COLUMN

Underdogs are not always losers

Straight-speaking Laura Sabia just might tum a trend

Barbara Amiel August 10 1981
COLUMN

Underdogs are not always losers

Straight-speaking Laura Sabia just might tum a trend

Barbara Amiel August 10 1981

Underdogs are not always losers

COLUMN

Straight-speaking Laura Sabia just might tum a trend

Barbara Amiel

In case there isn’t a horrid place called purgatory, the fates are making sure that I do some hard time now by having me live in one of the most trendy constituencies in Canada. My Toronto riding, for example, bravely fielded the ludicrous George Hislop in provincial and municipal elections. Ludicrous, I hasten to add, not because Mr. Hislop is a homosexual activist— though that scarcely seems an occupa-

tion for a grown-up person—but because he seemed to regard this as a sufficient program to take to the voters. He lost, but our riding elected MPP Susan Fish, an attractive lady and an enthusiastic member of the committee studying the vital question of whether to spay and neuter the city’s pet population. Now our riding has been selected for the race between Mr. Trudeau’s personal confidant,

Jim Coutts, and the Progressive Conservative’s Laura Sabia. Once again we voters in Spadina have the eyes of the nation upon us.

Even though it is the en-

ergetic figure of Mr. Coutts that has so far dominated the campaign, it is Laura Sabia who gives me hope that at last our riding will become progressive in the best sense of the word. My affection for Sabia, however, is not based on the arrangement of her reproductive organs or her stand on abortions (allow them, sort of), postal strikes (disallow them, sort of), the constitution (repatriate it and give them Trudeau in exchange).

When I lived in inner-city St. Catharines, Ont., Laura Sabia lived in the house on top of the hill. The afternoon sun streaked her scarlet and palest blue Isphahan and Sarouk carpets, bounced off the dark polished wood of the grand piano. She was president of the Canadian Federation of University Women and her afternoon teas were social sacraments at which the bluest lips in St. Catharines would sip Fortnum & Mason brews from Royal Crown Derby china. We were gawky teen-agers, classmates of her daughter, straitjacketed in the preoccupations of

the 1950s: Seventeen magazine, saddle shoes, a dark and foolish shame of parents who didn’t speak English, who worked as fruit pickers or at McKinIndustries. Still, Laura would invite us all up to her home and for the few of us who had never balanced bone china dishes on our laps, it was something more than a glimpse of smart-set rituals in the provinces. We sensed, dimly, that in her enthusiasm to share, Laura was inviting us to look at another world—a world of culture, achievement

and ideas, a world in which anyone could be anything if he only tried hard enough and if those who had already achieved helped the newcomers. Laura probably never knew—and given the gulf that now separates us ideologically, perhaps she may regret—that by chatting with such evident interest with the wretched girl that was me, ridiculing genteel pretensions and talking openly about politics, religion and other teatime taboos, she showed me that no matter how much of an outsider I was, the world beyond was not a closed shop.

At the same time there was a feeling about Sabia that she herself, good taste and affluence notwithstanding, was something of an outsider as well. In St. Catharines the best club refused her membership. “Sabia,” asked a puzzled Old Canadian chairlady, “what sort of a name is that?” Her cantilevered home was not ostentatious, but it was distinctive—rather like wearing matched cultured pearls when everyone else had a

single strand of graduated ones. Worse, she was involved, and not simply in the Catholic Junior League of Montreal. Hansard was her bedtime reading; she ran in elections; she won, she lost, she ran again. She cared about basic women’s issues in the ’50s before the movement became a fashionable industry. The type of women who are now glib with all the clichés of feminism would then have been embarrassed in her presence. But by the ’70s—still a fighter for bread-and-butter women’s

lib—she spoke out against the hideous special privileges for women (job quotas and 17 weeks of fully paid maternity leave) and the powerful sisterhood whispered that time had passed her by. She worried unceasingly about her Canada—denouncing official biand multiculturalism in her first language (Italian), her second language (French) and her impeccable English. I cheered, while the pressure groups of the day regarded her with that special affection reserved ^for United Empire Loyallists and other diseased ^species.

When the election in

Spadina was called, many people spoke of the cynicism of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in kicking the aging 45-year-old MP Peter Stollery into the Senate so Coutts could run. However, on this one occasion Trudeau showed not cynicism but an understanding of the democratic process in which one must face not only the back room but the ballot box. And you run where you have a chance of winning—where else?

Of course Sabia is an underdog. Her dreadful habit of speaking the truth as she sees it—against intrusive government, enforced bilingualism, useless constitutional debates and expensive economic policies in the name of a fraudulent nationalism—is considered political suicide. But underdogs are not necessarily losers and we trendy voters of Spadina should not be written off. Trendiness can as easily attach itself to the right thought as the wrong one. And the things Laura Sabia stands for are right—even though this trendy Maclean's columnist says so.