NATIONAL

BILL BLAIKIE IS CANADA’S BEST MP

After 28 years in Ottawa, he defines the spirit of genuine public service

JOHN GEDDES December 3 2007
NATIONAL

BILL BLAIKIE IS CANADA’S BEST MP

After 28 years in Ottawa, he defines the spirit of genuine public service

JOHN GEDDES December 3 2007

BILL BLAIKIE IS CANADA’S BEST MP

NATIONAL

After 28 years in Ottawa, he defines the spirit of genuine public service

JOHN GEDDES

★ PARLIAMENTARIAN OF THE YEAR ★

Bill Blaikie is such a huge man that it’s strange to think of him as a microcosm of anything. Yet after nearly three decades in politics, this single MP embodies the perennial frustrations, and occasional small triumphs, of the NDP in particular, and old-school parliamentarians in general. He’s held his Winnipeg riding since 1979, though

he has never tasted real power in all those years, as his party has had to settle for influencing policy instead of forming governments. He’s emerged as a House icon, but as an example of what Parliament might be, while more unruly MPs define what it more often is. “Parliament has been ugly before,” Blaikie says, “but people have never been so consistently rude to each other as they are now.” Still, the winner of the second annual Maclean’s Parliamentarian of the Year award could never be written off as the sort who merely scolds from the sidelines. He’s been in the thick of things, playing a role in shaping laws as historic as the Canada Health Act and the

Clarity Act. Now deputy speaker of the House, he brings unquestioned credibility to the job of keeping order and setting a civil tone. But even during the many years when he was a front-bench NDP critic, he had the rare ability to quiet the House when he rose to his imposing six-foot-six height to ask a question in his rumbling bass-baritone. “He caused MPs to listen,” says veteran Liberal MP Derek Lee. “He had a way of according respect while eliciting an answer.”

By voting him the best among them, his peers recognized both what he’s done and what he reminds them they should be doing. And he’s not just a favourite of old-timers.

“When he has something to say, it’s important to listen,” says rookie B.C. MP Penny Priddy. “He has no need to hear his own voice all the time.” Roughly half of the MPs in the House, 151 out of 308, participated in the survey conducted for Maclean’s by Ipsos-Reid. (They voted in six categories overall, including best orator, most knowledgeable, and best at representing constituents.) In picking Blaikie as Parliamentarian of the Year, they acknowledged an era ending: he has announced he will not run in the next election, and has accepted a position teaching politics and theology at the University of Winnipeg.

It’s hard to imagine, however, that he will ever truly leave the political game behind. Blaikie grew up where he still lives, in Transcona, a railway town when he was a boy, now absorbed into Winnipeg. He remembers watching John F. Kennedy debate Richard Nixon on TV in i960. “There probably weren’t that many nine-year-olds watching,” he says. 'T was something of a political geek.” Further evidence: when he was just 12, Blaikie made a habit of attending town council meetings. “I liked to watch the arguing,” he says. “I’m still doing that—no growth there at all.”

The Blaikie household wasn’t an obvious incubator for a future left-winger. His father, a machinist who rose to become a manager for Canadian National, wasn’t active in politics. His mother, though, was a Tory. Bill joined the Young Progressive Conservatives in high school. Still, he showed signs of the leftward tilt that was to come, arguing against the Vietnam War, for instance, with his Tory elders. The local NDP member in the provincial legislature took note, telling him, “Billy, it’s only a matter of time. You’ll come around.’”

It happened while he was attending the University of Winnipeg. At first, he planned to take political science and aim for a law

degree. But early on, another instinct took hold. “I decided to be more of a critic, if you like, as opposed to somebody who is uncritical of the prevailing paradigm and does well within it.” He gravitated to philosophy and religious studies. In 1971, as he watched TV coverage of the NDP leadership convention won by David Lewis, he thought, “These guys are saying what I believe.” He soon joined the party. In 1973, he graduated from U ofW and married Brenda, a schoolteacher, that same year. They went on to have four children, Rebecca, Daniel, Jessica and Tessa. Two are already well known in NDP circles, Rebecca as the party’s top organizer in Montreal, and Daniel, who works as an aide in Manitoba’s NDP government.

Along with Blaikie’s political awakening came spiritual growth that built on his churchgoing upbringing in Transcona. After graduation, he decided to study theology at the University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College. In three years there he explored two powerful currents linking Christian teaching and

left-wing politics—the Protestant social gospel tradition so prevalent in his native Winnipeg, and liberation theology, the radical Catholic doctrine. “I came out of Emmanuel having found the prophetic tradition within the Bible,” he says, “a tradition of challenging the ruling elite.”

He quickly grabbed a chance to put those convictions to work. Taking on the leadership of missions in Winnipeg’s hardscrabble North End, he found himself working where J. S. Woodsworth, the pioneer Prairie social democrat, led his legendary All People’s Mission before the First World War. Blaikie soaked up that heritage. Ordained in the United

Michael Ignatieff has tremendous eyebrows. And it all starts there—the Liberal deputy glaring at his opponent with deepset eyes underneath that impressive lower forehead.

With a slight hunch, he has also mastered a set of signature moves. He brings his index finger and thumb together when making a fine point. Chops the air to right or left to depict choices. Widens his eyes to feign shock.

Granted, it is not difficult to seem smart amid the barnyard rabble of Question Period (the other day, the Conservative benches took to amusing themselves with animal noises), but Ignatieff has proven over the last year to be a rather dramatic presence. Where Stéphane Dion, seated to Ignatieff’s right, struggles to translate his complex thoughts into meaningful rhetoric, the Harvardian intellectual has obviously studied this craft well.

“Politicians have to learn to appear invulnerable without appearing inhuman,” he remarked in his infamous Iraq apologia in the New York Times. “In public life, language is a weapon of war and is deployed in conditions of radical distrust.” There, in a couple sentences, seems to be his guiding principle. He is unfailingly precise, but without seeming too vulnerable (like, say, Dion) or too unfeeling (like, say, the Prime Minister).

Take, for instance, an Ignatieff performance in May. The House was embroiled in a debate over the torture of Afghan detainees. A day earlier, Gordon O’Connor, then the defence minister, had called Denis Coderre, the Liberal defence critic, a “buffoon.” Responded Coderre: “Maybe it takes one to recognize another one.” Surrounded by such stuff, Ignatieff seemed nearly poetic. “Mr. Speaker, you can’t get development, diplomacy and defence to work together in Kandahar if you’ve got muddle, misinformation and mismanagement in Ottawa,” he said. “You can’t win hearts and minds in Afghanistan, if all they see are troops, tanks and guns.” He spoke of wells and roads and schools. And then thundered his question down upon the government. “So when is the Prime Minister going to get control of this mess, fire his minister of defence, and get some real coordination between diplomacy, defence and development?”

The alliteration, the careful use of oppositional ideas—by parliamentary standards, this was profound. Aaron Wherry

First things first: Joe Comartin, the NDP MP for Ontario’s Windsor-Tecumseh riding, would like it to be known, far and wide, that ordinarily he doesn’t like getting awards. But in this case, he admits that being named the most knowledgeable MP by a jury of his parliamentary peers is flattering— although he’s really not sure how accurate it is. For one thing, he’s enjoyed a high profile as NDP critic for both public safety and now justice, covering everything from the tribulations of the RCMP and the debate over security certificates, to the crop of law and order bills that are the political bread and butter for the Tory government. “People say to me, ‘why are you in the news so much?’ And I keep complaining that the Conservatives are fanatical, and so obsessed with crime bills, that it keeps coming up.”

Visibility isn’t what sets Comartin apart, however; it’s his breadth of knowledge and grasp of the issues. “When I first graduated from law school,” he recalls, “one of my professors told me that you need to build a support base within the community, within the discipline of whatever I was practising.” He took her advice, and built a network of experts—other lawyers, academics, prosecutors—he could call on for background information and advice. “You have to identify the experts in their respective areas and build a close working relationship with them,” says Comartin, who was a family, criminal and personal injury lawyer before winning election to the House in 2000. “It’s not possible to do all the research and the reading by yourself, and so I’ve done the same thing up here in Ottawa.”

To that end, he says, he relies “to a significant degree” on non-governmental organizations, advocates and activists, as well as the legal community. But he also does as much research on his own as possible. And, not surprisingly, he finds that there just aren’t enough hours in the day. “I do read a tremendous amount of material,” he says, “but when I got elected, two things surprised me—that I had to travel to Pearson every time I wanted to fly to Ottawa, [he couldn’t fly direct from Windsor] and that I could only read about half as much as I wanted.” In his lawyer days, he says, he was always concerned about being prepared for the courtroom. He feels the same today about the Commons, not that his colleagues think he has much to worry about. Kady O’Malley

Church in 1978, he tried to spread the word to more prosperous parts of Winnipeg. “I went out to the churches around the city and said, ‘This is what’s happening within your own city. If you want to help us, you have to change the political circumstances within which we work.’ ”

He spent just two years serving in the North End before answering the call of electoral politics. His upset victory over a Tory incumbent sent the young minister to Ottawa. His first few years there would be his most uplifting. The brief Joe Clark Tory minority government of1979 was followed by Pierre Trudeau’s return to power in 1980. The Liberal recovery temporarily held off the conservative tide that was sweeping the English-speaking world, as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher put their stamp on the era. In Canada, though, it wasn’t a bad time to be a rookie left-wing MP. In Ottawa, activist government was still in, as Trudeau created his Charter of Rights and Freedoms, imposed the National Energy Program, and strengthened medicare.

It was to be the last period when Blaikie felt like his brand of activist politics was on the march: “You didn’t feel like you were living in a context in which things that had been accomplished were being undone.” As NDP health critic, he spent three years pushing for new rules that would largely stop doctors from charging their patients for care covered by health insurance. “We won the big battle,” he says, “creating a system in which provinces would be penalized if they allowed extra billing and user fees for medically necessary services.”

Indeed, the Liberal health minister of the time, Monique Bégin, credits Blaikie in her memoirs for his part in shaping the now-sacrosanct Canada Health Act of 1984.

Later that year, Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives swept to power, and chances for Blaikie to make a mark grew rarer. To Blaikie, the free trade debate in 1988 altered the terms of debate. The old skirmishing among NDP ideas,

Liberalism’s various strains, and shades of Progressive Conservatism, was replaced

by a dominant orthodoxy of free trade, free markets, and government downsizing.

Suddenly, the NDP seemed to many to be caught in a time warp. “Between 1984 and 1988, it began to feel like we were fighting this sort of rearguard action,” Blaikie says. '‘Instead of going from redistribution of income to redistribution of power, instead of focusing on the environment and Aboriginal people, we were forced to fight for things that were already there. This really hurt us. We starting to be effectively portrayed as people who were captive to the past.”

By the 1990s, much of the energy on the left had been siphoned away from the NDP into the anti-globalization and environmental movements. The kids proudly breathing in tear gas at the demos in Seattle and a dozen other cities weren’t interested in church basement meetings and knocking on doors in all weather. Blaikie remembers talking to a young protester at the Quebec City free trade summit in 2001. He gestured up to the windows of the looming Château Frontenac hotel, and

AT AGE 12, HE’D GO TO TOWN COUNCIL MEETINGS.‘I LIKED TO WATCH THE ARGUING.’

★ A FEW QUESTIONS FOR BILL *

Small talk isn’t normally part of the oversized Bill Blaikie package. But our Parliamentarian of the Year offered quick and revealing answers to the following:

Who is the person you were most thrilled to meet in political life? Tommy Douglas. One of the great honours of my life is that Tommy Douglas left instructions that he wanted me to officiate at his funeral.

Who would you still like to meet most? An American president. Ultimately, everything revolves around our relationship with the United States. To have the chance to actually engage a president on that would be interesting.

What’s the biggest difference between Ottawa and Winnipeg? Winnipeg is much more conscious of Ottawa than Ottawa is of Winnipeg.

What book are you reading just now? There are three or four. Roland Penner’s memoir A Glowing Dream about Manitoba politics; Charles Taylor’s tome A Secular Age; and Brian Mulroney’s memoir—I’m enjoying that.

What’s your favourite movie? From my formative years, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for its metaphor about how the dominant view of things can oppress people. Recently, Amazing Grace, a powerful movie about William Wilberforce’s struggle to end the slave trade.

How tall are you? Six foot six.

And how much do you weigh? I don’t know, 285,290 lb.

Is being big an advantage in politics?

Lots of successful politicians are little guys. I was surprised when I first ran into Pierre Trudeau.

What’s your advice to the MP who succeeds you in Elmwood-Transcona? They don’t elect you so you can be in every event in the riding. They elect you to go to Parliament. This is where you punch in.

What do you hope to have more free time for when you leave politics? Canoeing. Nothing grand—there are trips northwest of Kenora. I’ve had the maps out and looked at them for years.

ON THE WEB: For more on the winners, visit www.macleans.ca/mpoftheyear

said the political and business leaders meeting behind them weren’t worried by noise in the streets. “As long as you’re not willing to do that unexciting, plodding work of electoral politics,” Blaikie’s lecture goes, “the global, corporate guys have you right where they want you.”

But Blaikie’s own bid to lead a revitalization of the partisan political hopes of the Canadian left would soon be thwarted. The member from Elmwood-Transcona was a leading contender in the NDP’s 2003 leadership race, commanding the support of most of the party’s MPs. That backing, however, turned out to be almost a liability. After dismally disappointing election results under Audrey McLaughlin and then Alexa McDonough through the nineties, the party demanded dramatic change. Toronto municipal politician Jack Layton triumphed. “It was almost,” Blaikie reflects, “like we needed somebody who was more a politician than a parliamentarian.”

In a sense, Blaikie took rejection from the party as a signal to focus on Parliament itself. Layton made him the NDP’s House leader, a job that requires close work with the other parties to manage parliamentary business. After last year’s Conservative election victory, Blaikie was named deputy speaker, a job that requires him to pull back from most partisan

“People don’t necessarily expect politicians to be smart, good looking or articulate, but they expect them to show up,” says Charlie Angus. “My rule is, you show up.” In Timmins-James Bay—a northern Ontario riding the size of the United Kingdom, half of which is inaccessible by road—just showing up is an accomplishment. “When I went up the James Bay coast for the first time, I asked people, ‘How often do you meet with your member of Parliament?’ ” Angus says. “And they’d say, ‘We never meet with our member of Parliament—he never comes.’ ”

Angus is no absentee MP. The New Democrat spends countless hours driving across the Ontario northlands, working out of a Pontiac Sunfire he bought used and which he calls his “four-wheeled office.’ Once a month he charters a plane and visits outlying James Bay First Nations communities. He’s learned French and built ties with local organizations in a riding where almost 40 per cent of residents are francophone. And despite his hectic travel schedule, he’s accessible—when Maclean’s reaches him on his cellphone, Angus is somewhere on Highway 11 between Timmins and Kirkland Lake, taking calls from locals who want to chat about issues like postal service and farm payments.

Angus works with a skeleton crew in Ottawa, investing most of his staffing budget in the riding instead, and has a staff-sharing arrangement with the area’s MPP, fellow New Democrat Gilles Bisson. The two also partner on a series of clinics offering government services in communities large and small. “If people come in with any kind of issue, we’ll deal with it,” Angus says. “We do birth certificates, health cards, SIN numbers and passport clinics.”

A self-described accidental politician, Angus is a former musician and journalist, with a long history of activism. That experience has helped win attention for issues in his riding, as with the 2005 water crisis in Kasheshewan. “If we were going to get issues addressed, like Kasheshewan or the need for a school in Attawapiskat, we were going to have to fight the battle somewhat differently than just writing letters to the minister.” That approach has endeared him to constituents: his 600-vote margin of victory in 2004 grew by a factor of 10 in 2006. But the most telling number is on his car’s odometer. When he bought it a year ago, it was at 16,000 km. It’s now over 90,000.Jordan Timm

debate. No longer the presence in the cut-andthrush that he had been for more than a quarter-century, Blaikie’s announcement last spring that he wouldn’t run again in the next election was not a big surprise.

His imminent retirement, plus the fact that some Conservative and Liberal MPs would rather vote for an NDPer than each other, might have helped Blaikie in our survey. The next highest scorers, according to the Ipsos-Reid points system (see box): NDP MP Peter Stoffer, who is also a repeat winner as most congenial parliamentarian; Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who last year tied for most knowledgeable MP; Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney; Liberal Deputy Leader Michael Ignatieff, who also topped the best orator category; and Liberal Paul Szabo, who repeats as hardest-working MP.

At just 56, Blaikie is far from an old man.

He has accepted an appointment to teach both politics and theology at the University of Winnipeg. His daughter Rebecca says working on the question of how left-wing politics and faith can still connect is important. “We have to be able to talk in faith terms to those for whom that is important,” she says, “or else the right will continue to appropriate all of that. They are sort of taking over the world with it.”

No matter how much Blaikie thrives as a professor, there is bound to be a lingering whatif sense around him. Wilson Parasiuk, an early mentor and former Manitoba NDP politician, sees Blaikie as a man who might have come after his time, not only in his social-gospel roots, but in the way he seems somehow too physcial for TV and Internet politics. “He’s got a booming voice, and a beard, and he’s himself? Parasiuk says. “He would have been a great radioera campaigner. And can you imagine him speaking from the back of a train?”

Oddly enough, it’s not difficult at all. Blaikie carved out a parliamentary career in the age of sound bites, the blogger’s anonymity, and

HE FOUND IN THE BIBLE £A TRADITION OF CHALLENGING THE RULING ELITE’

skepticism about what governments can do. Yet he makes us think of unhurried oratory, a church basement’s intimacy, and CCF dreaming. After the countless times he’s crammed his massive frame into a regional jet for the weekly flight home to Winnipeg, now that he’s getting ready to leave Ottawa for good, it’s hard not to think of Bill Blaikie’s train leaving town. M

HOW WE DID IT: Roughly half (151 of 308) of the MPs in Parliament participated, assessing their peers in six categories: hardest working, best orator, best at representing constituents, most collegial, most knowledgeable on the issues of the day, and best overall performance. To ensure parties with a higher participation rate did not dominate, the categories were split based on votes received from within and from outside their party. Points were then assigned based on receiving a top-five ranking in each category. The best MP was based on combined total points. Full methodology at www.ipsos-reid.com. Complete results at www.macleans.ca.