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Review

Still Ranting: More Rants, Raves and Recollections

Rafe: A Memoir

By Rafe Mair

November 4, 2013

Review By Robert A. Campbell

WE LEARN A LOT ABOUT Rafe Mair in these two well-written, provocative books. By his own admission he has a large ego, thin skin, and short temper. These features have probably contributed to his volatile personal life (including three marriages), but professionally Mair is a home-grown success story. He began his career as a lawyer, was elected to the British Columbia Legislative Assembly in 1975, and served as a minister in the Social Credit government of Bill Bennett. For the last quarter century, though, he has been a radio talk-show host who regularly conducts interviews with the prominent and the powerful. 

I fit into neither of those categories, but I confess at the outset that I appeared on Mr. Mair’s radio show in the early 1990s. He was intrigued by my history of government regulation of liquor in British Columbia. I found him quick and charming in a quirky way. It probably helped that we shared similar attitudes towards liquor regulation and that I had acknowledged his regulatory contributions in my book.1 If I remember correctly, as I walked out of the studio in walked Glen Clark, then still a cabinet minister in Mike Harcourt’s New Democratic government and now a rising star in the Jim Pattison business empire. 

Still Ranting is a collection of nearly fifty essays that range from two to eight pages, housed under five broad categories: On Politics; On the World in General; Past, Present, and Future; On Fishing and Other Sports; and On Travel. The book is an eclectic collection, with Rafe Mair’s thoughts on everything from fly fishing to Bill Bennett, who Mair believes to be second only to W.A.C. Bennett (Bill’s father) as the “best premier British Columbia ever had” (80). Mair obviously likes to provoke his audience, and readers of this journal will likely find something to infuriate them. He pulled my chain with his essay on the need for British Columbia to separate because we are so hard done by by central Canada. To describe Rafe Mair as a provincial rights advocate would be more than an understatement. Yet his unrelenting attacks on the federal government, especially the centralized authority in the Prime Minister’s Office, are a bit facile. He tends to ignore what a decentralized federation Canada is and how much constitutional authority lies within the jurisdiction of the provinces. 

While Still Ranting is a fun read, Rafe: A Memoir, is a better book because it offers more context. As well, many issues raised in the first book are repeated, sometimes word for word, in the second. Mair’s hostility to the “establishment” is probably the closest he comes to an overarching theme in the memoirs. His use of the word is very broad, but he comes near to defining it as “business leaders, labour leaders, politicians, artsy-fartsy types [especially CBC interviewers and interviewees] and the media themselves” (239). Mair poses as the anti-establishment crusader who takes pride in poking the privileged defenders of the status quo. 

Yet the anti-establishment garb does not entirely fit when one considers Mair’s own credentials. Born on the west side of Vancouver on New Year’s Eve 1931, he attended St. George’s private school, and his 1956 UBC law school class included “far too many distinguished members than I could name in the space allotted” (19). In part, Mair grounds his support of affirmative action in the awareness of advantages that his privileged background has given him. When CKNW fired Mair in 2003 he phoned Jim Pattison and soon had another job at Pattison’s 600 AM, where he continues to command the airwaves. Mair has a keen sense of radio journalism as entertainment, and kicking authority figures has kept his show high in the ratings. Quite correctly, Mair sees himself as the heir to Jack Webster, and he claims that Webster taught him “that you didn’t have to know a hell of a lot about your subject if you were an entertainer” (225). 

Still, Mair does more than inflame and entertain. He has never been too shy to use his airtime as a bully pulpit. Some may remember his unrelenting attacks on the Charlottetown Accord, a 1992 proposal for constitutional change, which was defeated in a national vote. Perhaps thanks to Rafe Mair British Columbians were the most opposed to the deal. Much of his opposition to the accord was due to the fact that it recognized Quebec as a “distinct society.” Had the accord passed, however, it would have granted more power to all of the provinces, not just to Quebec. 

An avid environmentalist and fly fisher, Rafe Mair has been extremely critical of the fish farm industry and its threat to indigenous salmon runs. He considers Paul Watson, “the Sea Shepherd Society’s whale protector” as “one of my heroes” (87). Diagnosed with clinical depression, Mair has also worked hard to undermine the stigma attached to mental illness. 

Perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek, in his memoirs Mair describes himself as a “new socialist.” Those beliefs are fleshed out better in the first essay of Still Ranting (“Drifting Left”). While firmly on the side of private enterprise, Mair defends the regulatory and redistributive role of government: “Corporations don’t give a damn about the environment except to the extent that governments force them to care” (5). He argues that government regulations, not corporate consideration, protect workers’ safety. As he points out in his memoirs, Mair is a now an active Christian. Yet he is no social conservative: “as I see it, no matter what your sexual preference, if you love God and your neighbour as yourself you can call yourself a Christian” (178). 

Rafe Mair is a complex man of conviction, and one is left with a begrudging respect for him. One might quibble with descriptions but, rather than a new socialist, I think he is an old-time Red Tory. Since the Canadian Alliance takeover of the Progressive Conservative Party, however, Red Tories have become an endangered species. Rafe Mair may have more in common with the fish and whales than he realizes. 

[1] Robert A. Campbell, Demon Rum or Easy Money: Government Control of Liquor in British Columbia from Prohibition to Privatization (Ottawa: Carleton University Press and McGill- Queens University Press, 1991), 159-64.