Voices in the Desert

An Interview with Bill Blaikie

by Andre Forget

“The most important battles of my career were, unfortunately, the ones which were lost. We tend to think of important battles as victories….most of my victories were in the early part of my career.”

This was not quite how I had expected my interview with Bill Blaikie, one of the foremost parliamentarians of his generation, to start. Yes, many of the causes Blaikie championed – nuclear disarmament, anti-globalization, justice issues for aboriginals – have been marginalized or ignored by mainstream politics, but in the wake of the massive growth of the NDP both nationally and in Manitoba (where he served as an MLA from 2009-2011, after leaving federal politics) over the last ten years, it seems as though Blaikie’s withdrawal from active politics comes at a time when his party is stronger than it has been in years.

Over the course of our interview, however, Blaikie returned again and again to his frustration with the sea change that has taken place in international and Canadian politics over the course of his career. He also consistently fell into theological language in order to explain these changes. “In the eighties, free market fundamentalism took over….the language people used for global liberal trade was salvation language.” According to Blaikie, it is this shift which is still driving the Canadian political scene. “Earlier, in the beginning, we used to talk about a mixed economy. Now I think about how things were then and they don’t seem so bad. I think about that time nostalgically.” When I asked him about his thoughts on the recent Conservative victory, he argued that it would not bring big changes because “the changes have already been made. They were made by the liberals in the ’90’s. After Turner the Liberals didn’t have a critical thought about free trade – they’d sign any free trade agreement you put in front of them.”

In a political atmosphere where liberal and left-of-centre voices paint Harper’s conservatives as the ominous right-wing cloud blowing in over the progressive blue skies of the Liberal hegemony of the 1990’s, this is a keen observation. But given the fact that the rightward swing of the Mulroney/Reagan era has altered the Canadian political consciousness to such an extent that even the supposed champions of the liberal cause have adopted it as the mother tongue, what possible success can protest have? Again, Blaikie fell into theological language in response. “It isn’t so much about success as it is about faithfulness. We need to keep the alternative view alive so that one day in the right context it can flourish again. The role of the NDP has been to be a prophetic voice willing to entertain the notion that Canada is not always in the right.”

For Blaikie, this is partly played out through a militant commitment to keeping the record straight. When asked about globalization he was quick to point out that “in the early eighties, it was the Churches and NGO’s talking about globalism, about justice, about sustainability, about environmentalism. Globalism was originally a thing the progressives were pushing, but it was a different kind of globalism…somewhere that language got co-opted.”

This was never more true than when Blaikie was speaking of religion’s role in the NDP. When asked about the sometimes troubled relationship between leftist politics and the church Blaikie was again quick to draw attention to the fact that “the Left in Canada has always been a collection of people who come to their politics from different directions…many leftist Canadians are so because of religious reasons.” He also pointed out that this has been especially true within the party recently. He explained that this was “partly because of the association of religion with right wing politics. That isn’t the only possible connection between religion and politics.”

And yet again, while Blaikie has been important in bringing more attention to the religious activity within the NDP, there is a sense in which that is just another part of being – to use his chosen metaphor – a prophetic voice: to speak religious language to those who reject religion, to speak the language of progressive politics to the entrenched conservatives, to be a voice in the desert.

Andre Forget is a member of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He works in the admissions department at Canadian Mennonite University and is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.

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