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Axworthy appearance recalls more positive Canadian era

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For one night this week, it felt as if I were back in pre-Harper Canada, that place where people mattered more than political ideology.

That defining Canadian feeling came from the fleeting, but nonetheless inspiring, gallop-by appearance of an old liberal warhorse, Lloyd Axworthy, during the home stretch of a Manitoba provincial byelection race where Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister must feel as if he's already crossed the finish line.

Coincidentally, it happened Thursday evening, on the same night Mitt Romney -- an American conservative leader who really did cross the finish line long ago -- was declared the Republican nominee for president of the United States at his party's convention in Tampa.

Way up here, it was a smaller, slightly lower-key, Cabota Centre wine-and-cheese gathering in support of his kid brother, Bob Axworthy, that brought Lloyd Axworthy out of his barn at the University of Winnipeg. Lloyd, of course, is president of the University of Winnipeg and, as such, hasn't been permitted to campaign door to door for Bob, the way the other Axworthy brothers, Trevor and Tom, had done in the lead-up to voting Tuesday. But Lloyd was able to attend the gathering Thursday as a family member. Which allowed him the opportunity, as he phrased it, to say a few words about liberalism that sounded like a lament for the Liberal party. And, of course, a few more words about his brother.

"I just wanted to say I'm very proud of Bob," Lloyd said.

In part, what Lloyd was proud of was Bob's decision to run and give the voters of Fort Whyte a choice.

"There's nothing more important in a democracy than to make sure there is a choice," he said. "And a choice that doesn't simply pander to either the left or the right, but actually tries to work out solutions, to find some bridges to build on."

Then Lloyd moved back to something he suggested was more personal. He said every year he sponsors a little occasion at the house called the Cigar and Whiskey Night. It's a gathering of the old political friends from his campaigning days, and he recalled one night when they reflected on "the importance of liberalism as a fundamental force of positive development for the country."

Which prompted Lloyd to recall what it was like to be a Liberal MP in the day, and how they were allowed their various and diverse views within caucus. The best example he witnessed -- "a wonderful moment in my life" -- happened one night in 1983 when the entire caucus met into the wee hours with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

"Arguing, debating, discussing, conversing about a thing called the Constitution."

It went on for seven or eight hours.

"Mr. Trudeau said, 'Well, we have a choice. We can do a Volkswagen or we can do the Cadillac. And everyone said 'This time we're going first class.' And out came the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

What he called the best constitution in the world came, not as a result of a some preordained backroom decision, but through consensus. And choice.

Which brought him back to the choice his brother is giving voters.

Bob had been coaching basketball where he lives in Whyte Ridge. And how several years ago, feeling as if he needed to do something for less privileged kids, Bob approached his big brother about the need for a basketball program for inner-city kids.

And Bob would coach it.

Today, there are 300 young people in the University of Winnipeg program, including Ruth Mesgna, a tiny 16-year-old point guard from Eritrea who has been knocking on doors for her coach because he helped her and now she's trying to help him.

"That's why I'm proud of Bob Axworthy," Lloyd said. "He cares about people. And I hope the people of Fort Whyte give him a chance to care about a lot more people for a lot more years."

Later, when he spoke, Bob Axworthy said something that sounded nothing like a lament for the Liberals.

"I've been going around to the door saying, 'I am a Liberal. I make no apologies for it. I have a social conscience.' "

It was halfway through Bob Axworthy's speech that the coincidence -- and the stark contrast -- of Mitt Romney addressing the Republican National Convention occurred to me. Unlike the would-be American president, Lloyd's little brother, the would-be politician, didn't have to convince anyone that understands and cares about people.

Is that about being right or left?

Not necessarily. It's just about being human, a kind of person we need more of among politicians everywhere.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 B1

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