system, build schools, repair bridges and highways, and much more.

Government officials typically ignore concerns about threats to the environment, claiming there are provisions that protect against abuses. George Kahale III, chairman of the world’s leading legal arbitration firm says of the highly touted environmental safeguard in the pact, “the entire provision for protection of the environment is negated by 5 words in the middle. The supposed safeguard is actually much ado about nothing.” His firm has defended various governments in lawsuits by international corporations.

The TPP is all encompassing and includes much more than the environment. Many seniors and others in the Similkameen Valley will almost certainly be hit hard in their wallets when they go to renew their medical prescriptions. D G Shaw of the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance says “generic drugs will come onto the market less quickly and patients will have to wait longer for affordable medications.” Also, pharmaceutical companies will be more able to sue governments over policies they don’t like. Even under existing rules, they are already doing this. At the federal level, the giant pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly, currently has a lawsuit against the Canadian government for $500 million because Canadian courts invalidated its Zyprexa patent. One observer suggested this is “the shape of things to come.”

Jim Balsillie, former Co-CEO of RIM, believes “signing the deal could be Canada’s worst ever policy decision.” Professor Ariel Katz, law professor at the University of Toronto agrees. He warns that “ratifying the TPP would lock Canada into a deal that could not be modified even if issues surface down the road.” He asks, “why would anyone in their right mind do this?”

Especially in regard to the environment, I’m puzzled by the Liberal position. Justin Trudeau proudly announced at the Paris climate conference, “We’re back. We’re here to help.” But his statements indicate he may favour ratification of the TPP by Parliament. Is it the citizens of Canada he intends to help, or multinational corporations? The TPP will impact us. If we’re concerned about greedy corporations blackmailing and plundering Canada, now is the time to inform our PM and our representatives in Parliament.

Tom Siddon, A Life In Politics

Pat & Tom Siddon visited us in Hedley
Pat & Tom Siddon visited us in Hedley

Last week, sitting at our kitchen table with Tom and Pat Siddon of Kaleden, Linda and I received the benefit of a 2 hour political seminar. When Tom began speaking, I set aside my interview notes and listened with great interest. He had been an MP during the years when Joe Clark, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney held the reins of power in Ottawa. In the Mulroney years he served in several key cabinet posts.

“I was born in Drumheller, Alberta into a family of modest circumstances,” he said at the outset. “ My dad was a barber. He was determined I wouldn’t follow in his footsteps.”

Tom studied Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alberta, not a common career track for an aspiring politician, but at that time he wasn’t considering politics. This is where he met Joe Clark, future Canadian PM, and also Pat. He and Pat were married at the beginning of his final year. She discontinued her studies to work so he could attain a Phd. at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Aeronautical Studies. “Pat was typing my thesis one day when I suddenly needed to rush her to the hospital to have our second son,” he said.

While teaching engineering at UBC he joined a group opposed to the construction of 3 high rise towers in Richmond. This experience persuaded him to run for a position on council. In the 1975 city elections, campaigning with Pat at his side, he defeated an incumbent councillor by 20 votes.

In this role he began garnering political experience and credibility. When he agreed to run in a federal by-election in Richmond, his parents didn’t understand. “You have a good career teaching at UBC,” they admonished him. “Why go into politics?”

Elected, he and Pat soon learned about the uncertainties inherent in a political career. In 1979 he was re-elected in the general election which handed Joe Clark a short lived minority government. “We moved our family to Ottawa and enrolled our children in school,” he said. “Then our government was defeated on a budget vote. We moved back to Richmond.”

Voters had come to trust Tom and gave him the nod in the 1980 election. This time he found himself sitting in the benches of the Official Opposition, facing a Pierre Trudeau government.

As is common after an election defeat, the Conservatives held a leadership vote. Tom deemed Brian Mulroney (a skilled labour lawyer and CEO of the Iron Ore Co. of Canada) to be the most promising candidate. Mulroney won, and Tom’s support would prove to have been prudent.

After taking power in the 1984 vote, Mulroney named Tom Minister of State for Science and Technology. In this role he was on hand to watch Mark Garneau being launched into space at Cape Kennedy.

When Mulroney subsequently appointed him Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Tom needed to deal with the sticky issue of disappearing cod stocks. “My science background enabled me to understand what the scientists were telling me,” he said. “I felt they were wrong and decided to close the cod fishery. I was roundly condemned for this by some but my instincts were correct. Even now the cod haven’t come back.”

His appointment as Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in 1990 led to what he considers his most significant achievement, the creation of Nunavut.

“Pat and I were taken by dog sled across ice and snow to Igloolik on the western side of Hudson’s Bay,” he said. “Our Inuit guide built an igloo and that night we slept in it on caribou skins. In the morning I woke with my back against a block of ice.”

Chief Negotiator Paul Quassa & vice-president Bob Kadlun present then Indian Affairs Minister Tom Siddon with "Snow Block Carving" in Igulik on April 30, 1990
Chief Negotiator Paul Quassa & vice-president Bob Kadlun present then Indian Affairs Minister Tom Siddon with “Snow Block Carving” in Igulik on April 30, 1990

As part of the signing ceremony they were offered Inuit delicacies such as raw caribou, bear and Arctic char. Pat avoided most of the meal by handing out gifts of fresh fruit and daffodils. The signing ceremony laid out the basis for negotiations over the next 3 years. In appreciation of his dedicated work, Tom was presented with a carving of an Inuit hunter cutting snow blocks. In 2015 the Siddons returned the carving, considering it a treasure that belonged to Nunavut.

Today, among various involvements, Tom Siddon is Area D Director in the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen. His partnership with Pat still strong, he continues to believe being in politics should not be for personal honour. It must be to serve the community and the nation.

Politics Is A Fickle Mistress

All Candidates Meeting
All Candidates Meeting

For the past two months hundreds of decent, well intentioned individuals all over Canada have worked unstintingly to win the right to represent their constituency. Because my neighbour Angelique Wood was one of these dedicated ones, I have some comprehension of the energy and focus required to campaign effectively. Particularly in the last month, her car was rarely at home. Undoubtedly, she and most candidates entered the race motivated by a desire to make a positive difference. They have laudable intent, but in time the winners may conclude politics is a fickle and frivolous mistress.

Increasingly over the past four years, there has been a growing sense on the part of Canadians that our democracy has become confoundingly undemocratic. The Prime Minister controls the appointment of many key figures in our system of government, including the Governor General, members of the cabinet, justices of the Supreme Court, senators, heads of crown corporations, ambassadors to foreign countries, provincial lieutenant governors, and approximately 3,100 others. The appointees feel beholden to the PM and most do not dare voice disagreement with government policy.

The National Post’s Andrew Coyne recently wrote, “cabinet does not matter. It does not govern. That is the job of the Prime Minister and the group of political staff he has around him.” This is not new. Several Prime Ministers in recent decades have chosen to govern almost as dictators.

Some pundits contend it was Pierre Trudeau who first began seriously consolidating power in the Prime Minister’s office. Certainly his charisma generated a dizzying excitement in the electorate and people anticipated positive change. By the 1972 election though, the “halo effect” had run its course. Peter C Newman said being reduced to a minority government “was due to one central fact. He had lost touch with his constituency. He functioned the first 54 months in office as head of a government, not the leader of a nation. He didn’t understand Canadians and their concerns. What was worse, he didn’t appear to care.”

Although our democracy doesn’t prevent leaders with dictatorial inclinations from rising to the top, it does possess the means to push them ignominiously from “the throne.” Trudeau managed to hold onto power but, prior to the 1984 election, polls indicated the Liberals would not win with him at the helm. Chastened, he stepped down.

Voters then gave the Liberals a political spanking, allotting them only 40 seats. Brian Mulroney and the Conservatives snatched 211, the largest majority in Canadian history. Unfortunately, Mulroney didn’t learn the lesson of the Liberal debacle. He greatly irritated Canadians with the detested GST. When polls indicated he had lost support of voters, he retired just prior to the 1993 election.

We replaced Mulroney with Jean Chretien, who did not keep his famous “Red Book” promises. He also allowed the “Sponsorship Scandal” in which some two hundred million dollars were squandered. In time, voters wearied of the Liberals’ evident sense of entitlement and Chretien, under extreme duress, agreed to retire.

More recently, Stephen Harper, like Trudeau, Mulroney and Chretien, has ruled with a heavy hand and alienated large numbers of Canadians. MP’s, and even most cabinet ministers, received instructions as to what they were permitted to say in public. Scientists and others were also muzzled.

The problem of party leaders gripping the reins of power too tightly isn’t confined to the party in government. Writing in “Tragedy in the Commons,” Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan suggest “Canadian party leaders today enjoy a remarkable amount of power when measured against peers in Canadian history, or against leaders in similar parliamentary systems around the world.”

There is one possible glimmer of hope. Conservative MP Michael Chong has stickhandled a bill through Parliament that gives MP’s the power to trigger a leadership review and subsequently vote to oust the leader of their party. In a watered down version, the bill was approved by a majority of government MP’s. Very likely they realized many constituents longed to give them the heave ho for the PM’s undemocratic rule. In spite of some resistance in the Senate, the bill was passed and the Reform Act received Royal Assent this summer.

In politics there are few guarantees of course, but this could be a small step toward change. In time, newly elected MP’s could have a more substantive role. Canadian democracy may yet smile.

Baseball and Politics

 

Parliament on Ottawa River
Parliament on Ottawa River

There is a common thread running through both professional baseball and party politics in Canada. When an umpire calls the last “out!” in the 2015 World Series, the players will pick up their fat paycheques, retrieve their golf clubs and head to the links. The disciplined ones will continue their conditioning regime. At the management level, there will be frenzied preparation for the next season of ball. The fans, having cheered until they are hoarse, will go home and focus on other interests until the umpires again call, “play ball.”

When the current federal election campaign has run its course, the voters, like the baseball fans, will also resume other pursuits. Having voted, we believe those we have elected will now carry out their duties with an acceptable degree of diligence, having in mind what is best for citizens and the nation. We need to understand though, that the serious politicians, whether winners or losers, will now begin planning and strategizing to win the next election.

Just as for players, managers and owners, baseball is about winning, for career politicians, politics is also about winning. Many of their decisions will likely have little to do with good governance. We should not forget that over the past four years, the political parties have been engaged in an aggressive, perpetual “dog fight,” seeking to score political points.

In baseball it’s not a problem that fans are inactive in the off season. In politics though, when the people are not involved between elections, there is a significant down side. As citizens, we are stakeholders in our nation. If we are not attentive, we may one day understand to our chagrin, politics is often more about achieving and maintaining power than governing prudently.

In contending this, I certainly do not mean to slam the many fine individuals running for election. Recently I attended a local all-candidates meeting and concluded each is a reputable person with honourable intentions. If the party hierarchy listened more frequently to our representatives, we would almost certainly have a superior form of government.

In our country, as in every country around the globe, there are ambitious individuals aggressively grasping for the levers of government, whatever its form. And those holding the levers cling to them tenaciously, doing whatever is necessary to thwart rivals. Too often this results in decisions designed to gain favour with multi-national corporations, or with particular elements of the electorate, not to provide sound governance.

This dynamic has prevailed throughout history. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most thoroughly documented cases of often mutually destructive struggles between ambitious individuals, sapping the vitality of a nation and in time contributing to its down fall. In “How Rome Fell: Death of a Super Power”, Adrian K Goldsworthy says, “there was never a shortage of men wanting to be Emperor. Being killed by a rival remained the most frequent cause of death of Emperors.”

At times powerful army commanders challenged the Emperor. If the challenge was successful, the usurper usually had the Emperor killed. Goldsworthy states further, “senior officials regularly arranged for the disgrace and even death of colleagues. Personal survival and success were the foremost goals of most officials.” By the third century of the Empire’s existence, Emperors and their administrations were thinking less of the good of the Empire than their own survival. It was not a recipe for efficiency.

Goldsworthy sees parallels in our time and suggests “perhaps we should expect more from our political leaders. If they do not set an example by placing the wider good above personal or party interests, it is most unlikely anyone else will behave any better. A greater willingness to take genuine responsibility would be a good place to start.”

Although Canadian political experience is considerably more civilized than that of the Roman empire, the grasping for power is uncomfortably real. For this reason, it is essential we encourage all politicians to work first for the good of Canada and its citizens, not for party advantage. After this election we need to continue asking questions and demanding substantive answers of those elected to represent us. Unlike the game of baseball, politics does impact us, our children and our grandchildren. We can play a part in the well being of this great country.