4 min

To Svend or not to Svend

A gift of humility could be just what the doctor ordered

This began as a very different column. It was to be a tale of a queer West End political junkie struggling to find a way not to vote for a long-time hero.

Should I vote for Svend Robinson, or-as suggested in a December issue of Maclean’s magazine-“Svend him packing”?

A political love affair gone bad was my intended theme. A fierce human rights crusader who had once come within an ace of becoming the NDP national leader had lost his way, failing to hold the support of even those who had once afforded him hero status.

I would argue that the dilemma is widely shared. Thousands of Vancouver Centre residents-especially socially progressive queer ones-are suffering the same plight: how to respond to Svend.

Like many others, I’ve been personally touched by Robinson’s work. As his career unfolded over the past couple of decades, I’ve considered it an honour to do my small bit as a volunteer. I even had the opportunity of working at his Burnaby constituency office for a short time in 1990.

I’ve gushed about Robinson since he publicly outed himself years ago, disclosing a personal truth denied at the time by almost all other career-minded queers. An important human rights boundary shifted and the world seemed a different place.

Others also deserve credit for the historic breakthroughs experienced during Robinson’s era, but he was among those putting career and personal life on the line and that made a big impression.

But this column was to be about a political relationship soured by an outrageous lapse of judgment-the ring thing-and reports of an ego exploding out of control.

When Robinson was acclaimed the NDP candidate in Vancouver Centre late last year, awkward questions came to mind. Was the time right to consider a comeback? Shouldn’t he bide his time for another term? What about Hedy Fry, Vancouver’s incumbent Liberal MP? She too has worked hard for the cause, winning queer support for her loyalty and hard work.

In the first weeks of the election campaign, I continued to struggle. Should I vote for Svend? I declined an invitation to help with the campaign, leaning on the excuse that it would conflict with my periodic contributions to Xtra West. During the Christmas break, I walked briskly past his campaign office. The truth was, I was ambivalent about Robinson’s candidacy.

In part, I was worn down by an ocean of doubt. At home, at the gym, at coffee shops, with friends over dinner, in the papers and on TV; everywhere the question: “What do you think about Svend running?” Most often, the discussion was decidedly tilted, away from Robinson’s favour.

Then came the December issue of Maclean’s magazine, sporting a front page photo of Robinson and a vindictive editorial. A balanced four-page feature on his candidacy was also featured in the same issue, proving again that, even out of office, the former MP attracts extensive national attention.

But the magazine’s theme was decidedly anti-Robinson. “Let’s Svend him packing, ” hissed the page four column.

It got me thinking. Many of the reasons offered to justify getting rid of Robinson reminded me instead of why I’ve supported him.

During his lengthy period of public service, Robinson didn’t simply talk the talk, like so many other politicians. He walked the walk, prepared to take hits from all sides including heavyweights within his own party.

An example: In 1993, when he was arrested for being arm-in-arm with protesters at Clayoquot Sound in the fight to stop clear-cutting, he was up against the logging corporations, a significant pro-logging NDP voting bloc and the provincial NDP government.

I happened to be working at the BC legislature at the time and recall hearing NDP MLAs openly mock Robinson, shouting the name bestowed upon him by grateful native elders, White Swan, with dripping, sarcastic disdain. Strategies were developed to minimize his impact.

Some of Robinson’s federal NDP colleagues have also complained about him, branding him an opportunist, working against the interests of the team. But I wonder how much of that is petty jealousy. While Robinson earns headlines articulating a clear, progressive position, others in the party dither, anxious to appear progressive but fearful of straying from the centre. Robinson’s brash ways get things done.

Mostly, Robinson is a burr under the saddle of Conservatives eager to trample anything in the way of traditional family values or increased corporate profits. How else to explain Maclean’s front-page interest in a politician who has never had the leverage of a cabinet position.

Robinson has been a factor in many of the human rights and environmental struggles of our time. He has been on our side time and again in important battles for queer rights including his pivotal role in adding protection for queers under hate crime legislation.

Using his fame and good fortune, Robinson literally travelled the world, defending queers in places where queer interests aren’t yet generally even on the table.

Yes, there is that ego. I have felt his arrogance firsthand. But I study other local and national politicians on the nightly news and find similar behaviour. Isn’t grandiosity common among many politicians? Aren’t most pioneering types considered uncommon, a special breed. Why single out Robinson? Isn’t it a matter of how the energy is directed? Few can boast of Robinson’s impressive record of achievement.

But there’s no getting around the ring. That stunning failure in judgment will serve as a reminder of Robinson’s limitations and vulnerability. He will continue to pay for that mistake. That’s a good thing, a gift of humility.

What about Fry? I doubt lawmakers or magazine editors will spend much time strategizing how to support or oppose her causes. Enough said.

I’m voting for Robinson. Even damaged through his own misdeed, Robinson has the capacity to shine the light where it’s most needed. We need a loud, progressive federal voice, particularly if more Conservative MPs make their way to Ottawa.