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Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics

By Graeme Truelove

Review By Joseph Tilley

May 21, 2014

BC Studies no. 185 Spring 2015  | p. 223-25

I vividly remember when I first heard the name “Svend Robinson.” I was attending the wedding of a distant cousin I had never met before and have not seen since. At the reception, in Burnaby, the best man made a speech replete with crudely homophobic quips about the local Member of Parliament — and the audience responded with enthusiastic laughter. Over two decades later, such blatant homophobia is much less socially acceptable. This is partly thanks to the legacy of Svend Robinson, who made his name not only as Canada’s first openly gay MP but also as one of the most controversial and principled politicians British Columbia has ever sent to Ottawa.

Written with access to Robinson’s personal archives and informed by a wide range of interviews (for a nominal list, see 306), Graeme Truelove’s highly readable Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics, is the first biography of Robinson and will be of interest to scholars and lay readers alike. It is timely, too, given that cynicism about politics is at a record high level and almost any mention of politicians prompts an exasperated, “They’re all the same!” That is not something that could ever be said about Robinson, a politician who not only “talked the talk” but “walked the walk” and, as Truelove extensively details, often did so at great political and personal risk.

Born to a Danish mother and an American father, Robinson’s troubled early years saw his family moving to various places in Europe and the US before finally settling in Burnaby in 1966. His mother’s roots in Scandinavian social democracy naturally translated into supporting the NDP. Both mother and son canvassed for its campaigns. While others leaped onto Pierre Trudeau’s bandwagon, Robinson lauded Tommy Douglas as the real progressive leader worthy of support and adulation. First elected in 1979 at the age of 27, Robinson quickly began doing what any good MP of the Left should be doing: challenging existing orthodoxies, giving voice to marginalized people and issues, and articulating what can and should be done to make the world a better place. One of numerous things that will strike readers is just how many of the “radical” and “controversial” policies Robinson advocated over his twenty-five years in Parliament are now reality in Canada’s legal landscape. Truelove notes “there has yet to be an exhaustive study of that impact” (5) — work to be taken up by future political historians.

Readers will learn a great deal about Robinson, his motivations, his colleagues and friends, and gain multiple valuable insights into the internal workings of the political system during one of the most tumultuous eras in Canadian, British Columbian, and NDP history. Without passing overt judgment, Truelove also documents, in unsparing detail, the downright appalling behaviour of the mainstream media, including incidents that led to Robinson winning libel suits. The book is quite revealing — indeed, each of the twenty chapters contains surprises — and ranges widely from Robinson’s lifelong abuse by his father, to the horrific hate mail he regularly received, to his regrets about some of the decisions he made, such as in his failed 1995 bid for the NDP leadership. Robinson’s staunch commitment to integrity included rejecting his advisor Olivia Chow’s bizarre recommendation to manipulate the convention process by instructing some of his delegates to vote for rival Lorne Nystrom on the first ballot to ensure his own victory on the final ballot (192). When it became evident he would face Alexa McDonough, not Nystrom, in the last round and likely lose, he instead chose to concede early and support her as a gesture to unite the party. That decision resulted in angry criticism from many of his supporters; he now deems it a “mistake” (196). This is but a taste of the unexpected candour Robinson displays in this book.

Today’s NDP has turned its back on its roots and fully embraces the same neoliberalism and continentalism it used to rail against. In 2013, the commitment to democratic socialism enshrined in its constitution was replaced with a bland, poorly-written successor statement that, as Truelove puts it, renders the NDP a “hollow and superlative imitation of the Liberal Party” (304). In this context, it is almost hard to believe that there were politicians like Robinson in the not-so-distant past. After finishing Truelove’s book, many readers, regardless of personal politics, will undoubtedly have the same feeling I had: I miss Svend Robinson. Canadian politics is a much more monochrome place without him.

Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics
Graeme Truelove
Vancouver: New Star Books, 2013. 346 pp. $24.00 paper