Closeup/Politics

Our Lady of the Causes

Who’s afraid of Simma Holt? Nearly everybody

Judith Timson November 14 1977
Closeup/Politics

Our Lady of the Causes

Who’s afraid of Simma Holt? Nearly everybody

Judith Timson November 14 1977

Our Lady of the Causes

Closeup/Politics

Who’s afraid of Simma Holt? Nearly everybody

Judith Timson

Some might have thought it a contradiction in terms. Simma Holt speaking at the World Congress on Mental Health? There is not, some of her harsher critics would claim, an obvious connection between Simma Holt and mental health. Hasn’t she been called a kook? Described as hysterical? Labeled the Liberal backbencher most likely to explode? Yet here she is, on a rainy, August Vancouver afternoon, bustling into a theatre room at the University of British Columbia, a littleperogi of a woman, all smiles in her pale pink fake Ultrasuedejumper, all set to drop her usual bundle of bombshells on a roomful of unsuspecting social workers, therapists and prison staff who have come to hear a discussion entitled “Prison, Society and the Future.”

With just enough verbal noise to give the impression she is being propelled across the room by the sound of her own voice, Simma plunks herself down at the front table,and as the first speaker is introduced, automatically goes to work doing something she has done for the past 30 years: she ferociously takes notes, until, after a scholarly, low-key address by a Scandinavian doctor on the perils of modern-day imprisonment, Simma is given the floor. To say that she delivers a speech is not to do the woman justice. She hurls the speech across the room, she plops it down on vulnerable heads, she flings it, scatters it and by God brandishes it until one can detect an entire audience of reasonable people hunkering down, not quite imperceptibly, in their chairs, going into a group cringe.

A young blond woman stares uncomfortably down at her hands, then longingly toward the door. An older man shakes his head and laughs once, softly. Is this woman totally out of control? In less than 12 minutes, Simma Holt, like a mosquito gone berserk in a room with no exits, has changed direction 16 times. She has mourned the “poor kids” from New York and Haight (which she pronounces height) Ashbury, alighted on “hundreds of letters from death row,” avowed she has been “in and out of prison like a warden,” leapt aboard the rape trial bandwagon, intoned “a woman’s body is a sacred thing” (and did you know it’s not a crime to rape a prostitute?) buzzed through her position on capital punishment (“I am one who favors it because I do not believe that death is the worst”) and—for dramatic emphasis— read from a startling, if somewhat incomprehensible letter written by a man who killed another man after he called his girl a whore:

“She may have been a whore but he had no right to say so,’ ” read Simma. “ . .

blood gushed from his head,’ ” read Simma. “And do you know he loved his mother till the day she died?” said Simma. On top of all this, Simma did not forget to address herself to the topic at hand. Before she sat down she did say, “The day we accept the fact that they [prisons] are not for rehabilitation, just for punishment and protection of society . . .” Well, that is about “Prison, Society and the Future,” isn’t it? At any rate, it was not entirely unpredictable that the first question from the audience was directed, not toward the erudite doctor but to Simma Holt, nor was it a surprise that the question had hostile overtones: why did she think belonging to a party with a philosophy that had helped to create this mess was any kind of answer? Well! Simma’s reply was, in retrospect, a classic capsuling of whatever political philosophy she has—and a statement of her present purpose in life as the Liberal Member of Parliament for VancouverKingsway: “The Liberals have been in power two thirds of the history of this country and it’s a darn good country. But they’ve made a few mistakes and I thought I’d go to Ottawa to clean it up.”

Attempting to define Simma Holt may yet become a national pastime.

Here are three different perspectives: “I am absolutely convinced Simma Holt will go down in history as one of Canada’s true and genuine characters—and I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense. She is a truly unique person.”—Lisa Hobbs, Vancouver Sun writer, former colleague and dear friend of Simma Holt.

“She works for people, she doesn’t work for institutions, she doesn’t work for great abstractions. She helps people and this is what our country is all about, helping each other.”—Pierre Trudeau, the Prime Minister, who is said to be slightly afraid of Simma Holt.

“You understand that by undertaking to write about Simma, if she doesn’t like one word of your story, she will swear out a vendetta against you that will last the rest of your life. At every opportunity, she will read your name into Hansard ... and if she gets the chance, she’ll run you down with her car.”—Marjorie Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Vancouver Sun, and also a close friend of Simma’s, although Simma refused to speak to her for two years at the Sun because she wouldn’t join the union.

You have to realize that Simma Holt lived the first 30 years of her professional life in a Lois Lane movie. Back in the days when men were men and women were housewives, Simma was a newspaper reporter, the darling—and the scourge—of The Vancouver Sun newsroom, to which she came as a naïve and earnest young girl after graduating from the University of Manitoba and working briefly for The Canadian Press. She had been brought up in northern Alberta’s Vegreville, a heavily Ukrainian hamlet to which her Russian Jewish parents had fled to escape the pogroms. One of eight children, Simma adored her mother, who used to admonish her talkative daughter: “On your mind, Simma, but not on your lips!” Simma didn’t listen. Her late father, a short stocky man with whom she did not always get along, warned her: “Expect to be hurt every day of your life.” She listened to that.

Today, although more cautious about it, she still talks angrily about anti-Semitism in the House of Commons, still wonders occasionally in her private life whether certain people do not like her because she is a Jew. Once she felt compelled to ask a colleague whether she had been left off the guest list at a party at his home because she was Jewish. There were other imagined humiliations, the kind that came from being the wrong sex in a roomful of wouldbe Clark Kents.

Almost to spite them, she furiously filled notebook after notebook with story material. Soon, the bylines got bigger and the national awards and recognition followed. She was living the Front Page fantasy, buzzing around town, said her colleague, Bob Hunter, like “Mary Worth on speed,” providing homes for unwanted teen-agers, sleeping space on the floor for tired hippies, sympathy for ill-treated cons. Indeed, in her time she saved at least three men from the gallows and received the confessions of two convicted killers. “Simma Holt Recalls, Simma Holt Reveals, Simma Holt Discovers, Simma Holt Gets A Bear Scare, Simma Holt Angry, Simma Holt’s Christmas Party.” The glory is well preserved in microfilm. Simma Holt made big news. And she got her stories the old-fashioned way, by pounding the pavement.

When she left the Sun in 1974, at the urging of BC Senator Ray Perrault, to run for the Liberals in the predominantly working-class riding of Vancouver-Kingsway (represented for most of its 24 years by the NDP, lastly by the well-respected Grace Maclnnis) her mostly male colleagues gave her a rousing send-off—almost an endorsement a day. “Anything to get her out of the newsroom,” sighs Allan Fotheringham, who had himself written back then that those who voted for Simma Holt “should know they’re going to get 115%.” Journalists on the news desk used to joke that they would campaign feverishly (albeit with paper bags over their heads to conceal their identity) to send Simma to Ottawa, which after all was a blessed 3,000 miles away. Their slogan would be “Elect Simma Holt—Please!” It wasn’t that anyone actually hated Simma, it was just that they had grown tired of her constant haranguing, always a cause, always an issue, always an argument. “She travels in a whirlwind, white-hot sense ofjustice,” says Lisa Hobbs, who adds curiously, “and it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, it’s Simma!”

On the night she was elected by 1,388 votes over the NDP, Simma Holt tearfully told her supporters, “Everything in my life has built up to this. 1 feel it is my duty to Canada, my duty to keep it free.”

Unfortunately, some of the things Simma did to keep Canada free were not exactly what the Liberals had in mind. There was, for example, her insistence that drug pushers who trafficked in but did not use drugs themselves should be dealt capital punishment. (And if she could turn the clock back, she said, she’d make liquor illegal as well. Simma Holt is not a teetotaler.) And so she was one of 39 Liberal backbenchers to vote against abolition, an act of faith, she felt, on behalf of her BC constituents. There was also, in the spring of 1975, her widely publicized crusade against the Time-Reader's Digest bill. Cutting off special tax concessions to the American publications would “alienate an old friend and ally.” (She used to write for Digest, but presumably the friend she was referring to was the U.S. government.) She even went so far as to call her fellow Liberals “immoral and vindictive” in their attitude toward the American publications. (Journalistic integrity forces us to mention here that Simma also took off after Maclean's, saying its editors were “into a vindictive, narrow, Toronto-based journalism that ends on Bloor Street.”)

Stuart Leggatt, the NDP MP from the BC riding of New Westminster, has been asked several times to comment on Simma Holt—and each time he gets more reluctant. “Her anti-Canadian nationalist stance has been very destructive of the Canadian identity,” says Leggatt, who also faults Simma for “tying herself to the Liberals and then pretending she’s part of the Opposition.” But Leggatt, who served with Simma on the parliamentary subcommittee investigating prisons (where someone else traveling with the committee described her behavior as “hysterical, a whirling dervish of knee-jerk humanism”) declines to attack her personally. “She’s an attractive personality,” he says, giving her full marks also for the way she works— hard. Leggatt points out too that it is especially difficult to be an MP from bc—the arduous traveling, the straining to keep in touch with the BC mentality while working in the far, far different world of Ottawa makes for a schizophrenic existence.

Marjorie Nichols, who used to be the Vancouver Sun's Ottawa bureau chief, says she will go so far as to say that “there is not a backbencher in Ottawa who works harder than Simma Holt. She practically lives down in the parliamentary library. She treats every letter from a constituent like a newspaper deadline—they all have to be answered the same day.” Nichols, who is herself a very thorough reporter, also thinks Simma’s material is “excellently researched.” This may have been true for part of her writing career. She has written three books, the first of which. Terror In The Name Of God, is the definitive work on the Doukhobors in Canada; the other two books, Sex And The Teen-age Revolution and The Devil’s Butler (about motorcycle gangs), are embarrassingly bad. But it is not the case with a little pamphlet she wrote as an MP to protest liberalizing the laws against marijuana. Called Cannabis, Weed Of Woe, the 17page booklet with the government crest on the front is described by Dr. John McNeill, professor and chairman of the Division of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of British Columbia, as, in part,“absolutely incorrect” as well as “highly questionable, misleading and weird.” McNeill says the pamphlet was sent to him by a colleague in 1975 “sort of in the spirit—well here’s your chuckle for the day.” He admits he got a little hot under the collar when he read such bald assertions that cannabis had been used “... to release inhibitions—right up to assassinations.” Simma Holt, says McNeill, has employed “innuendo, half-truths, all the old chestnuts” (and a few new ones, such as linking Charles Manson and his activities to the perils of pot) to write a pamphlet “that any high school student would laugh at.” The pamphlet is now annexed to Senate committee records on a bill that never made it into law.

If Simma’s war against reefers was taken as a joke in Ottawa, which it appeared to have been, along with some of her rasher claims—such as the one made a year ago that there was a 10-year-oldjunior hit man in Vancouver leading a pack of 100 young outlaws—her fight against the establishment of a French-language television station in her home province was not greeted so lightly. She objected to an American station being bumped to make way for the French station, which she felt wouldn’t solve any of the Anglo-French problems anyway. “We were really mad,” says one French MP, who refuses to lend his name to an attack on a fellow Liberal backbencher. “She is not the most popular backbencher with the French-Canadian members.”

The French station has been operating for more than a year now. Simma says she does not care that she has made a few enemies. “If they don’t like it, it’s their problem. I have to live with myself.”

Simma may have briefly thought her battles with male chauvinism were over the day she left The Vancouver Sun newsroom, but she quickly realized she had merely moved on to another front: “She’s like a bloody RAF plane that goes in ahead of the others and strafes the men’s club in Ottawa,” gloats Lisa Hobbs. Some of it is there for the record: Simma once gave Conservative MP Sean O’Sullivan hell in the House for calling her an “Honorable lady” instead of an “Honorable Member.” O’Sullivan has since left politics to join the Roman Catholic priesthood. There may or may not be a connection. She also, along with her BC colleague Iona Campagnolo— who provides an icy contrast to Simma’s raging fires, and who made it into the cabinet with Simma’s blessing and encouragement—loudly lamented Marc Lalonde’s ill-conceived Why Not? campaign to celebrate International Women’s Year. Back in BC, Simma was one of the prominent female politicians who recently watchdogged a sensational Vancouver rape trial. Some people thought she might have been a little too obvious the way she would scurry in the side door and, in full view of judge and jury, invoke her status as occasional columnist for The Toronto Sun in order to sit at the press table and whisper loudly to acquaintances, but that is just her way. Besides, she says, she intends to return to her first love—journalism—after she runs at least one more time, so she has every right to sit with the press.

If she does return to newspapering, it will most likely not be to her old employer, The Vancouver Sun. She recently sued the paper for libel after an editorial appeared criticizing her behavior during her subcommittee stint investigating prisons. It was rather a mild editorial, rebuking her for not behaving as befits a politician. “I’m not a politician, I’m a citizen,” sniffs Simma.

When citizen Holt left to give Ottawa a jolt, as her campaign buttons promised, she took with her only one acknowledged weakness: “I need to do things for other people.” This creates problems for some people: they may not agree with her, but it takes a will of iron to turn away from her chicken soup soul. “She’d die for her friends!” says one of them. It is an obsession her husband, Lee Holt, a high-school teacher of legendary mild manner and good nature, finally got used to after years of effort. Not only were there pictures of Simma’s favorite cons on the mantelpiece of their apartment, but during the Sixties, says Simma, “there were hippies sleeping on the floor, barfing on the rug. One day Lee came home and said ‘Out hippies, out crooks or out wife,’ but he was only kidding.”

She also took with her, whether she admits it or not, a weakness that is endemic to most journalists, good or bad: the shortest attention span in the world. Which is often an argument for keeping them out of politics. Simma disagrees: “In journalism, I could help only one person at a time, now in my office we solve 50 to 60 problems a day.” Yet she does not see herself as someone with power. Certainly, she is not readily acknowledged to be cabinet material. Therefore, she can say or do what she pleases, pop up in whatever unlikely place she wants to. Later this fall, she says she will appear on The Great Debate, arguing the con side of the statement that persistent sexual offenders should be castrated. She also has an appearance coming up on The Dinah Shore Show (“they’re building a show around me”).

So who is afraid of Simma Holt?

“Everybody at The Vancouver Sun," says one young female reporter. “We’re afraid because she knows no limits,” says her on-again-off-again friend Allan Fotheringham. Marjorie Nichols tells about the time Simma and a few others were driving down to Chinatown for a meal, when a foolhardy male driver tried to steal their parking spot—and was rude to them in the process. “Simma said ‘Let me out of the car,’ ” said Nichols. “She ran two blocks down Pender Street, this 52-year-old woman, she must have been doing 15 to 20 miles an hour in her high-heeled shoes.”

Now if you were a reporter, or for that matter, a cabinet minister, would you let yourself in for that? However, instead of admitting fear, most people turn it around to adapt a “protective” attitude when talking about Simma Holt. A secretary at Pacific Press blurts out a story about the time Simma stood in front of her desk and said of her decision to run for office: “ ‘Well all I’ve got to do is get elected twice and I’ll have that pension for life,’ ” and then reacts with horror at the thought of it being printed. “I wouldn’t want to hurt Simma!”

Moreover, many of Simma’s friends and acquaintances think the Liberals will campaign hard for her reelection (at least three former NDP provincial cabinet ministers are rumored to be raring to knock her off) simply because they want to keep her on their side. And even if some Liberals would like her to go away, they certainly would not want her to go away mad: “Think of the book she’d write,” exults a friend.

There are some who believe that Canadians, because they are threatened by nonconformist behavior, do not give Simma Holt the recognition she deserves. “If she were in Washington, she’d be a national figure,” says Maijorie Nichols. “She’s got twice the intelligence of Bella Abzug and they treat her seriously down there.” The truth of the matter seems to be that Simma Holt is not taken seriously in Canada. How can she be when she is regarded as an enfant terrible at the advanced age of 55? Never mind. Simma will get on with the job at hand: KEEPING CANADA FREE. I ask her if she is familiar with a line from a W. B. Yeats poem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. “This may be a non sequitur,” says Simma, “but about this castration business .. .” She doesn’t seem to hear.