Each week, the Voice From the Crowd collection seeks to honour the story of a Canadian leader whose faith can be seen as an inextricable part of their contribution to Canada. Initially launched as the Thread of 1000 Stories initiative to mark Canada’s Sesquicentennial anniversary, this collection continues to grow and expand in partnership with senior editorial advisor, Lloyd Mackey, Founding Editor of the Online Encyclopedia of Canadian Christian Leaders. Join us as we continue to honour Canada’s faithful leaders past and present.
Nigel Hannaford is a former newspaper executive and member of the Calgary Herald editorial board. From 2009 to 2015, he managed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s speechwriting department. Hannaford earned a BSc in political and international studies from Southampton (England) University in 1969.
Raised in Transcona, a working class suburb of Winnipeg, Bill Blaikie was born there to long-time CN supervisor Robert Blaikie and his wife, Kay. The family attended Transcona Memorial United Church.
While still attending Transcona Collegiate Institute high school, Blaikie joined a local militia unit, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, as a piper and was also trained as an infantryman.
He credits an early interest in politics to his politically active Tory mother. Recalling the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 for example, he says, “There probably weren’t that many nine-year olds watching. I was something of a political geek.” And, when the local Jaycees organized a model parliament he took part for several years, serving as Prime Minister in 1970. He also participated for a few years in the United Church-sponsored Tuxis and Older Boys Parliament, now the Manitoba Youth Parliament.
Yet, as with many of his generation, the social restlessness of the late sixties wrought radical changes in Blaikie’s thinking. In particular, with the deeply divisive Vietnam War ramping up, he felt Canadian conservatism allowed little space for critical thinking on American foreign policy. After listening to prominent NDP leaders such as MJ Coldwell – and Tommy Douglas, whom he listened to on TV at the 1971 NDP convention – he concluded he was in the wrong party. In 1971, he switched to the NDP.
He likes to joke that, “I was never an adult and a Tory at the same time.”
In the years that immediately followed, at the University of Winnipeg, he experienced a parallel evolution of his Christian understanding.
Blaikie originally intended to study political science and law.
However, his personal quest to "think through religion and politics" led him instead to philosophy and religious studies and in 1973, Blaikie graduated from the University of Winnipeg with a BA in religious studies and philosophy.
His wife Brenda, whom he was dating while at the university, also graduated from the University of Winnipeg that same year. Brenda went on to study education at the University of Manitoba, and would later teach high school in Toronto while he was in seminary. Brenda also went to Transcona Memorial United, and taught Sunday School there while going to university.
The two were well known to each other. Brenda had also gone to Transcona Collegiate Institute and her father had been one of his Cub leaders.
In that same year the two were married, and went on to have four children, two of whom are prominent in NDP politics today (2017).
While Brenda obtained her education degree, Blaikie worked midnights at the rail shops during the winter of 1973-74 and did a fourth year of Honours Philosophy during the day. In the fall of 1973 he was nominated by his former religious studies professors, Carl Ridd and John Badertscher, for a scholarship from The Fund for Theological Education called Trial Year in Seminary, which he thereafter won, and enrolled in the Toronto School of Theology at the United Church’s Emmanuel College. In his three years there from 1974 to 1977, he also took courses from Anglican, Presbyterian, and Catholic professors, at Trinity, Knox, and St. Michael’s respectively. The fellowship worked as intended and he felt called to go into the ministry.
He graduated in 1977 with a Master of Divinity Degree, and from 1977 to 1979 he was the director of a United Church inner-city ministry in Winnipeg’s North End, working out of the same building that J.S. Woodsworth, one of his inspirations, had worked out of decades before. He was ordained in 1978.
Beyond running programs for people in the neighbourhood, Blaikie saw part of his ministry there as working with community groups on social issues like housing. He also visited other Winnipeg United Churches, challenging them on social justice issues and to support change to "the political and economic circumstances within which we work."
The following year Blaikie entered politics, winning the Winnipeg-Birds Hill riding in the 1979 election that brought Joe Clark to the Prime Minister’s Office. In doing so, he defeated the incumbent Progressive Conservative Dean Whiteway to become, at 28, one of the youngest MPs in the House. Almost immediately, he had to defend his seat; the short-lived minority government of Joe Clark fell early the next year, precipitating another general election.
He won handily however, then held the seat and those formed from it in subsequent boundary redistributions through seven more elections until his retirement from federal politics in 2008.
Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had campaigned on the promise of a "just society." With a progressive social policy to enlarge the state’s footprint within Canada, the early eighties were propitious years for a young reform-minded MP to make his voice heard. NDP leader Ed Broadbent had 26 MPs at his disposal; with major changes in healthcare coming, he assigned the job of Health Critic to Blaikie.
In his firm conviction that quality, guaranteed healthcare was an essential part of changing "the political and economic circumstances within which we work," Blaikie did not disappoint. Even his parliamentary opponents credited him with an influence upon the final success of the Canada Health Act out of all proportion to his status as an opposition critic. In her memoirs, Health Minister Monique Begin described his campaign as "guerrilla warfare." More than thirty years later, Blaikie plays it down: “It is rare in parliamentary life to have a personal achievement. So much depends upon team work.” Yet, the financing of public health and the conditions under which it is administered remain today a testament to Blaikie’s persistence and conviction.
Over the years, Blaikie also
- Spoke for the NDP on the Clarity Act, persuading the government to include the voice of aboriginal people should Quebec hold a referendum on separation
- Opposed opening national parks to industry
- Proposed a moratorium on nuclear construction
- Voted against reinstatement of the death penalty
- Opposed the testing of US cruise missiles in Canada
- Opposed Canada’s Free Trade Agreement with the U.S.
- Opposed cuts to social programs
- Criticized the Supreme Court decision to lift the ban on Sunday shopping, reasoning that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms under which the Lord’s Day Act was struck down, had been intended to guarantee freedom of religion, not freedom from religion
- Was among the NDP MPs in 1980 that urged Ed Broadbent to withdraw and withhold support for Trudeau’s constitutional patriation package until aboriginal rights were recognized in the proposed legislation.
And, coming from a gun-owning family – as a boy, he went duck-hunting with his Hunter Safety Instructor father – he also voted against the Liberal gun registry.
“It wasn’t a theological perspective in itself. I had already supported two rounds of Liberal gun control legislation, and had promised many constituents that if it ever came to a long gun registry, I would vote against it. But you could argue that keeping a promise has a theological dimension to it. In any event, I was also able to understand the resentment that many gun owners had at being somehow held accountable or blamed for the actions of a small minority of gun users.”
Bill Blaikie made one bid for the party leadership, in 2003. Despite wide support within the caucus, he lost on the convention floor to Jack Layton.
Ironically Layton, like Blaikie, was originally shaped by both political conservatism and liberalism and a socially liberal United Church. Layton’s father, Robert, as a young man, was a Liberal activist and, later, became a Progressive Conservative, serving in Brian Mulroney’s Cabinet from 1984 to 1986 as Minister of State for Mines.
On the religious side, he was a United Church Bible class teacher in Hudson Quebec. Years later, Jack would haul out his father’s well-worn leather Bible to read scripture at the annual Ottawa Parliamentary Prayer Breakfasts.
In 2005, Layton was asked by Faith Today, an evangelical leadership magazine, to write a column about the role of faith in politics, along with then Liberal and Conservative leaders Paul Martin and Stephen Harper. He asked his former leadership rival to share the byline for his article, allowing Blaikie to serve in almost a pastoral role for that particular occasion.
He retired from Parliament in 2008, then entered provincial politics in Manitoba to serve from 2009 to 2011 as MLA for Elmwood, Minister of Conservation, and Government House Leader before withdrawing from public life altogether to teach at his alma mater, the University of Winnipeg.
Much respected by all with whom he worked, Blaikie was appointed to the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada in 2003. In 2007, he received Maclean’s second annual Parliamentarian of the Year award, based upon a secret vote of his peers, and in 2013 received the Distinguished Service Award from the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians.
He also holds honorary Doctorates in Divinity from both the University of Winnipeg (2007,) and from Victoria University (2009), Toronto.
His memoirs, The Blaikie Report - An Insider’s Look at Faith and Politics, were published by United Church Publishing House in 2011.
In some ways, Bill Blaikie’s career parallels the fortunes of his party. The NDP has been a force of influence. For many, it has been an inspiration. However, the electorate never allowed it to form a government.
It is, perhaps, just the prophet’s destiny.
Blaikie’s post-secondary education endowed him with a sincere, cohesive world-view much influenced by the ministry of the Old Testament prophets. He admits to an unremarkable childhood experience of church, youth groups and "seven years perfect Sunday school attendance." But, during the transformative years at Winnipeg and later in Toronto he was exposed to – and indeed sought out – thinkers who persuaded him that while the so-called vertical relationship that man has with God is literally vital, men would be judged by the quality of their "horizontal" relationships with each other… their acts of justice, of mercy and of grace. Blaikie recognizes this alternate emphasis as the important distinction between two important streams of Canadian Christianity, with conservatively inclined Christians focusing on man’s personal relationship with God, and those on the left seemingly more engaged on issues of social justice. When appropriate, he clearly enjoyed reminding those on the right of God’s priorities of justice, mercy and grace, as declared by His prophets.
Among those public intellectuals from whom Blaikie took inspiration were counter-culture prophet Theodore Roszak, French Christian-anarchist Jacques Ellul and anti-war activist William Stringfellow. He studied the works of 19th century theologian and pioneer Christian socialist Frederick Denison Maurice, who contended that the law of competition embedded in the marketplace and capitalism itself were antithetical to the law of love revealed by Christ, that was characteristic of the Kingdom of God. He also studied the similarly inclined theologians Karl Barth, (Switzerland,) Jim Wallis (U.S.), Douglas Hall (Canada,) Canadian philosophers George Grant and Charles Taylor, and German-American Christian existentialist Paul Tillich.
He attaches particular significance to a course in the literature of the Bible, taught by Professor of Old Testament Studies, Charles R. Newcombe.
Blaikie recalls, “My faith growing up had not gone beyond personal ethics. Charlie (Newcombe) helped me to see how political the Bible was. Religion was not just about personal ethics: Prophets were commenting on justice, politics and on the actions of kings.”
This was reinforced in Toronto, where he learned more about the "social gospel" movement, spending time with social-ethicist Roger C. Hutchinson and the Catholic theologian and liberation-theology sympathizer, Gregory Baum.
“I came out of Emmanuel having found the prophetic tradition within the Bible, a tradition of challenging the ruling elite.”
From all this, Blaikie was more than ever convinced that "the West’s uncritical self-righteousness about everything they did" demanded a more "prophetic approach," something he thought possible in the NDP.
The Episcopalian Stringfellow reinforced this view, persuading him to look today for the same ‘powers and principalities’ that had challenged Christ 2,000 years ago and to lift their yoke by seeking and denouncing the idols through which they influence society.
“I confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour, our saviour from the idolatries that are prevalent in the world. It is our job to be in the world but not of it. It is the job of Christians to be critical of idols where they live, of those things that challenge the sovereignty of God in their particular context.”
For Blaikie, "the market" is one such idol, something he argues has become a "be-all, and end-all" to which "everything is sacrificed."
Indeed, he believes that since the seventies and despite the rearguard action the NDP fought, "the just society" and policies that he once thought were already won and secured, have lost ground to "the market."
“After the war, there seemed to be a national consensus on income-distribution. But, during the 1970s, with the rise of Thatcherism and later the market-emphasis of Ronald Reagan, there was a push-back from the wealthy and the corporate world against the sharing ethic. To be fair, some of this arose from a legitimate critique. But it was seized upon as an excuse for the wealthy and the greedy to free themselves from their obligations to others.”
The Old Testament prophets who Blaikie celebrates were never embraced by their contemporaries in authority, whose ways they condemned: Twenty-five hundred years later it was similarly his destiny to denounce iniquity, rather than to enjoy the satisfaction of personally vanquishing it.
Nevertheless, unlike the prophets, his work is admired if not emulated and his conduct and character presented as a model of what Parliament could and should be.
And never has his commitment to the weak, the vulnerable and the poor been questioned.
 His skills endured: Years later, he embellished a parliamentary Burns Night recitation of the Address to the Haggis with impromptu bagpipe music.
 Personal interview: 9 Jan 2017. (There are a number of quotations here, from this conversation.)
 Of the nine sitting NDP members, only Svend Robinson supported the registry.
Rosemary Sexton, "MPs, friends celebrate Robbie Burns' birthday", Globe and Mail, 28 January 1988, A19.
The Blaikie Report - An Insider’s Look at Faith and Politics. United Church Publishing, 2011.
Two Social Gospels or One? Mel Smith Lecture at Trinity Western University, 8th February 2012.
Response to ‘Faith Today’ on eve of Canadian election January, 2006 co-written with Jack Layton.