Bill Blaikie, Parliamentarian of the Year

Bill Blaikie is such a huge man that it's strange to think of him as a microcosm of anything. Yet after nearly three decades in politics, this single MP embodies the perennial frustrations, and occasional small triumphs, of the NDP in particular, and old-school parliamentarians in general. He's held his Winnipeg riding since 1979, though he has never tasted real power in all those years, as his party has had to settle for influencing policy instead of forming governments. He's emerged as a House icon, but as an example of what PARLIAMENT might be, while more unruly MPs define what it more often is. "Parliament has been ugly before," Blaikie says, "but people have never been so consistently rude to each other as they are now."

Still, the winner of the second annual Maclean's Parliamentarian of the Year award could never be written off as the sort who merely scolds from the sidelines. He's been in the thick of things, playing a role in shaping laws as historic as the Canada Health Act and the Clarity Act. Now deputy speaker of the House, he brings unquestioned credibility to the job of keeping order and setting a civil tone. But even during the many years when he was a front-bench NDP critic, he had the rare ability to quiet the House when he rose to his imposing six-foot-six height to ask a question in his rumbling bass-baritone. "He caused MPs to listen," says veteran Liberal MP Derek Lee. "He had a way of according respect while eliciting an answer."

By voting him the best among them, his peers recognized both what he's done and what he reminds them they should be doing. And he's not just a favourite of old-timers. "When he has something to say, it's important to listen," says rookie B.C. MP Penny Priddy. "He has no need to hear his own voice all the time." Roughly half of the MPs in the House, 151 out of 308, participated in the survey conducted for Maclean's by Ipsos-Reid. (They voted in six categories overall, including best orator, most knowledgeable, and best at representing constituents.) In picking Blaikie as Parliamentarian of the Year, they acknowledged an era ending: he has announced he will not run in the next election, and has accepted a position teaching politics and theology at the University of Winnipeg.

It's hard to imagine, however , that he will ever truly leave the political game behind. Blaikie grew up where he still lives, in Transcona, a railway town when he was a boy, now absorbed into Winnipeg. He remembers watching John F. Kennedy debate Richard Nixon on TV in 1960. "There probably weren't that many nine-year-olds watching," he says. "I was something of a political geek." Further evidence: when he was just 12, Blaikie made a habit of attending town council meetings. "I liked to watch the arguing," he says. "I'm still doing that - no growth there at all."

The Blaikie household wasn't an obvious incubator for a future left-winger. His father, a machinist who rose to become a manager for Canadian National, wasn't active in politics. His mother, though, was a Tory. Bill joined the Young Progressive Conservatives in high school. Still, he showed signs of the leftward tilt that was to come, arguing against the Vietnam War, for instance, with his Tory elders. The local NDP member in the provincial legislature took note, telling him, "Billy, it's only a matter of time. You'll come around.'"

It happened while he was attending the UNIVERSITY OF WINNIPEG. At first, he planned to take political science and aim for a law degree. But early on, another instinct took hold. "I decided to be more of a critic, if you like, as opposed to somebody who is uncritical of the prevailing paradigm and does well within it." He gravitated to philosophy and religious studies. In 1971, as he watched TV coverage of the NDP leadership convention won by David LEWIS, he thought, "These guys are saying what I believe." He soon joined the party. In 1973, he graduated from U of W and married Brenda, a schoolteacher, that same year. They went on to have four children, Rebecca, Daniel, Jessica and Tessa. Two are already well known in NDP circles, Rebecca as the party's top organizer in Montreal, and Daniel, who works as an aide in Manitoba's NDP government.

Along with Blaikie's political awakening came spiritual growth that built on his church-going upbringing in Transcona. After graduation, he decided to study theology at the University of Toronto's Emmanuel College. In three years there he explored two powerful currents linking Christian teaching and left-wing politics - the Protestant SOCIAL GOSPEL tradition so prevalent in his native Winnipeg, and liberation theology, the radical Catholic doctrine. "I came out of Emmanuel having found the prophetic tradition within the Bible," he says, "a tradition of challenging the ruling elite."

He quickly grabbed a chance to put those convictions to work. Taking on the leadership of missions in Winnipeg's hardscrabble North End, he found himself working where J. S. WOODSWORTH, the pioneer Prairie social democrat, led his legendary All People's Mission before the First World War. Blaikie soaked up that heritage. Ordained in the United Church in 1978, he tried to spread the word to more prosperous parts of Winnipeg. "I went out to the churches around the city and said, 'This is what's happening within your own city. If you want to help us, you have to change the political circumstances within which we work.' "

He spent just two years serving in the North End before answering the call of electoral politics. His upset victory over a Tory incumbent sent the young minister to Ottawa. His first few years there would be his most uplifting. The brief Joe CLARK Tory minority government of 1979 was followed by Pierre TRUDEAU's return to power in 1980. The Liberal recovery temporarily held off the conservative tide that was sweeping the English-speaking world, as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher put their stamp on the era. In Canada, though, it wasn't a bad time to be a rookie left-wing MP. In Ottawa, activist government was still in, as Trudeau created his CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS, imposed the NATIONAL ENERGY PROGRAM, and strengthened medicare.

It was to be the last period when Blaikie felt like his brand of activist politics was on the march: "You didn't feel like you were living in a context in which things that had been accomplished were being undone." As NDP health critic, he spent three years pushing for new rules that would largely stop doctors from charging their patients for care covered by health insurance. "We won the big battle," he says, "creating a system in which provinces would be penalized if they allowed extra billing and user fees for medically necessary services." Indeed, the Liberal health minister of the time, Monique Bégin, credits Blaikie in her memoirs for his part in shaping the now-sacrosanct Canada Health Act of 1984. Later that year, Brian MULRONEY's Conservatives swept to power, and chances for Blaikie to make a mark grew rarer. To Blaikie, the free trade debate in 1988 altered the terms of debate. The old skirmishing among NDP ideas, Liberalism's various strains, and shades of Progressive Conservatism, was replaced by a dominant orthodoxy of free trade, free markets, and government downsizing.

Suddenly, the NDP seemed to many to be caught in a time warp. "Between 1984 and 1988, it began to feel like we were fighting this sort of rearguard action," Blaikie says. "Instead of going from redistribution of income to redistribution of power, instead of focusing on the environment and Aboriginal people, we were forced to fight for things that were already there. This really hurt us. We starting to be effectively portrayed as people who were captive to the past."

By the 1990s, much of the energy on the left had been siphoned away from the NDP into the anti-globalization and environmental movements. The kids proudly breathing in tear gas at the demos in Seattle and a dozen other cities weren't interested in church basement meetings and knocking on doors in all weather. Blaikie remembers talking to a young protester at the Quebec City free trade summit in 2001. He gestured up to the windows of the looming Château Frontenac hotel, and said the political and business leaders meeting behind them weren't worried by noise in the streets. "As long as you're not willing to do that unexciting, plodding work of electoral politics," Blaikie's lecture goes, "the global, corporate guys have you right where they want you."

But Blaikie's own bid to lead a revitalization of the partisan political hopes of the Canadian left would soon be thwarted. The member from Elmwood-Transcona was a leading contender in the NDP's 2003 leadership race, commanding the support of most of the party's MPs. That backing, however, turned out to be almost a liability. After dismally disappointing election results under Audrey MCLAUGHLIN and then Alexa MCDONOUGH through the nineties, the party demanded dramatic change. Toronto municipal politician Jack LAYTON triumphed. "It was almost," Blaikie reflects, "like we needed somebody who was more a politician than a parliamentarian."

In a sense, Blaikie took rejection from the party as a signal to focus on Parliament itself. Layton made him the NDP's House leader, a job that requires close work with the other parties to manage parliamentary business. After last year's Conservative election victory, Blaikie was named deputy speaker, a job that requires him to pull back from most partisan debate. No longer the presence in the cut-and-thrush that he had been for more than a quarter-century, Blaikie's announcement last spring that he wouldn't run again in the next election was not a big surprise.

His imminent retirement, plus the fact that some Conservative and Liberal MPs would rather vote for an NDPer than each other, might have helped Blaikie in our survey. The next highest scorers, according to the Ipsos-Reid points system: NDP MP Peter Stoffer, who is also a repeat winner as most congenial parliamentarian; Prime Minister Stephen HARPER, who last year tied for most knowledgeable MP; Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney; Liberal Deputy Leader Michael Ignatieff, who also topped the best orator category; and Liberal Paul Szabo, who repeats as hardest-working MP.

At just 56, Blaikie is far from an old man. He has accepted an appointment to teach both politics and theology at the University of Winnipeg. His daughter Rebecca says working on the question of how left-wing politics and faith can still connect is important. "We have to be able to talk in faith terms to those for whom that is important," she says, "or else the right will continue to appropriate all of that. They are sort of taking over the world with it."

No matter how much Blaikie thrives as a professor, there is bound to be a lingering what-if sense around him. Wilson Parasiuk, an early mentor and former Manitoba NDP politician, sees Blaikie as a man who might have come after his time, not only in his social-gospel roots, but in the way he seems somehow too physcial for TV and Internet politics. "He's got a booming voice, and a beard, and he's himself," Parasiuk says. "He would have been a great radio-era campaigner. And can you imagine him speaking from the back of a train?"

Oddly enough, it's not difficult at all. Blaikie carved out a parliamentary career in the age of sound bites, the blogger's anonymity, and skepticism about what governments can do. Yet he makes us think of unhurried oratory, a church basement's intimacy, and CCF dreaming. After the countless times he's crammed his massive frame into a regional jet for the weekly flight home to Winnipeg, now that he's getting ready to leave Ottawa for good, it's hard not to think of Bill Blaikie's train leaving town.

Maclean's December 3, 2007