Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ben Smillie was in the lineage of the famous Prairie populists

Philip Fine
Globe and Mail
Wednesday, Jun. 15, 2011

United Church minister Ben Smillie delivered sermons not with a genteel tone but with a finger-pointing passion for social justice, and not usually inside a church but on the streets to fellow demonstrators, at his popular Sunday political debates with students, at heady political conventions, in academic writing and inside his own religious organization – his convictions could even help quash a dumb rule at his children’s high school.

Smillie, who died on May 31 in Saskatoon at the age of 87 from the effects of a stroke he had suffered nine days earlier, was a prairie populist who helped set up medical clinics in Saskatchewan in the early 60s to counteract the rearguard attack on early provincial Medicare. He persuaded many students to demonstrate their political outrage over several issues, from the US war on Vietnam to nuclear mining in the province.

He was the author of six books, including Beyond the Social Gospel: Church Protest in the Prairies and Is Everyone Right? Christian Ethics in a Pluralistic Society. He was also a long-time critical insider of the provincial and federal NDP and of the United Church. He convinced the Saskatchewan NDP in the early 70s to stop supporting the practice of uranium mining and led an unsuccessful campaign to have all United Church ministers across the country paid the same salary.

Smillie (pronounced Smiley) was an activist in the mould of the two giants of prairie politics, J. S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas. Woodsworth, founder of the CCF (predecessor to the NDP) and Douglas, the first leader of the federal NDP and godfather of Medicare, both began their careers as clergy and both left an influence on Smillie.

He was a proponent of liberation theology, a movement that began in Latin America and sees Christianity as a salvation to unjust social conditions – and puts a name to the forces of oppression. He transposed it to prairie politics, with the view of changing the social structure that leads to harsh conditions for farmers. He even coined a term for it: Hinterland Theology.

Rev. Steve Willey, a former student of Smillie’s who now coordinates educational programs at the United Church, spoke at his funeral: “Ben believed with his whole heart that any theology, any Christian faith, any church, with any useful saltiness at all was one that engaged in a street-level struggle for human dignity and social justice.”

His protests could employ a good dose of street theatre. He pulled a coffin through Saskatoon in 1970 after the Trudeau government enacted the rights’ suppressing War Measures Act during the October Crisis.

But that incident was tame compared to a stunt a few years earlier when he wanted to get people’s attention over the use of napalm in the jungles of Vietnam. He announced that he would burn a dog in public.

Never a best friend to canines, people close to him believed that he just might do it and a crowd, mostly concerned for the animal’s welfare, came to St. Andrew’s on the day it was to happen. Alas, there was no animal at the event. Instead, Smillie took out a hot dog and began to cook it. His intention was to get some to think about how their fear for a dog’s life seemed to trump their concern for the people of Vietnam.

With little time for small talk and cantankerous at times, his fighting ways could turn some people off. His protests and criticism often got under the skin of those running the United Church and the NDP. He used war-like slogans, saw little use in compromise or diplomacy and was nicknamed “Battling Ben.”

Nevertheless, many appreciated his theological work for its focus on economic injustices and class analysis. “Protest against human oppression is the most concrete ways of honouring God and the society in which we live, “ he wrote in Beyond the Social Gospel.

“He dared to be truthful,” said Betsy Bury, a former health ombudsman for the network of clinics in which Smillie and his wife Adele were actively involved after Saskatchewan doctors went on strike in 1962. Her husband John echoed the sentiment, that he was an important light in the collective movement. “He kept you on track and he never lost sight of the moral issue.”

Benjamin Galletley Smillie was born on September 11, 1923 in the Central Indian city of Indore in what is now the state of Madhya Pradesh. He was the oldest of four children, born to missionary parents. His father, Benjamin worked as the principal of a vocational school for boys and his mother Annie (née Galletley), a nurse, ran the school’s hospital. His younger sister, Emmaline, died in 1932 at the age of five of a goitre disease.

From 1937–1941 Ben was subjected to plenty of schoolboy meanness in a series of Scottish boarding schools. Standing up to bullies for the rest of his life, one of his first successes happened in an incident that involved older boys who tore apart pillows, scattered the feathers and ordered the younger boarders to clean up the mess. Ben, according to most accounts, told the younger ones to do no such thing. They all stood their ground and in the end the older boys cleaned up their mess.

He joined the Fleet Air Arm of the British Forces in 1941 and while he got to fly solo, he was miserable at making the necessary tight formations and loops, and got a failing grade on his flight training. His flight instructor told him he’d be more of a danger to himself than the enemy. Until the end of the war, he would find a more suitable role on the ocean, while developing what would become a life-long passion for seafaring. He helped to navigate ships surrounded by German submarines and helped to liberate emaciated Sikh prisoners from Japanese prison camps.

He returned to Canada in 1946 and attended the University of Toronto where he earned his Master’s degree. He studied theology, English literature – Northrop Frye was one of his instructors – and philosophy.

In 1952, he was ordained a minister, the same year he married Adele Palmer, who would not only raise five children with him but would fight alongside him on many political issues. The rest of the decade saw him tending to congregations in Vanderhoof, BC and Vancouver, then moving his young family to Boston for a year to earn his Masters degree in Sacred Theology. The car ride from Vancouver to Boston had all their belongings packed into the boat that for 30 years would serve as his faithful pleasure craft.

St. Andrew’s College hired him as a professor in 1961. A political issue that he and Adele fought hard for, medicare, was on the front burner, as universal medical coverage in hospitals had been implemented and was making waves across the country. In 1962, the province’s doctors went on strike, as both the Canadian and American medical establishment pushed to try and block egislation that would establish universal healthcare outside of hospitals.

They would remain in Saskatoon, except for a year off to earn his PhD at Columbia in New York City in 1968, a year that saw his left-wing views tested as his oldest daughters Christine and Ruth, were relentlessly picked on by the black kids in a public high school. “We didn’t want our dad to fight for us,” said Christine, who stuck it out and got to experience a creative teacher who demonstrated the bias in Twelve Angry Men by setting up a fake knife scenario in class with a kid who few students liked and who they wrongly accused of starting it.

Christine remembers another time that she did accept her father taking on a battle for her and her sister on a cold wintry day in Saskatoon, writing a note to their school that he granted them permission to wear slacks instead of the compulsory skirt. “All the girls stopped us in the hallway and we just said our dad wrote us a note.” By the next day half the girls were wearing slacks and carrying a note. The day after that, Christine remembers not one girl wearing a skirt, the principal grudgingly changing the rule and her dad howling with laughter at each day’s news.

By all accounts he took great pleasure in his job at St. Andrew’s, for the freedom of expression it gave him, as well as the opportunity to write books, fight for what he believed in and talk to engaged students.

Former Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert, who was one of his students in the early 70s, felt that engagement. He said Smillie was a rigorous teacher who also made sure that you went out and volunteered your time. “He did not just preach the social gospel. He lived it.”

Smillie leaves his wife, Adele, his five children and sister.

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