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Prominent labour activist, plus well-known chanteuse and LGBTQ+ activist, named to Alberta Order of Excellence

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Reg Basken (Photo: David J. Climenhaga)

What a pleasure it was yesterday to see Reg Basken's name on the 2018 list of eight new members of the Alberta Order of Excellence.

There was a day I wasn't at all sure it was even possible for someone associated with a trade union to be honoured in this way. But, for sure, Basken was and is a union guy.

He joined the union at the Saskatchewan Power Corp.'s operation in Estevan in about 1957 and has been a labour activist ever since. As long as I've known him he's been someone who was never afraid to say what he thinks.

The native of Churchbridge, Sask., moved to Edmonton in 1967, Canada's Centennial year, after spending three years in Winnipeg -- which, as he noted much later in an interview with the Alberta Labour History Institute, felt like 30.

At various times, Basken was a representative for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (a predecessor to the CEP and Unifor) and on the staff of the Canadian Labour Congress. From 1972 to 1978, he was the last volunteer president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. In that time frame, he was also president of the provincial NDP.

From 1999 until last year, Basken did yeoman service for the people of Alberta as member of the Alberta Labour Relations Board. As you would expect from the recipient of such an honour, he was also a community-minded guy, volunteering for numerous boards to work for literacy, social services and public safety, including the United Way.

Basken is also an unblushing economic nationalist. That is to say, he was always someone who forcefully argued jobs from Alberta's resource bounty should remain in Alberta. He called regularly for the development of the province's tarsands (back in the days when "tarsands" was still considered a respectable thing to call them) and also for refining the products mined there in Alberta instead of slavishly doing the bidding of foreign-owned resource companies with refining capacity elsewhere. That's what Alberta unions used to call shipping high-value jobs down the pipeline.

I am personally grateful to Basken for not complaining about me back in the mid 1970s when I was a young reporter for the Calgary Herald. He would have been within his rights to phone up the editor and say I'd deliberately misquoted him.

The circumstance was an AFL conference in Calgary. Labour leaders are above all retail politicians -- that, by the way, why it's insulting and misleading to call them "labour bosses" -- and Basken was no exception. He bought me a beer … maybe it was a couple … and laughed politely when I cracked a joke about how, "Old AFL resolutions never die, they just come to pass."

"I wish I'd said that," Basken observed with a courteous chuckle.

Back at the Herald's office, still in good spirits thanks to the free beer, I decided to grant him his wish. I reported our conversation as if he had said it. Thereafter, I lived in fear for a few days, until it was obvious Basken wasn't going rat me out.

Who knows? Maybe he meant it. Perhaps he really was pleased to get the credit. More likely, I reckon, it was an act of charity. Regardless, I'm grateful.

As noted, I can also remember a day when I was pretty sure a person connected with labour wouldn't be considered for the Alberta Order of Excellence. Years ago, when I nominated one such person, who shall remain nameless to protect the unhonoured, the suggestion fell on stony ground -- notwithstanding a kindly supporting letter from no less an Alberta public figure than Ralph Klein, a premier not normally associated with his friendliness to union folks.

Nowadays, the chair of the Order is a well-known lawyer and respected labour mediator who truly gets it about the contribution unions make to society. I have no idea how the deliberations of the Order's selection committee worked as they sorted through 150 or so nominations considered this year, but I'm confident Andrew Sims well understood the tremendous contribution Basken has made to Alberta.

Alberta's conservatives have been known to grumble about such honours if they don't all go to eight of their own. But if there's anyone on the list that some oil company front group or conservative Internet trolling society gets up a petition about, I doubt it would be Basken.

And Conservatives starting to hyperventilate about the possibility of environmentalist David Suzuki ever being nominated can settle down. You actually have to live here, at least some of the time, to be considered.

Who knows, though? There might be another name on the list that will get some conservative knickers in a twist.

The other 2018 recipients are:

Rosella Bjornson of Sherwood Park, the first female jet aircraft pilot in North America. I don't know if she ever broke the sound barrier, but she certainly broke through the glass ceiling in the airline industry. She was also the first female member of the Canadian Air Line Pilots Association.

Wayne Chiu of Calgary, a real estate developer who has emphasized affordable and sustainable social developments in his career. The Trico Homes founder is also a member of the Order of Canada.

David Manz of Calgary, an engineer who invented an inexpensive water filtering system, a sustainable technology that is making safe water accessible in many parts of the world.

Solomon Rolingher of Edmonton, a lawyer and armed forces reserve officer who has devoted many efforts to interfaith co-operation and protecting Edmonton's river valley.

Allan Wachowich of Edmonton, a prominent jurist, admitted to the Alberta Bar in 1959, who served as chief justice of the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta from 2000 to 2009. He was the first Chancellor of Edmonton's Concordia University and has also received a University of Alberta honorary degree.

Ralph Young of Edmonton, chair of the Melcor real estate development company board and Chancellor of the U of A.

Oh, and wait … there's one more! A popular singer and LBGTQ+ activist named k.d. lang.

Ms. lang once famously lobbed a rhetorical hand grenade at Jason Kenney, infuriating the right-wing trolls who live under Alberta's bridges.

It will be interesting to see if they react this time, as Kenney appears nevertheless to have granted his blessing to the honour.

The investiture ceremony is scheduled to take place on Oct. 18. The additions will bring the total of recipients of the Order to 173.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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