Contrary to narrative conventions, very little of anyone’s personality is decided in a single moment. More often, our traits and beliefs are the result of a number of incidents and how we choose to link them. However, an exception for me is the moment that steered me towards being a leftist.
It was at my maternal grandfather’s house when I was ten. His house was a block away from the United Church where I attended Sunday school, and I used to wait there for my mother to pick me up afterwords. In fact, for several years, the main reason I kept going to Sunday school was so I could spend time with my grandfather afterwords, and be fed milk and cookies and read Prince Valiant in the local newspaper to which my parents didn’t subscribe.
A federal election campaign was on, and my mother and grandfather were in his kitchen, talking about. I was in the living room waiting for them. I wasn’t really listening; just letting their conversation wash over me without really following it, the way that you do when you’re a child and the adults around you are discussing something that doesn’t really interest you.
As we were leaving, I went out into the kitchen to say goodbye, and my grandfather asked me, “And who are you going to vote for?”
This was the election of Trudeaumania, which Pierre Trudeau was busy kissing all the women in the crowds and showing himself all elegance and gallantry and supposed youth. In fact, he was forty-nine, and only a few years younger than his main opponent, and even at ten, I thought him insincere. So I wasn’t going to answer with his name.
The only trouble was, I couldn’t remember the leaders of the other parties. Wanting to say something so I wouldn’t sound stupid, I remembered a name I had heard in my mother’s and grandfather’s discussion.
“Tommy Douglas,” I said.
Both my mother and grandfather laughed, long and loudly. My grandfather, I remembered too late, had been denigrating Tommy Douglas, the leader of the New Democrats, so he was the last person I should have named, although I wasn’t sure why.
At the moment, all I knew is that I had tried to be clever and knowing, and had failed spectacularly.
But that was enough for the name to lodge in my mind. Over the next few months, I learned that Tommy Douglas had been premier of Saskatchewan, and a well-respected one. Not only that, he had organized the first universal health care in all of North America, and made it work. As for the New Democrats, they were social democrats and socialists, and talked about change and justice for all. They were also the perennial underdogs, always the third party in federal politics. They never formed a government, but somehow their ideas slowly became mainstream enough that Trudeau’s Liberal party always borrowed them.
I was already addicted to stories about King Arthur and Robin Hood, each of whom was looking in his own way for justice. So it wasn’t long before I decided that “Tommy Douglas” was a pretty good reply after all, no matter who laughed at it. I kept following what the New Democrats were doing, and, started being interested in other social causes. Eight years after my answer to my grandfather, my first vote was for a local New Democrat candidate. I’ve sometimes chafed at the mildness of the New Democrat’s platform, but I’ve never voted for any other party since.
I sometimes wonder, though, what would have happened if my answer had been taken seriously, or if I had been asked the reason for my choice. I couldn’t have explained, but maybe I would have quickly forgot the name I blurted out, and arrived at my current political positions by some other route. But sometimes, the memory makes me feel that personality is a fragile and mysterious thing, that it can depend on something so small as a moment of failed cleverness and embarrassment.