Closeup/Politics

The Honorable Member

Gerald Baldwin would like to be remembered

Judith Timson September 5 1977
Closeup/Politics

The Honorable Member

Gerald Baldwin would like to be remembered

Judith Timson September 5 1977

The Honorable Member

Closeup/Politics

Gerald Baldwin would like to be remembered

Judith Timson

Gerald Baldwin is not exactly a household word—and by now he knows he never will be. He would have made a superb Minister of Justice—but by now he knows he never will be. Still, he carries on, his passions concealed by a cloak of civility, his eccentricities peeking out around the edges. The Progressive Conservative member for Peace River, Alberta, has toiled for nearly 20 years in the House of Commons and lately he has taken to composing his own epitaph. The only thing is, he keeps changing it. Back in 1975, during an interview in which he was asked whether he would run for the leadership of the Tories, Baldwin modestly replied: “No, no no. I’ve reached the stage in my life when I want my epitaph to be I was a good Member of Parliament and in the opposition.” In 1976, a year older at 69, he gave himself a little more credit: “I have a certain ego, I guess. I’d like this to be my epitaph: That I helped bring about an end to all this [government]

secrecy.” That same year, he decided to hell with apologizing for ego: “I don’t suppose I’ll be in the next parliament but this is the sort of legacy I want to leave—a major weapon in the arsenal of democracy.” Now it is 1977 and there is absolutely no indication that Gerald Baldwin, at the age of 70, is finished.

There will be more epitaphs, new and improved, from the gentleman from Peace River. There will be another election campaign, his ninth. There will be more speeches given, more papers written, more letters answered in support of his overriding passion, a freedom of information law in Canada that would allow interested citizens to wrestle away, from a perverse and willful group of bureaucrats and politicians running a ludicrously secretive government, facts and figures, statistics and studies that are rightfully theirs. For Gerald Baldwin, time may be running out. And who cannot forgive him, for crying, as

the poet would say, “how bright their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay”? Who cannot allow him the luxury of a few self-penned epitaphs? After all, it will be one of the few indulgences evident in a public career that has earned Baldwin respect on all sides of the House: in an age where a great many members of our society believe only five-year-olds lie more than politicians, Ged Baldwin is regarded as an honest man.

But where did it ever get him? No Jet Stars to whisk him across the country, no flunkies to drop the dimes into the pay telephones for him, no automatic recognition wherever he goes—except of course in northern Alberta’s Peace River country, where people call him Ged, consider him theirs, and vaguely contemplate what sort of giant they’ll have to unearth to fill his shoes when he has had enough. It is only back in Ottawa, in that brutish arena where success is largely measured in terms

of power won and power wielded, that the Ged Baldwins of this world, having spent two thirds of their political lives in opposition, sometimes become redundant.

“Oh no!” reacts his friend and admirer Gordon Fairweather, the portly Tory from Fundy-Royal, who is himself acknowledged to be one of the best backbenchers in the capital, “Why, there are too few good things about this place, and Gerald Baldwin is one of them. He deserves to be remembered.”

Is it important to note that Ged Baldwin went into the army a private and came out—a private? “The only KC [King’s Counsel ] to do so,” he chuckles, for he was also a crackeijack criminal lawyer, still revered in the smoky blue hills of homestead country for the way he was able to wring, from tight-lipped judges and juries, acquittals for the little people-farmers accused of murdering their wives, and natives confused about the white man’s law.

Would it help, when groping for assessment, to learn that as the first opposition chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Ged Baldwin conducted himself in such a fashion that then Prime Minister Lester Pearson asked him to become a Judge in the Northwest Territories? He turned him down, preferring to stay in the fray. He also shook his head several years later when a messenger of the Trudeau government unofficially inquired whether he had an inclination to sit in the Senate.

Do we need to record that Ged Baldwin once tried to impeach John Turner, Edgar Benson and Otto Lang for contravening something sacreà known as the Temporary Wheat Reserves Act of 1956? That on another occasion he turned down a parliamentary fact-finding trip to New Zealand (his birthplace and a land he would dearly love to visit) because, although the cabinet minister in charge (Jean Chretien) was bringing along his wife, there was no provision for Beaulah Baldwin to accompany her husband? “I was just shocked,” says Baldwin. “I said to hell with them.”

On the other hand, Baldwin, with great regularity and some degree of wit, makes slightly outrageous, highly partisan statements, which coming from other beings would look suspiciously like cheap shots. When he heard, for example, that his former colleague and fellow Albertan Jack Horner had drawn quite a crowd recently in Camrose, Alberta, appearing in his reincarnated form as a Liberal cabinet minister, the Prime Minister at his side, Baldwin said, of course there would be crowds. “Having Trudeau there is like bringing Lassie into town.” He then went on to wonder innocently whether “Jack puts his boots up on Pierre’s coffee table.” There might be just a touch of bitterness there. After all, Horner, like Baldwin, was a Tory who must have realized, the way things were going, he was not going to be a cabinet minister when he grew up unless he did

Baldwin: time is short, the road hard

something drastic about it. Whenever he thinks of Jack Horner, Baldwin likes to quote the Lloyd George line about many having crossed the floor of the House “but none have left so slimy a trail.” As usual, listeners laugh, not thinking the less of Baldwin for his bitter wit. He can get away with it. “Now that’s not easy to explain but it’s a fact,” muses Robert Stanfield, who chose Baldwin, in 1968, as his House Leader and second-in-command because “there was never any doubt he would be perfectly frank with me. He’s a prince and a dear friend.” They are remarkably alike in some ways—no political sex appeal, but lots of decency, dignity and the kind of be-

neath-the-surface-wit worth digging for.

Together, they were sabotaged by the Honorable John George Diefenbaker who was, as Baldwin delicately puts it, “a law unto himself.” Since his election in the great Conservative sweep in 1958 (the Tories took 208 seats out of 265), Baldwin had stood up to Dief, his principles not letting him kowtow to a man he thought guilty of wretched excesses: “I recognized the talents of a trial lawyer, but I wondered at their application.” During his seven years as House Leader, Baldwin was several times undercut by the fractious wheeling and dealing of his own colleagues. He would work out a strategy in caucus, only

to have it sabotaged by a renegade Tory, often Diefenbanker, who seldom went to caucus and did as he pleased. “I was disappointed in several things” is all Baldwin will say of the scars inflicted by his own colleagues. His friends are more explicit about his feelings: “Of course he must be bitter,” says Gordon Fairweather. For Baldwin, however, to admit bitterness is to admit defeat. He would rather tell you there is more to life than the “narrow, unrealistic world” of the House of Commons. Why, up in Peace River country, you won’t find a soul who gives a darn about the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate ...

On a sunny day, there is nothing quite like a field of rapeseed. A blanket of tightly packed, vivid yellow flowers surrounded by a sea of green, it sends up a positively spiritual shine. Rapeseed is also very valuable. Ged Baldwin, being very much a man of the West (despite his place of birth and the fact that he has never owned a pair of cowboy boots) can talk for an hour about its shine and other properties. But on this day, it is not so bright. There is a moody sky hovering over Next Year country: that is what they call the land up here, stretching from the brash little city of Grande Prairie, 250 miles north of Edmonton, clear to the Yukon, land where brave young people, some of them with

foolishly romantic hopes, are still coming to homestead. It is a country of distant hazy hills, of a muddy network of rivers and green, green fields, where, says one local, “if the crops are bad, or you lose the Great Canadian Smoky River Race—or you’re a frustrated politician, there’s always next year...” Sixty years ago, at the age of two, Beulah Baldwin was trundled the last 100 miles into Next Year country in a covered wagon. Now, at 62, a very pretty, fluttery woman, she fidgets in the passenger seat as Ged Baldwin powers a tiny rented car up the rain-slicked highway toward the town of Peace River. She is not unlike an older Margaret Trudeau—very vulnerable, frighteningly open, and quite likely to wound herself on the sharp edges of the political process. She speaks with pride of her husband’s career, but punctuates it with tiny sighs of sadness: “All politicians are on ego trips.” She has had a series of illnesses—glaucoma, water retention problems and a small seizure, which in particular she says “wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for politics.” Two years ago, feeling down and a bit neglected, she began making wall hangings—painstakingly putting together bits of felt and other more exotic materials to form brash, bold caricatures of leading politicians—a rooster on a red background was Trudeau.

To her delight, they sold, and sold well, and led her on to several showings, an appearance on the Juliette Show in Ottawa

and at long last a life of her own. Still she worries: of their six children, spanning the generations from 40 down to 19, four have been through unhappy first marriages, mostly because they married young and hastily. Her husband’s career, she feels, was hardest on the two youngest sons: “There was a crisis and an emotional letdown. One son felt his father was never there.”

There have been other sacrifices. When the Baldwins visit what used to be their home town of Peace River, they stay in a small, rather dumpy motel, and not on the rambling 500 acres of ranchland they own just outside of town. Hill Haven used to belong to Mrs. Baldwin’s parents, but now it is owned jointly by the Baldwins and other relatives. They were just settling down to a “nice, nice life there” recalls Baldwin, when he decided to run for office. Since then, says his wife, “People who knew we weren’t there very much ripped us off, they took some of our lovely plants.” Then, while the Baldwins were in Ottawa, the house at Hill Haven burned down. After that, they struggled, juggling a home in downtown Peace River and a home in Ottawa, each of which they would rent out, with all the resultant tenant headaches, whenever they would be in residence at the other. This way, they thought they could save a little money on what developed into a very expensive way of life. But Ged Baldwin, while admitting that if he had re-

mained a lawyer and pillar of the little community he would have made more than his $36,000 MP’S salary, prefers to look on the bright side. Personal troubles aside, he takes pleasure in the bigger picture— motoring through the country he loves, stopping off for lunch with a loyal constituent at the self-serve luncheonette of a small-town department store, where, staring down across the handbag section, munching less than succulent roast beef, he radiates wisdom—and funny stories. Then on to Peace River to take symbolic part in a riverboat race on the very river he used to electioneer up and down, a coffee here with a guy he used to know, a chitchat there, always, always attentive to everyone else’s difficulties. “So you’re gonna run again?” asks an acquaintance. “If they’ll have me,” comes the quiet reply. “Well, you’re a bugger for punishment.”

The culmination of Ged Baldwin’s career as a fine, upstanding parliamentarian should have come last June when the government tabled in the House something awkwardly known as the green paper regarding Legislation on Public Access to Government Documents. It was supposed to be a serious response to a growing campaign that Baldwin had not only identified himself with, but in the last few years concentrated most of his political energy on— the public’s right to certain information the government thinks is none of its business. The classic example of course is the

1970 imposition of the War Measures Act. Today, seven years after the troops rolled into Montreal, empowered by an act that, as René Lévesque points out, “has no peacetime precedent in any democratic country,” Canadians still do not know the precise nature of the information held by the government that allowed it to announce Quebec was in a “state of apprehended insurrection.” “I thought they were lying then,” says Ged Baldwin who as House Leader helped negotiate the Progressive Conservative support of the WMA, “and I still do.”

Furthermore, no one knows, and has no legal means of finding out, how many files the RCMP holds on non-criminals or whether there is indeed a file on any of us (although the government has introduced a Human Rights Act designed to give individual citizens access to files on themselves). The act will be overseen by a Canadian Human Rights Commission which will be chaired by, ironically, Baldwin’s close friend, Gordon Fairweather. If open government is the basis of democracy, could Canada—200 years behind the Swedes in allowing citizens access to public documents, a decade behind the United States in enshrining a Freedom of Information law—be considered to have been a failure in the exercise? After all, there has to be something undemocratic, not to mention ridiculous, about a government in which secrecy has become so much a way of life that newspaper clippings lying around in the In-Out baskets on civil servants’ desks have been known to be marked Confidential if only, as one disillusioned government observer pointed out, “so they’ll actually get read. Nobody around here will read anything that isn’t marked confidential.”

In 1974, Ged Baldwin introduced, for the fourth time, a private member’s bill guaranteeing, except in matters of national security and violation of privacy, public access to all government documents, with this access backed up by the law: if a cabinet minister ran for cover, claiming “ministerial responsibility” as a way to avoid releasing damaging information, he or she could be ultimately hauled in front of a judge who would make the final decision. In committee, it was agreed such a law should be enacted. In the meantime Baldwin, investing about $3,000 of his own money, crisscrossed the country, speaking to lawyers, educators and other interested parties, placing costly advertisements in local newspapers calling for a “return to responsible government” and asking—by way of a donation—for some show of response from a public that, according to taunts from the Liberals, just did not care about its right to know. It was a sort of “if you think you’re being cheated, clap your hands” campaign. Down in Grand Valley, Ontario, an elderly couple named the Chadwicks were among the 4,500 or so who answered the call. “We are a retired couple with no income or pension except

from the result of our savings,” wrote A. Chadwick. “This cheque represents two days food for us. But it is worthwhile going hungry a bit if we can help you stave off the coming Orwellian state.”

Most other responses lacked the passion of that one, and the government, sensing the issue had limited appeal, made the supremely cynical gesture of presenting, in its green paper, a list of exemptions to public access to government reports and papers so broad that just as much, if not more, information could be locked away in dusty filing cabinets. “It’s laughable,” says Baldwin, without trace of a smile. “It’s bullshit,” storms Fairweather, “and not even elegantly written.” So Baldwin, who, tired a year and half ago after an eye operation to correct drooping eyelids, had made a decision not to run again, changed his mind. Not being sure any of his younger colleagues would pick up the standard, Bald-

Baldwin with fellow Tory MP Ron Huntington (above) and the Peace River District (below): Next Year country personified

win could not bear to let the whole thing die.

“I can’t understand this phase of his life, this running again,” worries Fairweather, who, while not relating it directly to Baldwin, himself has a horror of becoming an antique in the House of Commons. “I won’t be trapped in it,” he vows.

What does a 70-year-old politican do at the end of a long and devoted career in public life, with the dreams that did not come true? Does he accept, as Robert Stanfield does, that “anybody in politics is a fool to be bitter”?

He can sit down, as Ged Baldwin has done, and write a novel, which, while it is not likely to win the Governor General’s Award, or even ever get published, can give him some measure of satisfaction. It is called The Earth Shall Not Mourn, and it is about the development of the North, an idealistic young politician (a lawyer) who, he writes, was actually relieved “that it had never been necessary to surrender his deeply prized freedom and independence which the system of cabinet solidarity demands.” The lawyer, however, eventually does make it into the cabinet, and surprise surprise, along the way, a freedom of information law, from a private member’s bill, gets passed.

He can also, as Ged Baldwin says he will continue to do, “walk down the road. I want to believe in the things I want to believe in,” which means popping up in Winnipeg to mingle for two days with delegates at the annual convention of the Canadian Community Newspaper Association, convincing them to pass a resolution supporting freedom-of-information; or lecturing on the radio about what the dangerous Mr. Trudeau is up to next—trying to stifle and control the media.

Ultimately, he can truly feel, as Gordon Fairweather says he does, that the great majority of people out there can separate the trivia from what’s important—“and it’s still important for this country to have MPS like Ged Baldwin—with civility and intelligence. If we don’t have that, we might as well pack the whole thing up.”o