Embittered at dysfunction in Ottawa, MP Keith Martin bids farewell to public life
Keith Martin laughs as he says it: “I need a job.”
After more than 17 years and countless battles in Parliament as a rebellious MP for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, Martin has packed up his Ottawa office and is trying to remember how to assemble a resumé.
The 51-year-old former doctor announced in November he would bow out of politics due to the “toxic atmosphere of rabid partisanship” that killed meaningful debate in Ottawa. His political trajectory has been towards an exit ever since the rise of Prime Minister Stephen Harper as Conservative leader.
“The barometer of success is really helping people with their lives and providing value to taxpayers, not by slinging mud,” Martin says, the frustration evident. “Parliament has ground to a halt it’s so dysfunctional.”
March 24 was his final day in the House of Commons, the day before the government fell to non-confidence vote. Martin was in New York City meeting with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Environmental Defense Network, laying the groundwork for future projects, during the final vote.
Martin admits his last day in the House of Commons was bittersweet — the past two decades has been a ceaseless effort to push private member bills to highlight causes linked to human rights, health care, poverty reduction, humanitarian assistance and the Canadian armed forces.
“I knew it was my last time in Parliament. It was a melancholy moment, a sad moment,” he says. “It’s such a beautiful building and there are such great people on Parliament Hill.”
Prompted from his time volunteering in a field hospital during the Mozambique civil war, Martin first proposed banning land mines in the mid-1990s. The Candian government under the Liberals would later push though the Ottawa Treaty.
Socially liberal and an independent at heart, Martin championed harm reduction strategies as seen at InSite in Vancouver and tried to decriminalize marijuana. He worked with colleagues across the aisle to set out a timetable to bring troops home from Afghanistan, without abandoning the country. He was also vocal for the need of health care reform, daring to suggest private medical providers be allowed to co-exist alongside the public system.
One of his proudest moments was creating the International Conservation Caucus, a bipartisan committee aiming to stem habitat and biodiversity loss. Akin to that, he created the International Conservation Forum, Canada Aid and Canadian Physicians Overseas Program to promote international health and environmentalism initiatives.
Martin’s Langford-based executive assistant Jeff Silvester said emails from his boss would arrive late into the night. “He worked incredibly long hours,” Silvester says. “As a constituent it felt good to see that my representative worked so hard.”
For Silvester, his proudest moments came when Martin put the defence minister on the hot seat after Ottawa moved to mothball navy ships at CFB Esquimalt, and when Martin tried to amend the Human Rights Act after a loophole allowed for the abuse of freedom of speech.
“There are so many stories. He was passionate and able to make a big difference to people’s lives around here,” Silvester says. “He made it easy to go in early and to work late.”
Martin’s influence was felt across the expansive riding, from CFB Esquimalt to Port Renfrew. Sooke Mayor Janet Evans said Martin helped secure federal funding for its sewage treatment project, a “turning point for the community.”
“With sewers came a new hotel, new development. It was a real catalyst,” Evans says. “He was a good advocate.”
Martin was first elected in 1993 as an MP for the Reform Party, which folded into the Canadian Alliance and then into the Conservative Party in 2003.
He crossed the floor in January 2004 to sit as an independent after clashing with Harper’s leadership style, which Martin says favoured strict obedience to party lines rather than “voting with one’s conscience.”
“It was hard. I lost a lot of friends and separated from a group that I’d been with a long time,” Martin says. “But I left with no regrets. Mr. Harper and I would have locked horns quickly. It was either I leave or get thrown out.”
He turned to the Liberal Party due to doubts over the NDP’s ability to muster a viable economic plan. The switch didn’t bother constituents — he was re-elected as a Liberal in Esquimalt-JDF three times, albeit by a razor-thin margin in 2008.
“It’s about voting for the individual not the party,” says Bob Saunders, a Colwood business owner and Martin’s long time friend who encouraged the one-time emergency room physician to try his hand at politics.
“He has done so much for the community, so much for the county. It’s a big loss to Canada.”
Martin’s friends and colleagues say he never lost the pulse of the community despite working constantly on global issues. As the writ dropped in Ottawa, Martin was helping a Victoria non-profit organize a medical aid shipment to flood victims in Pakistan.
“He helped armed forces members get a pay raise, he helped them when they returned from Afghanistan,” Saunders says. “Whoever comes in his place, they’ve got big shoes to fill.”
Martin hopes to blend environmental conservation and health care reform into some kind of employment, perhaps working as a consultant or at a university. He’s unsure if he’ll stay living in Victoria, but he’s certain he’ll get more accomplished as a private citizen than a Canadian parliamentarian.
“I have to go where I can to get a job. Very shortly I will be unemployed,” he says. “I won’t do very well being idle.”
Despite the frustrations of recent years in Ottawa, Martin says it’s been gratifying help people and communities across Esquimalt-JDF.
“I’m grateful to the people of the riding. It’s a privilege to serve them and I’m grateful I’ve had the honour.”