Rev. Bill Blaikie stands tall in the annals of Canadian parliamentarians and it is not only his imposing physical presence that sets him apart. Few MPs have served with equal distinction or for as long in the House of Commons (1979-2008) as the United Church minister from Winnipeg Transcona. And no one among contemporary MPs has been as staunch an advocate for the social gospel – a belief that religious faith can inspire progressive politics. It frustrates Blaikie when many people believe that religious faith, when taken to the public square, is inherently right wing in its political connotations. Even some members of the NDP (whose predecessor, the CCF, was forged in part as a religious movement), believe that religion should not be political and that it is an inherently right wing force.
Blaikie departed from federal politics in 2008. He became an adjunct professor at the University of Winnipeg and created the Knowles-Woodsworth Centre for Theology and Public Policy. But Premier Gary Doer promptly asked him to run in a provincial bye-election. “The premier told me that I had been lobbing grenades from the opposition side in the House of Commons for close to 30 years and he thought it was time that I caught a few on the government side,” Blaikie said in an interview.
He was soon an MLA and the Minister of Conservation in a government led by Doer’s successor Greg Selinger. Blaikie served out his term and describes it as a “great experience.” But he chose not to run again in the 2011 provincial election. Politics is all consuming, whether it be federal or provincial, and Blaikie says he wanted to get back to the centre for Theology and Public Policy. “I wanted to return to the project that I had started but had to put on the back burner,” he says.
He sees his role as one of being a “public intellectual” and pursuing ideas on faith and public policy. That means teaching a class (called Faith and Politics: From Tommy Douglas to Barack Obama); giving spot lectures in other classes and settings; being invited to speak in venues across the country and occasionally abroad; and inviting people such as the noted Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor to speak in Winnipeg.
Blaikie’s recently published book, The Blaikie Report: An Insider’s Look at Faith and Politics, was published in 2011 and is a part of his new persona as public intellectual. Obviously, much or all of it was written while he was busy as a Manitoba provincial cabinet minister, but mostly it deals with his years in the House of Commons. It is well worth reading. A disclaimer here: I am a friend of Bill’s and sat the in the House of Commons with him in 1999-2000.
This is very much a book about parliament, where Blaikie served for so long. He spent all of his federal years in opposition and was the NDP’s critic for (among others) health, environment, foreign affairs, defence, justice – and he spent much of his last term as deputy speaker.
Blaikie believes parliament is an important place and he is steeped in its routines, rituals and lore, although he acknowledges with some sadness that many of his fellow citizens believe it is ineffectual or perhaps useless. But to paraphrase the late Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney, if you think parliament and legislatures are of no use, try running a country without them. Blakie is certainly of that opinion. Much of his book is taken up with various parliamentary debates – on the constitution in the early 1980s, the Canada Health Act, aboriginal rights, cruise missile testing, acid rain and capital punishment. He believes these debates and votes really matter.
Blaikie also writes extensively about parliamentary reform. He believes in vigorous debate but also in rules and certain decorum. He was respected, even feared, as a performer in the House but was almost always respectful toward his opponents, something that may seem quaint by today’s debased standards. “Parliament is not a soap opera,” he writes. “Nor is it a football match and certainly it must not become a kind of ultimate fighting where absolutely anything goes.”
He recognizes that many forces have converged to make parliament less relevant than it once was. These influences include the Charter of Rights, which has moved much of the action from parliament to the courts, and free trade agreements, which have removed influence from elected people and given it to transnational corporations and unelected bodies such as the World Trade Organization.
Blaikie remains passionate about free trade. “The implications for individual Canadians are immense,” he writes. “Just as our working lives and jobs have been thrown open to the forces of globalization, our elected governments have less and less power to influence how the economy will affect Canadian society. The scandal is that this powerlessness was by and large self-inflicted.”
Here Blaikie is writing about the Free Trade Agreement, which came into effect in 1989, and the North American Free Trade Agreement which arrived in 1994. In these deals he sees Canada surrendering its sovereignty for energy policy (we are locked into providing a percentage of our oil and gas to the U.S. no matter what); its environmental policy (foreign companies can take our government to court if they believe certain policies affect their profitability); and labour rights (a side agreement ostensibly aimed at protecting labour rights in NAFTA has proven to be weak and is seldom used).
Blaikie writes: “I believe the [FTA] agreement changed, and is still changing, the way which we imagine our country. It affects how much control we have, and except to have, over what kind of economy we want and, therefore, over what level of economic justice we can achieve.”
Faith and justice
Blaikie’s other great passion is about the role that religious faith can play in advocating, politically, for justice. He is an heir to the Protestant social gospel, which he describes as “a name for the vision of all those who, out of their Christian faith, perceived and articulated the need for fundamental changes in the capitalism world view and in capitalism itself.”
He is aware that another, more right wing religious ideology is dominant at the moment, but he takes a long range view. He talks about how he is prepared, even eager, to engage Preston Manning and other evangelicals in debate about the role of religion in the public square. “I believe there is a growing desire on the part of a younger generation of evangelical Canadian Christians to grow beyond the confines of an earlier generation. They may recover the imagination of even earlier generations of evangelicals who were part of the social gospel, or who even earlier, in the United Kingdom for example, took on slavery.”
Determination and hope
He concludes The Blaikie Report on a note of determination and hope: “there will always be a role for people of all faiths to speak out of their prophetic, justice seeking traditions.”
Bill Blaikie was in politics for a long time. He has not turned his back on his profession but now he has another, less partisan platform from which to continue the discussion about faith and politics. I wish him well.