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Rights + Justice

Dermod Travis, BC’s Brilliant Politics Watchdog, Has Died

Demanding ‘respect’ for voters, he led the fight to clean up the ‘wild west’ of party donations.

Tom Hawthorn 1 Jun

Tom Hawthorn is a Victoria writer and a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

Dermod Travis was a one-man opposition party and a thorn in the side of any party in power. A keen researcher and prolific writer, the executive director of the watchdog group IntegrityBC kept an eye on the provincial legislature in Victoria and city halls across the province.

Travis, who died today at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, criticized British Columbia’s “wild west,” anything-goes electoral finance laws long before the story hit the pages of the New York Times. He denounced a system allowing for unlimited contributions (a developer once financed the campaign of the civic Non-Partisan Association in Vancouver with a donation just under $1 million), as well as cheques from oil and gas businesses based in Alberta to back the BC Liberal Party. He also decried the power of trade unions to finance the NDP.

After the provincial government banned union and corporate donations as well as limiting individual donations to $1,200 in 2018, Travis spoke out against the inevitable loopholes exploited by candidates and their backers.

IntegrityBC, a non-governmental, non-partisan and non-profit group monitoring governments, sought to restore accountability and transparency to politics.

“We want politicians in the province to respect voters,” Travis once said.

A gaunt figure with a sallow complexion whose long face gave him a passing resemblance to the 1960s television actor Fred Gwynne, Travis carried himself with the disheveled shabbiness of a small-town lawyer. His wardrobe and schoolboy haircut seemed to emphasize that what he had to say mattered far more than any other perception.

He had an encyclopedic knowledge of politics and processes. He was one of the few people outside academia who could speak knowingly about the mechanics of government and the functioning of democracy. By understanding systems and connections, he anticipated potential areas of corruption. He has been accused of suffering from “excessive idealism.”

A United Church minister’s son, Travis had a varied and sometimes checkered career before returning to B.C. earlier this century. Some of his ventures flopped. He was once, briefly, a boxing promoter. More successfully, he played host to the Dalai Lama on a visit to Vancouver. Over the years, he had associations with more than a half-dozen political parties across the spectrum, including two years as national spokesperson for the federal Green Party under leader Jim Harris.

After joining IntegrityBC in 2011, Travis wrote more than two dozen articles for The Tyee, shining a spotlight on lobbying, the Mount Polley mine disaster, and freewheeling campaign financing. A decade spent in Quebec in the 1990s, which boasts the country’s most stringent reporting laws, gave him a model for reform of a system ripe for corruption.

Travis was like a “full-time professional citizen,” said Sean Holman, an associate journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary. He was a one-man Ralph Nader, exposing waste, fraud and negligence.

“This was a person who marched straight into minefields because he thought he could help,” Holman said. “It’s a terrible loss. There’s not enough of those people in society.”

“Dermod was a bold, unassailable voice for cleaning up cronyism in our politics. He wrote powerfully, and produced critical leads and baseline information that helped journalists do their jobs in the public interest,” said Tyee founding editor David Beers. “He enriched our society incredibly by paying attention and being brave.”

The Tyee’s legislative bureau chief, Andrew MacLeod, said, “I had a message from Dermod when he was out of hospital in March joking that he was training to run the Boston marathon as soon as the pandemic is over. Even when things were bad, he had a sense of humor. He also came out of the hospital with an assessment of what's wrong with the health-care system (the victim of a legacy of cuts) and how poorly it was prepared for the pandemic. Even from his hospital bed he was a keen observer of what was happening around him and an insightful commentator on it.

“I would also say that over the years I always found him to be a rewarding interview. I’d call him with something I thought was simple to comment on and he’d surprise me with the depth he’d bring, often pointing out an angle, issue or solution that never would have occurred to me. I also always appreciated his ability to keep a sense of proportion and an eye on the big picture. His criticisms of what was wrong in our society and political systems tended to be constructive.”

Dermod Travis was born in Banff, Alta., in 1960, a third child and first son for the former Elizabeth Molly Sullivan and Rev. John Probyn Travis. She was born in Belfast in 1922, a tumultuous political year during which the six counties of Northern Ireland opted out of the Irish Free State. During the war, she served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a radar operator and as one of the plotters for Bomber Command who, using a stick like a croupier’s rake, plotted the movement of planes and ships. She was posted to a seaside air-force base at Bishops Court, County Down, about 40 kilometres southeast of Belfast. In 1945, she met a Welsh airman from Swansea who served in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. He studied theology at New College in London before being ordained to the ministry of Congregational Church in the West Yorkshire town of Huddersfield in 1948. They married that same year.

The family moved to Canada in 1951 with Rev. Travis entering the United Church ministry with charges in the fishing village of Northport, N.S., and the border hamlet of Franklin Centre, Que. In 1957, the minister moved to Rundle Memorial United Church in Banff, a third bucolic posting. After nine years, the cleric was accepted to succeed a retiring minister at Centennial United Church.

Ten weeks before taking up the new posting, the Travis family was on vacation in Berkeley, Calif. They were spending a day sightseeing in San Francisco when involved in a fatal crash. The taxicab they hired was struck broadside by a streetcar at the intersection of Market and Battery streets. The tram (ironically, for a minister and his family, running on the J Church line) dragged the taxi nearly 30 metres in a grinding crash.

Police arrived at a terrible scene — the driver dead in the front seat, all five passengers injured, gas pouring from a ruptured tank. Both parents and the oldest daughter, Deirdre, 13, were removed from the wrecked car, but firefighters with the city’s rescue squad needed jacks and prybars to free a trapped Gaye, 12, who had cuts on both legs, and seven-year-old Dermod, who suffered a broken right thigh bone.

(Deirdre was later a University of Victoria student when cast to portray a young Emily Carr for an award-winning, two-part television series aired by CBC in 1975. She had been discovered while waiting tables as summer help at the Empress Hotel. She abandoned acting as a career to complete her studies.)

In Victoria, young Dermod attended the private, preparatory St. Michaels University School, which was an all-boys institution at the time. At age 15, he won the Western Canada Debating Seminar in Winnipeg, a competition pitting the top 100 high-school debaters from the four western provinces. The main resolution for debate dealt with measures to improve free enterprise in Canada.

In his junior year, or Grade XI in the school’s preferred Latin enumeration, he organized fortnightly interschool debating contests to be aired on Victoria’s channel 10, the local community cable-access channel. He also delivered editorials on CFAX, the city’s top commercial radio station. He was the school’s representative to a United Nations’ conference on “The New International Economic Order” in Winnipeg, and one of two assigned to attend a Student Commonwealth conference in Ottawa.

By his graduating year, Travis had already developed a tweed-and-tie young-fogey look, an antecedent by a few years for the actor Michael J. Fox’s portrayal of Alex P. Keaton in the television sit-com Family Ties. Travis was a head boy whose activities included debating and drama, as he had a role in the student production of Twelve Angry Men. Underclassmen later described his greatest achievement as turning the Tuck Shop into a profitable arcade with foosball and pinball machines.

In the school’s Black Red & Blue yearbook for 1978, Travis expressed his desire to become prime minister, while self-deprecatingly acknowledging his probable destination was to service pinball machines for Ryan Vending. His final request after seven years at the school — a glass of Bristol Cream Sherry.

The young man’s interest in electoral politics was expressed while he was in his mid-teens when he was elected one of the directors of the Victoria branch of the B.C. Conservative Association in 1976. One of the vice-presidents was a not-yet-notorious lawyer by the name of Doug Christie, who later that year formed the first of his several political groups promoting Western separation.

As a first-year student at the University of Victoria, Travis won a best all-round award at a debating contest for B.C. university students.

Even then, he had a no-nonsense approach. One morning, he telephoned newspaper columnist Max Low with a bracing question: “If you were deaf, Max, how would you have answered this telephone?” He soon after marched into the newsroom to demonstrate Porta-Tel, an innovative device that lit up to announce a call and included a screen so that two people with the device could exchange messages by text. The portable device weighed less than two kilograms and cost $550 (about $1,975 today). It was a system of text messaging before the internet or smartphones became available to the public.

Marketing the Porta-Tel was one of three businesses in which he was engaged at age 19, as he also had a television production company and an interest in a downtown newsstand.

The budding entrepreneur was the first candidate to announce his intention to run for city council in Victoria in 1979, launching his campaign by blaming three NDP-affiliated aldermen for obstructing development. Travis was endorsed by popular former mayor Peter Pollen, but the editorial writers at the Victoria Times offered a harsher assessment. “A 19-year-old business whiz kid makes an interesting candidate, but Travis has not been very convincing,” the paper stated two days before the election. “He has tended to come across as self-righteous and overly rigid.”

With only four incumbents seeking re-election to the eight-seat council, the contest attracted 16 candidates. Travis finished 12th with 3,342 votes, 1,178 fewer than he would have needed to win election. Despite his disappointment, he paid for a published advertisement in the newspaper thanking the voters of Victoria.

On campus, he had noticed an unmet demand for student housing, so he rented Orcades, a 12-room, 6,000-square-foot Tudor Revival mansion in the leafy Rockland neighbourhood which he, in turn, rented out to student tenants. He also rented out rooms in another large home on Gorge Road. An attempt to purchase Strathcona Lodge, a former Canadian Pacific resort in Shawnigan Lake, outside Victoria, fell through in part because a potential business partner pulled out after Travis spoke about the deal to a reporter.

He wound up living in the oilsands boomtown of Fort McMurray in his native province, where he spent a year as a senior policy advisor to the Alberta Liberal Party. He ran for a seat in the legislature as the NDP candidate in Lac La Biche-McMurray in the 1982 provincial election. His campaign tactics annoyed all three rivals, one of whom said he “was too smart for his age.” Travis finished a distant second behind the Progressive Conservative incumbent.

The following summer he produced a 20-page newspaper parody that turned a profit after a resident filed a libel suit. By the fall of 1983, Travis was in Lethbridge to drum up attention for a proposed twice-weekly community newspaper to challenge the daily Lethbridge Herald. (His mock-up edition stirred controversy as he had copied articles from another publication without permission.) The Southerner lasted eight editions before Travis announced its closure.

On moving to Vancouver, Travis enrolled at the University of British Columbia, where he eventually completed a degree in international relations in 1987. He tried his hand as a boxing promoter, organizing a club card at the Italian Cultural Centre and unsuccessfully trying to set a fight date for up-and-coming middleweight contender Michael Olajide.

A restless, always active mind next conjured ArtsFund, a non-profit foundation to provide shared medical and dental benefits for working artists, a plan he devised while on the board of directors of a Vancouver dance troupe. He seeded the plan with $1,000 of his own money, hoping to create a job for himself as administrator. More than 200 artists signed up, including the singer k.d. lang, but the plan failed after two years.

By then, Travis had moved to Montreal despite having limited French, a language he managed to conquer, if he was not entirely successful in mastering an accent. The newcomer eagerly waded into the minefield that is Quebec politics. He was a public policy analyst, an advisor to Greenpeace Quebec, and a research director for Equality Party leader Robert Libman, a member of the National Assembly from Montreal.

In 1994, he co-founded Public Interest Research Associates Communications, offering public-relations advice to opposition politicians and non-profit groups. The company was also hired by a law firm considering a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Bre-X shareholders who lost their investments in the fraudulent gold-mining company.

In the aftermath of the province’s divisive second sovereignty referendum, he organized a group of 60 prominent anglophones to oppose any partition of Quebec territory, a threat sometimes raised by opponents of independence. Travis was a driving force behind Forum Action Quebec, a group of young bilingual Quebecers promoting moderation and rapprochement in the post-referendum era.

“We believe most language militants belong to a different era and a different generation,” he told a parliamentary special joint committee in Ottawa in 1997.

Travis later served as one of the 11 commissioners on Gérald Larose’s commission Estates-General on the Situation and Future of the French Language in Quebec. For his participation, he was denounced by the militant anglophone rights leaders of Alliance Quebec, a group for which he had been a director of a Montreal chapter. Among those on the receiving end of his poison pen were the newspaper columnists Diane Francis and William Johnson, who was nicknamed Pit Bill and described as an “angryphone” in the never-ending debates over English-language rights. (The confrontational Johnson died in Gatineau, Que., on March 1, aged 88.)

After his two years with the federal Green Party, Travis served as executive director of the Canada Tibet Committee, which promotes human rights for the Tibetan people. In that role, he was responsible for getting 1,000 Tibetan refugees and their families admitted to Canada, according to Wayne Crookes, the long-time friend of Travis who founded IntegrityBC and hired Travis to lead it.

Crookes also helped hire Travis to run communications for the federal Green Party’s national campaign in 2004 and was amazed, he said, by the energy and strategic skill he brought the job. Many people had the same reaction to Travis as he went about building the party’s profile in the media, said Crookes. “It was, ‘wow.’" Yet Travis refused to accept payment anything close to what people doing similar jobs in other political parties were receiving, Crookes noted.

“I was extremely impressed with him for his competence, conscientiousness and activism as a professional and also as a volunteer,” Crookes told The Tyee today. “I lost a very good friend.”

Travis made IntegrityBC a force to be reckoned with, said Crookes. Asked to sum up that legacy, he said, “We brought together information and got it out in the media so that the need for electoral finance reform was one of the top-of-the-mind issues when voters voted in 2017.”

Travis had acute liver disease and was struggling to gain the strength to undergo a heart operation when he passed away. He died two days short of his 60th birthday. He never married and is survived by his sister Deirdre Chettleburgh.

On the news of his death, many took to social media to express their grief and to praise the watchdog. “Always looked out for the average British Columbian,” Alan Mullen, chief of staff to the Speaker of the B.C. legislature, wrote on Twitter.

Find pieces by Dermod Travis published by The Tyee here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Politics

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