Unlikely Insider documents Jack Austin’s conviction that even a single individual can bring about substantial change
All Canadians are free to run for office and become part of the bodies that govern us. Most of us choose not to do so. Becoming a candidate takes time, work, organization and money. All of these, usually along with involvement with a political party, are needed if one is to be successfully elected.
Once elected, politicians are expected to put their family lives and careers on hold to serve the public interest, with no guarantee of effecting the changes they feel will best serve the country and their electors.
Former Liberal cabinet minister Jack Austin’s journey, as chronicled in his book Unlikely Insider: A West Coast Advocate in Ottawa, serves as a beacon of hope amidst such challenges.
Austin’s family was not part of the Canadian establishment. His grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. His humble background, with a family that relied on a small business and weathered anti-Semitism, is a testament to his perseverance.
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Austin honed his skills in law at the University of British Columbia, where he was a leading student. In fact, on graduation, he was invited to lecture in the law faculty to fill an unexpected vacancy. He then went on to do a Master’s in Law at Harvard, eventually finding recognition as a lawyer in Vancouver. His affiliation with Arthur Laing – a cabinet minister for both Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau who brought him to Ottawa as his chief of staff – catapulted him into the world of Liberal politics, culminating in his roles as an MP, cabinet minister, and senator.
Austin left indelible marks on several fronts.
One of his notable contributions was his research-based approach to treaty negotiations with the U.S. on water usage, which significantly benefited Canada.
He was also a relentless advocate for Western Canada in general and B.C. in particular, striving to enhance their profiles in Ottawa, particularly at a time when Quebec and Ontario dominated the federal government’s focus. The Atlantic provinces and the West were outer Canada – treated almost like colonies.
His advocacy for Western Canada echoed in his contributions to the oil industry which contributes greatly to the Canadian economy but earns no respect in the centre of the country. His work on water resources centred around the Columbia River treaty.
Moreover, Austin was instrumental in fostering Canada-China relations, bolstering Canada’s image as a Pacific nation. His relentless advocacy was also evident in Vancouver’s Expo 86, which might not have occurred without his lobbying efforts in Ottawa.
As a member of a minority, Austin worked diligently to improve the situation of First Nations in Canada. Although much more needs to be done, a marked improvement is evident in the status of Indigenous people in Canada today compared to when Austin began his career. One detail describes how Indigenous leader Bill Wilson told then prime minister Pierre Trudeau that he had two children, both of whom were set on becoming prime minister in Canada and both of whom were women. Since then, Bill’s daughter, Jody Wilson Raybould, has come close.
The compelling takeaway from Unlikely Insider is the understanding that one individual, even an outsider, can harness our political system to effect significant and beneficial changes. Austin’s tale embodies the importance of hard work, intelligence, dedication, and the ability to form meaningful connections.
Those interested in politics can learn a great deal about how politics actually works in Canada and what it takes to succeed from Unlikely Insider.
Dr. Roslyn Kunin is a public speaker, consulting economist and senior fellow of the Canada West Foundation.
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