Guest Commentary

Gregory Thomas

Ottawa, My Town

People sometimes ask me what it’s like to represent the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in the nation’s capital. Amongst polite society in Ottawa, we’re about as welcome as a skunk at a garden party.

The roots of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation are in the prairie soil. The lion’s share of our budget – over 90 percent – still comes from donations of less than $300, the majority of it from the western provinces. We have 84,000 supporters and we received more than 23,000 donations last year.

So our values reflect prairie values: thrift, self-reliance, honesty, community.

I grew up in a small farming community in northern Saskatchewan. If you’ve never been there, you’re not alone. If you start driving north from Regina on Highway 6 and keep driving until the highway ends, four hours later, you’ll get to our old farm.

Unlike when you’re in Ottawa or any other big city, everybody knows you in small prairie town. Not just your name. Everybody knows you, knows your family. They know how you get along with everybody, how you did in school, whether you got picked first or last for teams at recess. Many people still leave their doors unlocked, even when they’re not home.

So you can’t get away with a whole lot.

In Ottawa, you can get away with a whole lot. People expect it. They gossip about it and they complain about it. But Ottawa is a government town. Once some people corner the market on power, fairness and honesty go out the window.

The system rules. So if the system says you can claim a per-diem on your expenses, people claim it, even though they didn’t happen to incur any expenses that day. If the system says you can take a half a year off pretending to be sick before you retire, people take the time off. If the system says you can retire from their government job on a full pension, and arrange a fat contract with your friends to start the same job the following Monday, people do that too. Those who speak out against this kind of evil soon feel the weight of the bureaucracy crushing down upon them.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation takes the side of federal government employees who blow the whistle on corruption in Ottawa. We focus public attention on wasteful spending. We mock self-important politicians with enormous 30-foot tall balloons. We have dancing pink pigs hand out golden waste awards. It’s all rather undignified.

John Diefenbaker was also from the prairies. When he became prime minister in the 1950s, Ottawa insiders gave him a rough ride.

One summer afternoon in July 1971, Mr. Diefenbaker and his wife Olive showed up at our town’s annual sports day.

He had lost the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative party four years earlier; he had left office four years before that. But he had been an MP from our part of Saskatchewan for 31 years, and he would continue for another eight years until his death.

My father was the master of ceremonies at the sports day talent show when the Diefenbakers arrived. It was a bit of a mob scene. I was 10 at the time – I had never seen my father so excited.

Mr. Diefenbaker said a few words and climbed down from the stage to enthusiastic applause. I sidled up beside Mrs. Diefenbaker and velcroed myself to the couple for the next hour, as they made their way across the fairgrounds, greeting well-wishers. He knew everybody by name, the adults anyway, and he handled every question, every comment, with patience and grace and genuine interest: technology, foreign policy, wheat sales, freight rates. It was quite a show. Olive – a retired school teacher – held my hand and kept me engaged, talking to her, so he could work his magic.

Mr. Diefenbaker wasn’t really an insider’s kind of guy: he appointed a woman to the cabinet before there was feminism. He appointed an aboriginal to the Senate before status Indians were even entitled to vote, then he promptly corrected that situation. He recommended the appointment of a French Canadian as Governor General, in an era where francophones took a back seat in Ottawa. Eventually insiders got tired of his prairie outlook and put him in his place – our town, and hundreds just like it.

Later on in 1971, after his triumphant visit to our sports day, I wrote him a letter. He wrote me back, and sent me an enormous embossed copy of his proudest legislative accomplishment, the Canadian Bill of Rights, which he had autographed for me.

It still hangs on my wall, 42 years later. When I look at it, I feel very much like an outsider and I feel good.

(Editor’s note: the author is former federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, and a past financial columnist with the Vancouver Sun. Mr. Thomas’ commentary was originally published December 15, 2013)

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