Just over a year ago, I was invited to apply for a position as press secretary to John Baird.
After much consideration, I turned the opportunity down even though it would have been a dream to work for one of Canada's strongest and able parliamentarians. Baird might be partisan to the core but the fact is, he has always been friendly to his opponents and a great mentor to those willing to follow in his footsteps. He was to Stephen Harper what Jean Chrétien was to Pierre Trudeau.
I first met Baird when he was a candidate to be an MP, in Ottawa West-Nepean, a decade ago.
As one of only two black faces in his campaign office, I was asked to help facilitate a meeting with the emerging African-Canadian population in his riding. To prepare him for the eventual meeting, I was asked to spend time with him and I certainly did. He was nothing like what I saw on TV up-close.
I did not have much in common with him. He adored Margaret Thatcher and I hated her. He believed Mike Harris was a great Premier and I did not. I was an immigrant from a country he probably never heard of (then) and he was a man of privilege and connections. I was not.
To find a common ground, he reflected with me his visits to Atlanta. He reflected with me how he was inspired when he visited black churches and how fulfilled he was when he visited The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and how the life of the Nobel Peace Laureate impacted him. We talked about provincial politics, his great mentor, Perrin Beatty, and how much he wanted to empower new Canadians find a place in mainstream Canada.
We spoke about race and racism. I inquired about the extremism side of the new Conservative party. Whether, the former Reform and then Conservative MP, who expressed the view that should he have a business and if any customer complained about his black or gay employees, he would ship them to the back would be a mainstream or fringe voice should his party win the election. He assured me that anyone with that view would be a neglected voice in any future government.
I attended many debates with him especially in multicultural communities. I remember walking with him into a debate organized by the Somali-Canadian community and the Liberal candidate refusing to debate him. Essentially, the Liberal candidate was playing to the resentment that he was against immigrants, the poor and his controversial record as a senior Minister in the Mike Harris provincial government.
When he spoke to defend himself, he would often be shouted down as racist and sexist. He believed in the potential of the residents not their limitations. He did not want to offer Band-Aid solutions to people's problems, as the Liberals often do, but offer new ideas and perspectives.
He would promise them jobs and accessible home-ownerships instead of social programs and subsidized houses. To the Somali-Canadian activist who was then (and still is today) languishing in an Ethiopian prison, he promised to be his greatest advocate even promising to fly wherever he is, to fight for his release. He was real ambitious in the future successes of Canada's newest immigrants as he was in his own political career.
He was kind, thoughtful, passionate and cared about people. I liked being part of Team Baird.
After being in the Liberal wilderness as an undervalued volunteer for a long time, I liked the chance to engage and help one of Canada's star politicians. I valued the many conversations I had with him and learned, from him, how much politics can be powerful to advocate for important values.
He would often invite me and many young volunteers to his townhouse after a long day to unwind and relax. Each time, I would be surprised by his love and ownership of many cats, all painted pink, and how he has been on strict vegetarian diet since childhood. His child-like personality when he is in a private surrounding contradicts the bombastic Baird that Canada knows him to be.
'Til the wee hours, we would talk politics. He was always generous with his time and I learned much from him.
Today, he stood inside the House of Commons, and reflected how he "was perhaps just a little naive. Driven by ideology, defined by partisanship, at the age of 25," but "quickly (he) learned though to make a difference, to really make a difference, you can't be defined by partisanship, nor by ideology. You need instead to be defined by your values."
Indeed, I wish you the very best, John Baird.
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