Warren Allmand

Written by  //  May 30, 2009  //  News about Wednesday Nighters, Public Policy  //  Comments Off on Warren Allmand

Allmand still in the game

Warren Allmand.
Photograph by: Vincenzo D’Alto, The Gazette

Settling in at his city hall office for a recap of his remarkable political career, Warren Allmand pulls out a memento one of his constituents sent him after he announced earlier this month that he wouldn’t be running in any more elections.

This after running in 10, and winning them all.

It’s the flyer from his first run for Parliament, in 1965, in the N.D.G. riding that he won then and went on to own for the next three decades. The picture is of a 33-year-old Allmand, with somewhat more hair and none of the wrinkles of the Allmand across the desk, the one who’ll turn 77 this fall.

The text, however, still befits the Allmand of now as it did the Allmand of way back then: “Active, vigorous, devoted to honest, effective government.” It touts him as a resident, a community worker, athlete, scholar, and internationalist. He was all those things then and is all those things still. And will go on being all that, even though he won’t be running in any more elections.

Retirement isn’t exactly in his cards even though he’ll give up the Loyola district Montreal city council seat he won running on the mayor’s ticket in 2005, seven years after he “retired” from Parliament. It’s not that he hasn’t liked being a city councillor, or felt it a comedown from being a cabinet minister in Ottawa, or any remote chance that he might lose if he ran again. It’s just that he has other work in mind that beckons more strongly at this time of his life than dealing with complaints about garbage pickup and snow clearing.

Not that he minded that. He says he likes nothing better than going to bat for constituents against higher powers for whatever reason, and to his mind no citizen complaint is too piddling to be addressed. But he’s more interested now in finishing a scholarly book on aboriginal rights that he’s only had time to tinker with, getting more active with the host of internationalist and human rights organizations he’s long been involved with, and resuming the human rights course he taught at McGill before running for council.

“I can’t get those things done when I’m always stuck with city work on top of everything else. I get calls from the human rights groups I work with and they say, ‘Warren, can you come for a press conference?’ and unfortunately I can’t because there’s city stuff I have to go do. But that’s what I’m really into. I mean, that’s more my expertise, international human rights.”

He says the thought that he’d be 81 by the end of another council term was also dissuasive, even though he’s still in vigorous good health. He’s a devoted jogger, works out at the Y, and still plays hockey in a local over-50s league. “I played all season, two games a week, an hour and a half a go. I’m the oldest guy in the league, but I can still move around.”

His extended political career is distinguished both by landmark achievement and prominent devotion to principle, even at his own expense.

For most of the 1970s he was a minister in Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal cabinets, as solicitor-general, Indian Affairs minister and Consumer Affairs minister. He secured a place in Canadian history in 1976 when as solicitor-general he piloted the bill to ban capital punishment to adoption. The last hanging in Canada was in December 1962 and Liberal governments in power since then had routinely commuted death sentences. Allmand argued it was hypocritical to keep the law on the books and Trudeau agreed. It is widely taken for granted now, but he recalls that at the time it was a close-run thing. “It was a free vote, no party whip, and a third of my own caucus voted against it. It passed by six votes. It was damn close.”

In his later parliamentary years, the ’80s and ’90s, when he was either in opposition or on the backbench, he was better known for crossing his own party line on some historic occasions. As a Liberal MP he voted, on points of principle, against Trudeau’s cherished Constitution Act in 1982 and the Chrétien government’s deficit-busting 1995 budget. It was a tendency that persisted through his term in council; he voted against mayoral pet projects such as renaming Park Ave. and the monster Griffintown development scheme. Sometimes it cost him, sometimes he got away with it.

He says he was all for constitutional patriation and the Charter of Rights, but couldn’t swallow the weasel “notwithstanding” clause that provincial premiers forced on Trudeau to allow them to suspend certain charter rights at their convenience. “Trudeau never said a word to me about it at the time. Years later, after he was retired, he said to me when I ran into him one time, ‘Ahh, Warren, I voted for it holding my nose.’ He had to move it ahead even though he didn’t like the things I didn’t like. But somebody had to say that the notwithstanding clause was wrong.”

He voted against the 1995 budget because he found its program cuts in flagrant violation of Liberal election promises. “I was arguing that I was the only one actually supporting Liberal policy.” This time it got him turfed as chairman of the Commons justice committee, though he says he maintained good relations with Chrétien. As for his caucus colleagues who more compliantly submitted to the party whip: “I actually had quite a few supporters in caucus who privately agreed with me, though there were others who thought I was a pain in the ass.”

He was also an annoyance to hidebound Ottawa bureaucrats during his cabinet years. He lasted just a year as Indian Affairs minister in large part because his senior civil servants found him too chummy with the natives and too fervent in his attitude that the treatment of aboriginals is the biggest blight on Canada’s human rights record. “They said I wasn’t in Ottawa enough. Well, I was out visiting reserves, flying into remote places on a two-engine putt-putt and staying in some little shack. I said maybe they should come with me sometime and they didn’t like that. I told them, ‘You guys are running this from Ottawa like a colonialist regime,’ and they liked that even less and went behind my back to the prime minister’s office.”

After leaving Parliament in 1997, he came into a job right up his alley as head of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, succeeding former NDP leader Ed Broadbent. During his five-year term he was active in the development of the international criminal court and the international declaration of rights of indigenous people. He pushed for legislation to try war criminals in Canada under which a first conviction was registered this month in the case of Rwandan butcher Désiré Munyaneza.

What lured Allmand out of retirement from electoral politics was the opportunity to help implement the city’s Charter of Rights on which he had been called in as a consultant.

Allmand says his political leanings and passion for human rights stem from his childhood, lived during the years of the Great Depression and the Second World War. His father, a railroad man with the CPR all his working life, was laid off twice during the depression. He was born in Mile End where he had extended family. His grandfather was a streetcar driver on the Park Ave. run, which greatly influenced his vote against the name change decades later. He has memories of classmates coming to school with no shoes and of hobos knocking on the door offering to do odd jobs for a meal.

He followed the war in the papers and on radio. “I don’t know why, but it seemed to me that war was so stupid. Ordinary people on both sides who don’t know each other killing the hell out of each other. I became very pacifist early on. I became sensitive to conditions in which people had to live, to poor conditions. It became my reason for getting into politics.” He joined the Liberal Party because he disliked both Maurice Duplessis and John Diefenbaker, respectively Quebec premier and prime minister at the time. An early coup mounted with fellow young Liberals was getting a resolution through a party convention in 1960 to recognize Red China.

For all the frustration he’s encountered in his political life, Allmand said he’s seen the country dramatically improved in his time. “Sometimes you hear people saying, ‘Aw, what’s the use of getting involved in politics? You can’t get anything done. I can say that in my 40 years, a lot got done. I’ve got a long list somewhere, but just for example, when I started out there was no medicare, no Canada pension plan, to get a divorce you had to get a bill passed in the Senate, hanging was still on the books, you couldn’t buy contraceptives over the counter, gays faced criminal charges for consensual acts, I could go on and on. Sure there’s been backsliding now and then, but on the whole we’re pretty far ahead.”

His advice to anyone who doesn’t like the way things are is: “Get involved. If you think things aren’t running as they should, join a party – I don’t care which one – and push for what you want. Better to light a candle than curse the darkness, I’ve always said.”


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