It was April 2004, when Svend Robinson decided to stop by a jewelry auction on his way home from the Vancouver airport. Robinson had just passed the 25-year mark in his extensive political career as a Burnaby MP, and he was considering proposing to his longtime partner, when he spied a large, glittering, $21,500 diamond ring on the display counter.
While no one was looking, Robinson slipped the ring into his pocket, glanced up into the security cameras, left the premises, and effectively killed his career.
“And then I realized immediately, ‘Oh My God, what is this madness,’“ he told Graeme Truelove, author of Svend Robinson, A Life in Politics.
Robinson had struggled with cyclothymia, a mild form of bi-polar disorder, characterized by manic highs and depressing lows, but the official diagnosis didn‘t come until after the theft.
“For some time now, I have been suffering from severe stress and emotional pain,“ Robinson stated in a press conference, as outlined in the biography.
“I pocketed a piece of expensive jewelry. I did this, despite knowing full well that the employees who were there would recognize me. … As you can imagine, this has been a nightmare. I cannot believe it has happened, but I am human, and I have failed.”
Why would one of the country’s best-known politicians steal an expensive ring and end his life in politics? For Truelove, it was only a matter of time.
“You see this pattern throughout his career,” Truelove told the NOW in a phone interview from Ottawa. “He got some very strong signals: What you’re doing is hurting you. You are achieving a lot, you are making a difference, but the way you are doing it is unsustainable. And when those hints or reminders came up, he didn‘t deal with it. He brushed it aside, until eventually, something like this happened.”
But Robinson was a complex character, and Truelove’s book helps readers contextualize his motives and choices, while paying homage to his political track record. Truelove was given what he calls unparalleled access to Robinson’s life – his diaries, his letters, his friends, family and former political colleagues. What struck Truelove the most was Robinson’s volatile and unstable upbringing. The family moved from city to city, and Robinson’s father was a violent alcoholic, broke his nose, hog tied him and left him in a closet and pelted him with rocks. When Robinson tried to protect his mother from the beatings, his father would turn on him.
“It was rough. It was not an easy childhood,“ Truelove says. “Alcoholism is definitely a feature in it. … I think it also helped him develop a very profound compassion for people who were struggling with very difficult circumstances. I think you see that play out throughout his career.”
The book portrays Robinson as a highly intelligent, hard-working politician,who also frustrated his colleagues and “polarized Canadians.”
Anyone interested in Burnaby politics or history will find the book interesting, as it’s full of local references. For instance, Robinson got his start in politics at just 14 years of age, during the 1966 provincial election, while handing out pamphlets with his mother for Eileen Dailly, a former Burnaby MLA. (The family had just moved to Capitol Hill, after Robinson’s dad got a job at Simon Fraser University.) Truelove characterizes the city as a socialist hotbed and even mentions the “People’s Republic of Burnaby” moniker. Robinson was heavily involved in the community and sat on the board of New Vista, a local seniors’ home. Robinson was a Burnaby MP from 1979 to 2004, representing first Burnaby, then Burnaby-Kingsway, and finally Burnaby-Douglas. Former Burnaby MP Bill Siksay worked as Robinson’s constituency assistant for 18 years; Siksay went on to win the riding after Robinson’s career ended. Robinson housed a Chilean refugee facing deportation in his home in the Norman Bethune housing co-op, in Burnaby’s Forest Grove area.
Truelove says Robinson did politics differently.
“(He) brought attention to things, galvanized the public and brought about social change,” he says. For example, Robinson participated in the Clayoquot Sound blockade in 1993, an iconic protest for Canada’s environmental movement.
Robinson’s quieter, behind-the-scenes work as an MP is also something Truelove highlights. According to the author, Robinson played a key role in designing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, championing the rights of women and the disabled, and he was responsible for protective provisions covering sexual orientation in Canada’s laws against hate propaganda. The book also chronicles how Robinson came out of the closet to become the first openly gay MP in Canada. In 1988, the windows of Robinson’s Burnaby office were smashed after media reports came out that he was gay, just days before his scheduled coming-out interview with CBC. Robinson received reams of homophobic hate mail, including a letter with a single bullet enclosed, encouraging Robinson to use it on himself.
Truelove also covers Robinson’s poignant personal relationship with Sue Rodriguez, a woman who was fighting for the right to die. Robinson took up her cause and was at her home when an anonymous physician helped her take her own life.
“What’s really significant to me about Svend is the wide variety of issues that he was involved with,” Truelove says. “I really think that anyone who wants to go behind the scenes on the big activist causes over the last 25 or 30 years will be interested in this book. And perhaps more than that, anyone who needs reassurance that change can happen, I think will find this book inspiring. Throughout all time, people outside the mainstream have felt powerless against the status quo. This story shows that they shouldn’t.”
Svend Robinson, A Life in Politics, was released on Oct. 17 by New Star Books, and it’s available on Amazon.ca and in Chapters. Truelove is hosting a book launch on Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Bill Reid Gallery, at 639 Hornby St. in Vancouver, and Robinson is expected to be there. Robinson now lives in Geneva, Switzerland, and works for The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.