Throwing Bad Politics After Good People

  • National Newswatch

It was a touching journey reading through the various tributes to Trevor Harrison, the former young Liberal staffer who passed away following a lengthy battle with brain cancer this week.  Michael Ignatieff's reflection of Harrison in the Globe and Mail was perfectly fitting.The Ignatieff era ushered in many young keen minds to Ottawa in the pursuit of intelligent policy and perhaps a more effective politics.  Trevor worked in Ignatieff's office but often found his way to my digs on West Block's fourth floor, where I would occasionally catch him with his long legs up on a table debating the merits of specific ideas with my staff.  Always respectful, even deferential, he was ready for a debate at a moment's notice.When diagnosed with brain cancer in those years, he plowed ahead, believing that his work was important and that his health would compensate.  For a time, he was right, and in those months, I discovered that his true strength wasn't in his physical frame but his fierce belief in public service.We travelled with Ignatieff to northern Ontario and the east coast, where Trevor and the other young staffers could be found in bars late at night, hashing over the day's events and the prospects of the coming election.  He would always engage me in talks about the merits and drawbacks of political partisanship, sometimes chiding me gently for not being “Liberal” enough and, on other occasions, complimenting my openness.  On each of those occasions, he was a joy.When the 2011 campaign didn't work out, there was concern among many of us that all that youthful fervour amongst the staffers would dissipate, turning them away from politics.  That's not how it worked out.  Most of them, including Trevor, eventually found themselves within various positions in public service and, to this day, leave their mark.Trevor had to deal with political and physical loss.  He was in a state of deterioration, compensated by the discovery of romantic love in his life.  I last saw him in London, Ontario, where he was undergoing tests that eventually confirmed the resurgence of his cancer.  We sat for hours waiting for results, and it was dawning on him that the news might not be good.  Nevertheless, he talked about this or that policy, the great things Michael Ignatieff was doing in Europe, and repeatedly affirmed that those earlier days in our nation's capital were the best of his life.During that time, I lost a dear friendship with a journalist who had been important to me.  Trevor talked to me about it in London, offering to intervene as soon as he returned to Ottawa.  “Life is too short to lose good people,” he said.  Coming from Trevor, those words carried a relevance and sense of urgency that gave them deep humanity.  I felt he had enough to deal with and never took him up on his offer, but it is a kindness that remained with me.With Trevor's passing this week also comes a lesson.  The keenness and vigour of all those minds like his are the engines that keep our politics moving, filling it with ideas, providing it a raw nobility.  They are up at all hours, taking on tasks menial and significant, and always infuse their political bosses with a sense of urgency, even idealism.  Their spirit is often why people get into politics in the first place.But we run into danger when we merely utilize them as fodder for our political wars.  There was a time when political life was more about service than combat.  Partisanship was essential to sharpening the mind and forging good and progressive policy and the young women and men flooding through Ottawa embodied that spirit.  We increasingly run the danger of turning such young potential into white-hot partisans instead of the energized future of Canada.One of the great tragedies of the larger military conflicts is how soldiers frequently come home feeling used and under-appreciated.  Political parties often throw their young recruits into the fray for the most senseless and mind-numbing reasons, just to keep the wars going.  Their tasks frequently become those of tearing down opponents instead of building a better parliament of more effective politics.Young people flood to Ottawa, driven by a sense of purpose and the desire to elevate their country.  They pour everything into the effort, frequently with little praise.  The worst thing we can do for them is force-feed a politics of animosity, anger, and blind partisanship.  They are there to serve a country and to inspire it in the process.  To waste such moments in rancour is to lose our future.Trevor Harrison will remain a constant reminder of a young life that pressed on in his service even as his end neared.  It was never a passing phase to him but essential to his life.   He couldn't stop talking about it, and we couldn't stop admiring him for it.  He showed us how it was done.  We should never throw bad politics in the way of such beautiful lives.Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 35 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“. Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.