In the interest of full disclosure, I worked as a member of the political staff in the Bob Rae government during the early ‘90s. From the point of view of being a Canadian of African descent, it was with some disappointment that I received the news that Rae would not be seeking the permanent leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.
My disappointment is not because I have any particular love for the Liberal Party. It is that, notwithstanding his change of party, I continue to have a great deal of respect for Rae. It would have been interesting to see what kind of Prime Minister he would have made.
As Premier of Ontario, Rae brought many changes that recognized and responded to the needs of the Black community more than anyone since. Moreover, he was in the process of solidifying those changes when our reversal of fortune took place with the election of Mike Harris.
On May 4, 1992, when a demonstration on Yonge Street, protesting the dismissal of charges against Los Angeles police officers who were filmed beating Black motorist, Rodney King erupted into violence and vandalism, Rae met with community leaders and listened. Recognizing that there was more to the story, he asked former UN Ambassador, Stephen Lewis, to look into the problems and report back. Lewis did just that, replying in the form of a letter with the heading, “Dear Bob”, which informed a program of wide-ranging changes to address anti-Black racism in the province.
Even before those events, however, there were considerable changes underway in the fortunes of our community. To begin with, the appointment of Zanana Akande as a cabinet minister; Fran Endicott as Chief Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission; the process toward development of the Employment Equity Act, and the change of focus and importance of the Race Relations Directorate to the Ontario Anti-Racism Secretariat. These, I would like to believe, provided a sense of: “Finally, someone recognizes that we are intelligent people too.”
I don’t want to suggest that everything was perfect during Rae’s administration. They were not. There were some missteps and shortcomings. For instance, many believed that the Employment Equity Act that Rae had proposed while in opposition should have been re-introduced very quickly on assuming the government. Instead, the NDP government undertook a province-wide consultation that delayed the introduction and passage of the Act. As a result, it was relatively easy for Harris to dismantle the Employment Equity Commission and the Act.
As noted above, with the defeat of the Rae government, the Black community witnessed a reversal of fortune. Among the prevailing reasons for the defeat is the way Rae handled the economy. Some in the unions believed that he betrayed them by imposing legislation ignoring or revoking collective bargaining agreements. Others would have you believe that it was the Employment Equity Act. In reality, it was a combination of all three, and perhaps more.
The one that “appeals” to me the most is the fact that the NDP government’s urgent program of equity and anti-racism proved to be a bit more than the majority population was prepared to handle. The Harris Tories, with the help of the daily newspapers in Toronto, managed to popularize the negative label, “quotas”, to the Employment Equity Act, and fed into the fears and wrong-headed beliefs that seem to come up whenever the economy is in trouble: ‘they are taking our jobs’.
The bottom line is that Rae proved to be a courageous leader who recognized that something was wrong and moved to do something about it, notwithstanding the political climate.
The courageous moves were not limited to the Black community. The proposal for the famous “Rae days” was another. He also introduced the nation-to-nation working relationship with Canada’s first peoples.
It was no less courageous that Rae, after his break with the NDP, decided to seek his fortunes with the Liberal Party of Canada. Given his history in Ontario and knowing that he would face incredible challenges to surmount, he nevertheless charged into the fray. As if that was not enough, he then went about seeking the leadership of the party – twice.
Whether Rae as leader, and perhaps later as prime minister, would have addressed equity issues, particularly as they concerned Black people, with the same intensity we will never know. I would like to think he would have, although he would have been constrained by the party’s heavy dependence on public opinion.
So, is Rae going to go gently into that good night? Somehow, I think not. He decided not to exercise the option that the party was giving him – to seek the leadership permanently. After much contemplation he decided to live with his promise not to seek the leadership; a condition of his accepting the job on an interim basis. Of course, the additional reasons of time consideration in reaching the prime ministership played a role in his decision.
I would not, however, be surprised if once the new leader is in place, Prime Minister Harper will appoint Rae to a very high profile position, perhaps Ambassador to the UN, or something like that. Whatever it is, it will be well-deserved.
By PATRICK HUNTER