Trinity One stream mentor Sarah Harrison interviews The Hon. Bob Rae.
SH: I have some questions that will focus on your talk, on current affairs and on our modern Canadian polity. I think politics is an area that many students are interested in but struggle to engage with because they feel powerless to change anything. How do you think we can incentivize students to get involved in this field and to more actively make a difference?
I think that is a very powerful feeling that people have and I think it is one of the things that is contributing to the lack of participation in politics and elections. People sense that there is not much they can do or get involved in. In fact, there is a lot o f evidence that civic engagement makes a big difference: it affects how decisions get made and about how issues get presented. So apathy is something that really feeds on itself and I think one of the ways of defeating it is getting people involved locally on issues that they feel they can make a difference in. And political parties are one way to encourage people to get involved and engaged.
SH: So you’d say that you’re a proponent of young people getting involved in politics?
Definitely. The younger, the better I’d say. Personally, becoming actively involved in campaigns municipally, provincially, federally are exceptionally important and – not only that – it is key to get involved on issues that you care about more specifically be it poverty, the environment or indigenous affairs. If it gets people more committed, more involved, and engaged, then excellent!
SH: Would you say now that you are out of politics, you have more freedom to pursue the things that you are interested in?
I’m freer – I mean I enjoyed my time in elected in politics and don’t have any regrets about it – but, I’m definitely freer to pick and choose the topics I focus on and also more able to pursue some writing and teaching as a way to give back. Keeps me very busy, that’s for sure.
SH: On the point of pursuing causes that are dear to you, do you see your advocacy and legal work in First Nations communities as one such example? Do you believe there are specific policy steps that our government must pursue to make progress on a series of issues that have had devastating impacts on the First Nations communities?
Well I think that there is a tension right now in public policy. I think that governments are very skeptical about solutions, and I think they are very reluctant to spend a lot of money. I think they are very keen on maintaining the status quo: on supporting certain negotiations or land claims. For me, this lacks a clear vision. We, as a country, need a stronger sense of where we want to end up. As far as I’m concerned, I think our end goal should be a Canada without the Indian Act; I think it is a historical relic of a time when governments believed that Aboriginal people were inferior and a time of institutionalized racism, and it was a time of deep hostility to First Nations rights. I think that whole period was the product of a particular era where racism and racial theories were prevalent and where the notion of equality between peoples was unknown. That piece of legislation needs to go and we need to have a comprehensive approach towards greater self government for the provinces. We have to look into breathing new life into the old treaties and ensuring that principles of equity infuse any new ones we pursue.
SH: Is there something you believe the Canadian public has been largely ignorant of that could change the prevailing perceptions of the issue?
No, I’m actually harder line than that. Some people say ‘oh if only people knew then they would change things’ but I actually believe that people are quite aware of what is going on. And if they don’t know, then they are willfully doing so. No I think it is a sense that people have that the problems are intractable which make them reluctant to embrace solutions. We’ve gone through Royal Commissions, now a Truth and Reconciliation Commission coming out in June of this upcoming year, so we’ll see what it is that we have to do to move things along here. When that report comes out, we will have one more major study beyond any and all doubt the extent of the exploitation and the extent of the grievance that first nations people have? People don’t see the connection between this problem and where we are today. People tend to say ‘well that’s in the past’ and want to move on before true changes can be implemented.
SH: During your time in university did you ever have a defining moment that you know would set the course of your career?
You know, it’s funny. For me, it happened probably when I was younger. When I was in high school I was fairly politically involved, active, and aware in the programs that we did and so coming to university was the same. Student politics, it was the time of the War in Vietnam: all had an impact on me politically. But it wasn’t until I was in law school that I realized politics was one way for me to combine my interest in the law, in policy, and in global governance. So it was then that I made the decision that I would have a career that would involve politics in some way.
SH: To close our conversation, if you were to look back on your political career is there one thing you’d like to be remembered for?
It’s not a matter of a legacy or of having one thing or one event in particular. I don’t feel nostalgic at all in that way. I am very, very proud to be a Canadian. I am very proud of our country and I am committed to persuading people that public life and politics are noble, and good, and necessary vocations and I hope that I have always stood for that proposition. People need to continue to aspire to having a good politics and good public life is something that we need to value as Canadians.