Stephen Lewis takes harsh stock of his beloved Canada

Jim Day
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Stephen Lewis

Stephen Lewis, who turned 77 earlier this month, has not softened with age.

Not one bit.

So does Canada’s most recognizable human rights activist remain edgy, feisty and outspoken because he feels it is expected of him?

“No, I don’t worry about expectation at all,’’ Lewis said during an interview with The Guardian Friday before letting loose a short time later in a no-holds barred attack on Stephen Harper’s reign to the roar of an approving audience at the Confederation Centre of the Arts.

Symons Medal

“I’ve become impatient — less diplomatic, less inclined to assuage fragile egos, less inclined to pull my punches...I have an emotional range which moves from rage to almost anything gets to me. You name it and I’m ready to be rhetorical.’’

Stephen Lewis Foundation

Lewis clearly relishes the role of advocate. He has gleefully stepped up on one soapbox after another for many years while his equally outspoken wife Michele Landsberg, a celebrated journalist and feminist, has also made her voice well heard.

He loves the opportunity to say things that others won’t say — and somehow get away with it.

“I will admit that being an advocate is the strongest sense of self,’’ he says.

“I really think that it is important to say things that I hope are true and real. All the people I work with are of similar disposition: unequivocal and uncompromising in their views.’’

Lewis had plenty to rave on about during a lively, impassioned speech in delivering the 2014 Symons Medal Lecture to a packed Homburg Theatre house over the lunch hour (and a bit) Friday.

He began with a spirited dissection of what he views to be a damaging decline of Parliament. He holds the current negative political discourse in great disdain.

“I’m not suggesting that political bonhomie is necessary to get things done; you can have deep ideological rifts across the floor of the House of Commons, and still manage to effect good, positive social change,’’ he said.

“But a vital requirement is respect; vitriolic nastiness in debate does not breed respect, nor does adolescent partisanship, nor do pieces of legislation of encyclopedic length that hide contentious issues, nor does the sudden emergence of frenzied TV attack ads, nor does the spectre of a Prime Minister’s Office exercising authoritarian control.’’

Lewis, who served as the leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party from 1970 to 1978, says a legislature that functions with respect accomplishes a great deal all in the name of parliamentary democracy.

Perhaps his greatest outrage was leveled at the practice of the long-running federal Conservative Party doing all in its power to snub, silent and squash any number of social causes that go against its grain. Any group or organization that disagrees with the government, observes Lewis, pays a price.

“Sometimes it’s mindless excoriation, and sometimes it’s a brazen use of the power of the state to shut people up, as has happened with so many of the federal government’s scientists who now can’t give an interview without a junior communications specialist from the PMO standing by his or her side,’’ he says.

“The cuts in funding to women’s groups is spectacularly egregious,’’ he added to loud applause.

“It’s truly unsettling that at a moment when Canadians — and incidentally, much of the world — are preoccupied with the entire panoply of women’s rights, necessarily focused on sexual violence, our government sees activist women’s organizations as expendable, or worse, as foes to be crushed.’’

Lewis went on to extend his angered attack against Harper’s regime to a scathing assessment of government’s action — and inaction — towards First Nations.

He finds particularly deplorable Harper’s refusal to establish a commission of inquiry into the 1,181 murdered and missing aboriginal women in the country.

“It is as though Canada had decided, like some mindless national curmudgeon, to be a permanent outlier on issues of minority rights and women’s rights,’’ he says.

“It does us damage. It does us shame.’’

Lewis argues that not only is the government causing great hurt to many of its people by turning a blind eye to pressing social concerns, the federal Tories are also doing punishing damage to the environment.

“The inescapable need to shift, urgently and dramatically, away from coal, oil and natural gas to renewable sources of energy seems to be recognized by virtually every country on the planet, save Canada,’’ he says.

“We are religiously devoted to the Tar Sands regardless the consequences.’’

Organizations: Confederation Centre, Homburg Theatre, House of Commons Ontario New Democratic Party First Nations Stephen Lewis Foundation

Geographic location: Canada, Africa

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Recent comments

  • Bill Lloyd
    December 17, 2014 - 13:24

    Was his speech recorded on video?

  • Gregory Hodges
    November 28, 2014 - 08:37

    I could write 10,000 words about Stephen`s speech. Suffice to say that I agree with every word he had to say. The problem is that the media don`t. have the guts to put all these common sense views in front of the general public! Specifically television!!

  • Tom
    November 24, 2014 - 08:48

    Hope this works

  • Sue Stroud
    November 23, 2014 - 11:59

    Stephen Lewis is an inspiration, he speaks from his very great heart and extensive experience as our Ambassador to the UN, a tireless worker in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa and a feminist. He is the most compassionate Canadian there has probably ever been. If you have never heard him speak you should go when you have a chance. He leaves you feeling lifted and feeling proud to know that there are such good people in this world that we can support and assist in their endeavours. Listen to this speech at the last BC NDP convention all the way through, yep he's partisan, but never blindly so and his speech quickly becomes all call to action on 6 fronts.

  • softball
    November 23, 2014 - 06:52

    It appears to be IN to voice displeasure with Prime Minister Harper. It seems to be as fashionable as wearing jeans and as thoughtless as leaving the fly unzipped. He is quietly and intelligently managing the affairs of the country in an efficient manner. Still it is fashionable to express a general dismissal (dislike), short on specifics. If we are talking about hate - I would say, it is amply displayed in this instance by Stephen Lewis and his followers.

    • Paula Fitzpatrick
      November 23, 2014 - 21:19

      to Softball: "Short on specifics?" Seriously? Maybe you should read it.

    • Ralph
      November 26, 2014 - 15:00

      Funny how many Stephen Lewis' are beginning to speak out and speak out truthfully and specifically. Something you seemed to miss reading in Mr. Lewis' speech.

  • Greenhorn
    November 23, 2014 - 06:28

    @caringgal are we to understand that the other parties are not concerned with 'election' or 're-election?? this current fed. party has been accused of being too right wing, secretly harboring old fashioned values, promoting policies like mothers staying home taking care of their kids, for the good of society, --- and now, you imply that somehow this government has diminished our values??? Look again, please, at your won biases. PS: it was not members of the governing party that stands accused of harassment.

  • Young ISLANDER
    November 23, 2014 - 06:19

    He's saying it like it is. I wish more ppl hadthd courage that he has.

  • Elsa
    November 23, 2014 - 06:17

    Just trying to remember, who was Michelle Landsberg hooked up with before she ended up with Lewis, anybody remember??

  • caringgal
    November 22, 2014 - 16:26

    This is a man I admire,for his stand on a society that has lost its moral values,and a federal gov't that is more concerned with re-election than the good of society.Most of these comments are indicative of the lack of reality that so many have,and who fail to see that our society is lacking feeling and becoming vitriolic towards each other.Canada was always a peaceloving country and respected in the world.Not anymore.Stephen Lewis makes an effort to make a better world.How many of you can say that?

  • How It Is
    November 22, 2014 - 15:36

    All these haters will be singing a different tune in a few years when they're saying, "Why didn't we pay attention".

  • novagardener
    November 22, 2014 - 14:13

    I think many Canadians share the same opinions as Stephen Lewis. My greatest desire is to see Harper & his neocons booted out of power.

  • townie2
    November 22, 2014 - 12:38

    really? why don't you give us your rosy prediction for the future and see if you can fill the Homburg Theater. speaking of All in the Family, i'm reminded of Archie......

    • lovecanada
      November 23, 2014 - 09:56

      Being negative out of ignorance (like Archie Bunker) is comical, and when real, sad. Being negative when you are a brilliant thinker who has devoted his entire life to informing himself and caring for the country deserves our careful attention.

  • angela
    November 22, 2014 - 12:19

    So he laments cutting funding to women's groups, well as a woman I am delighted, that they have cut funding to women's groups. Women's groups were formed and run as a livelihood for a handful of elitists women wanting cushy jobs across the country. It was nothing more than a job creation scheme , and his wife was in the forefront benefitting from it. It was an elitist movement, that left stupid and poor girls and women in their wake, (you have a right to go out and produce as many kids as you like and become poor `single Moms`,` that we can then pretend to speak for) - Their only aim was for themselves and their ilk to crash the glass ceiling. - Where are the voices telling young women to keep their legs together, get an education and be self-sufficient - where are the feminist voices lamenting female circumcision and the mishandling of women generally around the world-- All the talk about aboriginal women, need to address empowerment of those women to stand up against a system that bleed resources from the many to the few (Chiefs). But somehow, according to this man (and his wife), we can just keep pouring money into useless vessels, (feminist organizations) . Thank goodness some politicians put an end to the advisory councils in most Provinces. PEI still buys votes and gives jobs to a handful in the name of helping women.

    • mark
      November 22, 2014 - 20:08

      97 years ago you wouldn't have been allowed to vote in Canada because you weren't deemed to be a legal person. You were a man's property. Do you really want to go back to that? Get a grip!

  • wulf
    November 22, 2014 - 12:00

    Now there is a carrier for a young person, --- being a socialist, -- from the looks of it, it is a lovely livelihood, - flying from pillar to post, (contributing to the green house effect -for a good cause , of course) staying in the best accommodations, shooting up your mouth, drumming up money from where ever possible, and receiving accolades, commendations and adoring applause . Can it get any better---

    • tutu
      November 22, 2014 - 15:41

      Typical? If he is a typical leftie then they are typically the people that do the right thing. Interesting how all the directional stuff works isn't it?

    • tutu
      November 22, 2014 - 15:54

      At first I didn't understand your comment but after looking at it I'm going to assume you meant "career" for a young person. You too could have had that career. We need more people that know what doing the right thing is.

    • Smart Ash
      November 23, 2014 - 06:51

      You're on the losing side of this argument, Pal, so I suggest you re-think your strategy. 20 years from now you'll be wondering how could have been so blind to the abuse of the very things that sustain us. You'll wonder what you saw in that closed mind of yours that kept you so blind. Luck for you there are people who care and will work hard to enlighten the willfully ignorant. Your kids will thank them.

  • indigo
    November 22, 2014 - 11:51

    a humanitarian? - no, a politician he is, who did not know his obligation to impart something of value and wisdom. instead we get a political rant, echoing his wife 's lament of yore, that she lost her bread and hobby with the Status of Women.

    • tutu
      November 22, 2014 - 15:51

      And I see him as a humanitarian that knows politicians can create humanitarian needs. Harper is supreme in that regard.

  • don morris
    November 22, 2014 - 11:47

    Lewis hasn't changed and never will, still the same delusional socialist that doesn't recognize the faults of his own beliefs. Lewis has spent his life at the trough criticizing others who do the real work,adding nothing but hot air to the fabric of our Nation. Next year PM Trudeau's victory will see Lewis and his socialist ilk become even more irrelevant as the NDP are swept back into third place,where they belong.

    • tutu
      November 22, 2014 - 15:48

      don says: Lewis has spent his life at the trough criticizing others who do the real work,adding nothing but hot air to the fabric of our Nation. Mirror, mirror on the wall reflect don morris to us all.

  • allbright
    November 22, 2014 - 11:45

    How unfortunate that this speaker used the Symons Medal Lecture series as a soap box for party and personal politicking, and attacks on the country's Prime Minister. If I had been there, I would have walked out, insulted, that of such a prestigious lecture opportunity had been so diminished. Scrutiny of Mr. Lewis and his wife would probably show that they are among those to whom this saying applies: "doing very well, by doing "good"".

    • tutu
      November 22, 2014 - 15:45

      So I gather you can't put two and two together then? He was given this "prestigious lecture opportunity" because of who he is. He's an activist. He does the right thing and many recognize that and applaud him. You obviously have never spent any of your lifetime working towards a better world.

    • Purple Library Guy
      November 24, 2014 - 02:51

      Whereas Harper is among the many running our society who are doing very well by doing ill. I know which kind I prefer. I always find it amusing that right wingers have the gall to denounce people like Stephen Lewis for feeding at troughs, on the basis that they do things like charge speaking fees. When you consider how bottomless the corporate troughs are by comparison to any money someone like Stephen Lewis will ever make . . . rather a case of the black hole calling the moon black!

  • Ron
    November 22, 2014 - 11:08

    Stephen is so often thought -provoking. His focus on the rights and future roles of women is bang on. So are his comments on the environment. The advanced social democratic Nordic nations are already on target to eliminate use of fossil fuels and major solar energy projects in Tunisia and the Sahara, for example, could provide much of the needed energy for Europe and also help the economies of the Magreb. Here in BC wave and tidal power, wind and solar power, as well as geothermal power are all part of a future energy mix that will free us from fossil fuel consumption.

  • HaveHadIt
    November 22, 2014 - 10:43

    Typical leftie. Always think they're the only ones who know everything.

  • enough already
    November 22, 2014 - 08:19

    Caught a little of his speech on t.v . A complete fool. No fossil fuels in 25 years , a giant wave over taking the earth, he is as about as wise sounding as Meat head in All in the family with his predictions.

    • Gabrielle
      November 22, 2014 - 14:16

      Do you think that pushing for environmental regulations is foolish? Do you think that working to support demilitarization of child soldiers is foolish? Do you think that advocating for the rights of child brides is foolish? Do you think that calling for more respect and less partisanship is foolish? Do you think campaigning for an enquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada is foolish? Do you think fighting against the impunity of UN peacekeeping troops with regards to crimes committed in countries they are supposed to safeguard is foolish? Do you think that leading the global effort against the spread of AIDS is foolish? These are but a fraction of all things that Mr. Lewis has done or is currently working on, most of them with great success. A foolish man indeed. If he is Meat Head, then I shudder to think what you or I are.

    • ross galley
      November 22, 2014 - 15:04

      Gabrielle...Like what you had to say.

    • ross galley
      November 22, 2014 - 15:04

      Gabrielle...Like what you had to say.