In 2013, I was approached for an interview by Victor Enns, the founder of a (now defunct) Winnipeg-based magazine called Rhubarb. Victor and others involved with the quarterly publication described it as featuring work by writers and artists of Mennonite heritage for a general reading public. I am not a Mennonite but my wife is and we had known Victor Enns when we all lived in Regina in the 1970s and 80s. Victor wanted to talk about the time that I had spent in federal politics. I served in the 36th Parliament as an MP for the New Democratic Party. In all, I ran in four elections (winning only once) and I also worked as a staffer on Parliament Hill for several years. Here is an edited version of part one of our conversation. I will post the last second half of our interview soon on this site.
Rhubarb: I assume you would fit most readily into the tradition of social gospel driven politicians, many with roots on the Prairies.
Gruending: I was raised in a small, predominantly Catholic community in rural Saskatchewan and did not even hear about the Protestant social gospel until I went to university. As a young person, I would have been formed more by what I would call social Catholicism. As a high school student, I attended a boarding school run by Benedictine monks. They were not political per se but did insist that our gifts were not entirely our own and that we each have a responsibility to try and make the world a better place. I remember how excited I was in grade 12 when one of my priest professors went off to become a missionary in Brazil. Later, at the University of Saskatchewan, I got involved in student politics, and during that time I also worked as a volunteer in a provincial election campaign. It was there that I met people whose inspiration was the Protestant social gospel. Later still, I spent eight months travelling alone in Latin America and often I stayed with Canadian Catholic missionary teams working in poor neighbourhoods, on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, for example. That had a great impact on me because I saw that these people, and many others in the Church, had developed quite a radical critique of society, but one based on the gospels. I can point to all of this now as my reason for an interest in public life but it was not nearly as clear at the time.
Saskatchewan to Ottawa
Rhubarb: What took you to Ottawa from Saskatchewan? And how long was it before you made the decision to run for office?
Gruending: I had worked for about 15 years as a print and broadcast journalist, mainly in Saskatchewan but also in Ontario. I left my job as a CBC Radio host in Regina in 1989 to write a biography of Allan Blakeney, who had been the premier of Saskatchewan between 1971 and 1982. I was writing a political biography but this was my way of trying to understand what had happened in the province during much of my adult life. Of course, someone else took my place as a CBC Radio host and when I finished the biography I was casting about for something interesting to do. I received an offer to become a communications officer for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Ottawa. My wife Martha and I talked it over and we decided to do it.
Hall and Blakeney
Rhubarb: What inspired you to get so directly involved with the Canadian political system and run for office four times, and serving as an MP?
Gruending: I can honestly say that I got into politics through writing. I wrote that biography of Allan Blakeney but before that I had also written a biography of Emmett Hall, who had been a Supreme Court judge from Saskatchewan and who led the Royal Commission that recommended medicare for Canada. After his time on the bench, Hall had returned to Saskatoon and I met him when I did a television piece about the 20th anniversary of the introduction of medicare. My doing that story led me to do a biography of him.
Hall and Blakeney were both people who possessed great skills, intellect and integrity and they applied them to public life. Blakeney had been a civil servant when Tommy Douglas was premier in Saskatchewan and then he became an NDP MLA and later the premier. Hall had been a classmate of John Diefenbaker’s at the University of Saskatchewan. He was a Red Tory by inclination and he became a political supporter of Diefenbaker. Hall was also a fine lawyer with a long record of public service as the chair of school and hospital boards in Saskatoon and a variety of other positions. Once appointed to the bench, he became an activist judge and he also led several royal commissions.
Deciding to run
These men both contributed a great deal to public life and after writing about them I began to think that perhaps I could play a role as well. That happens to writers and journalists sometimes and often it doesn’t work out. I had no illusion that I could accomplish as much as they had but I decided that if the occasion arose I would run politically and that if I did so it would be for the NDP. The opportunity did arise when I was asked in 1996 if I would be a candidate for the next federal election in the Saskatoon-Humboldt constituency. That’s the area of Saskatchewan where I had been born and raised. That led me to run in four federal elections in the Saskatoon area and serving during one term as an MP. I also worked for another MP on Parliament Hill after I was defeated. In all, I spent about eight years in politics.
Part Two of this interview in Rhubarb magazine will appear soon on this blog.