Thursday, September 8, 2011

Simon de Jong was the country’s left-wing wild card

By Alan Hustak
The Globe and Mail
September 08, 2011

Simon de Jong in 1989
Simon de Jong was the wild card of left-wing politics in Canada, the first member of Parliament to raise the spectre of global warming in the House of Commons 28 years ago. He was also a committed environmentalist who in 1981 exposed the spraying of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange by the U.S. military in New Brunswick.

A radical student activist in Saskatchewan during the 1960s, de Jong went on to be elected an NDP member of Parliament in the 70s and served his Regina-Qu’Appelle constituents for 17 years. In 1989 he sought the NDP leadership, but lost to Audrey McLaughlin.

He was 69 when he died of leukemia in Vancouver on Aug 18.

“Intellectually, Simon was very serious, but sometimes he was politically naive and unpredictable,” said Ed Broadbent, who led the New Democrats between 1975 and 1989. “He took his politics very, very seriously, but he could go off on tangents that left many in the NDP caucus quite frankly befuddled.”

Audrey McLaughlin remembers de Jong as a free spirited MP who fought for what he believed.

“He was always wired for sound, which was funny in some ways, and sad and naive in other ways, but he was never acrimonious,” said McLaughlin, who followed Broadbent as leader. “He expressed his views, but he was never sanctimonious. That wasn’t him at all. He was a good debater. He had a riotous, carefree life in the sixties and he brought that joie de vivre to caucus. “

Simon Leendert de Jong was born in Surabaya, Java, one of the Indonesian islands in April, 1942. His father, a Dutch engineer, was with the Java-China-Japan shipping line and had been taken captive by the Japanese.

Shortly before Simon was born, the Japanese occupied Java and for the next three years he and his mother, Dirkje, and his older brother, Hielke, were held as prisoners of war in an abandoned convent. Of 3,000 women and children who were incarcerated by the Japanese during the occupation, only a third survived.

The family were reunited after the war and returned to the Netherlands. They came to Canada in 1951, and Simon spent his formative years in Regina.

As head of the student union at the newly created University of Regina, where he was taking social science, he wrote a constitution in 1964 that empowered students and sparked campus unrest. A key feature of the constitution was to have the union incorporated under the societies act, which gave it independent status within the university and the authority to own property, issue debentures and borrow money.

During de Jong’s tenure, the university became known as the USSR – The University of Southern Saskatchewan, Regina. He served as president of the CCF youth wing, dabbled as a painter and ran an art studio. He also experimented with LSD to raise his consciousness. In 1969 he moved to Vancouver where he became a community organizer with The Greater Vancouver Youth Communications Center Society, better known as Cool Aid.

“He really was taken with Tommy Douglas’s idea of a New Jerusalem, the idea that there was a better, more co-operative society possible, said long-time friend and folk singer, Bob Bossin. “As a refugee he learned from the very beginning to share, to rely on community. He genuinely liked people, pretty much everybody, no matter what their politics.

“In all his different pursuits – artist, street organizer, Member of Parliament and mystic – he was absolutely consistent. He always tried to raise people’s awareness - politically, environmentally, cosmically. He believed in his bones that the more aware we become, the better we become and the better world we can make.”

De Jong went back to Regina in 1975 where he opened Gretta’s a restaurant, and forged his way back into politics. He was first elected to Parliament in 1979, and won five consecutive elections until he stepped down, undefeated, in 1997.

As Heritage critic he once railed against Canada Post for issuing a stamp to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Disneyland. “We are losing our identity,” he argued. “We as a country are promoting a foreign, privately owned institution, a privately owned theme park, and we are promoting it on our stamps.”

Among his most satisfying moments as an MP, he said, was getting Parliament to send a message of condolence to Yoko Ono when John Lennon was assassinated in 1980 and delivering a speech on disarmament to the United Nations in 1982.

Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, who will be delivering a eulogy at a memorial in Vancouver on Monday, Sept. 12, said de Jong was “a remarkable guy, very innovative, very free ranging, a very strong parliamentarian, and not the least bit dogmatic.”

De Jong sought the leadership of the NDP in 1989, but finished fourth to McLaughlin. The leadership convention proved to be personally embarrassing because he was caught making unguarded remarks into a live CBC microphone that he forgot he was wearing. During some intense deal-making among the candidates, de Jong was overheard asking his mother: “Mommy, what should I do?”

After he left Parliament he moved to California, spent time in Brazil, then returned to live in British Columbia. Shortly before he died, he was asked what he would do if he was in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s shoes. “It’s a bit facetious, but take LSD,” he said. “See some bigger pictures.”

His two brief marriages ended in divorce. He leaves his other life partners, Wanda Mang, the mother of his twin sons, Justin and Micah, and Cheryl Anderson.

A memorial service will be held in Regina on Sept. 24 and in Vancouver on Sept 12.

Celebration of Life
Saturday, September 24, 2011 | 10:30am
Regina Senior Citizens Centre
2134 Winnipeg Street, Regina, Saskatchewan

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