Dennis Gruending, first speech in House of Commons

Dennis Gruending in the House of Commons , 1999
Dennis Gruending in the House of Commons , 1999

Introduction

Dennis was elected to the House of Commons in a by-election on November 15, 1999 to represent Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar. He made his first speech in the House of December 16, 1999 and it it he paid tribute to MPs who had preceded him in the riding, and he promised to work for equality and social justice.

Speech

Mr. Dennis Gruending (Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar, NDP): It is an honour to speak in the House for the first time. There is no higher calling than public service and no higher place to serve than in the House of Commons.

I begin by expressing my heartfelt gratitude to the people of Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar who elected me in the by-election on November 15. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to serve them. I will do so with all my energy and to the best of my ability.

Following Great Parliamentarians

I find it humbling to follow in the footsteps of the great parliamentarians who have preceded me in this vast prairie constituency. The list includes honourable social democrats such as

M. J. Coldwell, Woodrow Lloyd, Alf Gleave and Chris Axworthy. It includes as well the Right Honourable Ray Hnatyshyn, a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister who later became our governor general.

Mr. Coldwell represented this riding in parliament from 1935 to 1958. He led the CCF in the 1940s and 1950s. He worked tirelessly to bring about many of the great social advances that have shaped our country. These include hospital and auto insurance, pensions, family allowances, labour and welfare reforms.

Woodrow Lloyd served Biggar in the Saskatchewan legislature for 20 years, from 1944 to 1964. In 1961 he succeeded Tommy Douglas as premier. With great patience and great courage, Mr. Lloyd prevailed over the tumultuous strike by Saskatchewan’s doctors the following year. Our cherished national medicare system is at least in part Mr. Lloyd’s gift to Canada.

M. J. Coldwell had an abiding commitment to social justice. Woodrow Lloyd had a clear and ringing view of social democratic philosophy. “Ours is not just a gimme or a gouge the rich philosophy,” Woodrow Lloyd said. “It matches claims with obligations, imposing on each of us a greater individual responsibility than is imposed by other political parties”.

I am also guided by the legacy of Alf Gleave who represented the Saskatoon-Biggar area in parliament from 1968 to 1974, and who earlier was one of the pioneers of medicare. When Alf died last summer, journalist Barry Wilson in his eulogy quoted Alf’s own words, summing up his life as a family man, a farmer and an elected representative. “At the beginning of the century,” Alf wrote, “the people who came to the prairies and those who followed them, the next generation such as myself, made a more secure and bountiful life here by working together, by sharing the load”.

This need to balance claims and obligations, to work together and to share the load has never been more relevant than it is today, as the 20th century comes to an end and a new century and a new millennium are about to dawn.

The Farm Crisis

Nowhere is this need to work together more evident today than in the farm crisis that now engulfs western Canada, a crisis that tears at the heart of so many of the families I represent in Saskatoon—Rosetown—Biggar. What my NDP colleagues have said so often in the House is tragically true. That is that western farmers are gripped by the worst crisis since the 1930s, and in some respects, a crisis that is greater than that of the great depression.

The pain and misery are unprecedented economically and emotionally. Farm stress has reached epidemic proportions. Families are disintegrating. Bankruptcy is driving people from their homes and from their way of life.

An astonishing 46% of western farmers are now seriously considering leaving the land. What this means, should it come to pass, is a mass exodus of as many as 16,000 farmers across Saskatchewan and Manitoba within the next short period of time. The impact of this calamity would be unimaginable.

Why is this crisis occurring? It is happening because our national government, in its cult-like adherence to the ideology of free trade, has cut support for grain farmers by 60% over the last eight years. The government has accepted the free market mantra of the Business Council on National Issues and embraced the global gospel of the World Trade Organization.

The Liberal government has played a destructive game giving away much more in trade negotiations than it has gained in return. Western farmers have been ambushed on the free market road. Consider that European farmers receive 56 cents in support for each dollar of wheat that is sold. American farmers get 38 cents. Canadian farmers today get a paltry 9 cents.

This is happening at a time of unprecedented federal wealth. Our government, as we have heard here today, is projecting almost $100 billion in surpluses over the next five years. If he wanted to, the Prime Minister could deal with the farm crisis and he would scarcely notice the amount of money that it would take. But he refuses. He is caught like a deer in the headlights on the free market road.

II join with my NDP colleagues in pleading for a change of heart. I urge the Prime Minister to return at least $1 billion of the money that his government has scooped out of the Saskatchewan economy in recent years. This is just 1% of his forecasted five-year surpluses. Farmers need help desperately and they need it now.

This is an immediate measure. In the medium term the government must re-examine the AIDA program to see if it can be fixed. In the longer term, a combination of supports and cost cutting measures and diversification will have to be adopted if western agriculture is going to survive.

Unfortunately the deafening silence of the government in response to the plea of farmers also extends in many cases to society as a whole. We see this only too clearly in the majority report of the Standing Committee on Finance with its empty rationale recommending $46 billion in tax cuts for mainly high-income earners over the next few years. This is wrong as my colleague the member for Regina — Qu’Appelle pointed out in his minority report.

Trickle Down Economics

The finance committee report continues the bogus philosophy of trickle down economics preached for the last 20 years by leaders such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush and Brian Mulroney. This dreary message is always the same. It goes something like this: give the horse enough oats and the sparrows will eventually be fed. This has never been true and we will only make matters worse if we repeat the same mistakes again and again.

Tax cuts that benefit mainly the rich will widen the unacceptable gap that already exists between the wealthy and the poor in our society. This gap has gone from embarrassing to offensive to downright obscene.

New Democrats advocate a fair and sane approach, one that will work, if only the government will adopt it and implement it. We believe that the surpluses projected over the next few years give Canadians a rare opportunity to return to the philosophy of redistributing income to those who need it most. We can undo the damage that successive waves of government cutbacks have inflicted on families, on public services and on living standards in the 1990s.

Building Jerusalem

There is only one real test of any economy that matters and that is, does it serve its people? New Democrats believe that the debate over surpluses must focus on improving the quality of life for all Canadians. We can deal with the farm crisis, child poverty and homelessness. We can give our children the best possible start in life. We can preserve public health and expand it to home care and pharmacare as the Liberals had promised to do in 1993. We can foster world-class education and training. We can invest in roads and public transit. We can provide tax relief by making an initial 1% cut in the GST. We can, as Canada’s churches have asked, have our country forgive the debt owing to us by some of the world’s poorest countries.

I commit myself, as my social democratic predecessors have done before me, to work tirelessly to achieve these just and time honoured goals. I will not rest and my predecessors will not rest in peace until we have built Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land.

The Middle of Nowhere: Rediscovering Saskatchewan

Fifth House (1996)

A collection of non-fiction writing about Saskatchewan, from the fur trade to the 1990s. Includes vivid recollections by aboriginal people, excerpts from fur trade diaries, accounts of mounties, explorers, and settlers, as well as stories of protest politics, booze, dust, the Depression, war and the environment.

Toll-free order: 1-800-387-9776 Toll-free fax: 1-800-260-9777. Email orders: godwit@fitzhenry.ca

Reviewer Comments

“a splendid collection of non-fiction pieces on Saskatchewan.“ The Toronto Globe and Mail.

Excerpt

The Last Buffalo Hunter

These descriptions of buffalo hunts were told to Mary Weekes by Norbert Welsh when he was eighty-six years old and blind. Welsh, a Metis, had been a buffalo hunter and a trader on the plains and in the valleys of the Saskatchewan and Qu’Appelle Rivers since the 1860s.

I could see buffalo all over. There were thousands and thousands of them travelling in the direction in which I had seen the bull. There was not one herd, but many. Our Chief decided that we would have breakfast before we did anything. He went from tent to tent and gathered up all the food. We had a good breakfast, and by ten o’clock were ready to chase the buffalo.

Two or three men took a herd. That afternoon twenty-five men shot three hundred buffalo. Buffalo never came very dose to camp. They would smell us, bunch together, and move away. They seldom came nearer than two or three miles.

The next day we went after the buffalo again and killed four hundred. All around us, as far as we could see, the plains were black with buffalo. The prairie seemed to be moving.

There was one thing that I did not like about that hunt. I saw hundreds of buffalo, during that week, slaughtered for their hides. The whole carcass was left to rot on the plains. One time I saw three fine fat buffalo cows lying dead, side-by-side. I jumped off my horse, cut out their tongues, tied them to my saddle, and took them home. Buffalo tongue was very choice.

There were many bands of hunters on the plains beside ours. In all my years of buffalo hunting, I never destroyed buffalo for their pelts alone. I always took the whole carcass, except the head, home.

My wife had once said that since we were going to make a living hunting buffalo, she did not want me to kill more than we could dry and pack. She told me that if I brought in an extra hide without the carcass, she would not dress it. One day my brother-in-law and I were travelling on the prairie, and we sighted a little herd of buffalo. I let fly and killed a cow. We skinned it, and took a little of the fattest part of the animal. When we reached our tent, I threw the hide and saddle down. My wife smiled, and lightly kicked the hide away. She meant what she said. I gave the hide to my mother-in-law . . .

We camped there for a week. We had a hundred people in our brigade, and they were all loaded the carts followed the hunters. It took us four days to get home. All around us the buffalo travelled. When we got back to Round Plain [near Dundurn], we found the buffalo there too. We had a good time that winter. Plenty of buffalo.

Promises to Keep

Western Producer Prairie Books (1990)

A political biography describing how Allan Blakeney defeated the Liberal government of Ross Thatcher in Saskatchewan, and how as premier Blakeney stunned the continent by taking over half the province’s potash industry; how he broke with many in his own party over the issue of uranium development; and how he fought Pierre Trudeau in the constitutional wars of the early 1980s.

Out of print. Available from the author. Tel: 613-730-6902

Reviewer Comments

Gruending’s book is more than just Allan Blakeney’s story. It’s also the story of well over a decade of Saskatchewan history. The two are inseparable.“ Saskatoon Star Phoenix

Excerpt

Prologue

When Allan Blakeney swept to power in June 1971 he had promises to keep-about 140 of them. They had been printed months before in a slim blue-on-white booklet called New Deal for People. Someone in a Prince Albert constituency office had wanted a promotional matchbook with the letters “NDP” on the cover. It seemed clever. Provincial office picked it up, and it became the campaign slogan . . .

As premier, he was immediately in his preferred element – building, fine tuning, and running a government, dealing brilliantly with a broad spectrum of issues and a constantly shifting mass of detail. He performed those tasks with a range and discipline which was quite remarkable, but which, in the best Saskatchewan tradition, he was careful not to flaunt. Asked by a reporter how he would like to be remembered, he said, “People can say about us, ‘They run a pretty good shop’.” He was the ultimate civil servant.

The people side of politics did not come easily to Blakeney. He had to work at it. He showed great determination in applying himself to the task. Early on he attempted to downplay the inevitable comparisons between himself and Tommy Douglas. He liked to tell reporters that, although he was premier, he was really only a “retreaded” civil servant. In that description he was being honest, if typically understated . . .

Blakeney gained a national reputation as a pan-Canadian statesman who cared about the integrity of the federation and the aspirations of Quebec, and at the same time demanding a new deal for the West and the Maritimes. During the constitutional negotiations, he remained the point of contact between anti-Trudeau hardliners like Lougheed and Lyon, and the pro-federal forces led by Bill Davis. He was supple, always ready to negotiate, to make a deal. Trudeau was wary of him; he thought Blakeney was indecisive at best, disingenuous at worst. There was respect between them, but also bad blood. Their contact brought out the pride and competitiveness in each.

In the early 1980s, as interest rates soared and recession loomed, the immediate benefits of Blakeney’s state capitalism were not always apparent. He and his senior ministers were looking over their shoulders at the emerging Conservatives, aware that society was changing but not knowing quite what to do about it. In 1982 the Tory deluge came. Blakeney was not only defeated, but routed, by Grant Devine, whose government spent the following years pursuing their New Right agenda-a shredding of government services and the wholesale sell-off of Crown Corporations . . .

Blakeney observes the fracas from a distance. He stepped down as leader in 1987. He has made a gracious transition from public figure to private citizen. He appears comfortable, and at peace with himself. But his life is by no means over, and, as this book will indicate, he has missed no detail in recent political debates.

Gringo: Poems and Journals

Fron Latin America – Coteau (1982)

In the late 1970s Dennis Gruending traveled alone for nine months in Latin America. Gringo is a journey of discovery, told with the reporter’s careful eye for detail and a poet’s feeling for the nuances of the heart.

Out of print. Available from the author
at 613-730-6902

Reviewer Comments

Gruending’s language is vivid but restrained. The poems are accessible and powerful; the journal entries are self-mocking and informed by an eye for irony.“ Vancouver Province.

Excerpts

Introductory Diary Entry

For years Latin America had beckoned. A teacher from my boarding school went to Brazil as a missionary, and I recall how we clustered around his car, a hundred boys tense with excitement as he left. Later he sent me letters saying that South America might become the next Viet Nam.

While modern colonizers levelled Amazon forests and leaned from airplanes to shoot Indians, I went to university in a prairie city and later made the obligatory trip to Europe. I returned, graduated, took a job, fell in love, took a better job, bought a house. Seldom did I think about the love and torture being committed in the south.

My mother and father began to die. I was filled with grief and became a stranger to everyone I knew. Then suddenly it was over. My parents dead. A near marriage of five years lost. An empty house. A stumbling man being helped by friends he had neglected. I felt compelled to break with the past; to do something dramatic; to place myself at risk.

I had begun to write poetry. I began to read it again: Unborn Things, Patrick Lane’s book about Latin America; Earle Birney’s poems about the “sunflowering women” of Tehuantepec; Eli Mandel’s description of Intihuana, the “hitching post of the sun,” where the Incas tried to stop the sun in its solstice so it would not leave them in darkness.

I found Neruda in translation, his treasurehouse of detail and imagination about Chile and all of Latin America. I became acquainted with Chileans who arrived in Canada after the coup that killed Allende and destroyed the country. I felt close to them in a politically instinctive way, but knew little in detail about the continent which Eduardo Galeano calls the “region of open veins.”

I gave notice at work and packed my bags.

Poem

You Send Feathers

You send feathers from Canada
tell me
to ride dreams like white-backed gulls
listen to what birds say
read the flowers.

I see high stone walls
topped with hedges of blue bougainvillaea
and chunks of broken glass in concrete
to protect the parrot
complaining in his cage.

My nights are bruised
by the din of dogs fighting over cans
in dark alleys where stones
break the ground like teeth.
There are boys in heavy black boots
who ride the backs of trucks
and point guns at the sky.

I dream blue mountains leaning over us
morning streets, hands patting the corn flour
children snug in rebozos, women braiding hair
and men carrying machetes to a harvest of flowers.