The Blaikie Report



Taking the gospel to Parliament Hill

The Blaikie Report looks at faith and politics — and the left and right

The Blaikie Report: An Insider’s Look At Faith And Politics, By Bill Blaikie. United Church Publishing House,  $21.95

Blaikie report The Blaikie Report: An Insider’s Look At Faith And Politics, By Bill Blaikie. United Church Publishing House, $21.95

To many Canadians, the names are an honour roll of our political history: James S. Woodsworth, T.C. Douglas, Stanley Knowles, Dan Heap. There are others, all clergy, moved to enter politics because of the “the social gospel,” to improve the life of the people though socialism. Unions were their friends, corporate society their adversaries.

Now, another name for the list is Bill Blaikie, a Manitoba NDP member who held his seat in Parliament for almost 30 years, was elected an astonishing eight times, so that when he retired in 2008, he was Dean of the House of Commons.

Blaikie is a big man: 6-foot-6, so that in a photo in his recent book, standing beside the above-mentioned Douglas, the legendary father of universal health care just makes it to his shoulder. He speaks easily in a warm baritone and has been called, more than once, Parliament’s finest orator of recent years. His adherence to socialist principle is unbending. He underlined it in a recent spirited interview, insisting that social justice will only be achieved through socialism. Nonetheless, he was able to gain the respect of many on all sides, and so was made Deputy Speaker in 2008, the first NDPer to be given the position.

He’s now written a memoir, rich in anecdote, observation and argument, from parliamentary issues (he feels it doesn’t accomplish enough) to global issues (he’s travelled the world on interparty delegations). But it’s not all business. He sprinkles it with wit: Once, early in the Ottawa years, at a parliamentary ball, he and his wife were chatting with the Governor General when former PM Pierre Trudeau sidled up. He took a bit of innocent interest in Blaikie’s wife, Brenda. He spoke to her rather than Blaikie, saying it was nice to see young people coming to Parliament even in the wrong party. She replied that it was he, Trudeau, who was in the wrong party. Trudeau didn’t miss a beat: he said she might be right, so would she like to spend some time trying to convince him.

One of the more intriguing and complex issues he deals with as a minister is the place of religious identity in the political discourse of today’s Canada. For Blaikie, this surfaced primarily in 2000, when the highly conservative and evangelical Stockwell Day became an MP. By then, Blaikie was a veteran MP, during which time his United Church role received no public attention. But when Day came on the scene the coverage — perhaps in part because of growing coverage of the American religious right — was great. Blaikie still wonders: “Why is the attention given to certain religious beliefs of certain Canadian politicians? Why isn’t the attention more universal?”

It may be a combination of things: evangelicals like Day hold simpler, more colourful beliefs than liberal Christians; moreover, left wing Christians such as Blaikie and others are seen by some journalists to be less than real “believers.”

Beyond this, Canada’s proverbial public square, unlike that of the U.S., is wary of allowing religion into its space. Take events surrounding the 9/11 tragedy. When Americans held a huge interfaith service, when Ottawa clergy began to consider one on Parliament Hill, word went out from high places: Whatever the nature of the observance to mark the deaths of many Canadians it was to have no religious dimension. It didn’t.

There’s one subject on which Blaikie’s views interest me particularly: the Middle East, and not just the relationship between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. There’s the troubled relationship between the United Church and Canada’s Jewish community over the Middle East; it isn’t what it should be, with generous spirit and goodwill on all sides. The reasons are beyond exploration here. But as an MP, Blaikie has been to both sides, talked to both sides, debated the issues for years in and out of caucus. In The Blaikie Report, his view is temperate and reasoned. His analysis of the incendiary problem reminds me that at times the ancient oath all new physicians take is good counsel for the clergy: First of all, do no harm.

Kenneth Bagnell has been a United Church minister and a journalist for more than 50 years.

  • Kenneth Bagnell
  • Sat Nov 12 2011, The Hamilton Spectator