03/07/2013 05:38 EST | Updated 05/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Watching the Watchdog: Chasing the Revolution

Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

My first time is back in the '60s.

I'm a very young newspaper reporter at the liberal (for apartheid-poisoned South Africa) Sunday Express in Johannesburg when I fall in with a wild and racy theatre crowd.

They drink a lot, sleep around a lot (I remember the beautiful and much older Maureen with lingering lust), smoke dagga a lot, and delight in disobeying the racist laws of the fascist authorities.

Those laws decree that it's illegal for white people like us to party with, drink with or -- in particular -- have sex with black, brown or Asian people. You go to jail if you're caught.

So of course we, the rather self-consciously avant garde, do all these things. And it's great fun. Particularly because it's so dangerous.

Actor Bill Brewer throws some of the best mixed-race parties. He fills his penthouse with black people, brown people, Asian people and white people for delightfully educating evenings of law-breaking getting-to-know-you fun and games.

In effect, every time we party we say screw you to the apartheid government and learn more about each other and each other's humanity. And, we believe, move South Africa a little closer to the inevitable revolution that will end with multi-racial democracy.

There are spies everywhere. So each of us arrives separately, hurries up the steps and into the elevator, careful not to acknowledge the other, particularly if we're of different races.

Only when I'm in the penthouse and Bill Brewer has recognized me and the door's locked can my personal revolution begin.


My next time is in New York in the '70s.

I'm a bit older and a lot more experienced. I've worked in Zimbabwe and Zambia and covered two Congo wars for United Press International. Now I'm a reporter/producer for ABC-TV.

Nine-thousand miles away, the obscene colonial Vietnam war grinds on into its tenth year. Down south, police, Klansmen and whoever feels strongly about "nigras and outside agitators" attack freedom marchers and murder civil rights workers.

It's all a bloody mess. So I join the banned very-left-wing Trotskyists who believe in ending the war and racism, supporting the dictatorship of the proletariat, and starting permanent revolution.

One of my tasks is to duplicate Trot leaflets calling for the downfall of the government and the running dogs of imperialism who own the military-industrial complex. I do this late at night on ABC's hand-cranked Gestetner printing machine. Then I stroll outside and around the corner and pass them to a mysterious man named Ivor who disappears into the darkness to start our revolution by pasting the leaflets on lampposts and construction sites.

We Trots meet every Thursday evening at an apartment in a Lower East Side semi-abandoned building right next to the elevated subway.

Every time a train approaches the whole building shakes and everyone stops talking revolution. That's because an anarchist who lives in the apartment beneath makes bombs for various revolutionary groups and isn't considered entirely stable.

Once again, we revolutionaries arrive separately, casually drifting in off the street. Nobody acknowledges anyone else until a guard at the apartment door checks us out, lets us in and the door's locked so the revolution can begin again.


Which brings me to my last time, just a week ago.

I'm in the Duke of York pub in Toronto. Only a few miles from the spot where, during the Upper Canada Rebellions, the battle of Montgomery's Tavern is fought over responsible government and political reform.

One-hundred-and-seventy-five years later, a group called Why Should I Care? has called a meeting in the Duke to discuss these very same topics -- responsible government and political reform.

People arrive mostly one by one, and instead of turning left and heading for the pub, revelry and fun, walk up the stairs for some serious political discussion and to have their names checked by the man at the door.

But inside the Duke this evening, there's none of the fiery revolutionary rhetoric of William Lyon Mackenzie. Instead, three polite and reasonable speakers who unite to tell the audience that Canada's parliamentary system simply isn't working and must be reformed.

Peter Russell who's described as "a venerable constitutional scholar and advisor to Governor Generals" says the main problem is our first-past-the-post system.

It's turned single-party majority government, he says, into a corporation.

"We don't have policy any more, we have a brand. Like a corporation. Which is spun by the Prime Minister's Office" "There's no room in a corporation selling a product, a brand, to discuss very much." "The main way they communicate to the public is to sell (the brand) like soap or cars or some product. That's what you're faced with if we continue with first past the post."

The closest Russell comes to a call to arms is:

"All over this country, there are groups like your own who are very, very concerned about the state of our democracy today." "Thank God you're showing this concern about parliamentary democracy."

Wayne Smith who's Executive Director of Fair Vote Canada also questions the "antique" voting system. He claims that most of us are represented in parliament and in our provincial legislatures by people we voted against. "How screwy is that?" he asks rhetorically.

"I want my politicians to be accountable to voters. I want political parties to be accountable to voters. And I want the government to be accountable to the legislature. And when one party's got a phony majority government, there is no accountability."

Borys Wrzesnewkyi, who's a former Liberal MP, says it's appropriate that the meeting is being held in a pub. Everyone applauds when he suggests there's some of "the spirit of Montgomery's Tavern" present in the Duke.

He sums up parliament: "The House of Commons has become no better than the senate. It's a symbolic institution. Louder, perhaps, but it really doesn't decide anything."

Maybe all this very Canadian reasonableness is a sign of the times.

Maybe we're all exhausted by Stephen Harper's Sun King, Prime-Minister-For-Life arrogance based on less than 40 per cent of the vote. And his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink C-45 budget bill. And his ability to blissfully ignore the system of participatory parliamentary democracy upon which Canada's democracy and politics are based.


Even so, I'm a little wistful for the heady days when I could go to jail (or have a subway train explode a bomb underneath me) just for going to a gathering of people who think the political system is rotten and really, really want to change it.