Canada's 'most dangerous man' is back -- and he's worried
Published by the Ottawa Citizen, September 13, 2003
Western Canadian alienation has a voice, a face and a name and, after a brief hiatus, it has resumed its 19-year career as Vancouver's most popular radio talk show host. Rafe Mair, the acerbic, knowledgeable bane of federal and British Columbia politicians, was felled by the forces of political correctness when, earlier this year, CKNW fired him for upsetting his female producer. Among other things, he had suggested she was "acting like a little girl with her knickers in a knot."
On Sept. 2, though, it was back to business as usual, excoriating a centrally dominated, stultified federal system and the "toadies" and "lickspittlers" who populate political parties, but this time at a new radio station and with a new producer.
The man Brian Mulroney once called a traitor and John Crosbie labelled "Canada's most dangerous man" is now in his seventies. His life is the study of a person who is fully politicized and passionate, yet despairing, about the future of his country.
Born in Vancouver and trained as a lawyer at the University of British Columbia, Mair apprenticed in politics as a Kamloops city councillor. Later, fed up with Dave Barrett's NDP government, he went to work for the new Socred leader, Bill Bennett, the one politician he still admires both for his competence and his toughness and for whom he served in several portfolios.
While working on the constitutional affairs file leading up to the 1982 patriation of the Constitution, Mair learned how Canada worked. He and constitutional expert Melvin Smith made several proposals to the 1978 First Ministers' Conference. Pivotal among them was a call for a dramatically changed Senate that would equally represent five regions of Canada. In what would be an ironic twist of history, then-Alberta premier Peter Lougheed opposed it -- pushing instead for institutionalizing First Ministers' Conferences.
Mair also served on the Committee of Cabinet Ministers on the Constitution, which forged the current 7/50 amending formula (seven provinces, 50 per cent of the population) that Pierre Trudeau accepted in return for the provinces accepting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
These experiences continue to inform Mair's work. Unsparing as a radio broadcaster, his modus operandi is to test all propositions. "I am a cross-examiner by instinct and practice ... until an idea is fully tested in the real world, it should not be accepted," he says. His daily public affairs show features his personal editorials, thoroughly grilled politicians and experts, and any and all callers who wish to pitch in.
In 1995, his program won journalism's most prestigious award, The Michener Award, but he is most proud of having led the charge against the Charlottetown Accord. Invoking "Mair's Axiom 1: Why on Earth should we assume that these men in charge knew what the hell they were doing?", closely followed by Axiom 2: "In politics, you don't have to a be a 10. You can be a 3 if everyone else is a 2," he opposed the accord's fundamental breach of democratic principles.
His biggest fear is that Canada will break up. Critical to the health of a federal state is the ability to debate, organize and effect change, he argues. Since 1995, when separatist forces nearly won the Quebec referendum and Jean Chretien passed a resolution preventing Parliament from amending the Constitution without unanimous consent from the regions, such change has become impossible. Fervently opposed to the power of the veto because it "constipates the body politic," he says: "The bottom line is that no democratic federation can exist for long when its Constitution cannot, for all practical purposes, be changed."
Never having participated meaningfully in national affairs, and denied the constitutional changes to which its increased population and importance entitle it, British Columbia will, he believes, eventually secede.
Rescinding the 1995 House of Commons resolution is one possible remedy, but Mair isn't optimistic. In fact, he suspects that in the next election many British Columbians will strategize their voting and "with thumb and fore finger firmly on the nasal passages," vote Liberal. "I give the Liberals double their present numbers at the expense of the Alliance ... and a reasonable resurgence for the NDP. And, at the end of the day, guess what?
"Nothing will have changed. Ontario and Quebec will continue to rule the country with a mailed fist ..."
Margret Kopala's column on western perspectives appears here weekly.