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Legion Magazine – Aug 2004 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – Aug 2004

Much of this column touches on a subject which most in my generation of Canadians, born in the era after WW I, have found hard to be frank about, i.e., homosexuality.
This was not a matter that came into my ken in childhood that I was aware of; in truth I had no ideas on what it was until my early 20s. Then, suddenly, it shocked me, particularly over my innocence. Out of the blue a capable non-commissioned officer in our regiment, then training in England, was charged with gross misbehaviour. It was a cause celebre among us for weeks.

The accused had made overtures to another soldier, been repulsed, and then was brutally beaten. Consequential inquiry led to charging the NCO with unlawful acts. Eventually he was convicted and then dishonourably discharged.
My ignorance of homosexuality turned to something like disbelief at the exposed details of homosexual sex. I learned in a hurry from books of the prevalence—both current and through history—of men and women whose sexual attitudes and behaviour were different in their same-sex nature from what I had taken to be the common course of relations between males and females.

During this hullabaloo in Surrey in 1943 I began to take a more personal interest in the case when I found from squadron gossip that the NCO in question had family back home. Indeed a much younger sister of his had been in the same school as I, and we’d once been in a group putting on a school variety show, and I remembered her as a splendid person—eminently likeable and smart. Her good qualities put the offending brother into a different context for me in trying to understand the phenomena of homosexuality. Sixty years later I’m still learning, and a lot of it has come in following a particular career since 1979. That year a young lawyer in Vancouver, Svend Robinson, won his way into the House of Commons as an NDP MP, and almost immediately began to shock parliamentarians of all parties.

Almost from Robinson’s start in the House I knew he was a closet homosexual. In 1987 he became the first sitting MP to reveal this. Much about his antics and his causes have been personally distasteful to me but through his quarter-century as an MP I’ve recognized his dedication, cleverness, and shrewdness in using the parliamentary system. However excessive and often crass Robinson has been, he has also been a superb private member. I think only the late Stanley Knowles surpassed him as an effective MP in the post-WW II decades.

Many in politics and many ordinary folk have had reason to be hostile to Robinson because of his causes. Some opinion polling last April indicated more were “con” than “pro” regarding his worth as a politician. This was after he’d announced tearfully on national TV he would not be running in the next election because of his acknowledged theft of an expensive ring from a jewelry sale collection.
Let me now come rather indirectly to the Robinson phenomenon, and its gains and its costs, by sketching a new book by a man whose promising career as an MP ended in only one term, in part because of Robinson.

This book is an untraditional sort, authored by one of Canada’s retired major-generals, Bob Ringma. Its title is MLBU: Full Monty In Korea. It is a well-illustrated and mapped paperback of 170 pages, published by General Store Publishing House, Burnstown, Ont.
A MLBU is a mobile laundry and bath unit. The author of this book was born in 1928 and grew up in B.C. At the University of British Columbia he became a cadet officer, and after graduation he joined the army ordnance corps. Remarkably soon he found himself a volunteer in the ground fighting force, the backbone of which was American. His task was commanding the mobile laundry and bath, mainly for the benefit of front-line units. The objective of the allied force, largely set by President Harry Truman and backed by the infant United Nations, was to throw back the relatively successful invasion of South Korea in 1950 by communist forces from North Korea.

The prose in MLBU is clear and often vivid, with the unit and its course more excuse than anchor of a journalistic-like reprise of the forming, training, dispatch, assignments, and accomplishments of the Canadian contribution to the Korean War, eventually totalling almost 30,000 soldiers, laced with the major international and national story-lines of the time.

In short, a reader finds a synopsis of the war explained by a man in retirement who has a grasp on both world history and Canadian politics. Few books on our military at work have put so clearly and succinctly the make-up and needs of our land forces and how our political parties came to give equipping and maintaining effective forces such a low priority in their budget making.

After Korea, Ringma as a soldier had diverse experiences—domestically, in Europe, and in the United States. He picked up a ready usage of French and held senior administrative posts in the army for years in Quebec. In the first mandate of Jean Chrétien’s government he served as an MP for the Reform Party from 1993 to 1997 in the riding of Nanaimo-Cowichan. He did not contest the election of 1997. Across the spectrum of political partisanship in Canada it was assumed he did not run again because of the media hullabaloo created by public remarks he had made in 1996 in replying to a Vancouver Sun reporter who insisted he answer a conundrum question: “If you had an employee who was black or homosexual and his presence was costing you the business of bigoted customers would you move the employee to the back of the store or dismiss him?”

The Ringma reply was “Yes … as I would any employee who was hurting my business.”

This response was quickly and overwhelmingly taken by reporters and editorialists to reveal a racist bigot. There was political correctness at its fiercest. Demands rippled the country that Ringma be expelled from his party, even that he be prosecuted for bigotry. His answer was seen as broadly and deeply offensive to Canadian thinking and our humane multiculturalism. For days there was public furor over this “ homophobic” and “racist” MP in the Reform Party. Preston Manning, then Reform leader, suspended Ringma from the caucus and removed him as party whip.
These rebukes and Ringma’s subsequent decision not to run were hailed by those leading the campaign for homosexual rights and perpetuated as important in the long, increasingly successful campaign by gay males and lesbians for constitutional recognition of their human rights. The outing of Ringma as a bigot and his departure from politics was colloquially registered as a victory for political correctness over prejudice, harassment, and an unCanadian political party.

At the time and since, I have seen this assessment of Ringma as unfair. As I followed his work as an MP he was unusually useful to the House and public debate as an MP from the West who was familiar and positive about Quebec and the stresses there on national unity and who also knew more about our military and its decline in scope than any other MP during my time in Ottawa.

While engaged and admiring Ringma’s reminiscences of the Korean War along came the admitted theft of a ring by an MP from B.C., Svend Robinson. The first shock came from Robinson’s disclosure on national TV that he had delivered the ring to the police several days after taking it. The second shock came when it was revealed that the day before Robinson “inexplicably cracked” and walked off with the ring he had been in another jewelry store candidly telling a gay salesman he was looking for a fine engagement ring to give his partner. This latter snippet of news added to an aura of dubiousness around Robinson’s tale of the ring. It firmed attitudes of many exasperated over the years with his strenuous, much publicized antics for causes such as gay and lesbian rights, pro-abortion, pro-aborigines, legalized suicide, and forest conservation.

In the years of my open admiration of Robinson for his zeal and persistence as an MP I had often found he was a gracious achiever, less mean-spirited and contemptuous of those whose beliefs and principles were opposed to his. This was personal, I think, because of my own awareness, roused by the dishonoured NCO in 1943. At least this had given me sympathetic understanding and, on some matters, support for what the Robinsons of our era have been after. But as the successes of lesbians and gays with our political parties and in the courts have mounted, it much bothered me that the pro-gay forces, symbolized by Robinson, were so dismissive and unforgiving about any person or organization openly opposing any of their objectives.

One of the prime causes of the now famous “democratic deficit” of Canada which Paul Martin vowed to erase has been the growing contempt for the conservatively minded people of Canada for their “bigotry” and “racism” by the “liberally minded” people. So much, for example, that a sensible, needed national debate on immigration goals is impossible. Seemingly, the reigning righteousness in the attitudes of those in the media and the artistic, literary, and educational communities has become very liberal, even arrogantly so, regarding family relationships, lifestyles, and social behaviour.
And so, while working at this column I tracked Ringma to his place of retirement on Thetis Island, B.C., and asked him if it was true that his widespread damning as a racist and homophobe in 1996 had brought him to leave politics.

No, it had not. Yes, the nasty notoriety had been very trying, but shortly after his unanimous nomination for the coming election he and his wife faced a crisis in her health, and she needed his continuing attention. He withdrew from the nomination and his party’s successor candidate handily retained the seat.

I asked him for some recall of the conundrum put to him by the Vancouver Sun, and he said he regretted his response. He hadn’t taken time to consider it carefully and had been spare and awkward in response. I also asked how the interview had come about. Had Robinson anything to do with prompting the reporter to raise a question so much more complex than it seems at first, hearing both it and his reply?

He said the reporter had been aggressive and persistent. He was sure the origin of the question had been an interview with him as a new MP in 1994, which had appeared in a Vancouver Island weekly. He had stated in that wide-ranging interview that he did not favour changes in the status of gays and lesbians as citizens, for example, legalizing same-sex marriages.

Not long after the 1996 onslaught over this alleged homophobia he was told by a source he trusted that copies of this 1994 interview had been on Robinson’s House desk at the time of his “disgrace.” He regretted what had happened thereafter but much as he disagreed with Robinson on many political issues he does not harbour a grudge against Robinson.

Good for him. And for myself, I wish only that in his absence from the next parliament Robinson will come to recognize from his own case that a decent democracy needs much in grace and understanding both from those in politics who win their points and those who lose them. Even the politically correct should never gloat.