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‘That’s Svend being Svend’

Graeme Truelove autographs his biography of Svend Robinson for customers at the Strawberry Hill Chapters bookstore recently. Truelove, who grew up in North Delta, lives in Ottawa.  - Boaz Joseph / The Leader
Graeme Truelove autographs his biography of Svend Robinson for customers at the Strawberry Hill Chapters bookstore recently. Truelove, who grew up in North Delta, lives in Ottawa.
— image credit: Boaz Joseph / The Leader

Heckling a foreign dignitary in the House of Commons, especially the American president, isn’t standard protocol.

But it did happen.

Ronald Reagan was in the middle of a late-Cold War speech in 1987 at Parliament when the interruption occurred.

“Stop Star Wars now!” came a shrill voice from the NDP bench. “Stop funding the contras!”

“Is there an echo in here?” Reagan asked, eliciting laughter.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney later explained to his guest what happened: “That’s just Svend. That’s Svend being Svend, Ron.”

It’s a story recalled by author Graeme Truelove in Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics, an authorized biography of the federal New Democrat in Burnaby who, for 25 years, made both friends and enemies across Canada – for his political views, outspoken personality and sexual orientation.

Robinson was Canada’s first openly gay MP – barely trivia today, but a bombshell when he came out on Feb. 29, 1988.

“It was a leap into the unknown,” Robinson told Truelove. “It was just the most liberating moment you can imagine.”

But it was Robinson’s political fall that is now remembered, the result of the theft of a ring from a Vancouver auction in 2004.

Yet Truelove gives much more than the highlights of Robinson’s career.

Truelove, 30, a non-partisan procedural clerk in the House of Commons, took a year of unpaid leave to do more than 100 interviews with Robinson’s friends, colleagues, political adversaries and family members.

“It’s more than just a political story,” Truelove, an Ottawa resident, explains during a visit to his parents’ home in North Delta.

Submitted photo: Svend Robinson with NDP Leader Ed Broadbent at the Socialist International conference in Vancouver, 1978. François Mitterrand, later the president of France, is in the background.

The book delves into Robinson’s difficult childhood (his father was an abusive alcoholic), the family’s frequent uprooting, the growing realization of his own sexuality, his feisty nature and his eventual post-ring bipolar diagnosis.

“Family lore has it that (the) newborn peed on the doctor, a fitting beginning for a man who would make a career out of challenging authority,” writes Truelove.

That attitude began early: Robinson was sent home from his Seattle school in Grade 3 for refusing to recite the American Pledge of Allegiance.

“Doing what he was told and keeping his mouth shut was not a Svend Robinson specialty.”

Truelove describes how Robinson, just in his first year as an MP in 1979, gambled on publicity when he sheltered Chilean immigrant Galindo Madrid, a man facing imminent deportation.

“I don’t think the RCMP are going to break down my door,” he told the assembled media. “I’m sure the government is well aware of the political implications of violating the sanctity of a ember of Parliament’s house.”

It was a bluff, but it was what Truelove calls Robinson’s “Galindo Madrid formula – injustice, dramatic action, media attention, result.”

Truelove volunteered at Robinson’s office while attending the University of Ottawa from 2002-2004 (he left two months before the ring incident) and decided to write a book about him around 2009.

“Svend was an extremely prominent and unique and very effective politician with this painful and dramatic personal life, and yet his full story hadn’t been told by anybody.”

Robinson took a little convincing to join what was a fairly intrusive process.

Photo by Boaz Joseph: Truelove at his parents' home during a recent promotional tour of his book.

“I’m not surprised that it took him a little while to come around to the idea, but eventually he did, and he trusted me to do it.”

Truelove had three lengthy interview sessions with Robinson, some lasting for several days: on Galiano Island, in Switzerland (Robinson now works for The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria) and over the phone.

Robinson’s being on board with the project helped others open up, including several former prime ministers and MPs.

Mulroney easy to get a hold of.

Ed Broadbent was politically interesting on an “advanced conceptual level… like an advanced university seminar.”

The former NDP leader explained to Truelove an MP’s obligations to constituents, versus caucus versus party policy, versus personal conscience – issues that came up repeatedly in Robinson’s career. These included environmental protests (he spend several days in prison), standing up for minorities and the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) community, input into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and getting involved in Middle Eastern politics while the Foreign Affairs Critic.

“All these things have to be balanced when you’re trying to take a position on a political issue,” says Truelove. “It’s an important question, and I really thought that Broadbent’s analysis of this was valuable for the book because it’s a big part of Svend.”

He adds in the book: “The House of Commons is still waiting for Robinson’s replacement.”

Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics is published by New Star Books (http://bit.ly/1djZMum). The cost is $24. It’s also available at Amazon, Chapters/Indigo and local bookstores.

bjoseph@surreyleader.com

 

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