A front-row seat to Canadian history

Former New Democrat MP Ian Waddell has written an oddly interesting political memoir. It is not a tell-all; it reveals little that was not already known.

But his Take the Torch does capture the mood of that period during the 1970s and ’80s, when change was in the air and all things seemed possible.

Waddell, now 76, was involved in much of that change – from the movement for Indigenous rights to the patriation of the Constitutioni to the bitter free-trade debate.

He didn’t necessarily play a central role. But like the eponymous hero of Forrest Gump, he was always there.

Politically, he came from a family of Scottish Reds. His father was an electrician in Glasgow’s shipyards and a devout socialist. The family emigrated to Toronto in 1947 when Ian was five.

As a young man, he horrified his father by joining the Liberals. During the 1962 election campaign, he chauffeured Liberal Leader Lester Pearson to events. To this day, he remains a fan of the former prime minister.

Had Waddell stayed in Toronto, he might well have continued as a Liberal. But fate took him to Vancouver. And in British Columbia, it made more sense for an ambitious young centre-leftist interested in politics to join the NDP.

New Democrats were on the move. And so was Waddell. In 1974, Pierre Trudeau’s federal Liberal government appointed Judge Tom Berger, a former leader of the B.C. NDP, to head an inquiry into a proposed pipeline down the Mackenzie River Valley. Berger hired a cadre of whip-smart young lawyers, including Waddell.

The Berger Inquiry – which resulted in the pipeline being put on hold indefinitely – represented one of the seminal events of the period. It put Indigenous and Arctic issues on the map. It was also one of the first defeats suffered by the petroleum industry in Canada.

And Waddell was front and centre.

In 1979, he won a Vancouver seat for the NDP federally and began his political career in earnest.

As his party’s energy critic, he watched the Trudeau government’s ill-starred National Energy Program implode.

The NEP, designed in part to make the oil industry more Canadian, should have been a social democratic success story. But instead, it embittered the West and laid the groundwork for a shift to the right in Canadian politics.

During the testy constitutional negotiations of the early ’80s, Waddell was one of the key NDP point persons on Indigenous issues. He justly takes some credit for the fact that Indigenous and treaty rights were included in the final Constitution.

He fought the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement long and hard. In 1987, he broke with his party and voted against the so-called Meech Lake Accord, a failed attempt to revise the Constitution in order to placate Quebec.

In 1989, he made a quixotic and ultimately unsuccessful bid for the leadership of the NDP. Looking back, he describes himself as oblivious to his own weaknesses (he had no money, no organization, no caucus support and had not dealt publicly with his sexuality).

Waddell was defeated federally in 1993. He made a rebound into provincial politics and as B.C.’s minister of tourism was instrumental in bringing the 2010 Winter Olympics to Vancouver.

He lost his provincial seat in 2001 and tried – unsuccessfully – for a federal comeback three years later.

Although he ends his book with a call for new generations to take up the fight, I’m not entirely convinced that he’s finished with politics.

But if he is, he can content himself by knowing he had a good run. A lot happened in the ’70s and ’80s. Ian Waddell was there for much of it.

Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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