The last decent man in Ottawa
MP Glen Pearson is a rarity: a quiet, respectful politician
AARON WHERRY | April 30, 2008 |
He had asked the immigration minister about a change in policy and she had responded by questioning his commitment to the welfare of children, and all the last decent man in Ottawa could do was grimace and shake his head. Watching from the gallery, little more than eight feet above the minister's head, were Glen Pearson's fifth, sixth and seventh children, each adopted and brought to Canada from the disaster of Darfur.
Pearson, the solemn-faced Liberal MP who describes himself as "an idealist without illusions," sat quietly through the rest of question period, as is his wont. When the daily airing of accusations was through, he rounded up his wife and three children and took them to meet the Prime Minister. Never mind the ideological and political differences, never mind that one of Stephen Harper's lieutenants had just impugned his credibility in front of his children, Pearson wanted them to meet their duly elected leader. Wanted them to know there was a living, breathing human being, an individual worthy of respect, behind it all.
"It's very, very important people understand this. I am non-partisan," he said days earlier, sitting in his West Block office. "Am I Liberal? Yes. Because I believe that the vision of the Liberals is the most comprehensive. Fine. But I am non-partisan in the way that I believe the best way to accomplish it is to win others, not beat others." This is easy to say. And in this town people say all sorts of things for all sorts of self-aggrandizing reasons. But if this is merely lip service, it is, at the very least, hard to quibble with the principle to which it is paid.
Glen Pearson arrived in Ottawa, winner of a November 2006 by-election, with an impressive resumé. A veteran firefighter, director of the London food bank and aid worker in Africa, he and his wife were adoptive parents of a Sudanese girl orphaned by war (Pearson has four children from a previous marriage and when it was discovered his adopted daughter had a brother and sister in Africa, they too were brought to Canada). Days after his election, he was asked to introduce Stéphane Dion at the Liberal convention in Montreal — his first time in the national spotlight, and though he spoke too long and left too little time for the future leader to finish his own remarks, Pearson was well-received nonetheless.
Indeed, Pearson seemed, at first blush, a political dream come to life. If only he claimed any interest in such status. Instead, on the first anniversary of his election, he was profiled by the Toronto Star under the headline, "MP shocked by House of horrors" — Pearson portrayed as nearly heartbroken by the savage partisanship of Canada's 39th Parliament, and perhaps reluctant to seek a second term. "In some senses it's bit better," he concedes now, "but I don't play well when it's mean. And I find a fair bit of meanness here. I probably should be tougher than that after being a firefighter for 30 years."
If life has improved in the intervening months, it is only because Pearson and Ottawa have begun to suss each other out. The silence when Pearson rises in the House to ask about aid for Africa is almost unnerving. Cabinet ministers, with the obvious exception of Diane Finley, are positively deferential in response. "I think they've all realized," he says of his peers, "that Glen is different."
Pearson, meanwhile, has arrived at his own rules of engagement. Asked to join his party's question period assault on the Chuck Cadman affair, he declined. When the ethics committee to which he belongs decided to investigate the dealings of Brian Mulroney, he voluntarily stepped aside. "It's caused some difficulties for me within the party," he admits.
To Pearson's right each day sits Todd Russell, the chirpy backbencher from Labrador. If Pearson is the good student, Russell is the class clown, and stuck together along the last row of the Liberal benches, they make for the oddest of Commons couples — a richer study of human dynamics than even the pairing of Dion and Michael Ignatieff up front. In March, at the height of the Cadman controversy, Russell read aloud a poem about the Prime Minister, to the beat of Green Eggs and Ham ("I am PM, PM I am; I do not like green eggs and ham, I won't answer questions about Cadman"). Pearson does not generally encourage such behaviour, nor even reward it with applause. But the two have arrived at mutual admiration.