NATIONAL

THE LAST DECENT MAN IN OTTAWA

MP Glen Pearson is a rarity: a quiet, respectful politician

AARON WHERRY May 12 2008
NATIONAL

THE LAST DECENT MAN IN OTTAWA

MP Glen Pearson is a rarity: a quiet, respectful politician

AARON WHERRY May 12 2008

THE LAST DECENT MAN IN OTTAWA

MP Glen Pearson is a rarity: a quiet, respectful politician

AARON WHERRY

He had asked the immigration minister about a change in policy and she had responded by questioning his commitment to the welfare of children, and all the last decent man in Ottawa could do was grimace and shake his head. Watching from the gallery, little more than eight feet above the minister’s head, were Glen Pearson’s fifth, sixth and seventh children, each adopted and brought to Canada from the disaster of Darfur.

Pearson, the solemn-faced Liberal MP who describes himself as “an idealist without illusions,” sat quietly through the rest of question period, as is his wont. When the daily airing of accusations was through, he rounded up his wife and three children and took them to meet the Prime Minister. Never mind the ideological and political differences, never mind that one of Stephen Harper’s lieutenants had just impugned his credibility in front of his children, Pearson wanted them to meet their duly elected leader. Wanted them to know there was a living, breathing human being, an individual worthy of respect, behind it all.

“It’s very, very important people understand this. I am non-partisan,” he said days earlier, sitting in his West Block office. “Am I Liberal? Yes. Because I believe that the vision of the Liberals is the most comprehensive. Fine. But I am non-partisan in the way that I believe the best way to accomplish it is to win others, not beat others.” This is easy to say. And in this town people say all sorts of things for all sorts of self-aggrandizing reasons. But if this is merely lip service, it is, at the very least, hard to quibble with the principle to which it is paid.

Glen Pearson arrived in Ottawa, winner of a November 2006 by-election, with an impressive resumé. A veteran firefighter, director of the London food bank and aid worker in Africa, he and his wife were adoptive parents of a Sudanese girl orphaned by war (Pearson has four children from a previous marriage and when it was discovered his adopted daughter had a brother and sister in Africa, they too were brought to Canada). Days after his election, he was asked to introduce Stéphane Dion at the Liberal convention in Montreal—his first time in the national spotlight, and though he spoke too long and left too little time for the future leader to finish his own remarks, Pearson was well-received nonetheless.

Indeed, Pearson seemed, at first blush, a political dream come to life. If only he claimed

any interest in such status. Instead, on the first anniversary of his election, he was profiled by the Toronto Star under the headline, “MP shocked by House of horrors”—Pearson portrayed as nearly heartbroken by the savage partisanship of Canada’s 39th Parliament, and perhaps reluctant to seek a second term. “In some senses it’s bit better,” he concedes now, “but I don’t play well when it’s mean. And I find a fair bit of meanness here. I probably should be tougher than that after being a firefighter for 30 years.”

If life has improved in the intervening months, it is only because Pearson and Ottawa have begun to suss each other out. The silence when Pearson rises in the House to ask about aid for Africa is almost unnerving. Cabinet ministers, with the obvious exception of Diane Finley, are positively deferential in response. “I think they’ve all realized,” he says of his peers, “that Glen is different.”

Pearson, meanwhile, has arrived at his own rules of engagement. Asked to join his party’s question period assault on the Chuck Cadman affair, he declined. When the ethics committee to which he belongs decided to investigate the dealings of Brian Mulroney, he voluntarily stepped aside. “It’s caused some difficulties for me within the party,” he admits.

To Pearson’s right each day sits Todd Rus-

sell, the chirpy backbencher from Labrador. If Pearson is the good student, Russell is the class clown, and stuck together along the last row of the Liberal benches, they make for the oddest of Commons couples—a richer study of human dynamics than even the pairing of Dion and Michael Ignatieff up front. In March, at the height of the Cadman controversy, Russell read aloud a poem about the Prime Minister, to the beat of Green Eggs and Ham (“I am PM, PM I am; I do not like green eggs and ham, I won’t answer questions about Cadman”). Pearson does not generally encourage such behaviour, nor even reward it with applause. But the two have arrived at mutual admiration.

“Glen is very thoughtful, considerate—a deep thinker who is very committed to the people and the causes that he takes up and the people that he represents.

And I enjoy our conversations from that perspective.

Because even though there’s lots of antics in the House— and I am sometimes part of them—we do have time to talk about the things that we believe in, the things that matter to us,” Russell says.

“I think that in many ways we both lift each other’s spirits. In different ways, but we do.”

Pearson has spoken in the House on Afghanistan and studied in Montreal with Al Gore, but remains primarily regarded as an advocate for Africa, using one of Parliament’s recent break weeks to tour Halifax, Winnipeg, Whitehorse, Vancouver and Surrey, talking to whoever wants to listen about his experiences in Darfur.

“I remember when I first started,” says Anthony Rota, the quiet caucus chair who sits, like an angel to Russell’s devil, to Pearson’s left, “some of the things that were asked of me, you just kind of look at and you say, ‘You know what, that’s not me.’ After awhile, I think people get to know what they can ask you to say. But it’s not easy at first. And Glen was very good at making it clear what he will and will not do. It’s like a hockey game really. You’ve got your people who are going to go in and start a fight and then others who are going to be more suited to a civil game.”

Pearson, unaware of Rota’s analogy, prefers a football metaphor—likening himself to the kicker, generally neglected, but periodically pivotal. “When I speak in the House on

Darfur or something, people will stand up and applaud from all parties. And it’s not because they think Glen is a great guy,” he says. “It’s because they’re all just looking for permission, I think, to look outside of the little matchbox that everybody lives in. Because they know that we’re all black-and-blue and we’re bleeding and we’ve got Band-Aids all over us here. To be able to do one healthy thing, to stand up for something we believe in, that we can all do together without wondering what colour shirt you’re wearing... I just think politicians are tired here.”

After independent MP Louise Thibault asked him to co-sponsor a bill on old age secur-

ity, she explained to the House that “I chose this honourable colleague because he is a fine man with a deep sense of common good.” He is not without ego (note his use of the third person). And he readily admits that compromises have been made. “Please don’t think I’m pure about it,” he says. But he seems to have established a certain existence within the surreality of the capital—one he can, for the moment, live in and with. “I’ve created my own place here,” he says. “It’s a place that, actually, there’s nobody taking numbers for. Because nobody wants to be in a quiet, ethical kind of place. They all want to be in the rough pull-and-tug of politics.”

Says Russell: “Many of us wrestle with the very questions that Glen has raised. But there is a place for the Glen Pearsons of the world. Just like I feel there’s a place for myself.”

Almost in protest it seems, Pearson has set up a blog, entitled “The Parallel Parliament” and dedicated to chronicling how “committed individuals from all parties are coming together to effect real change.” As silly as that sounds, and may in fact be. “The end of the week is now upon me and I look at my children with a slight sense of guilt and at my wife with a deep sense of togetherness missed,” he lamented there in late March. “Yet there is this abiding sense that... government has an important place in the lives of so many individuals and families... It’s a difficult tradeoff but it’s one I’ll take.”

If anything is to drive away Pearson, it will not be that tug of war, he maintains. With the tape recorder off, he makes clear, tears welling in his eyes, it will be his family, not the catcalls and allegations, that take precedence. He talks of phone calls from London, one of his children struggling with nightmares and Pearson in Ottawa, unable to be where he should be. And here it is easy to see why the sneers of the immigration minister must seem tawdry by comparison. M

'I BELIEVE THE BEST WAY IS TO WIN OTHERS, NOT BEAT OTHERS'