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This Is a Svend We Never Knew

I've seen Robinson in leg irons, and relied on him for political drama, but I never expected this.

By Mark Leiren-Young 13 Apr 2004 |

Mark Leiren-Young is a writer/director/performer who spends too much of his free time worrying about the environment, the Canadian political scene, and the Vancouver Canucks (not necessarily in that order). Mark won the Leacock Medal for Humour for his comic memoir, Never Shoot a Stampede Queen: A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo. He was a finalist for the WGC Award for screenwriting for his first feature film, The Green Chain. His most recent book, This Crazy Time, was written with/about controversial environmentalist, Tzeporah Berman. He's half of the satirical duo Local Anxiety. Their latest comedy CD, Greenpieces, is available on iTunes and their 21st century version of O Christmas Tree is becoming a holiday favourite thanks to The Tyee.

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I'm still trying to think of what rhymes with, "say it ain't so, Svend." And it's not easy because the "d" is silent. I suspect many of Mr. Robinson's longtime friends and supporters will be, too. All B.C. politicians come equipped with a self-destruct mechanism -- but this is bizarre even for a province where almost every premier for the past two decades has been indicted.

Nobody can be surprised at the thought of Svend doing something criminal - but when Svend breaks the law he's supposed to be protesting social injustice, assisting a suicide or creating an international incident. When I heard strange rumours Svend had confessed to theft my first thought was "secret government documents related to the sponsorship scandal."

But jewellery? He stole jewellery? After introducing himself? In a roomful of surveillance cameras? And then, when he didn't get caught, he turned himself in to the police? Svend called his actions "inexplicable and unthinkable" - and I'd have to second that.

I first met Svend Robinson just after he'd finished his brief jail sentence for protesting at the Clayoquot. I was doing a show called The Year in Revue at Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre and I wanted him to do a guest spot. I didn't know anything about Svend that I hadn't read in the papers or seen on TV, but I knew what everyone knew - he certainly isn't shy.

I thought he would be fun - and I knew he would sell some tickets - but I was bracing for him to be a total prima donna, obsessed with his image.  So I stunned that when it came to making fun of himself, he was fearless.  He agreed to come on stage dressed in old-fashioned prison greys, leg irons and handcuffs. And then he offered up the top 10 reasons he preferred prison to Parliament.

I wish I still had the list so I could check if any of those reasons still apply - just in case the Crown does press charges. 

I do remember that I wrote the initial version of that list - but Svend punched it up, adding self-deprecating comments much nastier than anything I'd scripted. But before he delivered the new lines, he asked permission to make the changes. It turned out he was even more gracious and charming off-stage than he was when he stepped in front of an audience. And, much to my surprise, he was shy. He said he'd never gone on stage and tried to be funny before.
Svend's lived so much of his life in the spotlight that it makes sense that if he was going to suffer a personal meltdown, he'd do it the public eye. For over two decades Svend Robinson has been a living lightning rod - and that's been his choice - but I can't imagine it was always an easy one.

A few hours after his press conference I listened to callers on CKNW gloating over Svend's demise and realized just how passionately some people loathe him.
One caller talked about how a real man like Stockwell Day wouldn't have cried at his press conference - he would have taken responsibility, gone home and asked Jesus for forgiveness. The caller made a point of saying the word "man" in italics. Yes, I thought, you're absolutely right - a real man would never cry while apologizing at a press conference - except maybe Todd Bertuzzi.

Then a caller accused the NDP of hypocrisy for supporting Svend when they'd been so mean to poor Gordon Campbell after his little martini mishap. Yes, I thought, this is exactly the same thing. I'd completely forgotten that Gordon Campbell turned himself into the Maui police, called a press conference to apologize for his actions - before anyone knew he'd done anything wrong - and announced that he was stepping aside until the issues were resolved.

Another caller ranted about Svend being a "single issue candidate" - and I found myself wondering just how many homophobic calls, letters and e-mails Canada's most prominent gay citizen must have received over the last two decades.

I haven't agreed with everything Svend has fought for - his fellow NDP MPs don't agree with everything he's fought for - but I've always been glad he's been out there fighting. I've also never believed for a moment that most of the people in his Burnaby riding support all the same things Svend does. I've lived in his riding and had neighbours who weren't thrilled by his politics, his party or his "lifestyle." They voted for him anyway because they respected his passion and because he fought just as hard for local causes that never made the news as he did for the national ones that made him famous. How often does anyone get to use the words "respect" and "politician" in the same sentence?
It's never been hard to picture the end of Svend Robinson's political career. But that picture always featured Svend being tossed out of office - or out of the NDP - for finally discovering a political stand so unpopular that either the voters or his colleagues abandoned him. 

I'm still not convinced his career is over and I certainly hope it's not - even if it is tarnished. Svend doesn't rhyme with end.

Mark Leiren-Young is a screenwriter, playwright, journalist and voter who has lived in Burnaby-Douglas.

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