COVER

PURSUING A NOBLE CALLING

A WINNIPEG MP INSPIRES CONFIDENCE

GLEN ALLEN June 8 1992
COVER

PURSUING A NOBLE CALLING

A WINNIPEG MP INSPIRES CONFIDENCE

GLEN ALLEN June 8 1992

PURSUING A NOBLE CALLING

COVER

A WINNIPEG MP INSPIRES CONFIDENCE

The notice taped to the door informs visitors that the constituency office is only open between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. But for Dr. Rey Pagtakhan, the former university professor and pediatrician who gave up medicine to become the Liberal MP for Winnipeg North in the 1988 general election, it is a schedule rarely observed— either by himself or by his constituents. On a recent Monday, the 57-year-old doctor met with people in his office until 7 p.m. The next morning, Pagtakhan returned at 9:30, as voters began arriving to ask for help in ironing out problems with an often mysterious and unyielding federal bureaucracy.

By 11 a.m., the tiny waiting room was full—and constituency business occupied Pagtakhan until 9 p.m. Declared Pagtakhan during an interview last week in his spartan office, located in a strip mall: “There are many parallels with medicine in this work. You are dealing with people’s problems and there are emergencies, real emergencies, just as there are in hospitals.” He added: “If anything, this is perhaps a little busier than the practice of medicine.” Although many Canadians express disenchantment with politicians, Pagtakhan is a reminder that some parliamentarians are prepared to make major personal sacrifices to serve their constituents.

Sacrifices: For one thing, Pagtakhan says that his combined MP's salary and tax-free allowance of $85,700 represents a $10,000 cut from the total income he used to earn as a professor of medicine at the University of Manitoba and as a medical practitioner. There have been other sacrifices: in the past four years, Pagtakhan, his wife Gloria and their four sons, aged 13 to 22, have enjoyed only one family holiday—a week in New Jersey. When Parliament is sitting, Pagtakhan spends the week in Ottawa, flying home on Friday; often, the family is together for only one weekend meal. Says Gloria Pagtakhan, a part-time dietitian: “I pick him up at the airport on Friday and that 30 or 40 minutes in the car is our private time together every week. We miss him.”

But Pagtakhan, a former Winnipeg police

commissioner and school trustee, clearly relishes his new life since defeating David Orlikow, the NDP MP who had represented the riding for the previous 26 years. Says the doctor, who remembers going to school barefoot in his small Philippines home town of Bacoor, 20 km from Manila: “Canada has been good to me. This is one way of repaying that.” Pagtakhan, who emigrated to Canada in 1968,

adds that being an MP is “a noble calling,” one that he argues is taken “very seriously” by almost all of his fellow parliamentarians. As he told an open constituents’ forum in his riding one evening last week, “There have been moments of frustration, but life on the Hill has been both exciting and challenging.”

Although still a rookie MP, Pagtakhan is now the Liberals’ health and welfare critic and vicechairman of the Commons health and welfare

committee, which is now preparing a report on fetal alcohol syndrome. He has also become a persistent critic of Employment and Immigration Minister Bernard Valcourt. Last May, during the uproar over the admission to Canada of Mohamed al-Mashat, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s former ambassador to the United States, Pagtakhan rose in the House to ask an emotional question. Near tears, he spoke of constituents who had postponed the cremation of a 29-year-old family member so that the man’s sister, who lives in India, could attend the funeral. But Canadian officials in New Delhi denied the sister a visitor’s visa because they feared that she would remain in Canada. Declared Pagtakhan in the Commons: “We allow the mouthpiece of a murderer to be hastily ushered into Canada as an immigrant without delay—does this government have no heart?” Exciting: Following that plea, Valcourt’s office issued a permit for the woman to enter Canada for the funeral—after which she left for home again. Says Pagtakhan, recalling the incident: “I believe the system works, but sometimes people have to have an advocate.” He currently has about 2,000 “active” files relating to constituents’ problems, with about four to six new cases every day. One of those is that of 69-year-old retired warehouse shipper Michael Kostecky, whose niece in Ukraine has been denied a visa by the Canadian Consulate in Kiev to visit Kostecky in Canada. After a 20-minute meeting with Kostecky on May 26, Pagtakhan agreed to write to the consulate—and press the case with Valcourt’s office if the letter yielded no results. “Maybe some MPs don’t earn their pay, but I think this one does,” said Kostecky. “I have confidence in him.” Pagtakhan clearly hopes that his efforts will produce another victory at the polls in a federal election that he ex_ pects next spring. But he may I face a strong challenge from 9 the NDP, which along with its I predecessor, the Co-operag tive Commonwealth Federale tion, has held the riding for all ° but eight years since 1945. Said a Conservative Manitoba senator who has been following Pagtakhan’s career: “Rey’s a wellmeaning fellow, but he’s naiVe. I expect the NDP to slide in there again.” But at a time of deep-seated public cynicism about politics, Pagtakhan’s avowed mission “to help those who need help most” may prove to be a prescription for electoral success—just what the doctor ordered.

GLEN ALLEN in Winnipeg