04/22/2012 04:30 EDT | Updated 06/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta NDP leader Brian Mason continues to shape policy one loss at a time

EDMONTON - When Brian Mason was in junior high school, he believed the U.S. needed to fight in Vietnam.

By high school he was against it.

Mason had a keg party to celebrate when America's 37th president, Richard Nixon, quit one step ahead of impeachment for lying and spying on his own people.

Along the way, and in the two-decade political career that has followed, the leader of Alberta's New Democrats hasn't forgotten those lessons — that those who speak truth to power can win but must forever fight for the right to be heard.

"It was a little bit transformative," says Mason, reflecting in an interview on his childhood in Calgary.

"The whole '60s thing was happening. The youth culture was exploding."

Mason was 11 years old when U.S. marines waded ashore at Danang in 1965 to escalate the ground war in Asia.

Communism was on the march, the newspapers and TV told Mason, and America was drawing the line at South Vietnam.

Six years later, it had become a conflict without end or purpose. Thousands of marines and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were dead. There were bloody anti-war protests in the United States, the My Lai massacre, Agent Orange and the Pentagon Papers. Success was measured in dead bodies.

Public opinion demanded an end and the U.S. got out.

"Part of it was realizing that what you read in the paper or saw on TV wasn't necessarily an objective reflection of reality, that it often represented what somebody wanted you to think, usually the government," says Mason.

"That was a realization that I had to come to before I could change my mind on things like Vietnam."

The son of an electrical engineer and one of four children, Mason was born on Oct. 12, 1953, in south Calgary. He grew up there, but moved to Edmonton at 21 to continue university.

He did the usual kid things: going to drag races, growing his hair long, catching the bus to the mall to get the new Beatles album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

The dinner table discussions were political and came from every direction. His mother was a Liberal, his father a red Tory who later helped found the Reform party. His grandfather was a Tory senator.

"I would try out things by arguing them vociferously," says Mason.

"I would adopt a strong opinion, provisionally argue it and see if it worked. If it didn't work, I would change my mind."

In high school, he helped a friend campaign for student council and got hooked on the strategy and tactics of political combat.

At the University of Alberta, he studied politics and ran for arts rep on student council. He remembers passing out Letraset copies of his five principles to harried undergrads outside the Tory Building lecture halls. Nobody else did. He won.

He served as director of the Federation of Alberta Students, pushing then-Alberta premier Peter Lougheed on reforms for tuition rates and student loans.

After university, he drove a transit bus through Edmonton's lower-income north end to support his wife and young family. Daily he would literally open his door to the challenges of those on the fringe: bleary-eyed mothers up in the pre-dawn darkness taking children to day care, angry teens with nothing to do, men with nowhere to go.

After one shift ended, he found a Salvadoran immigrant still with him, lost in the city. He parked the bus and gave him a ride home in his car.

He ran for city council in 1989 to represent that same north end. To do it, he had to quit his job as a civic employee — a big risk with a young family. Do it, his sister-in-law advised him. If voters see you're willing to risk so much, they'll back you.

He did and they did.

He served 11 years on city council, fighting for an area that had little more than junkyards, pawnshops, a jail, and a landfill.

By the time Mason successfully jumped to the provincial NDP in 2000, his district had sports facilities, transit upgrades, a library and a medical centre.

Mason admits his new life under the dome of the provincial legislature has been difficult.

He went from a consensus government where his voice was heard to a partisan political environment where he was facing massive Tory majorities.

He learned the only way to change policy was by shaming the Tories, speaking past them in question period to mobilize public opinion and force them to act.

He did that in an unrelenting attack that ultimately forced the Tories under former premier Ralph Klein to pull back from controversial health reforms that would have expanded private care and allowed doctors to work in both systems.

The NDP kept the heat on and rallied public opinion against the initiative. There were petitions and rallies. In the spring of 2006, the Tories shelved the plan.

"With their massive majority they couldn't get it past us," says Mason.

"When they dropped it, when they finally said it's dead, Ralph Klein stood up in the legislature in question period and pointed at us and said, 'If it wasn't for that group over there and their misinformation, this plan would have gone ahead.'

"He couldn't have said anything that could have made me more proud."

At 58, Mason says he has no plans to step down despite the impossible task his party faces.

"You lose a battle but you make a point, and people get it, and the politics shifts. You fight another battle and it shifts some more.

"And you can make progress."