There’s no way the Broadbent Institute should have hired a high-profile strikebreaker to moderate a panel on Alberta’s election

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PHOTOS: A striker, at right, confronts a security guard during one of the dark days of the 1999-2000 labour dispute at the Calgary Herald. Below: Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid and Broadbent Institute Executive Director Rick Smith.

I was genuinely shocked when I learned a few days ago that the Broadbent Institute is about to hold a panel discussion called “Learning From the Historic Alberta Election” on Monday in Vancouver.

The cause of my dismay was not that this topic is going to be dealt with in Vancouver – the event, after all, is being organized with the Simon Fraser University School of Public Policy in nearby Burnaby and is doubtless of more than a little interest to our politically engaged neighbours in British Columbia, just as it is in Ottawa where the institute is based.

BraidRather, it was the revelation the event would be hosted by Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid that shocked me. Actually, I first realized this when I noticed a Tweet saying Mr. Braid would be the moderator of the panel on the New Democratic Party’s unexpected victory in the May 5 Alberta election.

No doubt Mr. Braid was very pleased to have been invited to play this role by a prestigious and progressive organization that bears the name of former NDP federal leader Ed Broadbent. I was not so delighted.

My problem with this is that while I have considerable regard for Mr. Braid’s political commentary, and have quoted his observations in this blog from time to time over the years, he is simply not an appropriate host for an event put on by an organization that is supported by many donations from unions and individual union members.

The reason: Mr. Braid’s role in the strike at the Calgary Herald that took place from Nov. 8, 1999, to June 30, 2000. Mr. Braid did service during the latter part of the bitter eight-month labour dispute as a strikebreaker and, in my informed opinion, made a significant contribution to the employer’s successful effort to break the union.

Let me pause here to declare my interest. I too was there throughout the strike, walking the picket line outside as the vice-president of the doomed Local 115A of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada.

Mr. Braid wasn’t one of those picket-line crossers who merely remained on the job out of fear or financial need when the strike came. He was hired away from another newspaper during the strike to work at the Herald.

Whether it was the intention of the employer or Mr. Braid, then as now a high-profile political writer with a devoted following, his byline brought considerable credibility to the employer’s effort to continue doing business while many of its unionized journalists walked often bitterly cold picket lines outside the Herald’s bunker-like northeast Calgary office and printing complex.

rick-smithMr. Braid had been a popular and well-read Herald columnist from 1993 to 1998 and had left the newspaper, according to a story in the Globe and Mail published shortly after the strike began, because of the way his reporting had been treated by the Herald’s management.

“After a piece in which columnist Don Braid mentioned Calgary’s powerful and wealthy Mannix family, the writer found himself called on the carpet,” wrote Globe reporter Susanne Craig on Nov. 16, eight days after the strike began. “According to Herald insiders, a Mannix confidant had complained, saying the family was upset at being described as secretive. … Two weeks later, Mr. Braid quit. He now toils for the rival Calgary Sun.”

Regardless of the reasons for Mr. Braid’s change of employer in 1998, as the strike ground on through the winter and early spring of 2000, he reconsidered.

On Feb. 26, 2000, the Canadian Press reported, “High-profile columnists Don Braid and Sydney Sharpe have rejoined the Calgary Herald after a two-year absence working for the paper’s chief competitor. Both have written best-sellers and have held senior news positions at major Canadian papers. The married couple began their new tenure at the Herald on Friday.”

“We’re delighted to have Don and Sydney returning to the Herald, which has always been their home,” then editor-in-chief Peter Menzies was quoted as saying in the CP story, which omitted any mention of the strike that was under way at the newspaper.

A few days before the strike ended, Ms. Sharpe wrote a story that appeared in both the Herald on June 4, 2000, and the National Post, owned by the same company, on June 9. It began: “I am a scab. Until a few months ago, I had never crossed a picket line in my life, but today I do so at the Calgary Herald, defiantly and proudly. I am a scab because free speech must never be silenced by a blockade of intolerance, ignorance and hatred …”

So what the Globe had described as journalists on the picket line “fuming over what they say is the loss of their paper’s integrity,” Ms. Sharpe saw as an epic battle over freedom of speech.

These stories are no longer easily found online, although they can be accessed through your public library’s newspaper database. A good and I believe fair and balanced description of the issues in the strike and the tactics adopted by the employer is contained in former Herald columnist and reporter Brian Brennan’s memoir, Leaving Dublin, Writing My Way from Dublin to Canada.

Broadbent Institute Executive Director Rick Smith defends the use of Mr. Braid to moderate the panel because of his high profile as a political commentator in Alberta, arguing that having a controversial moderator is the same as having a controversial panel member.

I respectfully disagree, because the moderator represents the institution, whereas a panel member simply represents a point of view. And an institution that espouses the principles the Broadbent Institute says it believes in ought not to employ a former strikebreaker.

I am not just writing this to be mean spirited. I am proud of my role as vice-president of Local 115A of CEP throughout the strike, which ended my career in journalism, and I remember many others like me whose careers suffered the same fate.

To return to the topic of Monday’s seminar, one of the things I hope and expect to see from the election of Rachel Notley’s NDP here in Alberta is first-collective-agreement arbitration legislation like that in most other Canadian provincial jurisdictions that will make it impossible for employers like the Calgary Herald’s owners to bust a legal strike for a first collective agreement with impunity – and the help of strikebreakers – as happened in 2000 in Calgary.

Many readers and some of the participants in the events of 1999 and 2000 may feel 15 years is long enough, and that everyone involved should just “get over it.”

Not me. And I don’t think the Broadbent Institute should either.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca. NOTE: Late this morning, the Broadbent Institute Tweeted that “Don Braid let us know he’s respectfully withdrawn as moderator for #abvotes panel Monday. We look forward to his ongoing AB poli reporting.”

Categories Alberta Politics