Canada

A faltering party’s search for a new leader

Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh is the front-runner in the race to replace Glen Clark as head of British Columbia’s New Democrats

Jennifer Hunter November 29 1999
Canada

A faltering party’s search for a new leader

Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh is the front-runner in the race to replace Glen Clark as head of British Columbia’s New Democrats

Jennifer Hunter November 29 1999

A faltering party’s search for a new leader

Canada

Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh is the front-runner in the race to replace Glen Clark as head of British Columbia’s New Democrats

Jennifer Hunter in Vancouver

On the wall of Ujjal Dosanjhs book-crammed study is a photograph of his grandfather, Moola Singh Bains, a white-turbanned Sikh with a frizzled grey beard and severe mien, staring resolutely into the camera. The portrait is there, prominendy placed, because of the profound influence he had on his grandson. Bains once worked as a security guard in Shanghai and moonlighted as a wrestler, but, above all, he was a religious reformer in his home state of Punjab, a fighter for India’s independence from Britain, an ideologue imprisoned many times for his partisan beliefs. When Dosanjh was ready to be educated, he moved from his parents’ home in a small Punjabi village to another small Punjabi village where his grandfather lived. There, he went to a primary school established by Bains. But the most important lessons Dosanjh learned from his grandfather were not pedagogical, they were political. “He taught me,” Dosanjh recalls, “never to fear taking a stand.”

Dosanjh, 52, has relied on that lesson many times since he moved to British Columbia 31 years

ago after a brief stay in England. First, there was his efforts to organize farm workers into a union; then, in 1985, he spoke out against violent Sikh extremists and was nearly beaten to death by an assailant with an iron bar. But the University of British Columbia-educated lawyer, like his grandfather, was not to be silenced. He sought public office and was elected in 1991 to the B.C. legislature.

Four years ago, then-Premier Mike Harcourt appointed him attorney general. Just after he took on the portfolio, violence erupted between police and a group of armed natives in a standoff at Gustafsen Fake, 350 km northeast of Vancouver. Dosanjhs stern law-and-order stance—which led to the natives’ surrender and the conviction of 13 of them on various charges—won accolades and raised his public profile. But his latest challenge may be his toughest: three weeks ago, he announced his decision to run for leader of British Columbia’s battered New Democratic Party, in a race that has so far been marked by mudslinging and schoolyard-style high jinks.

Others have declared their intention to vie for the leadership: former finance minister Joy MacPhail, Agriculture Minister Corky Evans and Education Minister Gordon Wilson—who made his announcement last week on outspoken host Rafe Mair’s CKNW phone-in show. Transportation and Highways Minister Harry Eali has made noises about running. There have even been attempts to draft Premier Dan Miller, who assumed a caretaking role in August after the humiliating resignation of Glen Clark, whose home was raided in March by the RCMP in connection with a charity-casino scandal. Polls indicate that Dosanjh, who is well respected even by his Liberal opponents, is the front-runner in the race, which will be decided on Feb. 20. “Compared to

the rogues and scoundrels Dosanjh consorts with, he is a relative paragon of moral virtue,” says Liberal justice critic Geoff Plant.

Whoever wins the leadership will inherit a party racked by controversies, such as the multimillion-dollar overrun on the fast-ferry project and the legacy of Bingogate—another charity gaming scandal during Harcourt’s tenure that still bedevils the party. The NDP is also saddled with a provincial economy close to recession, and eight years of budget deficits. And the government is desperately trailing the Liberals in public approval. A poll conducted by McIntyre and Mustel Research Ltd. late last month showed 57 per cent of British Columbians intend to vote Liberal (an election must be held in the spring of2001) versus 19 per cent for the NDP

A strong leader may mitigate the damage. Dosanjhs leading opponent for the job, former finance minister MacPhail, is a savvy, feisty economist with deep roots in the labour union movement. But she was tarnished by her inability to bring in balanced budgets when she was in Finance. And although MacPhail resigned last spring because of concerns over Clarks leadership, her public approval is still not high. Nor has she been able to garner much support in caucus: only one NDP MLA has so far publicly endorsed her. Evans, who ran against Clark for the leadership in 1996, has support from three

MLAs, but he is not seen as a strong candidate. Neither is Lali.

Wilson, a newcomer to a party that demands a long history of fidelity, has lost public stature, particularly after it was revealed he owed a widow $27,000. That loan was used to finance his effort to retain leadership of the B.C. Liberals in 1993 and, after that failed, to start his own party, the Progressive Democratic Alliance. He never repaid the money, despite a court order, and, in recent disclosure statements, he did not report the loan as B.C. politicians are required. Wilson says he has proof the loan was forgiven, but the conflictof-interest commissioner is now looking into the matter.

That little scandal, plus news that Wilson aggrandized parts of his recent biography, have undermined his image and his chances for NDP leadership. In his biography, Wilson said he was at black activist Martin Luther Kings “I have a dream” speech in Washington 36 years ago. But he was only 14 years old and living in Kenya at the time. Wilson was drafted to the NDP earlier this year by Moe Sihota, minister for social development and economic security, who worked unflaggingly to promote him as a successor to Clark. Sihota, also a Sikh, wanted to find a candidate to undo his putative rival, Dosanjh, but Wilsons bad press has sent Sihota scurrying, suggesting he might even run himself.

Sihota has been one of the chief architects of an effort to

A strong leader may reverse the party’s fortunes, but healing bitter internal divisions may prove to be the toughest challenge

undermine Dosanjh. In September, David Schreck, a former adviser to Glen Clark, went public with news that a cabal had formed between Clark, Sihota and Wilson to stop Dosanjh from becoming leader. Clark remains angry at Dosanjh because the attorney general alerted the public last August that Clark was under police investigation over the casino scandal. Despite stern criticism from some of his own party members, the attorney general says he “is at peace” with himself over his decision. However, Clark and Sihota wanted revenge. “The fight had become nasty and intensely personal,” Schreck, now a Dosanjh supporter, told Macleans.

“I believe that my blowing the whisde has made them back off.” Dosanjh says the best way to deal with the problem is to “take the high road.”

But the fight continues at street level. Sihota recendy claimed Dosanjh was signing up too many IndoCanadians as new NDP members, comments that elicited wrath from his fellow Punjabis and forced him to apologize. “Moe and Ujjal are very powerful politicians,” says Charan Gill, a Sikh social activist. “If they make some kind of compromise, it would really help our community.”

But the slings and arrows from Sihota and other colleagues made Dosanjh hesitate about running for the leadership. Historian David Mitchell, a former Independent MLA, acknowledges Dosanjh has a “tough fight on his hands,” adding: “The people he is fighting against are more experienced and determined and, quite frankly, vicious politicians. This is not going to be a cakewalk.”

On a recent rainy afternoon in his Vancouver home, just blocks away from the Punjabi district on Main Street with its sari and spice shops, Dosanjh sat by the desk in his study and reflected on his decision to run. Not only was he troubled by the animosity within his own party, he also recognized his decision would have a profound impact on the career of his wife Raminder, 53, a feminist and social activist, and would bring his three sons, 25, 24 and 20, a profile they do not want. “But in my household, politics has always been a noble thing,” Dosanjh said, noting that his grandfather, a Communist, and his father, a member of Nehru’s Congress party, often disagreed but enjoyed their debates. “Power per se doesn’t excite me,” he added. “I’ve never really worried about making decisions that would make me more or less popular. You have to genuinely and honestly believe that what you’re doing is the right thing.”

That kind of forthrightness has marked Dosanjh’s career as attorney general and allowed him to attract a plethora of highprofile New Democrats, including six cabinet ministers and four backbenchers, to subscribe to his cause. “Ujjal more than anybody I know of in our caucus represents a sense of integrity and a respect for the fundamental values of our party,” says MLA and former cabinet minister John Cashore, who cochairs the Dosanjh campaign.

Although his career as attorney general has also drawn criticism over decisions to reduce legal aid and close courthouses, most Dosanjh watchers express deep regard for him. Criminologist Neil Boyd is concerned that Dosanjh views Vancouver’s drug problem as a purely criminal matter, rather than a health issue. But, he adds: “My criticism is relatively muted. Compared to the other AGs, he is head and shoulders above the rest.” John Dixon, former president of the B.C. Civil

Liberties Association, asked Dosanjh to sit on the civil liberties board in the mid-1980s, impressed that Dosanjh was “utterly uncowed” by the beating he had received and was still willing to speak out. Dixon has, at times, been critical of Dosanjh for taking hard stands in order to win public approval. But, he allows that Dosanjh “is the real thing, a guy who believes life is about something more than getting ahead.”

Dosanjh, however, has been able to support social justice causes and still get ahead. He learned English by listening to the BBC and scouring every English-language newspaper available at the local library when he lived in England for 3V2 years. In British Columbia, he worked in a sawmill for two years, saving up money for an education and finally making it to law school. Now, he seems to have the best chance to improve the NDP’s flagging fortunes—a poll in early October by MarkTrend Research showed he is neck and neck with Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell in terms of personal popularity. But one NDP insider notes anything can happen between now and February. “The public thinks Ujjal is a shoo-in,” he says. “But the dynamics of an NDP convention are totally unpredictable. Never underestimate the opposition.” Dosanjh, who has already fought many critical batdes in his life, clearly feels he is up to the challenge. E3