Award-winning writer Tom King is running for the New Democrats
There’s a story Tom
King likes to tell. It’s about the Liberals and the Conservatives, and how they’re a lot like the pair of hotshot Romeos who used to court his mother’s friend Nora, back when King was a child, and the two women ran a beauty shop out of a converted carport.
The story goes something like this: one of Nora’s suitors was a stiff who drove a Cadillac and bored her to tears. The other was an unreliable cad in a Corvette. Nora used to teeter-totter back and forth between the two, unsure which was the bigger pain in the neck, until King’s mother finally said to her, “Nora, maybe it’s time for a new relationship.”
“When I look at the Conservatives and Liberals, I say it’s time for a new relationship,” King told a delighted crowd last week at his campaign kickoff event in Guelph, Ont. “And I’m available for a date.”
After years of cajoling from NDP Leader Jack Layton, King has finally agreed to represent the party in the Sept. 8 federal by-election in his adopted hometown, a Liberal stronghold for the past 15 years.
There’s an advantage to running for public office at the age of 65, after having already forged a career as an award-winning writer, broadcaster, satirist, children’s book author, academic, native rights activist, environmentalist and Order of Canada recipient: somehow, wanting the job at all lends a candidate like King instant credibility.
Having spent decades fighting for social justice issues on the grassroots level, he sees “day-shift politics,” as he calls it, as his chance to help effect some sweeping policy changes in this country. “What I really want to do on this campaign is get everybody excited about politics again,” he says. “It’s fun! It really is. I’ve got some great stories. Think of me as your court jester if you want to.”
Indeed, Layton describes King, the author of fictional works including Green Grass, Running Water, and the creator of CBC’s The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour, as “Canada’s best storyteller.” One wouldn’t think the political scene needs any more storytellers. But anyone familiar with King’s work knows that he uses his stories on Dead Dogset in a fictional Alberta native commun-
ity—as a powerful medium for giving voice to serious political ideas and grievances, all with a humour that lands gently, but cuts deeply. And in this way he intends to express his views in public office. “Here’s one little story,” he tells the captivated audience in his baritone campfire voice. It’s about Stéphane Dion’s “revenue neutral” Green Shift program. “I’m reminded of a guy with a horse,” he says. “He feeds that horse hay on one end, then walks to the other end and checks to see if he gets the same amount of hay out—and in the same form.”
Following some glad-handing over wine and cheese, King—his Order of Canada pin fastened to his lapel—prepares for an inaugural round of door-to-door canvassing alongside the leader. At six foot six, King towers
over Layton. Together they call to mind the tortoise and the hare. King is gentle, measured, understated; Layton is brassy, scrappy, and almost manically energetic. “I’ll show you some tricks,” Layton tells a team of freshfaced volunteers, ushering them into the foyer of a locked subsidized housing building. King hangs back for a moment—he can’t help but be reminded of his youthful stint as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman: you never know what’s waiting for you on the other side of that door. “You don’t know who you’re talking to. What their concerns are. You don’t want to disturb anyone.”
Inside the complex, Layton has all the solicitousness and efficiency of a high-end maître d’—finding in mere seconds points of commonality with each resident (“That’s my
mother’s name!”). As Layton charges down the hallway, King follows behind in long, purposeful strides, and considers the life of a candidate: all these years he’s been broadcasting his political views, he says. But then, he was representing only himself. Now he’s representing a team, an entire party, and a philosophy. “I’m a little nervous from time to time,” he says, “but I’ve been on the national stage for over two decades now. And Ottawa certainly doesn’t hold any fears for me.” Watching him with his potential constituents—many of whom are quite flattered to find a local celebrity on their doorstep—you’re reminded that he is, after all, a skilled public personality. He cracks self-deprecating jokes when he finds himself engaging in the clichés of petting dogs and wooing babies. He invites
'I SAID TO MYSELF, I WILL NOT BE ENTERTAINMENT AGAIN. FROM THEREON OUT, I CLEANED UP MY ACT.’
everyone to give him a ring at home with any problems or concerns: “If you’re feeling brave, look me up in the white pages. I’m listed.” King’s gift for storytelling is buoyed by a storied personal history. Born in central California in 1943 to a Greek mother and a Cherokee father, King was raised in a poor community “on the other side of the tracks.” His father, Robert King, abandoned the family when he was three, and King was led to believe he had died. Only in his late fifties did he find out that his father had, in fact, lived out his life in Illinois, married again twice, fathered seven more children, and died after falling into a river and hitting his head. “He had never mentioned us. He had just sort of walked away, dumped us in a trash can on the side of the road, and never looked back. I really felt deserted by him.”
King worked a series of unconventional jobs in his youth: on a sugar cane plantation in Australia, for instance, and building geodesic domes in northern California. In the late sixties, inspired by the civil rights movement, he became active in native rights issues in the United States, adopting an in-your-face rhetorical style, and making campus speeches in composite native garb. “It was sort of combination of movies and traditional dress,” he says. “We’d wear our hair long, with headbands, leathers, feathers, four-strand bone chokers. We were pretty noisy.”
A defining moment in his political evolution came when he and a fellow activist—in full “Indian” regalia—gave a presentation at a California university, along with two men from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, in
suits. “We got up there and I beat the podium and said, ‘Native rights this’ and ‘You bastards are keeping us down,’ and everything was true, but I was really a firebrand.” They were followed by the two men in suits, who were subdued and organized, complete with overheads. At the end of the session, a woman from the university presented the two men in suits with honorariums. When King asked why he hadn’t received one, the woman said, “Those guys were the experts.” “What are we, the entertainment?” King asked. The answer came in the form of an awkward pause. “I said to myself, I will not be entertainment again. From thereon out, I cleaned up my act. I began looking at the issues.”
In 1980, after getting his
Ph.D. in Utah, King accepted a teaching position at the University of Lethbridge and moved north with his oldest son, Christian. T was a single parent and I know how hard it is.” There he met his current wife—although they prefer the neutral term “partner”— Helen Hoy, a professor of literature and women’s studies.
After a stint in Minnesota, the couple accepted positions at the University of Guelph in 1994. They had a son, Benjamin, and adopted a daughter, Elizabeth, from Calgary. “Helen wanted a daughter,” says King. “I wanted to make sure it was a native child.” Later, they discovered Elizabeth was affected by fetal alcohol syndrome. “We didn’t know much about it 20 years ago, but now we know quite a bit. Socially, they operate at a younger age than their body would suggest, so it’s dif-
ficult raising a child with FASD.”
Party officials insist the announcement King’s candidacy in Guelph is causing a in the community—an eclectic mix of artists, manufacturing and service workers, university students and teachers, and suburbanites who commute daily into Toronto. “People are being mobilized like we’ve never seen,” says Ravi Joshi, president of Guelph’s NDP riding association. “Volunteer slips are coming in on a daily basis. Our lawn signs are the charts right now.” There’s just something about him, says Joshi, that gives people “this kind of gooey feeling inside.”
Not all people, to be sure. King has been known to make pronouncements that can sound dissonant to a politically correct Canadian ear: writing in 2002 of a certain big-box bookstore and its shockingly uninformed staff, he described contemporary writers the new Indians “hauling our pelts into the Hudson Bay Company or the new blacks working the new plantations, so the corporate folk can live in the corporate house.” hindsight, he says it was a colourful way expressing that writers, and artists in general, aren’t properly compensated in this country. “I’ve been doing that sort of naughty stuff a very long time.”
Also, he has already endured his first taste of the nasty side of campaigning. Somebody—from one of the other parties, he suspects—defaced one of his signs by putting an American flag on it, to let people know he was born and raised in California. It’s criticism he’s heard before: how Canadian is Tom King? “And of course because I’m Cherokee, my answer is always, ‘Well you know, when your ancestors came over here, my ancestors came down to the shores greet them.’ It’s one of those silly games politics that gets played.”
Politics aside, among his neighbours, King is well-known for committing acts of everyday heroism. Recently, the Bookshelf, a local bookstore, held a fundraiser for an adult eracy centre. King volunteered to be the keynote reader, as he often does. When he walked in that night, Dan Evans, a Bookshelf staff member, noticed that King had a large gauze patch taped to his neck. When he inquired about it, he learned that King had had open throat surgery only days earlier. Also, he had pneumonia—and his daughter Elizabeth, now 19, was in intensive care after experiencing severe complications during the birth of her son, Xavier, who was 10 weeks premature. said to him, ‘You know, you’re already a good guy. You can take some time off,’ ” Evans said. But King just cracked a joke and gave his reading, his voice rather hoarse.
“It’s like so many things,” King says in hindsight. “If you’re not dead, you do it.” M
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