Some thought Brian Salmi was the son of former Vancouver mayor and Da Vinci’s Inquest inspiration Larry Campbell, a rumour started after Campbell himself made the crack at a candidates’ debate.
But his beginnings, 44 years ago, are far more humble.
The self-confessed member of the “poor white trash” set, who describes his appearance as “trollish,” hails from the row housing projects of Thunder Bay, Ontario, where he was raised by a dour Finnish father and a mentally unstable mother, neither of whom loved each other, nor young Brian enough to even hug him.
Salmi surfaced in the Yukon shortly before the 2004 federal election, and took up such unpopular causes as the rights of smokers and the ability of fringe party candidates, like longtime cohort and dyed-in-the-wool Rhino “Big” Ben Mahoney, to run a low-budget campaign.
What was the activist, libertarian and funarchist thinking?
“If the premier is a fucking heroin dealer, I can be the king of this place in two years,” he reflects. “That was the lure of the Yukon.”
But the coronation was not to be.
Yukoners seemed to spurn Salmi at every turn.
Bartenders told him to mind his own beeswax when he offered them tips on how to pack the house (he used to run a bar in Vancouver and, by offering free beer, managed to get 50 of his best customers to agree to run for mayor of the city, to the anger of the most serious contenders).
Other proposals for business ventures were met with guffaws or disdain.
And he received little support when he tried to challenge the constitutionality of the federal election, applying to the Yukon Supreme Court for injunctions against what he and his Rhinos deemed oppressive electoral rules.
Instated in June, 1993, by a commission comprised of five Tories, two Grits and a New Democrat, the new rules called for each candidate to make a deposit of $1,000 (up from $200), and demanded each appoint a qualified auditor to handle the finances.
Given that parties that could not muster a minimum 50 candidates to run were dissolved, those that could hold on would need a minimum of $50,000 in deposits.
“What went on is treason,” says Salmi.
“They were out to fuck the fringe parties.”
Simon Fraser University’s student newspaper called the measures, passed after a house debate limited to 23 minutes by the majority Tories, “draconian,” and claimed Canadians had been deceived.
The students and activists across the country swore the commission’s mission had been sold to Canadians as a housekeeping measure, and instead caught them unawares with sweeping changes.
Parties, such as the Christian Heritage and the Communists, lost their status.
Protests mounted in the streets and courts.
Advocates for the poor calculated the new rules effectively denied up to five million impoverished Canadians their constitutionally enshrined right to seek office.
“I’m going to win this,” says Salmi, who is asking the deposit and auditor requirements be struck down, and a $50-million fund established for the resurrection of parties that were nullified by the changes.
The first two are a cinch, he says.
The $50-million fund, like his contention the reforms were passed with malicious intent, will not be easy to win.
Electoral reform makes strange bedfellows.
As the former head of the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative think-tank and the bankroll behind the then-emerging Reform Party, Stephen Harper also, before winning the federal nomination, took on what he believed were unfair restrictions on campaigning and limits to the political contributions.
“The outsiders are now on the inside,” says Salmi.
But it is unlikely anyone, inside or out, will be taking Salmi’s part.
Many admire Salmi for sticking it to the man.
He is tough yet compassionate, but irreverent to the point of alienating most of his would-be supporters (who else would freely say he quit the Green Peace movement because the lesbians took it over, much less put it in writing?)
I like him, but I must admit the longest and most comfortable conversation I have ever had with him is this most recent one, over the phone, and safely a time zone and an area code away in Calgary, where he is undoubtedly holed up in a cheap apartment, researching his court case and hustling writing contracts on the side just to sustain his vegetarian diet and his meagre wardrobe.
I was always a little relieved that, during his time in the Yukon, I was not responsible for the political beat, and interviewing Salmi fell largely to a fellow reporter.
Even a male colleague, who professed love for none other than Hunter S. Thompson, avoided Vancouver’s own gonzo journalist the way the department of Economic Development avoided him after its grievous human resources error: a contract it had signed earlier that year to employ him as its communications officer and spokesperson.
The dispute was later settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, after Salmi represented himself in a suit for breach of contract.
One of the off-putting discoveries the department made about Salmi is that his real name is Sa Tan.
He made the name change official to win the love of a sweet young thing who declared she would marry only the devil himself.
She turned down his proposal.
During his tenure at Terminal City, a “seditious little rag” of an underground paper backed by organized labour in Vancouver, Salmi penned such satirical nuggets as “The Environmental Necessity of Cannibalism,” and, in a treatise on street life, debated the merits of keeping a dog.
For the homeless, a dog serves as a source of heat, an evoker of sympathy in the form of spare change, in times less generous a source of food, and, during those long, lonely nights, a reluctant sex partner who will never tell, he explained matter-of-factly.
He fought with the Speaker of the house in Victoria for his right to wear a T-shirt with his legal name emblazoned on the front, or whatever else he chose to wear, while covering the proceedings from the press gallery.
He fought alone.
Fellow journalists were reluctant to defend Salmi against the Speaker’s insistence he report the matters of the BC government with “reverence and respect,” and adhere to a dress code.
“The journalist is the ultimate watchdog,” says Salmi. “That’s the sacred trust and all these fucking estheticians and baristas are betraying that.”
When he asked Liberal MP Larry Bagnell at an all-candidates forum what his views were on the changes to the electoral rules, Bagnell only pointed out the beer box Salmi wore on his head, a support for his Rhino horn, bore the Yukon Brewing logo, and congratulated him for buying locally.
Even CBC’s moderator would not point out the obvious: that Bagnell had completely ignored his question.
Reporters looked away with impatient embarrassment, and voters sent Bagnell back to Ottawa.
Crude, provocative and litigious, Salmi always has to take it one or more steps too far for most would-be supporters to stomach.
He hates apathy, yet his antics and attire frequently detract from his tireless campaign for justice, equality and happiness.
Why does he have to wear a jack shirt for his court appearance, a clown suit for his news conference announcing his intention to run for mayor?
Why does he have to run as Ronald F. MacDonald? And yes, the F does stand for Salmi’s favourite word.
His campaign against unfair electoral reform was all making perfect sense: the claims of unconstitutionality, the quest for a $50-million fund for fringe parties to re-establish themselves.
Why did he have to add another claim for beer?
“Elections Canada to surrender unto him (Salmi) 20 dozen quart bottles of Maudite strong red ale,” reads his application.
Salmi claims the use of shock and humour gets the attention of the people.
But it is more than a ploy; his crude talk and outrageous dress and devil-may-care lifestyle are a statement in themselves.
We all fantasize about real democracy, of true freedom, on our own terms.
An idealist through and through, Salmi believes in pure democracy inviolate, and he is willing to fight for it.
Where others simply contemplate in anger or submission, Salmi does.
Most of us only wonder what it would be like to run for public office, take the government to task for oppressing the little guy, break into a bank during a sports riot, get rich quick running a marijuana grow operation and travel abroad on the avails, smoke crack, provoke controversy daily as a gonzo journalist or chase a Canadian navy vessel across the high seas with a Green Peace boat.
“I may not have accomplished much, but I’ve had a lot of fun and I can sleep at night,” he says.
Salmi aspires to a democracy not just for the socially and politically desireable — the rich, the polite, the law-abiding, the well-dressed and schooled.
Democracy is for crack whores, white trash, alcoholics, druggies, the weak, the ugly, the fat, the uninformed, the lazy, the poor, the apathetic, the undeserving.
Anything less simply is not democracy.
Few, if any, others are willing to slum it with the riff-raff, or pick fights with the powers that be, or don a clown suit or a beer box hat to in order to make that point.
“I long ago came to the understanding that if I were going to do any of this, I’m going to do it myself,” he says.