Ian Waddell's Take the Torch reveals plenty of little-known details about late 20th-century Canadian political history

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      Ian Waddell was sometimes underestimated during his many years in politics. Perhaps it was his friendly demeanour—he's a New Democrat, after all, who has no difficulty laughing through life. Or maybe it was his small stature.

      But when major events were occurring, Waddell—almost Zelig-like—was often right in the thick of things influencing the outcome.

      The former Vancouver Kingsway and Port Moody–Coquitlam MP and Vancouver-Fraserview MLA is also a terrific storyteller.

      All of this makes his new autobiography, Take the Torch: A Political Memoir, a highly entertaining read for those with a hankering for late 20th-century Canadian political history. 

      Readers learn that in the early 1970s Waddell succeeded a future mayor and premier, Mike Harcourt, as the head of the Vancouver Community Legal Assistance Society. It ran on an annual budget of $112,000, including Waddell's $17,000 salary, and introduced him to the hardships faced by Indigenous people in the legal system.

      One of Waddell's Indigenous clients was essentially jailed for poverty because he couldn't afford to pay a fine for throwing a rock after leaving a bar. Waddell lost the case in B.C.'s highest court, but he was able to mobilize fellow lawyers to lobby for a change to the law.

      In 1974, the NDP government introduced the Summary Convictions Act, which outlawed putting someone in jail for defaulting on a fine due to poverty.

      Back in the 1970s during the first B.C. NDP government, Waddell was also appointed to the provincial drug and alcohol commission.

      It was then chaired by the imaginative and open-minded Peter Stein, who had served on the very progressive LeDain Commission into nonmedical use of drugs.

      In Take the Torch, Waddell suggests that the NDP might have launched a legal heroin-maintenance program in the 1970s if then premier Dave Barrett had won a second term.

      Waddell reveals that a fellow commissioner, Ted Milligan, “prepared a confidential report on legalized heroin” at the request of the then minister of social services, Norman Levi.

      “Originally from England, as a social worker Norm Levi got a number of prisoners in the BC Pen transferred to England for heroin maintenance,” Waddell writes. “He was a gutsy guy. Had the Barrett government been re-elected, I believe it would have tried a legal heroin maintenance [program].

      “Instead, even today we leave addicts—sick people—to break into people’s homes and cars to deal with their addictions,” Waddell continues. “Surely a missed opportunity!”

      Take the Torch also discloses Waddell’s role in writing section 35 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which recognizes and affirms existing Aboriginal and treaty rights. He was assisted by Vancouver lawyer Don Rosenbloom, future B.C. Hydro chair Mark Eliesen, and future law professor Jack Woodward.

      The foursome benefited by advice from legal legend Tom Berger, who was then a B.C. Supreme Court justice and a renowned advocate for Indigenous people.

      Waddell's fellow NDP MP, Svend Robinson, was a member of the House committee dealing with the constitution. It was Robinson, who represented Burnaby in Parliament for 25 years, who defined Aboriginal peoples as including Indian, Inuit, and Métis peoples.

      "I suspect Svend doesn't believe in heaven, but if he does end up there, he deserves a prominent place!" Waddell writes.

      This section of the constitution has been crucial in expanding Indigenous rights in Canada in a multitude of ways. And Waddell credits, above all, the "steadfastness of the Aboriginal people, not only their leaders in offices throughout Canada, but also the voices and the drums that I had heard in all those villages and fish camps."

      In this passage, Waddell is referring to his time as commission counsel to Berger, who held the MacKenzie River pipeline inquiry in the 1970s.

      Waddell's Zelig-like knack for being at the centre of things also occurred after the 1980 election when he became the NDP energy critic. This came as the Trudeau government was launching its controversial National Energy Program.

      "My job was made difficult by the fact that on the one hand, a central NDP tenet was support for government intervention in the economy; we had supported—indeed, moved the original bill for—the creation of Petro-Canada, and we wanted to tax Big Oil," Waddell writes. "On the other hand, a lot of our seats were in western Canada where our predecessor the CCF had been born, and where people wanted the feds to leave their natural resources alone."

      This brought him in close contact with the top New Democrat in Alberta, Grant Notley, whose daughter Rachel is now the province's premier.

      In fact, Waddell's book is a feast of NDP names. There's a vignette about a young New Democrat named Glen Clark—a future premier—who managed his 1984 reelection campaign in Vancouver Kingsway. Five years later, a 25-year-old named Adrian Dix, now B.C.'s health minister, managed Waddell's bid to become NDP leader. 

      In the late 1990s Waddell served as the minister of small business, tourism, and culture in Clark's government, bringing Indigenous people into the planning process for Vancouver to host the Olympics. Without that decision the bid might never have succeeded.

      In addition, Waddell worked with the City of Vancouver and the federal government to restore the then dilapidated Stanley Theatre in the South Granville neighbourhood.

      It's been a cultural touchstone in the city ever since.

      But perhaps the most memorable sections of this lively book centre around Berger and Pierre Trudeau, who had a major public standoff over the constitution. Waddell reveals his role as a peacemaker between these two titans. His actions offer insights into his skill as a mediator.

      Others who show up in the book include former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, former Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, and former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. In fact, Waddell confronted Mubarak on his dreadful human-rights record, which drew a sharp rebuke.

      Even when Waddell was out of politics from 1993 to 1996, he was still influencing events. He was with the Fraser Basin Council, which sponsored the current Coquitlam–Port Moody NDP MP, Fin Donnelly, on his first swim along the length of the Fraser River.

      Donnelly's historic accomplishment drew attention to the importance of habitat restoration on B.C.'s mightiest waterway—another instance in which Waddell seemed to be in the midst of making things happen. 

      It's astonishing to think how this one NDP politician could have embedded himself so deeply into the fabric of the country, given that he arrived as an immigrant from Scotland and was originally a Liberal.

      But hey, that's Ian Waddell. It shows how far people can go in life if they keep a smile on their face, know how to tell a good story, cultivate good relations with people from across the political spectrum, and pay attention to the details.

      Ian Waddell will hold a book launch for Take the Torch: A Political Memoir from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Historic Courtroom #4 in the Vancouver Art Gallery on November 14.