Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 13, 2008
Doug Roche: A lifelong quest for justice
A man of many talents this Catholic travelled the rocky road to peace
Creative Dissent: A Politician’s Struggle for Peace, by Douglas Roche, Novalis, 2008. 370 pp.
Review by GLEN ARGAN
It takes chutzpah to write your memoirs and expect anyone to read them. Is this an exercise in narcissism or does one’s life have enough “weight” in the public eye that people will find reading one’s recollections worth their time?
Doug Roche has both the chutzpah and the public weight to make such an exercise a successful one. He was a journalist, politician, diplomat, educator and politician again. More than that, he has pushed the edges wherever he has been.
Roche is not a self-seeking careerist. He has been a visionary and, in truth, something of a maverick. But his deserved reputation as a maverick has not been the product of self-indulgent non-conformism but of a passionate quest for justice and peace, a quest all too few people join. He has been well deserving of the many awards and accolades he has received.
Beacon for justice
Doug Roche has been one of my heroes since 1972, a time long before I knew him and when my own sympathies were anything but large “C” Catholic. I was impressed that a Catholic editor would enter politics and, with faith as his guide, be a beacon for the cause of social justice. It was a witness to me — and I suspect many others — that there was something of value in an age-old faith that was being swept aside in tumultuous times.
I eagerly awaited the publication of these memoirs — Creative Dissent: A Politician’s Struggle for Peace — and they do not disappoint. Roche has gone to great length to produce his account of a life that has striven so hard to make a difference.
Actually, not everyone agrees Roche has made a difference. He recounts a meeting, after he had been appointed a senator, with Alberta’s two elected “senators-in-waiting” — Ted Morton and Bert Brown. The meeting was cordial enough, but after it Morton and Brown dashed off to the media saying Roche should resign because he was more interested in the poor and disarmament than in changing the structure of Canada’s Senate.
“What the hell’s he doing for Alberta?” Morton asked the Calgary Herald. “He’s interested in nuclear disarmament or whatever, but the impact of what he does through that is virtually nothing.”
That’s the sort of insularity Roche ran into regularly in his career —so many who believe paving the roads or rearranging the chairs in the Senate are more important than the survival of the human race .
His reflections on his role as Canada’s disarmament ambassador are particularly revealing. Canada has had an international reputation as a voice for peace and disarmament. But Roche’s experience, over and over, was with hidebound bureaucrats who were terrified of saying a discouraging word about American military adventures. The politicians who appointed him to this distinguished position were little better.
One can only conclude from reading Roche’s remembrances of this period that the driving force for Canadian diplomacy is not the quest for peace, but rather a fear of offending the Americans.
On the other hand, Roche took considerable flak from the peace movement while disarmament ambassador because he was no longer on the ramparts demanding total nuclear disarmament now. He made a rather stunning about-face on cruise missile testing when appointed ambassador. In this book, he explains why he felt he had to hold his tongue.
In retrospect, Roche’s frustrations with politicians and the political process began not long after he was elected to the House of Commons in 1972. He sums up his frustration in two short sentences: “Practical politics lives by short-term gain. I was interested in the long-term benefits to humanity.”
Roche pursued this interest with a passion rarely, if ever, equaled in Canadian history. Even now, at age 79, he is a dynamo who never seems to stop in his pursuit of this most excellent goal.
At his retirement party upon retiring from the Senate at age 75, former Tory colleague David MacDonald said, “Doug, far from being over, your most important work lies ahead.” Roche took those words to heart and they pop up again later in the book.
Readers not interested in hearing reports on the full breadth of disarmament conferences Roche attended will find parts of this book tedious. But even there, they would be impressed by Roche’s zeal for the cause.
The author’s devotion to the nuclear disarmament movement is so all-encompassing that he occasionally has to insert reminders that he does watch the occasional Oilers’ game or enjoy dancing.
“I want to make it clear that I do not consider myself to be a superman, nor am I so obsessed that I can think of nothing else (I still love going to the movies on Friday afternoons), but I am determined to use every day that God continues to give me good health to work for at least a better measure of stability, security and social justice in the world. I think I owe this to my grandchildren.”
Lord, I wish there were more people like Doug Roche in this world.
Many readers of the WCR will be interested in the chapter he devotes to the seven years he served as the newspaper’s editor. Here again, Roche’s energy was unparalleled. He had a vision for the newspaper as lay-edited, independent, journalistically relevant, committed to the Second Vatican Council and involved in the great issues of our time that we still seek to live up to.
Nevertheless, Roche’s insistence that Pope Paul VI made a mistake in teaching the morally illicit nature of artificial birth control — an insistence stated more strongly now than in his carefully couched editorials of 1968 — boggles the mind. The widespread use of contraception has had devastating effects on the social, moral and religious culture of the Western world.
It is disappointing to see Roche state so baldy that “The WCR survived because of the tenaciousness of Archbishop Jordan.”
That may well have been true in 1972, but the context of this comment makes clear that Roche believes that it is Jordan’s tenacity that kept the WCR alive until today.
Well, a lot has gone down the pipe in the last 36 years and the WCR has endured a few crises during that time.
Jordan’s three successors have been steadfast in supporting the WCR and deserve some credit, especially Archbishop Joseph MacNeil who stood by the paper in some very dark times when more than a few people wanted to see the newspaper shut down.
And while Roche may dismiss today’s WCR as gentler and “more pious,” the paper today is every bit as committed to the renewal of the Church envisioned by Vatican II.
Perhaps it is that today we have a more mature notion of what such renewal comprises than was the consensus view in the late ‘60s.
Roche has made monumental contributions to the Catholic Church, both in this diocese and around the world. His effort in mediating the dispute between sexual abuse survivors and the Christian Brothers at two schools in Ontario would, by itself, be an accomplishment that someone else might boast is the greatest accomplishment of his or her life.
For Roche, it is but one among many. His life is a beacon to all who want a future of peace, freed from the scourge of nuclear weapons, freed from poverty and injustice. His life has always been rooted in faith.
For young people who are looking for a life to emulate, one that will help make the world a better place, they could do little better than start by reading Doug Roche’s Creative Dissent.