ndp-leader-rachel-notley-wins-alberta-election I wasn’t there, but I bet a lot of tears were shed by Alberta NDP oldtimers last night at the party’s giddy, raucous ‘n’ rollin’  victory celebration in Edmonton. That was certainly the order of the evening on a similar dragon-slaying night long ago, out here in British Columbia. On Aug. 30, 1972, Dave Barrett, the 41-year old son of an East Vancouver fruit pedlar, led “the socialist hordes” inside the province’s gates for the first time, after nearly 40 years of repeated failure. Among the hysterical crowd greeting a triumphant Barrett at the Coquitlam Arena (it was a different time…) was veteran union official Rudy Krickan, who’d worked for the party since the 1930’s. His eyes moistening, Krickan told a reporter: “This is the greatest night of my life.” Barrett’s mother Rose, who put young Dave on a Spanish Civil War float in the late 1930’s, hugged her son with tears streaming down her face. 8378182 I’m sure there were similar moments in Edmonton, as Rachel Notley delivered her warm, impressive, heartfelt victory speech at the little more upscale ballroom of the Westin Hotel (in the old days of the Alberta NDP, election night gatherings could probably have been held in the hotel lobby…).

I mean, even a day later, who can really believe that the NDP has been elected in Alberta? (Surely some mistake, ed.) It’s insane, unworthy of even a lame April Fool’s joke. Calgary has gone from Cowtown to Maotown. As someone tweeted last night: snowballs in hell are alive and well.

Despite the passage of time, there are a number of interesting similarities between the stunning elections of Barrett and Rachel Notley, whose father Grant was head of the NDP in Alberta when his B.C. counterpart came to power. Both Barrett and Rachel Notley toppled political dynasties that seemed destined to last forever. W.A.C. Bennett had reigned over B.C. for two decades with barely a hiccup, and of course, Alberta’s Conservatives had been in power for a staggering 44 years, almost as long as the Vancouver Canucks have been without a Stanley Cup.

Both incumbent premiers waged disastrous campaigns. For them and their parties, after so many years, it was one election too many. Meanwhile, Barrett and Notley were note-perfect on the hustings. A mood for change swept over the electorate. By the end of 72-year-old W.A.C. Bennett’s bumbling re-election bid, the Socreds were desperately buying full-page newspaper ads proclaiming “young is a state of mind”. The ads pointed to a still-productive Picasso at 90 and Einstein working on his “unified field theory” into his seventies. Alas for Social Credit, there was no unified field theory to salvage the ‘72 election. “Wacky” went down in flames, as did Jim Prentice, who also seemed preposterously out of touch with ordinary voters.

Last-ditch, political scare tactics that had always worked in the past were lost in the gales of change. The unified free-enterprise vote splintered, and both Barrett and Notley were able to steamroll to power with substantially less than a majority of the popular vote. At one point last night, the Alberta NDP vote was a scant .2 percentage points higher than the 39.6% B.C. New Democrats received in 1972. (Late returns bumped it up to 40.6%.) And eerily, both Social Credit and Alberta Conservatives were nearly wiped off the electoral map with the same paltry total of 10 seats.

I also note that in their victory speeches, both Barrett and Rachel Notley began by paying tribute to and thanking the leaders they had sent into political oblivion. In Barrett’s case, his mention of W.A.C. Bennett evoked boos and laughter from the exultant crowd. “No, no,” admonished Barrett, over the din. “Any man who has served his province for 20 years deserves our respect, and I think we should recognize that.” Notley, in turn, graciously thanked Jim Prentice “for the enormous contribution he has made to this province…in many roles for many years.”

I found myself charmed by Rachel Notley’s wide, beaming smile. It seemed so refreshingly natural  and unstaged. I can see why Alberta voters flocked to her, rather than to her rather dour competitors. And yes, Barrett, too, was like that in victory. Here’s Allan Fotheringham’s description of the incoming premier as he strode towards Government House to be sworn in: “The new premier wore a continuing grin of simple pleasure. It was not a smug, greedy look. Just a boyish failure to subdue his true feelings.” Image 9 And now, the tough similarities. The way ahead for Notley, as it was for Dave Barrett, is fraught with potholes of the potentially-monstrous variety. Neither came close to a majority of the popular vote. If the free-enterprise forces get their act together, Notley could be a one-term wonder, as was Barrett. (Same with Bob Rae’s upset victory for the NDP in Ontario in 1990. They won a large majority with just 37.6% of the popular vote, then soundly trounced next time out.) In B.C.’s bitter 1975 election, the NDP actually held their share of the popular vote, but Social Credit, under the hardnosed leadership of Bill Bennett, knocked them for a loop by building an unsinkable anti-NDP coalition. The Liberal and Conservative vote basically disappeared. In a two-party race, Barrett and the NDP didn’t have a chance. They were out of office for the next 15 years, until the free enterprise forces split once more.

As did Barrett, Rachel Notley also takes over the reins of a resource-rich province with a caucus completely untested by  government. Who knows how they will perform? Barrett turned out to have some exceptionally capable ministers, several among the best this province has ever had. But he had his share of dunderheads and lacklustre performers, too. Along with more than one big blunder by Barrett, himself, these lesser-lights helped fuel perception of a gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Image 9 The reality was quite different. The Barrett government accomplished more in 39 months than perhaps any administration in Canadian history. It was done purposefully. At the new government’s first cabinet meeting, when not sliding up and down the large, shiny cabinet table in their stocking feet, they considered the question: Are we here for a good time, or a long time? As we know, they opted for a good time. “We discussed whether we were going to make fundamental changes in British Columbia,” Barrett wrote, later, “or whether we would try to hang on for a second term, rationalizing that we would get the job done next time around. We agreed unanimously to strike while the iron was hot.” Many thought they did too much too soon, without sufficient consultation. In the process, they alarmed the business community and a good chunk of the public. Their fate in the next election was sealed.

Yet their short time in office was far from all bad. Much of what that wild and crazy government did survives today. The “Barrett boys” fundamentally changed B.C., mostly for the better. So far, the approach of Rachel Notley seems a fair distance from Dave Barrett’s approach. Although both are certainly populists, early signs are that she is opting, not for the good time, but for the long time. While Barrett gleefully took on the big mining and forest companies, Notley is already talking to Alberta’s energy industry moguls, seeking to re-assure them of her desire to work together.

Meanwhile, the Alberta media must be licking their lips in anticipation of a story that keeps on giving. There will be tales galore, as there was during the Barrett government’s brief, Roman Candle launch and fall to earth. Everything seems so easy in opposition. Actual government is hard, requiring a steep learning curve. And so, to Rachel Notley and her merry band of green youngsters, i say: Welcome to the bigs. It should be a hell of a ride.




On June 19, 1953, at the height of Cold War hysteria in the United States, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died in the electric chair at Sing Sing, convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Their executions remain perhaps the darkest of the many dark chapters of that terrible time. Even more than half a century later, the appalling cruelty of killing the father and mother of two young sons, six and 10, is hard to stomach.

Such was the sweep of anti-Communism and the fear of being seen as “a Red” that relatives of the Rosenberg would not take them in, leaving the youngsters to be brought up by Abel and Anne Meeropol, a kindly, left-leaning couple in New York. (Under the pseudonym Lewis Allan, Abel Meeropol wrote the Billie Holiday classic, Strange Fruit.)


Newly-elected president Dwight Eisenhower ignored world-wide pleas for the lives of the Rosenbergs to be spared. Among those who gave voice to the clemency campaign were Albert Einstein, Harold Urey of the Manhattan Project, Pope Pius XIIverner_31_sm (albeit timidly), Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre and French president Vincent Auriol. Hundreds of prominent Americans, including many religious leaders, also protested the death penalty. For many who participated in the drive, still hopeful of a last-minute reprieve, the bleak news that the Rosenbergs had indeed been executed was overwhelming. The legendary religious activist and editor Dorothy Day summed up those feelings the next day in her paper, The Catholic Worker:

“My heart was heavy…knowing that Ethel Rosenberg must have been thinking, with all the yearning of her heart, of her own soon-to-be-orphaned children…..What greater punishment can be inflicted on anyone than those two long years in a death house, watched without ceasing so that there is no chance of one taking one’s life, and so thwarting the vengeance of the State.

“….At the last Ethel turned to one of the two police matrons who accompanied her and clasping her by the hand, pulled her toward her and kissed her warmly. Her last gesture was a gesture of love….Let us have no part with the vindictive State and let us pray for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. By virtue of the prayers we may say in the future, at the moment of the death which so appallingly met them, they will have been given the grace to choose light rather than darkness. Love rather than Hate. May their souls rest in peace.”

Although there was widespread belief among protestors that the Rosenbergs were innocent, we now know for certainty that Julius Rosenberg did spy for the Soviet Union. However, his contribution to development of the atomic bomb by the Soviets was far from critical, wildly exaggerated by prosecutors, government and anti-Communist media. Whatever he did, nothing justified death in the electric chair.

Far worse, we also know that hard evidence against Ethel Rosenberg was extremely weak, hinging on false testimony by Ethel’s own brother, David Greenglass, also part of the Soviet spy ring, who was seeking to cover up his own wife’s involvement. He died recently at the age of 92, unrepentant to the end over his decision to send his older sister to her death.

The shameful story is vividly recounted in obituaries this week by the New York Times and the Guardian. Once a snake, always a snake.





It is hardly a tragedy when someone dies after a long, fulfilling life at the age of 91. But nonetheless, the thought that Mavis Gallant has passed away brings sadness, nevertheless. Though minus the high public profile of other celebrated Canadian women writers such as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence, all of whom she influenced, Gallant was one of our best. And she experienced so much — from reporting for the old Montreal Standard, jaunty beret in place, to the glamour of Paris, where she mentored the young, rambunctious Mordecai Richler then a fixture of the city’s brasseries, to her front-row seat during the fierce student uprising that virtually took over Paris during the summer of 1968, to her continued, meticulous writing that brought her the Governor General’s literary award in 1982, and made her a Companion of the Order of Canada 10 years later.

Yet Gallant was off the beaten track for many Canadians. In part, that was because she lived most of her life in dreamy Paris, so there was little national literary buzz about her. As well, her forté was the short story, which, Alice Munro notwithstanding, is not generally a road to fame. At her death, however, there was a flood of appreciation from writers and critics for her long writing career, not least of which from the none-too-shabby Michael Ondaatje. “I just adored her writing,” he told the Globe and Mail in an email. “Hers are the great stories of our time. So subtle, dangerous, hilarious. The full human condition. My hero.” American writer Joyce Carol Oates suggested the Nobel Prize awarded recently to Munro could easily have been shared by the two Canadian masters of the short story.

She wrote of outsiders, immigrants trying to cope and societal change. Many of her stories were set in Europe, but she was ever a Canadian, never losing touch with her home and native land. She often quoted with approval Robertson Davies’ succinct comment, during yet another Quebec referendum debate: “Canada is not a country you love. it’s a country you worry about.”

I can’t profess to having read oodles of her short stories, preferring the more accessible, crafted work of Alice Munro, but those I did read had a remarkable clarity and reality about them. And whenever she wrote about Paris in The New Yorker, I lapped it up. Gallant, who left Montreal to try and survive as a writer in Paris while still in her twenties, once said no other city appreciates writers quite as much as the City of Light. “I found for the first time in my life a society where you could say you’re a writer and not be asked for three months’ rent in advance.”

In 1990, I was lucky enough to spend a wonderful, magical afternoon with Mavis Gallant in the heart of her beloved Montparnasse. I was preparing a CBC radio documentary on “the changing face of Paris”, and Gallant agreed to be interviewed. When she suggested we meet on the outdoor terrace of the storied Dôme Café, one-time haunt of Hemingway, Capa, Picasso, Anaïs Nin et al, I was thrilled. Here was I, talking to a famous writer at Le Dôme! And Gallant loved to talk. She was a natural and easy conversationalist, without a trace of writerly airs, her lively mind darting from topic to topic. It was so much fun.


When news came of her death, I thought immediately of that grand day of long ago. After a surprisingly brief rummage through the legendary Mickle archives, I came up with the tape and gave it a listen on my ancient, wheezing tape deck. We sounded like old friends.

Gallant was surprisingly unsentimental about Paris, sharing none of my far-away romanticism for my favourite city in all the world. I kept trying to get her to agree with my thesis: wasn’t it a shame that Paris was losing its neighbourhood charms to fast food joints and garish modernity? She would have none of it. “I don’t like the bourgeois sentimental vision, that other people are supposed to live in slums because they’re attractive,” Gallant declared. “The picturesque slum is not my idea of how people ought to live. I think Paris has changed for the better.” However, she did profess a loathing for the notorious Tour Montparnasse, a garish black office tower plunked down in the middle of the low-rise arrondisement.

She also rebuffed my nostalgia for the good old days, honed by my long love affair with expatriate Paris of the 1920s, entranced by Hemingway’s fetching tales of how it was. “I don’t think Paris is being ruined,” said Gallant. “When I first came here, the city was rather dirty. You see the soft beige, sandstone colour on a lot of buildings? All that had been blackened by soot, since the turn of the century. Now it’s been cleaned, and the light is extraordinary.

“I have arguments with Canadians over this, because they like the grime,” she continued, over the café hum and clinking of cups and saucers. “But this is Paris as it was built. Suddenly we see those grand old buildings the way they were. That gives one much more a sense of history than a foot of grime.”

I finally hit the motherlode, when I asked her to describe the historic area where we were sitting, surrounded by other of the renowned cafès of Montparnasse. This was the clip I used for my documentary.

“Across the street, there’s been no change at all. That cinema has always been there. La Rotonde has always been there, of course. The Select has always been there. This café has always been here. Those two or three shops between here and La Coupole have always been there. The stationer, the tobacconist, that news agent across the street. They’ve always been there, too. So, you can’t say Paris has all been changed.”

Hearing those grand old cafés enumerated with such familiarity by Mavis Gallant, whilst gazing out at them from Le Dôme, itself, was a moment I’ve never forgotten.

RIP, Ms. Gallant. We’ll always have Paris.



Sandra Martin’s elegant obituary in the Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/writer-mavis-gallant-dies-at-age-91/article16930775/#dashboard/follows/

And a recent Ideas segment on The Four Seasons of Mavis Gallant: http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/popupaudio.html?clipIds=2438015139