The state of journalism is top of mind for Denise Savoie.
The case of Jill Winzoski weighs on her – and it’s the first topic of conversation during a recent coffee-shop meet-up. The Manitoba reporter was fired recently, after a Conservative MP complained about her allegedly biased reporting.
It’s an example of a larger trend, she points out: journalists who ask investigative questions are sidelined and scientists don’t want to be quoted.
“A culture of fear has deepened over the time I’ve been in Ottawa,” Savoie says.
It’s been three months since her sudden resignation, midway through her third term as Victoria’s member of Parliament. Reflecting on her time in federal politics, she has one dominant impression: “I remember before I went to Ottawa, I felt, as a Canadian, that our democracy was rock solid … and it’s been shaken.”
Interrupting herself, she apologizes for the New Democrat partisan speak.
Politics aren’t the main reason for today’s interview.
Savoie gratefully acknowledges the widespread concern in the community about her health – the reason behind her unexpected departure. It’s a topic she doesn’t want to discuss in any detail, but does see the need to address in broad terms.
“It isn’t that I’m deathly ill,” she clears up, right off the bat.
“If I were younger, I could have continued, but I knew my health was taking a beating and that became important to me to be around for my grandkids and for myself,” she says. “I think I can manage it now.”
Sipping tea at her local neighbourhood haunt – the Spiral Cafe in Vic West – she looks thin, but vibrant with jeans and a pink shirt, her trademark youthful curls framing her tanned face. It’s hard to tell that on Nov. 21, she celebrated her 69th birthday.
Savoie became sick last year. She spent the summer hoping she’d feel up for another term, but as the date approached, she knew she wouldn’t be able handle her duties as deputy speaker and chair of the committee of the whole.
“We have to be there at three in the morning, if that’s when the debates are happening,” she says. “It’s not a question that I can’t be there if I’m sick.”
On Aug. 23, she announced her resignation, effective Aug. 31. The decision was excruciating, she says. “I just felt really torn.”
Savoie’s predecessor, David Anderson, spoke to her performance and challenge as deputy speaker.
“I don’t think I ever heard a critical word of her performance there,” Anderson, the former Liberal MP and cabinet minister, says in a phone conversation.
“It’s a difficult job and it’s not one that gets a lot of glory … but it’s certainly an important one for a political process, and I certainly admire her for doing it and doing it well. The difficulty she faced as deputy speaker was that you had an entire government devoted to changing the political culture … making it much more adversarial and much more polarized.”
The tone of debate was an issue Savoie spoke about frequently during her time in federal politics.
Thinking back, she says some people misconstrued her intent. “It’s not (about) wanting everybody to be nice to each other; that isn’t what I want at all.”
In fact, she welcomes hard-hitting debate.
Most sane people realize they don’t hold a monopoly on truth, she says.
“If we’re willing to look at that, we can move from our ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ (approach) … the kind of hurtful attacks that you hear so often in the house – it’s not just unpleasant, it’s totally unproductive.”
On the whole, she paints a dire picture: government is dominated by a culture of fear and personal attacks that stifle freedom of speech and hamper effective debate.
Given these insider observations, one would imagine feeling altogether defeated. Not so, she says.
“I felt shaken, but then I would come back to Victoria and I would see this incredible involvement and awareness and intelligence that reaffirms my belief in the institution.”
Whether it be about housing or kids or other issues, “people jump in and get involved and do something about it.”
Since retiring, Savoie has been swimming at Crystal Pool, hiking with friends, fishing with her son and campaigning for Murray Rankin in the byelection held to replace her.
She hopes to do a bike trip sometime, perhaps Scandinavia.
While she has closed the door on electoral politics, she plans to stay politically active.
“Politics is in me in the sense that I feel there is so much to be done,” she says.
On Nov. 27, the Victoria West Community Association honoured her contributions as a neighbour, a two-term Victoria city councillor and MP.
“In part, it was concerns about transportation and affordable housing in Victoria West that motivated Denise to run for city council. (As an MP), Denise continued to be involved in Victoria West and the issues that affect this community,” wrote association president Nan Judd.
Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin also noted Savoie’s involvement in her community.
“She was extremely hard working,” he says. “She was always organizing local meetings and forums. She was our voice in Ottawa as opposed to Ottawa’s voice here.”
Snapshot of service
Political record for Denise Savoie:
• Victoria city councillor, 1999 to 2005 (re-elected in 2002)
• Victoria member of parliament 2006 to 2012 (re-elected in 2008 and 2011)