Bob Mackenzie fought for fairness
Ontario's first and only Minister for Labour was kind, principled and ferocious.
Dateline: Tuesday, January 25, 2011
by Ish Theilheimer
Hamilton, January 17, 2011, Straight Goods News — Canada's labour movement and workers everywhere have lost one of their lions, with the death at 82 of Bob Mackenzie. The union organizer-turned-politician is best known for becoming Ontario's first and only Minister for Labour, in the Bob Rae NDP government from 1990-1995.
The former merchant seaman, paper mill worker, auto worker, steelworker and United Steelworkers staffer became a well-loved politician who spent 15 years in opposition and five years in government. He was known as a principled man with a great sense of humour who would not back down on a point of principle and who could be relied upon in a fight. And there were many fights...
Perhaps the most prominent of Mackenzie's victories in government was passage of a historic set of labour law reforms, featuring anti-scab legislation, that were bitterly opposed by big business and mainstream media. There were other fights that weren't so well known. In 1985, he fought to keep the Ontario NDP from forming a coalition with the Liberals.
"When the Conservative government was defeated in 1985, Bob Mackenzie was one of the three members of caucus who fiercely opposed Bob Rae's desperate manipulations to form a coalition with the Liberals," former Thunder Bay MPP Jim Foulds told Straight Goods News. Foulds and Algoma MPP Wildman also opposed the idea.)
| || ||"You simply knew you could absolutely rely on him to be there."|| |
"Ultimately, with the enormous organizational skill of Michael Lewis mobilizing the party, [we] won out in Caucus. Ironically, if the coalition plan had gone ahead, of course, the NDP would never have won government in 1990 and Bob Rae's resumé would never have included 'Premier of the Province of Ontario.'
"As Bob's Mackenzie's legislative assistant Val Taylor put it 'I didn't join the NDP to become a f——ing Liberal.' I don't know if Bob Mackenzie or Val originated the phrase but he certainly used words to that effect in the often heated discussions that took place in caucus — and which Rosemary Speirs totally omits from her book, Out of the Blue, because she only interviewed the pro-coalition people from the NDP who were willing to leak things from caucus to her. Bob Mackenzie was both the labour movement's and the NDP's Mr. Standfast."
Another former Caucus colleague, Elie Martel, says that the main thing with Mackenzie was "You simply knew you could absolutely rely on him to be there. The tougher it was, he was there, he was committed to the Party and to the trade union movement."
"In my view, Bob's greatest hour was the passage of Bill 40 and the outlawing of the use of scab labour in Ontario after a long and gruelling set of public hearings," Wildman told Straight Goods News. "The process took a heavy toll on him."
Wildman recalls another fight that wasn't so widely known — Mackenzie's support of gay rights. "One of the best and most inspiring political speeches I ever heard was Bob's intervention during the very difficult government caucus debate about the amendments to extend benefits to same sex couples," said.
"Bob stood on the simple principle of fairness, in a very well-reasoned argument that pointed to the need to lead and do what was right to protect the basic rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. He also explained the political reality of the situation. He appealed to the best in each member of caucus, many of whom feared the wrath of their constituents. His speech went a long way to carrying the day for those of us who were committed to protecting the rights of all Ontarians."
Former Hamilton Mountain MPP Brian Charlton credits Mackenzie with helping shape Ontario's occupational health and safety legislation, which was enacted by the minority Conservative government of Bill Davis that preceded the Liberal Accord government of 1985.
"Bob mattered so much to people because he was honest," says Foulds. "There was no bullshit about him. You always knew where he stood and you always knew where you stood with him. And even when you were on different sides of an issue, you knew he held his view out of conviction, not out of convenience."
"History should be kinder to the achievements of certain aspects of the Rae government than political science has been," says Foulds, who opposed Rae for the NDP leadership and was not part of the NDP government. He listed some of those achievements as: "Wildman's efforts on behalf of first nations, Hampton's sustainable forestry act, the establishment of class action suits in Ontario, and Bob Mackenzie's labour legislation, especially the legislation allowing the organization of farm workers. And although the anti-scab legislation was rolled back by the Harris Tories, it set a standard that any progressive government should aim for."
Foulds says Mackenzie and his family were and remain important leaders in NDP politics. "Bob Mackenzie inspired a family to political and trade union activism. Three sons were or have been union or NDP organizers; one daughter-in-law was a provincial secretary, etc. But most of all, although often stubborn and quick-tempered, Bob Mackenzie was a genuinely nice man."
Des Morton, Founding Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said that Mackenzie became "a great friend and ally when I worked for the Ontario NDP in the 1960s," he told Straight Goods News.
"So long as he was the party's organizer in Hamilton and with the Steelworkers, it seemed possible to take for granted that they would have a firm membership and financial base and sensible, dependable leadership.. As a newcomer to the organization, he was a patient and bottomless fountain of wisdom. He and people like him made my two years full time service at the Ontario provincial office, the happiest and most productive years of my life."
"This province has lost one of the great champions of Ontario workers," wrote Bud Wildman. "I have lost a true friend."
Ish Theilheimer is founder and president of Straight Goods News and has been Publisher of the leading, and oldest, independent Canadian online newsmagazine, StraightGoods.ca, since September 1999. He is also Managing Editor of PublicValues.ca. He lives wth his wife Kathy in Golden Lake, ON, in the Ottawa Valley.
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