swimming against the stream

Sometimes people you met long ago just demand to be remembered. Maybe it's the impression they made on you, impact they had on your life or possibly the stories you heard from or about them that never really faded.

Sometimes people you met long ago just demand to be remembered. Maybe it’s the impression they made on you, impact they had on your life or possibly the stories you heard from or about them that never really faded. Anyway you carry them in your personal circle of elders for the rest of your life. Beresford Richards, or Berry as I knew him, sits with many others in that now mainly spiritual ring for me.

Always being a joiner it didn’t take long for me once moved into Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, in the late 1970s to become involved in local activities. An eager 30-something-year-old, if open to it, gets readily recruited by local organizations of one sort or another if you even slightly poke your head above water. Parish council, food bank board, refugee support committee, and a Latin American solidarity group were among the groups taking chunks of my available community time. My wife Eva, similarly afflicted, had developed her own network of engagement including founding a counseling organization, teaching parenting programs and getting elected to a local school board. This also meant that we, of course, ended up supporting each others activities as well.

Once immersed the community current carries you along. Similarly engaged local folk become new companions on the journey through the often tumultuous rapids of the local events that you get caught up in. Berry Richards, then a retired mining engineer originally from Cornwall, England, became a mentor in this swirl.

He never seemed far from progressive initiatives as they surfaced in Prince Albert. When a group formed in support of the workers in a particularly bitter co-op strike he joined us. When controversy about the Blakeney government’s support for building a uranium refinery not far away galvanized the formation of a local alternative energy coalition in opposition to it, his voice could be heard.

Berry, I would learn, had a long history of speaking out. At 29 years of age in 1943 he had been elected as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the precursor of the NDP) member to the Manitoba Legislature for The Pas. However his advocacy of co-operation with other progressive politicians and parties in running ‘united front’ candidates against the Progressive Conservatives in 1945 federal elections got him turfed from the CCF caucus.

Berry ran in the 1945 provincial election though as an ‘independent CCF’ candidate and won back his seat in The Pas. Readmitted to the Manitoba CCF party he continued swim against the current. His opposition his parties’ support of Canada’s involvement in the then emerging NATO led other caucus members like Stanley Knowles to mount an effort to throw him out again. They succeeded in 1949.

Defeated in another attempt to run as an independent he returned to his profession as a mining engineer. After years of mining and prospecting in Northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, he retired to his home in Prince Albert where I came to know him. His politics became the small ‘p’ politics of engaging in grassroots efforts at change.

As political parties seem naturally to morph from ‘movement’ parties with visionary platforms to mainstream ‘brokerage’ parties they often abandoning hard ideological positions as they seek to move towards the perceived centre of the spectrum in order to garner a winning percentage of votes from the Canadian mainstream. When they do it more than often falls to groups outside of the formal political process to stimulate the needed discussions and pressure to move society socially and politically forward. Berry, I believe, clearly recognized this and chose to put his energy with these groups. He knew that eventually the political parties would have to catch up.

In our drastically altered political landscape following last Monday’s elections maybe Berry Richards’ had the right perspective. He would surely urge us to hunker down and get about the business of building from the ground up the kind of society that must be created if we are to truly have the possibility of handing on to future generations a just, environmentally and economically sustainable society. With the rising flood of environmental, social and economic challenges triggered by a failing industrial age paradigm lets hope that the political parties indeed do have the time to catch up.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.