A recent afternoon in Ottawa, Ontario is slighter cooler than it has been lately; the sauna chilled to swelter. Bill Blaikie, the New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament for Winnipeg-Transcona, is in town for a meet-and-greet with local NDP folks.
After twenty-three years in Parliament, he’s running for the leadership. He’ll have big shoes to fill, but his feet are size 13 EEEEE.
We are in Bridgehead, a coffee house for the well heeled and conscious — it’s all fair trade coffee at Steve-O prices — and I have two free coffees on my club card so it’s my treat. He thanks me. We settle in a banquette and I start in on him. I need to get a sense of what kind of person he is and decide if this guy should be on the nightly news.
Any candidate for the leadership of a political party will be predictable in his or her stances and spin-doctored in their usual responses. I don’t care that Blaikie is the House leader for the NDP and the inter-governmental affairs critic. I need to know other things.
Like, what does he collect? Behind his glasses Blaikie#0146;s eyes contract and then widen; this is not the first question he’s expected. He thinks for a moment and says paddles. There is silence. I wonder if he has nothing to say about paddles, but then he says more and this is the pattern of our chit-chat: surprise at what I ask, a short answer, and then a long nice answer, often laced with a story.
Turns out he has about a dozen paddles and a couple of canoes. He’s serious about canoeing; has been since he was little and his Dad took him to Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba. As his story gains speed and sureness, he tells me about sleeping in the back of the station wagon on these trips, how in the dark he slept close to his Dad because you never know what monsters might be out there waiting for you.
I am charmed by this detail.
It’s obvious that self-promotion is difficult for him. Does he have handlers, people telling him what to wear? Not yet, anyway, he says. Some people have suggested he shave his beard, but he doesn’t want to. Heâe(TM)s had it a long time, and he wouldn’t vote for someone who shaved off their beard just to look like a smoothy.
He is summer casual in dark green cotton pants; his shirt is a dusky pompeian pink exactly the colour of his lips. He’s wearing worn down Birkenstock sandals, which he wears a lot, and these are of course the icon footwear of gay women everywhere. Naturally, I can’t resist. I ask Blaikie if he is a lesbian. Eyes pucker and go wide, and then he laughs. No.
Blaikie dislikes that he is always described in articles first by his size. “Oh,” I intone deeply, pretending to read, “Bill Blaikie is a big bear of man,” and he laughs again. “Yeah, right,” he says. “No one ever gets as described as the tiny…”
Bill Blaikie is a big bear of a man.
I don’t expect Blaikie to connect with me at all. It’s the first time we’ve met, and politicians — especially on the stump — tend to preface every sentence with “let me be perfectly clear” before reciting policy from some document, but he does talk about things I care about.
The market mentality we live with turns everything into a commodity. The NDP, he says, does not accept a benign view of the market.
Heâe(TM)s fought against agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI); he says they threaten our democratic right to choose our own values and policies, and pressure us into adopting American ways of doing things. My thoughts, too.
He seems steady. He seems like the kind of guy who would be good to have around when it comes time to shore up the dock or haul some rock out of the garden. It’s feeling that way about him that makes me say Blaikie is OK. Come January, if he becomes the new leader, I’ll feel OK.
As we leave the coffee house, Blaikie tells me about his grandfather sending him a bagpipe chanter for his 10th birthday. He’s played ever since. I tell him I’ve just taken up the fiddle, and in the autumn or early winter, when he’s stumping through Halifax, we can play a little duet. “Camptown Races,” I suggest. Bill Blaikie’s eyes go narrow and then wide.
“Iâe(TM)ll learn it,” he says.