Identity – Beyond Politics

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It was one of the most profound moments of my political life.  Two days following my election loss I took my son Ater for lunch.  When we entered the crowded food court at one of the local malls some people started clapping and soon most others joined in.  I was overwhelmed, leaning in closer to Ater.  It was all a little perplexing until one store owner took me aside, saying, “Know what that was about?  Until you got elected you were the food bank guy and we all love the food bank.  But when you became a politician you were a Liberal and right away people fell along party lines and saw you different because not all are of that persuasion.  Now that you’re done with politics you’re just one of us again and it’s good to have you back.”

I’m sure that wasn’t a universal sentiment but it was revealing to me at least, and subsequent events have proved its validity.  From the moment you enter the political arena, in one capacity or another, you are defined by that choice and it remains almost impossible to escape from even though you left politics behind.  In the end it’s about how you were branded.  Much of it is unfair, some of it valid, but most of it is just frustrating if you are an independent thinker.

Below you will see a video that was shot about 18 months into my political tenure in Ottawa.  The interview was with Catherine Clark, Joe Clark’s daughter, and she hosted a program called “Beyond Politics.”  She always attempted to discover what made politicians tick outside of their professional careers as politicians.  We hit it off right away, in part because her questions were insightful and I was willing to answer them honestly.  The video has been edited to a much shorter length, but in watching it you can see that I’m still wet behind the ears, attempting to come to grips with a political system that to me was alienating.  Maclean’s magazine had just released a column calling me “The Last Decent Man In Ottawa” and it has caused something of a stir.

As I endeavoured to say in the interview, I was a whole person when I got elected.  This was some six years ago, but I came into the House of Commons with a belief system, worked out over years of expanded living, with which I refused to compromise.  I was asked repeatedly to get into the regular partisan bashing so common in Ottawa these days and I just refused because I thought it was not only demeaning to Parliament but to me as well.

Nothing had prepared me to surrender my pride and self-regard sufficiently to accept those humiliations.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.  My values and sense of self were already fully constructed, which was another way of saying that I was already a person who wasn’t going to take that way of life from anybody.  While I was in no position to force the House to accept things the way I thought they should be, I was still prepared to let them know and understand what my standards were.  I was a Liberal, yes, because our political system requires such a banner if one wishes to run and I was closer to being a Liberal than anything else.  But my life had taken on a spirit broader than mere policy constructs of any party.  I had been elected, not by the party but by Londoners, and their benefit was my main reason for being there.

My reaction to Parliament was one of caution and some disillusionment. Its response to me was decidedly confused.  By refusing to be branded I had immediately become an oddity.  Some didn’t like it, but over time an increasing number of MPs and parliamentary officials came to support my efforts for making the House a more respectful place.  But always – relentlessly – there were occasions every day to slip into the mainstream.  Sometimes I did without realizing it and the humiliation I felt within myself was palpable – I had failed my constituents, the House, and ultimately myself.  I learned from those moments.

For almost five years I struggled every day to keep from relinquishing who I really was to political forces that only desired that I serve them.  But life had already taught me some of these lessons concerning being true to one’s self, my spouse and children, my community, and even my God.

Most believe they have the strength to endure such attempts at conformity, but for the person who wishes to be recognized, applauded, or advanced, the temptations are almost overwhelming.  And the political system knows how to use that hunger for its own benefit.  All that is required is that you leave behind a little bit of who you are.  For me that was a disturbing possibility.  Watch the video below and you’ll see a man struggling to comprehend his place in an always-compromising world.  I think it’s instructive for all office seekers because the feelings were so raw.  But I had a life beyond politics before I was elected; I also have one following on the heels of political career.  Yet the key point here is I possessed such a life while I was in the political arena, and that is what saved me.