The public image of Rafe Mair, once a powerful Socred minister and then B.C.’s top talk show host, is of the tough guy who’d never back down. The Rafe I knew from the time he began writing for The Tyee in 2005 was a sensitive friend on an open-minded journey of the soul.
Rafe was deeply bothered by others’ pain and wreckage needlessly inflicted. He reserved his cynicism for the powerful, because in fact he was a yearning idealist. He saw so much potential and beauty in his beloved British Columbia that it broke his heart to see what he sarcastically called “our betters” were doing to the place and its people in the service of greed.
A lot of news commentators adopt a jaded stance, playing at being mature when really they are just playing it safe. As such, they scorn dreamers and activists. Rafe was their opposite. He was a worrier. He worried deeply and he worried widely and then, always, his advice was: quit worrying and take action!
He worried about the kinds of tactics that Trump now employs to sow division, naming their use by Canada’s previous prime minister. “As Harper whips up fear of a Muslim enemy he will make it simple to allow hate to spread without appearing to do so.”
He worried about the calcification of Canada’s democracy, parties too whipped, power too concentrated in the PMO, votes too skewed by first past the post. “No matter what system is adopted, men will grasp for power and once getting it, will try to extend and prolong it. This does not mean that we can't do a hell of a lot better.”
He worried about threats to free speech and a press too beholden to the powerful. Except for what he considered a few exceptions, he wrote in his first Tyee column, “There isn’t a nook much less a cranny in Canada where the writer is not required to self-censor.”
He worried on behalf of those dealing with mental illness, bravely sharing his own diagnosed depression. “If the physically ill in our province were dealt with as mentally ill people are, the legislature and its lawn would be crammed with irate people and there would be violence. I mean that.”
He worried, clairvoyantly, that NDP candidate for premier Adrian Dix would squander his big lead in the polls by failing to aggressively attack the record of his 2013 opponent Christy Clark. “To quote the baseball manager Leo Durocher: ‘Nice guys finish last.’”
He worried that economic inequality would tear apart society. “Why is anyone impoverished in a country as rich as we are? I suppose that's because we refuse to break the faith with an uncontrolled capitalism which promises and never delivers help to the poor and the lame.”
He worried about the health of Howe Sound, which provided the stunning panorama beyond the Lions Bay condo he shared with his cherished wife Wendy.
He worried so much that Ottawa’s demands will corrupt what he loved about British Columbia that lately he called for outright revolt. “Being an old man and not giving a damn about anyone throwing me in jail anymore I thought, ‘Goddamn it, I’m gonna say what I think.’ And I’ve gotten to the point where if British Columbia left the country, I’d be delighted.”
It was a privilege to serve as Rafe’s editor, not only because I was able to share him with our readers, but because working together deepened our friendship. He could be prickly, which is common among writers who deeply care. But he was fine with me straightening out his prose, as long as I didn’t change or even slightly soften his intended aim. It gives me satisfaction that Rafe could say in 2013: “I've been writing for [The Tyee] and editor David Beers for nearly eight years. I have indeed heard from him on questions of fact, syntax, grammar, accuracy and potential libel, and I fully expect that. I have not ever had the slightest criticism on content. Never.”
That column, by the way, begins in typically Rafe-ish fashion: “Ye Gods and Little Fishes! Yahoo and Scooby Dooby Doo!...” No matter how antiquated his colloquialisms, I always left them in, knowing full well many readers under 70 might be left scratching their heads. I figured Rafe was letting us listen in on how people talked as he grew up in Vancouver after the Great Depression, and The Tyee, might, some days, be a portal to that past.
What I admired most about Rafe is what I mentioned at the top. That beneath his tough demeanor was a man who was never afraid to rethink his positions according to what his heart was telling him. The gift this yielded, for Rafe and for us, was the example of a person who travelled far in views and delighted in arriving in new locales of the mind. The former Socred supported at different times in The Tyee’s pages Greens and New Democrats and called for higher taxes on the rich. He confessed that his family had directly profited from the internment of Canadians of Japanese heritage during the Second World War. He was fine describing himself a “liberal,” he wrote, just never call him a Liberal. His blasting of BC Liberal fiscal policies cost him old friends. At “a certain very swish club, people hated my guts,” he wrote. “This gave me assurance I must be doing something right.”
“Why should I be defensive about changing?” asked Rafe, marshalling a quote, as he often did, from one of history’s great thinkers occupying his book shelves. “For as Ralph Waldo Emerson rightly observed, ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.’"
When people grow older and the world changes around them, it can be tempting to retreat into a defensive, self-congratulating pose. Rafe took a very different stance. He acknowledged his privilege, and his growing awareness of structural inequity. “I find I'm thankful for all the Affirmative Action I've been blessed with — born on the right side of the tracks, the right colour, education including private school, a huge network to catch me if I fall and being lucky enough to be the right person in the right spot on several occasions.
“I've been lucky enough, as well, to have been temporarily desperately poor, for those circumstances provided me insight…”
Here are resonances of the sensitivity in Rafe I noted at the top, a sensitivity that could lead to a spat if I’d wounded his pride, but a sensitivity he also embraced for its ability to make him alive to the world, and the needs of others. In a manuscript for a possible collection of his Tyee writings that, sadly, we did not manage bring to fruition, Rafe spoke proudly about his sensitive side.
He wrote of “the male resistance to sentimentality. We don’t cry. The world would be much better off if we did. We ignore words like ‘sweet,’ ‘gorgeous,’ ‘darling’ and so on as indications of female ‘softness.’
“Well, I do cry. I am a blubberer. I don’t know why. I cry when I hear some music, read some books, watch some movies, listen to some speeches. I grieve personal heavy losses but for some reason they don’t bring sobs but hit my tummy instead….
“I began to have grandchildren and, corny though it might seem, I thought of them a lot. What sort of a society were we bequeathing to them? What was their province going to look like?
“As I grew older I didn’t like the idea of simply fading away into a coffee row, checkers in the mall, regime. Yet, had I had my time?
“Somewhere in this ongoing thought process I came up with a way of keeping the mind young — always worry about things that will happen after, long after, you’ve gone. I try to see life through the eyes of my 31 year old grandson. This meant that I still had things to do and plans to make to say nothing of windmills to tilt at.”
I will treasure the days I’d visit Rafe at his favourite haunt in West Van, the Lions Pub, or the Lions Bay Cafe in Lions Bay. In both places, people would hail Rafe fondly, proving he’d made far, far more friends than he’d lost by being true to his heart and fearlessly sharing his convictions over airwaves, in newspaper columns, on the Common Sense Canadian website he helped found, in the pages of The Tyee, in mass emails, by whatever means necessary.
Rafe Mair will be remembered as the conscience of British Columbia. In that role, he never did back down.