Inside the Belly of the Beast: Svend Robinson
by Darren Stewart

Svend Robinson chuckles, shakes his head, sips a chocolate milk and takes a breather. He's having a busy day.

A few minutes earlier he was accosted by reporters after locking horns with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during question period. Robinson had asked a pair of questions on the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Quebec, and Canada's record on human rights. Chrétien sidestepped both queries and fired back, calling Robinson an irresponsible Member of Parliament for advocating civil disobedience.

"Did you see that?" Robinson asks, as he steps into an elevator to get away from the throng outside the House of Commons. "Civil disobedience: I can't believe he took it there."

Moments later, he would reenter the chamber and deliver a critique of the endangered species bill, in its second reading in Parliament. Robinson, a life-long activist, has been involved in various acts of peaceful civil disobedience: including the APEC rallies in Vancouver and the Clayoquat Sound logging protests-for which he was briefly imprisoned. He is now preparing to attend the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in April.

Robinson was first elected as a federal NDP member in Vancouver's Burnaby-Douglas riding in May 1979 when he was 25 years old. He has since been re-elected six times and has held an unwavering position as one of the chamber's most progressive left-wing voices. He was the first openly gay MP, coming out in 1988 despite warnings from those around him that the move would be political suicide. He is a strong advocate of human rights, environmental protection, worker's rights and transparency in government and democracy.

Most recently, he's received attention for advocating peaceful civil disobedience at the upcoming trade meetings in Quebec City, which he calls profoundly elitist and a threat to the social programs, culture and environment of Canada.

He said the trade deals take away the powers of elected officials to make decisions in their own country and explained that there is a long and honoured tradition of peaceful demonstration, which he believes has an essential role in a democracy.

"This whole process with the Summit of the Americas is profoundly undemocratic," he said. "We are told that we cannot see the texts that are being negotiated, there's going to be an armed fortress in Quebec City, a militarized city. Peaceful dissent is apparently going to be quite ruthlessly suppressed. That is profoundly undemocratic."

All 13 members of the NDP party will be on the streets in Quebec City, adding their voices to the thousands expected. Robinson said that attending the protest in solidarity will be good for his party, which is said to be suffering an identity crisis in recent times.

"I think that's what Quebec City is all about...sending out the strongest possible signal," he said. "We are serious about change and the caucus as a whole and the leader and all of us together realize that the whole issue of corporate globalization is probably the single biggest issue [of concern to the party]."

Robinson said he hopes the Quebec experience will invigorate his caucus, which took a major blow last election, dropping from 18 seats to 13, and losing a significant percentage of the popular vote. "But in a sense that was the culmination of a fairly lengthy process of becoming weaker as a movement and losing some of the support of some of our traditional allies," he said.

According to Robinson, the NDP's needs to undertake some significant steps in redefining the party, which is moving from its traditional support of workers and trade unions to a younger and progressive left base of support. He said he sees the establishment of a connection with youth activists as part of the important challenge to redefine the party.

"These people are looking for a political voice," he said. "More and more, young people are turned off the whole political process and I think that's very dangerous. While it's important to be involved in student politics, in environmental activism, in labour activism, that alone is not enough. There has to be, I would argue, that political connection, there's got to be a voice in parliament and across the country."

Less young people took part in last year's federal election, than ever before, which Robinson said his party would love to reverse.

"A lot of young people don't see the political process as relevant to their lives," he said. "They turn on the television and watch question period and find it totally divorced from their own reality. They see politics as a game that's played in Ottawa. I guess as a party, we've got to get out there. We've got to cross the country and we've got to connect with young people"

There has been much debate in the media and in political and academic circles over whether Robinson would be embraced by Canadians as leader for whatever changes may come to a newly formed NDP party, though he blanched at the question.

"Talk of leadership at this stage is a mistake," said Robinson. "I think the focus has to be on what kind of movement we're building, what kind of party do we want to see emerging out of this process. And once we've determined that, is it going to be an activist party, is it going to be a democratic socialist party is it going to be a green party? What's the relationship going to be between our party and the provincial parties? Once we've answered those basic questions, then we look at who is in the best position to lead that party. I can't answer that question right now," he said.

"I was a candidate for the national leadership in 1995 and certainly sometime in the future that's something I would consider," he added.

Those who have long followed Robinson's career believe that his leadership is inevitable, and would go far to restoring the definition and strength of the party. Morgan Stewart, who sat with Robinson on the executive board of the BC NDP party as the South Vancouver Island Coordinator, said he believes significantly more Canadians would embrace the NDP under Robinson as leader.

"Svend brings forward an agenda that he very clearly believes in," said Stewart. "People support that, people trust that. His politics are often agreed with by the majority and I think his civil disobedience is seen as an act of moral integrity by most Canadians."

Stewart said he believes that the NDP needs to reestablish itself as a strong socialist and democratic party. He said that if they were to do so, they'd have a larger presence with people at the polls. He said he believes the party has to make some changes, including giving Robinson a greater voice, possibly in a leadership role, to regain the ground it has lost.

"It takes strong spokespeople to do this," he said. "Svend's strength is taking a complicated issue-like globalization and trade regulations-and explaining it to people, taking it beyond the soundbite. This is fundamental for the NDP right now."

Robinson is humble about his support and connection with people, though he agrees that his consistently strong progressive voice and unwillingness to compromise is the reason he is consistently re-elected.

"Hopefully there's some recognition, there's some common bonds there," he said. "I've been able to push the frontiers of politics in different ways." Though he was hesitant to address his potential leadership aspirations, he's more than willing to admit that he hopes to keep his agenda as a politician in the public eye for a while yet.

"As long as I'm feeling challenged and as long as I feel that this is an effective vehicle for social, economic and environmental change, not only in Canada, but globally," he said. "I mean, I enjoy most about my work the opportunity to work for human rights and the environment internationally.

"For me if there were a bottom line it would be, hopefully, looking back when I'm sitting in a rocking chair in my cabin at Galiano Island, and saying 'I made a difference' in terms of human rights, in terms of environment, and I gave a voice to people that perhaps hadn't always had their voices heard."

Darren Stewart  once watched an episode of Dallas on a TV powered by a
car battery in a hut on a remote island in Lake Victoria, hundreds of
kilometres away from the nearest electricity. 

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