By Tim Switzer
August 22, 2011
REGINA — As New Democrats across the country mourned the passing of federal leader Jack Layton on Monday, many too were remembering longtime Regina NDP MP Simon de Jong.
de Jong died in his Vancouver home at the age of 69 on Thursday following a yearlong battle with leukemia.
Though born in Indonesia, where he spent some of his earliest years in a Second World War concentration camp, de Jong would immigrate with his family to Canada at nine years old and grow to represent the federal ridings of Regina-East and Regina-Qu’Appelle from 1979 to 1997, winning five successive elections before retiring.
According to many, de Jong was the first MP to speak in the House of Commons about “the greenhouse effect,” now more commonly known as global warming.
“He was way ahead of his time — 20 to 30 years ahead of his time,” said John Solomon, who served as a parliamentary staffer to de Jong before becoming one of his colleagues in the House of Commons. “The party eventually picked up on some of the issues — all parties did, actually.”
From the outset of his political career, de Jong etched himself a space as an environmentalist. In a speech in Yorkton shortly after his first election in 1979, de Jong spoke of the waste that would be created with the downfall of the auto industry, the need for solar energy development and the hazards of nuclear development.
“I feel privileged to join with you and take up the struggle which lies ahead in the decades to come,” de Jong told the crowd at the time.
de Jong also fought memorable battles in the House, challenging the government over companies shipping harmful pesticides to third-world countries and the effect farmers’ pesticides were having within Canada.
In 1989, he ran for the leadership of the federal NDP, finishing fourth to eventual winner Audrey McLaughlin. It was during that leadership convention that de Jong found himself in hot water after a CBC microphone he was wearing picked up a conversation between himself and fellow leadership hopeful Dave Barrett, in which de Jong seemed to offer to throw his support behind Barrett if he were to be made party whip. de Jong denied a deal was ever reached and he eventually supported McLaughlin, but apologized for not informing Barret the microphone was on.
Apart from his life as a politician, de Jong was a painter, a restaurateur (operating Gretta’s on Regina’s 11th Avenue), a civil servant and a community organizer.
During the late 1960s in Vancouver, de Jong was instrumental in helping form a project called Cool-Aid, which offered food co-ops, clinics and other services to people living on the street.
“He was sort of a man for all seasons, but he lived it with a wide variety of interests,” said Cheryl Anderson, de Jong’s partner “off and on” since 1968. “He had a joy for life and a strong will to live.”
Anderson said she will remember de Jong as a man who always thought of his role as an MP as a way to raise awareness about issues and a vehicle to work with people of other political stripes.
“He built families wherever he went and communities,” said Anderson. “And within that community he loved to break bread with his family, whether they be by blood or extended.”