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Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner

By Paul Litt

Unbreakable the Ujjal Dosanjh Story

By Douglas P. Welbanks

Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada

By Elizabeth May

Review By Patricia E. Roy

October 24, 2014

BC Studies no. 186 Summer 2015  | p. 187-89

All four volumes reviewed here have a link with British Columbia, although for two it is very tenuous. They vary in genre, in focus, and in the political persuasions of their subjects or authors. Two are biographies; two can loosely be described as memoirs. The subjects of the biographies, John Turner and Ujjal Dosanjh, both had a brief time in a top office: Turner as Liberal prime minister in 1984 and Dosanjh as NDP premier of British Columbia (2000-2001). Rafe Mair’s memoir includes a few anecdotes about his time as a Social Credit cabinet minister between 1975 and 1981, while Elizabeth May, the federal leader of the Green Party and a serving Member of Parliament, has produced a political manifesto in the guise of an autobiography. How much do these books tell us about BC politics? The answer ranges from almost nothing to a few tantalizing glimpses.

Elusive Destiny, the well-chosen title of Paul Litt’s biography of John Turner, is the only scholarly work among the four. Well-written and based on the extensive Turner papers and interviews with Turner himself, his wife, and a number of his contemporaries, it is a well-balanced study. Alas, it says little about British Columbia. That is not Litt’s fault. Turner has spent little time in British Columbia. As a small child he briefly lived with his widowed mother and her parents in Rossland before she became an economist in Ottawa. Her second marriage to Frank Mackenzie Ross, a Vancouver industrialist and later lieutenant-governor, brought Turner to Vancouver where he spent four years at the University of British Columbia, an experience that culminated in a Rhodes Scholarship, but when he completed his legal studies he chose to practise law in Montreal. Apart from visits to his mother and trips for political purposes or as part of his responsibilities as a federal cabinet minister, Turner had limited contact with the province. The exceptions were shepherding the Columbia River treaty through the House of Commons and persuading W.A.C. Bennett to accept the Official Languages Act in return for a promise (not honoured) to appoint a British Columbian to the next vacancy in the Supreme Court.  In 1984, as the newly-elected leader of the federal Liberals and prime minister, he needed a parliamentary seat; he chose to run in Vancouver-Quadra. Litt hints that Turner chose Vancouver rather than Montreal or Toronto, where he had previously served as a Member, in the hope of rebuilding the Liberals as a national party. Turner won the seat but the Conservatives won the election. For British Columbia, Turner remained elusive.

In contrast to Litt, whose thoroughly documented biography deals both with Turner’s accomplishments and weaknesses, Douglas P. Welbanks wrote Unbreakable: The Ujjal Dosanjh Story to tell the story of his long-time friends, Ujjal Dosanjh and his wife, Raminder Sandhu. Much of the information comes from the press, but Welbanks makes no attempt to hide his support for the NDP and his disdain for Social Credit even when this is not directly germane to Dosanjh. After briefly recounting their lives in India, Welbanks traces the experiences of the Dosanjhs in Vancouver as students; as professionals, he in law and she in teaching English as a Second Language; and in working for human rights. As an NDP candidate in the 1979 provincial election, Dosanjh experienced racism when “bigots suggested that as an immigrant he was not a suitable candidate” (41). Unfortunately for Dosanjh, his opposition to violence in India and the proposed creation of an independent Sikh state led Sikh extremists to attempt to assassinate him, to try to deny him the nomination in Vancouver-Kensington, and to fire-bomb his constituency office.

Welbanks suggests that a decade later the majority of voters saw Dosanjh “not as an ‘ethnic’ candidate but as a social democrat who transcended ethnicity” (62). Dosanjh was elected to the legislature in 1989 and re-elected in 1991 when the NDP formed the government. Four years later, he joined the cabinet and soon became attorney-general, a position he continued to hold after Glen Clark succeeded Harcourt. When Clark resigned in 1999, Dosanjh ran for the party leadership. Despite a bitter “Anyone But Dosanjh” campaign, with the support of over half of the cabinet and other prominent NDP members, he won and became premier in February 2000. Divisions within the NDP and a legacy of scandals around some of his predecessors gave Dosanjh a short tenure as premier. In the May 2001 the NDP lost all but two seats and neither belonged to Dosanjh.

Dosanjh’s absence from politics was short. Demonstrating the fluidity of party lines, in 2004 Prime Minister Paul Martin invited him to run in the federal election as a Liberal. Welbanks suggests that “the provincial NDP was a liberal party, whereas the B.C. Liberals were a conservative-social credit party [so]….a jump from the B.C. NDP affiliation to the federal Liberal party was not much of a leap of faith or ideology” (132). Dosanjh easily won and was named minister of health. But it was a minority government, and after the 2006 election, he became opposition critic for national defence. After his defeat in the 2011 election, he announced plans to write his autobiography. Welbanks’ biography whets the appetite for this “unbreakable” man’s own story.

As part of a general comment on politics, Welbanks quotes Hubert Beyer of the Nanaimo Daily News that Rafe Mair became “a legend in his own mind and is convinced that he single-handedly saved the nation at least twice as a result of his opposition to the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords” (101). Mair’s own memoir, a slim volume, focuses on his twenty-five year career in Vancouver’s fiercely competitive radio talk show industry after he retired from Bill Bennett’s Social Credit cabinet. In a few pages, Mair recounts his opposition to Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord. He argues that had Prime Minister Brian Mulroney honoured a promise to appear on his show to defend the Accord, the time allotted to speakers for both sides of the issue would have been exactly even. He gives much credit for BC’s vote against the Accord to the retired teachers, Bud and Monica Smith, and their friends who distributed pamphlets and copies of Mair’s editorials to the public. Mair devotes more space to his efforts to defend the environment including opposition to the Ross Dam on the Skagit River, the Kemano II project, and fish farms. His environmental interests led him to move his political affiliation from the “centre to centre left” and he voted for the NDP in 2009 (7) despite assessing former NDP premiers Mike Harcourt as “a helluva good guy – just a lousy premier” (127) and Glen Clark as a “bright guy” with “lousy judgment” (128).

Although Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party, notes that she lives “on the edge of the Salish Sea” in Sidney by the Sea and is the member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands, her memoir says virtually nothing about British Columbia. She does not explain, for example, why she chose to move to British Columbia from her former bases in Nova Scotia and Ottawa. To be fair, her well-written and researched biography is titled, Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada. The first section is rich in details about environmental issues and deals with her work in Ottawa mainly as a political advisor to Tom McMillan, the environment minister in the Mulroney cabinet, and as executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada. The main thrust of the book, however, is a Green Party election manifesto. Not only does she outline ideas for reforming the economy and dealing with climate change, she attacks Prime Minister Stephen Harper for, among other things, renouncing the Kyoto targets, breaking the fixed election date, cutting back on government scientific research, silencing scientists, ignoring warnings on global warming, promoting greater production from the oil sands, “killing” the long form census, “excessive partisanship,” and for concentrating power in the Prime Minister’s Office. On a more optimistic note she concludes: “we do not lack solutions” but must choose “survival over short-term profits,” and we have the political will to do so (204).

In their varied styles and substance, collectively, these books reinforce the traditional idea that British Columbia pays slightly more attention to Ottawa than the reverse. The biography of Turner and the memoir of May say almost nothing about the province they chose to represent in Parliament. Dosanjh’s biography only briefly refers to his federal career. And while Mair gained some fame (or infamy) for opposing Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord, it is only a small part of his account of his experiences as a talk show host. Neither individually nor collectively are these books major contributions to BC’s political history. Nevertheless, the biography of Turner and the manifesto by May are worth reading for their national significance while the biography of Dosanjh and the recollections of Mair add some texture to the complicated story of BC politics.

Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner
Paul Litt
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. 536 pp. $39.95 cloth

Unbreakable: The Ujjal Dosanjh Story
Douglas P. Welbanks
Vancouver: Chateau Lane Publishing, 2014. 175 pp. $19.95 paper

Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada
Elizabeth May
Vancouver: Greystone, 2014. 214 pp. $29.95 cloth

Radio Daze: 25 Years of Winning Awards and Getting Fired in Canadian Radio
Rafe Mair
Victoria: Promontory Press, 2013. 187 pp. $14.99 paper