John Harvard, 1938-2016

Former Manitoba MP and lieutenant governor John Harvard died Saturday at the age of 77 (CBC News, Winnipeg Free Press). A longtime broadcaster, first with CJOB and then with CBC Manitoba, he made the jump to politics in 1988, when he won the riding of Winnipeg St. James, a longtime Conservative stronghold, for the Liberals. Re-elected in 1993, 1997 and 2000, he remained a backbencher, twice acting as parliamentary secretary, before being appointed Manitoba’s 23rd lieutenant governor in 2004.

I worked on John Harvard’s first election campaign in 1988; we got to know each other quite well.

That was the year I caught the political bug, swept up by the provincial Liberal wave that elected 20 MLAs and made Sharon Carstairs opposition leader. I was all of sixteen years old: precocious as all hell, socially awkward and dealing with some serious emotional shit, and I coped by throwing myself into politics. During the federal campaign I practically lived at Harvard’s campaign headquarters at 1856 Portage Avenue, doing my best to help out any way a precocious-but-awkward teenager could. I did a lot. I mean, a lot. I think I came home to collect my messages and sleep. But I was one of hundreds of volunteers who could say the same.

Compared to the four other Manitoba Liberal MPs elected in 1988, Harvard seemed a bit rough around the edges. There were three PhDs, a medical doctor—and him. One of his first contributions to the debates of the House of Commons was when, during the debate on legislation enacting the free trade agreement, he got up during the Committee of the Whole and asked whether the House had to put up with listening to “this Tory bullshit.” (It’s in Hansard. Look it up.) Surrounded by technocrats, he sounded a bit bombastic.

But his retail political instincts were first-rate—something I saw for myself when I accompanied him on his door-to-door canvassing. He had a strong populist streak. And it soon emerged that he took his constituency work seriously: knowing full well that looking after his constituents—the way his controversial Tory predecessor, Dan McKenzie did—was the best way to ensure his re-election in a traditionally Conservative seat.

I do want to correct the record in one respect. In his remembrance of Harvard for CBC News, Roger Currie said “Harvard was a loyal backbencher, but a cabinet post was not in the cards as long as Jean Chretien was prime minister. He was a vocal supporter of Paul Martin for the Liberal leadership as far back as 1990.” Not true—at least not in 1990.

Before Lloyd Axworthy decided not to run for the leadership, Harvard tried to drum up support for him; I remember receiving one very uncomfortable phone call from him where I had to explain that I was already a committed Chrétien supporter. Once Axworthy was out, Harvard supported Chrétien (as I recall, the only Manitoba MP to support Martin in 1990 was David Walker). There was, in fact, some drama over a constituency mail-out that contained a photo of a slightly goofy, slightly rumpled Harvard arm in arm with Chrétien; it was supposed to come out after the leadership convention but started appearing in mailboxes before, which among politicos was seen as bad form.

Soon afterward I drifted away from politics, burnt out from the Liberals’ internecine warfare (yes, even then) and a rough year I spent as president of the provincial Young Liberals. I let my membership lapse and shifted my focus to my studies, which took me away from politics and from Manitoba. My political life, such as it was, faded into the background—just a phase, a period of youthful indiscretion, something I began to forget.

Harvard, however, hadn’t forgotten about me. When CBC Newsworld (as it was called then) interviewed me about DFL, my blog about last-place finishes at the Olympics, Harvard—by then Manitoba’s lieutenant governor—dropped me a line:

hello Jonathan!
saw you on television yesterday, nice to see you after all these years. I can see you still enjoy the lighter side of life. I still remember your help on my first election campaign. I hope this letter finds you well, and I’d like to hear from you sometime.
all the best,
John Harvard
Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba

To be honest, I never wrote back. I was a little overwhelmed by all the public attention at that point—and I had no idea how exactly to respond to a personal note from the Queen’s representative, even one I was on friendly terms with sixteen years before. And even before he was an MP Harvard had a way of filling the room with his presence: there was an intensity that no amount of casual affability could take the edge off of. Even the kindest of people can be a little intimidating.

I wonder what we would have talked about, had I worked up the nerve to respond, and what he would have thought of the person that awkward, skinny, stressed-out teenager had become.