Question & Answer: Victor Enns Asks Dennis Gruending about Life in Politics

I know Dennis Gruending from my days in Saskatchewan in the 1980s. He and his wife Martha Wiebe have seen the inside of a few different Mennonite churches, usually in the more progressive General Conference churches of the day (now Mennonite Church Canada), where they have been reasonably comfortable with what I sometimes call “social justice” Mennonites. Many of my relatives, especially in my generation on my father’s side, carry on in this progressive tradition. My mother, on the other hand, was excommunicated from her Sommerfeleder congregation in the 1940s for marrying a Bergthaler and a Russländer. Politically, most of my relatives on my mother’s side would fit into the conservative religious right, dominant in southern Manitoba where I grew up. Gruending’s book Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life (Kingsley Publishing, 2011) explores how these competing ideologies—of religious progressives and conservatives—vie for power and influence in Canadian politics. His blog is at www.dennisgruending.ca. I interviewed him on October 16, 2013.—Victor Enns

Rhubarb: I’ve just seen the YouTube clip of Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall playing the banjo, showing his support for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. His performance probably has less to do with the Mennonite proclivity for things musical than with the contemporary practice of politics. Wall has not made much of his Mennonite roots, but as far as I know he’s the first (loosely defined) Mennonite Canadian premier. Where would you place him in the conservative-progressive spectrum, using the definitions in your book? From where on the spectrum do you think he drew enough support for his majority?

Dennis Gruending: I would place Wall on the centre-right, and so far he is a popular premier. He has a softer image than more hard-core Conservative politicians of recent memory, including people such as former Ontario Premier Mike Harris—or Danielle Smith, the current leader of the Wildrose Party in Alberta. He has gone out of his way to make life difficult for unions, and he does not place much priority on addressing the conditions facing Aboriginal people, who constitute a significant percentage of the Saskatchewan population. Wall won handily in 2007 and 2011, so obviously he drew support pretty widely. In 2007, Saskatchewan voters thought it was time for a change: the New Democratic Party (NDP) had been in power for sixteen years following the debacle of Grant Devine’s Conservative government. But all governments wear out—and in time Mr. Wall’s will too.

Rhubarb: I’ve attached a list of provincially and nationally elected representatives with Mennonite-sounding names and there were more than I was expecting, the taboo of participating in politics apparently long gone. The majority are Conservatives, there’s one Liberal, and then only two New Democrats—here in Manitoba. From your experience, what is it in the ideologies of the religious right that appeals to so many Mennonites running for political office?

Gruending: The explanations are complex but I will choose two. For one thing, those Mennonites who left Russia after the revolution were understandably hostile toward communism. In Canada, many of them made the mistake of believing that the social democrats who comprised the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the CCF) in Canada were communists as well. Of course that was not the case. Among those most influential in the CCF were Protestant ministers such as J. S. Woodsworth, William Irvine, Tommy Douglas, and Stanley Knowles. Their political model was the British Labour Party, which was committed to democracy and constitutional change. Actually, Catholic bishops made the same mistake as did many Mennonites and refused to draw any distinction between social democrats and communists. My father was raised in a Catholic community in Saskatchewan in the 1930s and 40s, and they were told from the pulpit that a Catholic could not vote for the CCF.

The second reason for the politically conservative tendencies of Mennonites is related to the first. I talk in my Pulpit and Politics book about how early in the early twentieth century many mainline Protestants embraced the social gospel movement, which rests on the premise that Christianity should place greater emphasis on realizing the kingdom of God in this world. For them, religion had an inherently social and political dimension. People such as Woodsworth and Douglas became politically active, and they had a great influence on society. For example, they promoted reforms leading to Canada’s universal health care and other social programs. But more conservative and evangelical Christians believed that a personal conversion to Jesus Christ was the only means to salvation—in this world or the next. They mistrusted both the social gospel and the state, and resented government incursions into areas of health, education, and social assistance—endeavours that more conservative Christians believed should remain the responsibility of church, family, and the individual.

While these debates were first occurring, most Mennonites were living within their own communities and wanted just to be left alone. But by about the 1960s Mennonites had moved from the margins of Canadian society toward its centre. They were increasingly well educated and prosperous, but most retained their old religion. When they got involved in public life, it was the more conservative political parties and movements that tended to appeal to them. When Preston Manning created the Reform Party in the 1980s, for example, it resonated well with a lot of conservative Protestants, at least in Western Canada, and that included many Mennonites.

But a lot of that has changed in the past twenty years or so. Many Mennonites, especially younger ones, find there is a good fit between their focus on communitarian gospel values and a more progressive politics. And the Conservative Party of today is less appealing than the Progressive Conservatives of the John Diefenbaker and Robert Stanfield variety. They have become what I call market fundamentalists, and they are pretty harsh in their views of ordinary working people, the poor, Aboriginals, and refugees—and they certainly don’t fit into the category of peacemakers.

Rhubarb: I am interested to note that there’s little mention in your book of Vic Toews, probably the most prominent Mennonite ever elected to Parliament and strongly supported by the religious right. I understand the book is primarily about ideologies and trends and not about individual politicians, but it struck me as a remarkable and a deliberate omission for a book published in 2011, before his resignation. Was it? Why?

Gruending: You are right in saying that I don’t go out of my way to write about individual politicians but rather about issues, and when I do write profiles they are most often about people other than politicians. If I had written about the Conservatives’ instituting harsher prison sentences and building more jails, I would likely have written about Toews; but for some reason I did not get to that. I did, however, write briefly about Toews when Canadian Mennonite magazine got a letter from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) warning that they might lose their charitable status. They had written somewhat unflatteringly about Toews, and there was speculation, idle or not, that this might have had something to do with the CRA decision to send the letter. I covered that story on my blog.

Rhubarb: Using the criteria you identify, 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 twelve 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.

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 fifteen 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.

Rhubarb: What inspired you to get so directly involved with the Canadian political system, running for office four times, and serving as a Member of Parliament (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. . . . 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 serve 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.

I was able to bring issues of social justice into my campaigns because there is a good amount of that in the NDP policy and platforms to begin with. The CCF-NDP had a reputation for many years as providing a conscience in Canadian politics. . . . My leader was Alexa McDonough, who is a wonderful person, and she was respectful of differences, as long as you did not use them to embarrass or attack the party or your caucus colleagues. Alexa appointed me as the NDP critic for the environment and for international development, and that gave me scope to do and say things that mattered to me. I should say that we had only about twenty NDP MPs at the time, so one could take on a lot of responsibility very quickly as an opposition critic. . . . For a democratic political system to work you obviously need a prime minister, cabinet, and governing machinery, but you also need a vibrant opposition. That’s how the system works.

Rhubarb: Were you surprised by anything in your service as an MP? Where did you find job satisfaction, what were the things that you liked most, and what did you find most difficult?

Gruending: I know from my experience as a journalist and from reading that I have done that debates in the House of Commons used to matter. I found, to my surprise, that they don’t matter that much anymore. The importance of Parliament has been undermined in a whole number of ways. For example, free-trade agreements removed power from elected representatives and transferred them to unelected tribunals. With our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the courts have assumed some influence that once resided with politicians. In addition, the power in our political system is really centralized in the Prime Minister’s Office and his or her advisors. That has become much more pronounced under the current prime minister.

When John A. Macdonald or Wilfrid Laurier spoke on important issues, the galleries in the House of Commons would be filled. Now they are not, and even most MPs don’t show up for speeches. There are only a handful of MPs in the House of Commons at any time of the day other than Question Period. In the current setting, most MPs will tell you that what is most satisfying to them is the work they do on behalf of their constituents—immigrants who want to bring families or relatives to Canada, or people having problems with the bureaucracy regarding their pensions or employment insurance. It is important to advocate on behalf of your constituents, but the role of an elected person should be about more than that.

Rhubarb: Will you run again?

Gruending: No I won’t. I ran four times and won only once. I used to pitch a lot of baseball when I was younger, and as a pitcher winning one game and losing three is not good enough. Had I won more often, I would have been pleased to serve for longer, but after 2004 I just felt it was time to get back to other things that I love to do. I have published three more books since I left politics and I now write a blog as well. I also work full-time for a labour organization, so I have a pretty full life—and a satisfying one.