Douglas Roche and creative dissent

By Dennis Gruending

douglas_roche_225.jpgDouglas Roche reminds me of Emmett Hall. I published a biography in 1985 called Emmett Hall: Establishment Radical about the Supreme Court judge whose royal commission recommended Medicare for Canada in 1964. Hall was comfortable in the hallways of power but he was also a social reformer who used his position for public good rather than private gain. He was social Catholic, someone influenced by the teaching of his church as outlined in various papal encyclicals that defended private property but also supported labour unions and moderate reform. Prior to being appointed a judge, Hall had been a Diefenbaker supporter in Saskatchewan and saw himself as a Red Tory – a political species that is now close to extinction in Canada.

Roche’s varied career in public service is quite different from Hall’s but he does exhibit many of the same characteristics. Roche, who is in his 80th year, was born into a staunchly Catholic Irish family in the Ottawa Valley. Hall was born into a similarly devout Irish Catholic family in Quebec but the Halls moved to Saskatchewan in 1910. Hall studied law and practiced in Saskatoon for many years. He was involved in various communities – as a Catholic hospital board member, a separate school trustee, a prominent member of the bar association and a Conservative.

Roche went to college in Ottawa and then into secular journalism but soon offered his services to Catholic newspapers in Canada and later in the United States. He was, like many Catholics of his generation, inspired by Vatican II, the church council that occurred between 1962 and 1965. It was intended to empower the laity and to bring the church into a dialogue with the modern world. Roche returned from the U.S. to become editor of the Western Catholic Reporter in 1965 and he was working in that capacity when he was approached on behalf of Robert Stanfield to become a Conservative candidate in the 1972 federal election. He was to spend 12 years in the House of Commons before being named Canada’s disarmament ambassador at the United Nations. He did not seek a second five-year ambassadorial term in 1989, due mainly to his disappointment over the Mulroney government’s allowing U.S. cruise missile testing over Canadian territory. In 1999, Jean Chretien appointed Roche to the Senate, where he sat as an Independent until his retirement in 2004.

Roche has written or participated in 19 books, an impressive feat given his many professional and family responsibilities. His latest offering is called Creative Dissent: A Politician’s Struggle for Peace. It is at once a personal, political and diplomatic memoir and in the hands of a talented, if unadorned writer, it is a significant cut above the usual “told-to” memoirs of many retired politicians. I called Roche recently to talk to him about the book and the appearance that he will make to promote it in Ottawa on December 4th.

Roche is best known as a crusader for peace and disarmament but it was only later in his parliamentary career that the peace theme emerged strongly. “I went into politics with the theme of social justice in mind domestically and internationally,” Roche says, “but actually in my first years in parliament I was, of necessity, more taken up with domestic and constituency issues.” Yet his interest in international issues was always there. “I did not see them so much as peace issues at first but rather as issues of social justice and development. Pope Paul VI said that development is the new name for peace. I began to see that disarmament and peace were essential for social justice to occur.”

There is also in Roche’s book an undercurrent of disappointment with the political system. I asked if he pursued his speaking, writing, travelling out of some frustration with the limitations imposed upon him as an opposition MP. “I went into politics to extend social justice,” he says. “It is true that in an opposition party there was no great interest in these matters. So I tried to find an outlet for my convictions about social justice. It was the circumstances in which I found myself that determined my actions.”

I asked him what he sees as the main impediments to social justice, peace and disarmament. “Our political system is so short sighted,” he says. “Governments are shallow in their thinking about the trend lines on issues such as the environment and spending on arms.” Roche has the scars to prove that advancing this agenda in political and diplomatic circles is not easy. “There is this idea,” he says, “that anyone who works in these areas is a fuzzy headed idealist and the other people are realists, and you are marginalized for your ostensible idealism. I would argue that the realists are actually those people recognize that the status quo is not sustainable and are looking for answers to the over arching issues of our time. These are the nuclear arms race and climate change.”

I asked about what he sees as signs of hope. He says there were positive moves between 1995 and 2000 to extend the Non-Proliferation Treaty and to take practical steps toward abolishing nuclear weapons. “There were signs that we were coming down from the nuclear mountain,” he says. “Then George W. Bush was elected and it’s been downhill ever since.” Roche says, however, that president-elect Obama has promised to centre U.S. policy on the abolition of nuclear weapons. “I believe that the net is closing on those who want to keep nuclear weapons. I am expressing a view that there is an historical momentum here. I do not forget the forces arraigned against us in the military-industrial complex. They are very powerful but then slavery, colonialism and apartheid were all overcome when a critical mass of people decided that change was needed. So, too, it will be with nuclear weapons although it may not be in my lifetime.”

Roche confronts his own mortality (his first wife Eva died in 1995) and he looks ahead to future generations. “I sigh not for the past but cry for the future,” he writes in his book. “It is not my lost youth that I pine for but a lost future for my grandchildren.” He admits that he feels “some sense of outrage” because the kind of Canada that he wanted and represented does not seem to be there now. He knows only one way to deal with both frustration and hope, and ends his final chapter in the book with the words that one assumes are his motto — Never Quit.

Roche will be in Ottawa to speak about his book on Thursday, December 4, 7:30 p.m. at Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Avenue, (at Bank & the Canal).  Former Prime Minister Joe Clark will introduce him. For more information:  613-730-6874 or

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