Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics ( Nww Star Books, 2013) is both a tribute to a true Canadian hero and a reminder that once, not so long ago, an individual could make a difference in politics.
Author Graeme Truelove never once calls Svend a hero but it’s the conclusion I draw from this readable, informative and often moving biography.
A Life in Politics reminded me of several of the battles we waged together as allies, but I still learned a lot I didn’t know. As Truelove says “His resume as a Member of Parliament provides a tour of some of the greatest moments in Canadian political history.”
As an activist outside of Parliament, I always knew that Svend would be an ally. Especially on the tough issues, like abortion and Palestine, we could count on him.
As a collaborator in the New Politics Initiative, which tried to get the NDP to initiate a new party on the Left, he and Libby Davies helped us get the profile we needed, but he was often hard to deal with. He doesn’t change his mind easily.
As a friend, he was always warm and caring.
All of these sides I’ve known of Svend and more are developed in this illuminating and affectionate biography.
**Early days and bold tactics with the NDP **
The stories of Svend’s early days where he looked like “an overgrown teenager,” but made his mark as the NDP critic for the Solicitor General, are delightful. “Clearly, the NDP, in young and slight Svend Robinson from Burnaby, have a rookie who needs hardly any seasoning,” wrote Douglas Fisher in the Vancouver Sun. “He commands the floor when he is on his feet.”
His bold tactics were evident from the beginning too. For example, he invited Galindo Madrid — a Chilean refugee who was about to be deported — to live in his house offering him “sanctuary.” Even though there was no legal basis for this, he bet that the RCMP would hesitate before barging in to the home of a Member of Parliament to remove a refugee.
It was front page news that an MP was taking the law into his own hands. Direct action before we were using the phrase “direct action.” The resultant media attention forced the Conservative Immigration Minister Ron Atkey to accept the refugee. “The Galindo Madrid formula — injustice, dramatic action, media attention, result – had a profound impact on Robinson,” writes Truelove.
Advocacy, personal stories and politics intertwined
Svend’s advocacy for gay rights and his own struggle with whether or not to come out publicly is well described throughout the book.
Despite keeping his sexual orientation private during the homophobic 1960s and 1970s, Svend was one of the first in Parliament to fight for the inclusion of sexual orientation in the draft Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Like many courageous fighters, Svend sometimes took his own path. There are several stories about how he broke with the caucus on an issue that was important to him.
I was not as aware of Svend’s battle for a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that would not and could not be submitted to majority opinion. He wanted to make sure that nothing like the Japanese Internment or the War Measures Act could ever be implemented again. Despite his efforts, the Charter fell short of that goal, but he never stopped fighting for it.
There are also some great stories about his conflict with other caucus members and with both Ed Broadbent and Alexa McDonough as leaders. He spoke out on what he believed even if it made the caucus and sometimes the leader angry.
His loyalty was always to the issue first before caucus solidarity.
When he spoke out on decriminalizing prostitution in the 1970s, the caucus was furious and so was Broadbent. It was party policy, but not very politically popular. He was demoted from Justice critic, but he held his ground.
Svend Robinson: A great politician, a tribune to the people
The book is stronger on the political stories than on the personal ones as one would expect in something subtitled A Life in Politics. Based on interviews with Svend, his friends, his allies and even a few of his opponents as well as detailed research, the book paints a vibrant, colourful picture of one of the greatest politicians of our time.
It is a history of the times as well as of the person.
Svend was involved in almost important every issue, especially on justice issues and foreign affairs, which were his portfolio. He battled inside the House on the polarizing issues of the late 20th century: abortion, gay rights, Indigenous rights, immigration, war and Palestine.
He was sometimes the only voice speaking out in the House, like when he heckled President Ronald Reagan during his speech to Parliament, shouting “Stop Star Wars Now!” Very unparliamentary.
More than any other person in Canada, Svend used his role in Parliament as a tribune of the people. He believed that it was his job to speak for those without a voice and to bring the issues people were fighting for onto the floor of Parliament.
More than once he put himself in harm’s way, for example getting arrested on the Clayoquot Sound blockade. While some accused him of grandstanding, he sought attention to the causes he was fighting for and he did it brilliantly.
All in all, A Life in Politics takes us from Svend’s first political steps in the early 1970s to his sad fall from grace in 2004. It is informative, interesting and sometimes very moving. It made me laugh and it made my cry. A terrific biography of an amazing man.
This review originally appeared on rabble.ca. Used with permission. Judy Rebick was the founding publisher of rabble.ca and has known Svend Robinson for many decades. Rebick recalls that she can’t remember the first time they met, but that Robinson was always one of the MP’s who she and her community looked to for support in the House of Commons. Rebick and Robinson were also allies on the left of the NDP especially during the 1980s. Rebick supported his bid for leadership and both were in the leadership of the New Politics Initiative in 2002. Rebick writes this review from the perspective of the personal and the political of her friend and ally Svend Robinson.