(A Review) Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics

There is no end to injustice. Though most might be hard pressed to provide their names, throughout Canadian history various champions of rights and freedoms have shifted the trajectory of the status quo. One such figure more likely to be remembered by anyone following Canadian politics from the late seventies into the first decade of the twenty-first century is Svend Robinson.

Love him or loathe him, as Graeme Truelove points out in his newly released biography Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics, the NDP Member of Parliament for Burnaby, BC left his mark on Canadian history in remarkable and indelible ways.

Though they never stopped running the newsworthy stories he generated, the media often wrote Robinson off as an egotistical, attention-seeking, maverick. Some members of his party didn’t see it all that differently either. As an individual who took a stance when others backed down or spouted the party line, Robinson drew fire from numerous corners for not only his natural gifts but also his principles. That he was the first openly gay Member of Parliament in an era that still tolerated anti-homosexual slurs even in the House of Commons made him a target for vicious attacks.

Ignoring (and sometimes flouting) the naysayers, Robinson took on one injustice after another, answering each with his passion, commitment and ability to get results. Until he burned out in scandal, he never stopped. Like a never-ending game of Whac-A-Mole, worthy causes presented themselves relentlessly, and Robinson was there to take them on.

The kind of man who read his hate mail, Robinson also answered it. “Thank you for your missive of hatred and prejudice. I do hope you will see the light one day…write me when you do.” One anonymous, regular hater eventually did leave a message of apology. Heartened, Robinson imagined that unbeknownst to him others may have changed their views as well.

Truelove’s synopsis of the man is both captivating and comprehensive. In engaging prose that makes it difficult to stop turning the pages, he masterfully and expansively outlines the arc of one man’s life. With intelligence and sensitivity he probes Robinson’s troubled childhood, his 25-year career in Canadian politics including the inexplicable diamond theft which ended it, to his present day role at Global Fund in Geneva.

Interwoven with the complexity of the Canadian parliamentary system, the social problems and injustices of the day, questions of constitutional law and the business of government, Truelove reveals Robinson’s multifaceted and charismatic character. An individual of humble origins and relentless persistence who authored some of the constitutional rights Canadians now enjoy and protected others which might all too easily have been lost.

Readers who only vaguely understand how their Parliament and Canadian politics work will learn much through Truelove’s work. They’ll glimpse the strategizing and infighting among party members, their leadership, the constant battle between opposition and government, as well as committee work that gets the nation’s business done. The role of the media—that unelected and often biased arbiter of what the public does or doesn’t learn—comes under some scrutiny, too.

A thoughtful examiner, Truelove probes and reveals Robinson’s possible motives, his friends, his enemies, his triumphs and mistakes. Always, Truelove presents considered investigation of nuanced possibilities without leaping to easy conclusions or trite answers. Instead he allows his readers the pleasure of judging (or not) for themselves.  In addition, Truelove writes with enormous poise and avoids any number of potential missteps that earmark many a first-time author—which is what he is.  Readers can only hope that he will continue to delve into other great stories and deliver more of the same.

***

Disclaimer: I had the rare pleasure of reading Graeme Truelove’s writing when he was 14 and 18 years old. I was his Humanities 9 and English 12 teacher at Seaquam Secondary School in Delta, B.C. When approaching a grading marathon in those days, I always put his paper (along with a few select others) at the bottom of the heap. That way I could be assured of  “something good” after a long haul.

In the interval since his high school graduation we exchanged occasional email, but have not met in person.  In this age of ubiquitous “liking” and “friending” Graeme is not someone I follow, nor would I count him among my friends. He is someone I once knew as a student. However, in some instances such “knowledge” might disqualify a reviewer from accepting a book—though the same guidelines do not necessarily apply to jurors of major national prizes which carry substantial monetary reward. It’s a dicey and sometimes intensely debated bit, which is why I am making my relationship to the author clear.

I was not paid to provide the review, and did so with some trepidation. I have reviewed numerous first-time authors in national papers before and naturally worried about problematic facets I might encounter in the work. A conscientious reviewer is always aware that any criticism is hurtful; however, it is part of the territory and sometimes necessary. Thankfully, in this case there was nothing in the writing to criticize. The possible errors and/or omissions of fact as noted in historical records are beyond my scope as a reviewer.

Read more about Graeme Truelove here: http://www.graemetruelove.com/

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