Svend Robinson Running in Election

Max Riveron - an avowed Conservative, it must be said - settles onto the sofa of the Burnaby, B.C., townhouse he shares with Svend ROBINSON, his partner of 11 years.

Svend Robinson Running in Election

Max Riveron - an avowed Conservative, it must be said - settles onto the sofa of the Burnaby, B.C., townhouse he shares with Svend ROBINSON, his partner of 11 years. He ponders questions that bedevil many: why Robinson is attempting a return to political life after, you know, the ring thing? And how does he - the would-be recipient of this ring - feel about it? "That's his life, that's what he loves," Riveron says with a shrug. "That's why I support him, not because it is good personally. It's better to have him home." Both he and Robinson have braced for this campaign and its potential to reopen a world of hurt, both personally, and for Robinson's New Democrat colleagues. "He has my support," says Riveron, a personable, 33-year-old electronics whiz, who serves as the computer guru for this, Robinson's eighth federal campaign.

On Riveron's left ring finger is a heavy gold band, inset with diamonds. He's had this almost 10 years. He loves it. "That's one thing I couldn't understand," he says, stretching out his hand. "Why did I need another ring?" As for the significance of the band, "No, we're not married." It's a form of protection from those on the make, he suggests, the accent of his Cuban homeland adding a delicacy to the explanation. "It's better if people think you're married. Then they avoid trying to get your attention."

There was a dismal 15-month span in British Columbia public life when it was a foolish reporter indeed who did not arrive at any and all news events packing at least one hanky, and maybe a waterproof notebook. You just never knew when a tearful apology would break out.

It began in January 2003, with Premier Gordon Campbell's drunk driving bust in Maui, and his wrenching admission to the B.C. press corps: "I have made a serious mistake." In March 2004, it was hockey hero Todd Bertuzzi, who, after smashing Steve Moore into the Vancouver ice, offered a stammering plea for understanding: "I am not a mean-spirited person." A month later, it was Robinson's act of "utter irrationality," the theft of a ring later valued by the RCMP at $21,500 from a public auction. He went on medical leave, and quit his re-election bid.

Three heart-rending apologies were followed by three guilty pleas, three sets of court-imposed penalties - from fines to community service - and three painful periods of humiliation and public reproach. What didn't happen were three dead careers. Campbell won re-election this May, his conviction barely registering as an issue. Bertuzzi resumed his place this fall on the Canuck's top line. Now, Robinson is attempting the redemption trifecta - running for the NDP this federal election in Vancouver Centre, and carrying more baggage than the Air Canada night flight to Ottawa. It's an act of courage, or hubris. Take your pick, no one is neutral about Robinson's motivations. Either way, his may be the toughest test yet of the capacity of British Columbians to forgive, forget and move on.

Ethics in government is the bedrock issue in this campaign. Life would be far less complicated for a political Boy Scout like NDP Leader Jack LAYTON if Robinson - a convicted jewel thief - sat out this, of all, campaigns. His fitness for public office was a private concern for some in the caucus. And, sure enough, on Layton's first swing into B.C., keeping the topic on ethics, and off Robinson, proved a challenge. "Svend Robinson took responsibility for what happened," Layton gamely repeated each time the question was raised. "He paid his price in full." Voters, Layton predicted, "will certainly understand."

Well, maybe. Opinions are mixed in the latte lounges of Vancouver Centre, and in the letters pages of the local press. One break-and-enter victim, whose heirloom jewellery was plundered from her West Vancouver home, was not in a charitable mood. "I am appalled to see a man who stole a valuable diamond ring running for election," she wrote in the Vancouver Sun. "Who would vote for such a man? Robinson has single-handedly lowered the guilt quotient for thieves." Nor were matters helped by the first Svend-moment of the race: the news late last week that Marc Emery - marijuana motormouth and indicted pot seed salesman - will campaign for Robinson. Still, his candidacy has caused surprisingly few ripples - in much the way, Robinson says, that Campbell's conviction wasn't an issue in his re-election, and Bertuzzi has returned to public favour. "You apologize and you accept the consequences as certainly as [Campbell] did, and I did, and Todd did," he says. "People accept that and understand that."

Besides, Robinson, now 53, has always seemed energized by the rage he's inflamed over 25 years, and seven wins, in federal politics. He had, from his days as a 27-year-old political rookie, a dual gift for publicity and controversy. Team play wasn't a strong suit. He lost, and regained, critics portfolios for ideas that ranged from legalized prostitution to the tabling of a petition to remove God from the Constitution, and for such stunts as heckling Ronald Reagan during a speech to Parliament and attempting to push past Israeli border guards to visit Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Of all his campaigns and crusades, it was his coming out as a homosexual in 1988 that was the "transformational moment," says Bill Siksay, his riding assistant for 18 years and the man who won Robinson's Burnaby-Douglas riding in the last election. His declared homosexuality was international news. But, all politics being local, it was the voters of Burnaby who decided that being gay was no impediment to public office. His career became a shared adventure. "They'd been through a lot with him over the years," says Siksay. "Having a political relationship with him is a very demanding thing."

It may be as simple as this: birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, Svend's gotta run. Even at the lowest point of his life, when he was tearfully announcing his resignation from political life before a national TV audience, both supporters, and cynics, were calculating how long it would be before his return. "It's who he is," says Vancouver East New Democrat MP Libby Davies, a friend who literally supported the frail and shaken Robinson during that news conference. She was too shocked herself that day to think of his comeback. "But later," she says, "I always knew it was a possibility. But I also urged him and encouraged him to allow space for himself, on a personal level." Siksay never doubted Robinson would attempt a return, or that he'd keep his promise not to usurp Siksay's role as MP of his old riding. "I wanted him to come back when he was healthy. I wanted him to come back when he could win," Siksay says.

Robinson insists a re-entry strategy in the months after his resignation "was the farthest thing from my mind." There were too many things to resolve, and too long a path to recovery. On this Wednesday, Dec. 7 evening, Robinson is a day away from starting full-time campaigning. He's already rented an apartment in the riding. He's clearing up his caseload at the Burnaby offices of the British Columbia Government and Service Employees' Union, where he's worked for the past year and a half as a legal advocate. He plunged into the job after the court accepted his guilty plea to theft over $5,000. He was given a conditional discharge, meaning he has no criminal record - a judicial gift that enraged his critics. He was put on a year's probation, ordered to do 100 hours of community service, and to continue psychiatric counselling.

He fulfilled his court-ordered penance at the Burnaby Wildlife Rescue centre. "The first day I went there, I helped to prepare a habitat for orphaned squirrels," he says. He mucked out cages and later, growing stronger himself, he learned how to repair the wings of injured birds. It was "a privilege," he says quietly, before the old Svend bubbles to the surface. "Our animal cruelty laws are an abomination, and date back to the end of the last century," he says. "That's an issue I want to follow up on."

He continues in counselling. He's running, he's said, with his therapist's blessing. He recently resumed taking medication for his bipolar disorder. "Partly it's just to help me sleep, because my sleep was suffering," he says. "And partly just to balance some of the mood swings that are part of this illness." Robinson has lived much of his life out loud, but he's wrestling with how much of his illness merits public display. "This," he says, "is uncharted territory for a public figure." He has, at times, seemed to minimize the impact of his illness. At other times, he's used it to advantage. Svend is back, trumpets his election website, "stronger than ever." But if that makes it seem too easy, as if a bipolar diagnosis is merely an obstacle to overcome with pluck and determination, that's not the case, he says. He does feel stronger than he has in years, "but you have to be realistic also," he says. "You live with this for the rest of your life and you have to be aware of that."

Even in exile, Robinson generated headlines. He settled for $10,000 and an apology in a lawsuit he'd launched against the RCMP in 2001 after he and a group of protesters at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City that April were tear-gassed and he was struck by what he believes was a rubber bullet. While critics dismissed the case as grandstanding, Robinson calls the incident an "abuse of police power." A public complaints commission agreed in a subsequent report, saying police used "excessive and unjustified force." It never determined the source of his injury. Robinson was inclined to push his lawsuit to trial, but with his financial and emotional resources at low ebb, he says he elected to settle.

If there was a start point to his return to the political arena, he says it was a Vancouver rally this February over the trial of one of the murderers of Aaron Webster, a gay photographer who was beaten to death in Stanley Park. The court refused to classify his murder as gay-bashing, although Robinson, in one of his last parliamentary crusades, had succeeded in having sexual orientation added to the list of hate crimes. "It was an issue I cared passionately about," he says. "It was quite overwhelming to me to see the response of people when I spoke. Many of those people said, 'We need you back.' "

Later, he polled voters in Vancouver Centre, an obvious choice because of his strong base in the gay and lesbian community there, and because he lived and worked there as a young man. He wanted to gauge the impact of his candidacy, "and to what extent it might, in fact, hurt me, or hurt the party." That sounding found, he says, that the ring wasn't an issue "for the vast majority." It found, he says, he could win.

Robinson has said about all he's going to say about the ring. He's apologized. He's paid the price. He hopes to move on. Back at home, Riveron is less reticent. With Robinson out walking their dogs, Jasmine and Cohiba, two cheerfully frantic bits of white fluff, Riveron says Robinson had been on a months-long slide into irrationality. "He was just completely out of it, like a completely different person." Still, nothing prepared Riveron for the realization that Robinson had stolen a ring. He relives the moment, word for word, in a painful soliloquy:

"He said, 'I did it.' 'Did what?' And then he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a ring. And I said, 'And what is that?' And then he said, 'I did it.' I said, 'Did what?' - again, I asked. He said, 'I took it.' I said, 'What, that?' Because I thought it was actually a drag queen's ring. It looked really pathetic to me. And then he repeated, 'I took it.' I said, 'You stole a ring? No, you must be kidding.' And he said, 'Yes, I did it. I'm on my way to the RCMP detachment, I've already phoned them.' I said, 'How could you! Honesty and integrity have been part of your whole life and you're doing this now?' And he just left. And I cried."

Riveron was especially hurt that Robinson held the stolen ring over a long weekend before confessing. "We spent that whole weekend together and he never said a word, and I wish he would have," he says. "Awful," is Robinson's terse description of those tortured days of indecision. This was the second great trauma of their relationship. In 1997, Robinson had a near-fatal fall off a cliff while hiking. For months his jaw was wired shut and he was in a wheelchair, while Riveron worked as cook and nursemaid. "And then he goes through this," Robinson marvels. "The agony, the pain and the humiliation. He's a rock, the Rock of Gibraltar."

He's also, Robinson is the first to admit, an irredeemable Tory. "I've always been a Conservative supporter," Riveron says with a cheerful shrug. "One of my political heroes is Joe CLARK - I have the highest respect for him. I wish he were still involved in politics because of his integrity and his decency." There's also the allure of Tory economic policy. "In social terms I believe in what the NDP believes, but for me, the economy is No. 1, and from there you can build the rest."

That's an endorsement you won't find in Robinson's campaign literature. It will be a tough enough fight. Vancouver Centre, while famously known as the heart of the Lower Mainland's powerhouse gay and lesbian community, is a riding of contrasts, from the lush isolation of Stanley Park to the frantic core of the city's business, financial and hotel districts. It's one of the most densely populated urban cores in North America. It includes the apartments and relatively modest condos of the West End, but also the influx of power couples and families into $1-million flats in the growing great wall of residential towers crowding Coal Harbour and False Creek. Hedy Fry has held the riding for 12 years, through her rising and lately falling fortunes within the Ottawa Liberal power structure, by building alliances across the local spectrum: city hall, the business community, the retirees, and yes, the gay and lesbian community.

Fry, no slouch as a self-promoter herself, laughs off a newspaper columnist's description of her "cat fight" with Robinson as a "Battle of the Divas." Not a chance, she says. "I've run against high-profile candidates before," Fry notes. "A gay person? It's not like that's new. Every single election, I've run against at least one gay candidate." She beat her closest rival, a much lower-profile New Democrat, by a comfy 4,000 votes in the last campaign, a sedate affair. Nor, she says, will she resort to a "personal and nasty" campaign this time, despite an abundance of cannon fodder.

That said, she lobs a few shots across Robinson's bow. Wondering, for instance, why he doesn't have the jam to run in his old Burnaby riding. She suspects it was polling, not loyalty to Siskay, that kept him from campaigning there, "probably doing some math and finding out it wouldn't be feasible." Then there's his headline-grabbing track record. "As a physician, outcomes are what I'm most interested in," Fry says. "Talk is cheap. Delivery is what's important."

As to how she handles the ring thing. "I don't," Fry says. "That's an issue the voters will decide on themselves." Tony Fogarassy, a Vancouver lawyer making his first run for the Conservatives in the riding, offers a similar answer. "My style is not to mud-sling," he says. "I think there's going to be enough chatter out there in terms of everybody's personal histories, I'm just not going to get into that." Still, he says, it's often raised by voters. "I've been doing a lot of mainstreeting, and it seems it's the most topical issue," he says. "The issue is related to the perception of voters in who they can trust."

For Robinson, this campaign is a measure of rehabilitation as much as redemption. Even in exile, he didn't give himself much downtime, says Riveron with some exasperation. He started at the union a week after his sentencing. Weekends were spent at the animal refuge. He worked on a book, on a movie script, and dutifully replied to thousands of emails and letters. "He took a rest, but he never really stopped," says Riveron. "He can do so many things in such a short period of time. Probably his mental illness, you could say, makes him more effective in what he does."

Now the pace ramps up to manic. On this Wednesday, Robinson arrives home to find two photographers waiting. One is there to illustrate a story for BP (bipolar) magazine - publicity even Robinson never aspired to. Friends like Siksay and Davies say they can only accept his assurances that he's strong enough to resume his parliamentary love affair. Robinson says, this time, he knows the warning signs, and when to slow down. "I'm confident," he says, "I can actually be a better member of Parliament, and a better person."

Riveron watches all this campaign chaos, and the joy and purpose it gives his partner's life. "I think he'll be able to handle the stress," he says cautiously. "And now, he knows he has boundaries." But that's the thing about Robinson - he never much liked boundaries.

Maclean's December 19, 2005