It’s been nearly ten years since Canada’s first openly gay MP left politics under the cloud of a bizarre scandal. Now a new book, Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics recounts a sometimes controversial career as one of Canada’s longest serving federal politicians and his fall from grace.
Written by biographer Graeme Truelove (photo right), an intern in Svend Robinson’s Ottawa office from 2002 to 2004, the book explores Robinson’s difficult childhood, his growing realization of his own sexuality, and the bipolar diagnosis which followed his baffling, career–ending theft of a diamond ring.
In our Q&A, author Graeme Truelove talks about the process of writing the book and the discoveries about Robinson he made along the way.
When did you first start working on the book?
I first started thinking about it in 2009, and began in 2010. The bulk of the work was completed in 2011-2012, with updates in 2013.
It’s been a number of years since Robinson was in the public eye – what makes a book about his life relevant now?
He was one of the most well-known, most polarizing, and most effective MPs in Canadian history, with a painful and dramatic personal life. And yet, his full story had never been told. There was a bit of a gap in our Canadian political archives. And his career ended in such a baffling way that people still want to understand what happened. This book gives people that chance. Despite the years that have gone by, I don’t think there’s been anyone quite like him. He really did politics differently. Who else goes to the front lines like he did? Who else is as fearless? His story shows what an MP can do. That’s as relevant now as ever.
How much access did Robinson provide?
He was incredibly open. Old letters, diaries, contact information for friends and family – anything I asked for, I got. We held marathon interview sessions at his place on Galiano Island, and then again in Geneva, where he works now. He let me job-shadow him at work in order to paint a more vivid picture of his life today. Writing a biography can sometimes be an intrusive process, and I’m sure it wasn’t easy having someone delve so deeply into his life, but he was committed to letting me tell his story, and was as co-operative as I could have asked for.
Where else did you go for information on Robinson’s early life?
Svend’s a bit of a pack rat, so he still had a lot of old letters from family members, going back to his late teen years. There were a lot of revelations in those letters. It was fantastic to be able to read peoples’ impressions at the time, as opposed to relying on their memories, some 40 years later. I was also able to speak with some of Svend’s family members to corroborate what I heard from Svend, and read in those letters.
Was there an “aha” moment about Robinson for you as you wrote the book?
When the ring incident took place, it was so shocking. I remember feeling that it just didn’t make any sense that it didn’t fit with anything else I knew about him. While researching for the book, I came to feel differently. As sometimes the only voice for a particular political movement, he was under tremendous pressure. By taking positions outside the mainstream, he had to fight with his own caucus colleagues, those he might otherwise have counted on for support. He was constantly harangued with hate mail. There were even death threats. And looking back through his life, I saw evidence of his mental illness, too – the frenzied pace, the ability to take on cause after cause after cause. I don’t think there was any kind of linear cause-and-effect relationship leading him to take the ring, but eventually I came to believe that, because of the incredible pressure he was under, something like that was bound to happen. If it hadn’t been taking a ring, it would have been something else. He was a heading for a breakdown. Rather than being surprised, I’m surprised it took so long.
You worked for Robinson during this time in politics – did anything about that time change for you while writing the book?
At the time, I wasn’t aware of the serious rift between Svend and some other members of caucus. I didn’t realize the difficult relationship he had with Alexa McDonough. I remember the public image – one big happy family. But, in reality, until Jack Layton’s leadership, there had been a lot of internal turmoil about the direction of the party. There were some wounds that had yet to heal.
Did anything make more sense from your time working with Robinson?
At the time, I marveled at his energy. He was always on the go. I’d never seen anyone walk as fast as him. I remember being amazed at how many issues he was involved in, how so many communities saw him as their voice in Parliament and sought him out for help. It’s easier to understand how he managed that now. His mental illness was probably part of what made him so effective.
What was the biggest surprise for you about Robinson?
His childhood. It was pretty rough. There was alcoholism, physical abuse, bullying and a total lack of stability. In his political life, he was always so open, and yet he never talked about his childhood. But I think it played a profound role in making him the fighter that he became.
How hard was it for Robinson to have made the decision to come out when he did?
I think it was very hard. No one in his position in Canada had done it before. It was a leap of faith, and in a context in which gays and lesbians faced appalling prejudice. No one really knew how the public would react. And it was risky, too. If he’d been vilified and if his career had been destroyed, gay and lesbian acceptance might have been set back another generation. Who would ever try it again? But at the same time, I think it was even harder for Robinson not to be out, not to be open about who he was. Friends from that time period told me about how that seemed to diminish him as a person. Once he came out, they said it looked like a weight had been lifted off him. There were some consequences (more hate mail, and so on), but for him, there was no question that it was worth it.
Does Robinson have any regrets from his sometimes controversial life?
Looking back, there are some political decisions he regrets – his decision to drop out of the 1995 NDP leadership race, for example. There are others. But I think his biggest regret is not taking his mental health more seriously. If he’d slowed down, maybe sought help sooner, he’d probably still be in Parliament today.
Based on what you’ve written what do you think is Robinson’s biggest legacy?
He was involved in so many issues related to environmental protection and international human rights, but I think his biggest legacy would still be his fight for LGBT rights. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited by the Human Rights Act. Advocating genocide on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited by hate propaganda laws. Neither of those things would have happened without him, or at least wouldn’t have happened at that time. Most importantly, by becoming the first openly homosexual federal or provincial elected official in Canada, he showed, unequivocally, that being gay was not an impediment to success, even in such an image-driven profession. There were a lot of people who were inspired by that.
Is he happy in what he is doing now?
During an interview, I asked him if he is happier now than he was in politics. He seemed surprised by the quesion, as though he’d never considered it before. He likes his life in Switzerland, and feels that he’s making a difference with his work with the Global Fund. But of course, he loved his work as an MP, too. I think he is happy, but I also think that happiness is a secondary concern in his view. He’s doing something that uses his skill set for an organization that saves lives, and I think that’s the most important thing for him.
Does he ever think about coming back to politics?
The last time we spoke about it, he had no intention of returning to electoral politics. It would surprise me if that changed.
Why should someone buy the book?
Svend was involved in an incredible array of causes, so anyone who wants to go behind the scenes on any of the big activist causes over the last 25-30 years will want to read this book. More importantly, anyone who needs reassurance that change can happen will be inspired by the book. At all periods in history, I think, people outside the mainstream have felt powerless in the face of the status quo, but Svend’s story shows that they shouldn’t.
Graeme Truelove will be in Vancouver to launch his new book Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics on Friday, November 15 at 7pm at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, 639 Hornby Street, Vancouver.