Lifelong devotion to politics, faith, fellowship
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On Sundays, you might have found Bill Blaikie at Transcona Memorial United Church — likely near the middle aisle, three pews from the back.
Maybe after the service, he’d have talked to you about the Scottish dinners he’d organized during his time on Parliament Hill, where members of different parties mingled and ate haggis. Blaikie sported his Scottish kilt and bagpipes, according to former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy.
Or maybe, if you asked, Blaikie would tell you about the issues he was concerned with — the environment, poverty and reconciliation, to name a few.
“He really was a model of what a good political figure should be,” Axworthy said.
Blaikie, 71, died of kidney cancer Saturday. He’d served as a Manitoban politician for more than three decades; he’d been an ordained United Church minister even longer.
“He was a giant of a man, but he was gentle and kind,” said Kathleen Hunt.
Hunt knew Blaikie through the piping community — she’s a director with the Prairie Pipe Band Association of Manitoba, and Blaikie was a longtime musician.
Her memories of the former New Democratic Party MP and MLA — and conservation minister under former premier Greg Selinger — began in childhood.
“My grandparents were staunch NDP, and card-carrying members,” Hunt said.
She’d get “dragged around” to fundraisers, and Blaikie would be present. Years later, the retired politician attended a dinner Hunt organized for a piping band; she mentioned her relatives.
“It had probably been 25ish years since he’d had any contact with them, but he remembered them as soon as I said their names,” Hunt said.
He was “that guy”.
“He acted with integrity,” Hunt said. “You could ask a question, and you knew he was going to answer you honestly.”
Blaikie followed the social gospel movement “in everything he did, in everything he said, and in everything he wrote,” said James Christie, a former University of Winnipeg dean of theology and longtime friend to Blaikie.
The movement supports applying biblical principles to social reform.
“I think Bill really never quite grasped… a division in his faith and his politics,” Christie said. “Your politics ought, in some respects, to reflect your faith, if you have a faith, and Bill understood that intrinsically.”
Blaikie started religious school young, attending United Church Sunday school lessons in Winnipeg. He went on to receive a Master of Divinity in Toronto.
After ordination, Blaikie became minister for North End Community Ministry.
Blaikie jumped into politics, a freshly minted MP in the former Winnipeg-Birds Hill riding, in 1979. He retired from politics in 2011.
During his time on Parliament Hill and in Manitoba’s legislative building, Blaikie would tackle issues with a biblical lens and a focus on caring for others, Christie said.
“If you care for (people) enough, other problems will begin to take care of themselves,” he said.
Axworthy was a Liberal — a different party than Blaikie. Still, the two would “meet behind the curtains and talk” about national and international issues, Axworthy said.
“Bill had strong beliefs and was a strong advocate, but he was also someone you could really work with,” Axworthy said. “(He) treated every member of parliament with respect.”
The two, plus Conservative John Bosley, travelled to Central America to work on a report for the Mulroney government in the 1980s, Axworthy said. The multi-party group was tasked with exploring Canada’s potential future role in the southern area’s conflicts.
“We really had to merge our interests and our thoughts to come up with a united report,” Axworthy said. “To me, it was always an example of how Parliament… can be an effective way of representing Canadian interest.”
Blaikie was a contrast to the partisanship so often found in today’s politics, Axworthy said.
“I was always learning from Bill,” he said. “I was always intrigued by his views about how you could make your beliefs become active.”
Blaikie transitioned to the classroom post-politics. He became a theology and political science professor at the University of Winnipeg, beginning when Axworthy was the institution’s president.
Blaikie and Christie established the Knowles-Woodsworth Centre for Theology and Public Policy.
And, Blaikie kept up with his readings, according to Jeff Cook, a minister of Transcona Memorial United Church.
“I was always impressed by Bill,” Cook said.
He recently sent Blaikie an article by theologian Walter Brueggemann.
Also recent — Blaikie sharing his reading of Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed with Cook.
“The title would appeal to Bill,” Cook said with a laugh.
Blaikie jetted internationally for politics, but he was just as concerned about issues at home in Elmwood-Transcona, Cook said.
“I remember when the post office closed in Transcona,” he said. “Bill was there the last morning to be with the staff and to talk to them.”
“He just went… where people were hurting, where people were struggling and where people were seeking a better world,” Cook said.
Blaikie’s political career included a run at the federal NDP leadership, which he lost to Jack Layton in 2003. Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and provincial NDP leader Wab Kinew were among the scores to offer condolences on social media.
Blaikie’s son Daniel is now Elmwood-Transcona’s MP, a role his father previously helmed.
Blaikie was invested into the Order of Canada last year.
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.