Written by Kevin Allerston

Putting health care lyrics to Bob Dylan tunes helps a Liberal get elected in Alberta

My feet were aching as we marched against the November wind. I had decided it would be a good idea to see what the campaign trail was like, and all I had on my feet were a worn out pair of Airwalks.  After three hours walking, my heart sank when I saw our next target: an eight-storey apartment complex. And the guy I was following didn’t even have a realistic chance: this is Alberta; Liberals don’t win.

Harry volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.
photo courtesy of Consituency Office of Harry Chase

Apparently Harry Chase thought differently. Chase was looking to become MLA for Calgary Varsity. He had tried this once before and lost.  Armed with a bag full of flyers and better footwear than I – hiking boots – he was on a mission. Most people weren’t home that day, and the flyers simply went under the door, waiting to be read or thrown in the recycle bin.  At one door an elderly woman answered. “Have you ever thought about voting for a Liberal before?” he asked. No. She was conservative blue, all her life. “I understand,” he said “That’s ok, but please read this. Maybe it will change your mind.”

At a time when the idea of a two-tier health-care system was on everybody’s minds, this former chair of Friends of Medicare was talking about keeping health care public. Education for her grandchildren was also an issue. We politely left and went on to the other doors. I was surprised by just how receptive people were. Chase would often say things like “If I am doing something wrong, or if I need a kick in the rear, let me know.” Not something one often hears from a politician.  Some people didn’t even need to be convinced – having already decided that he was getting their vote. I shouldn’t have been too surprised; in these apartments most residents were at the age where health care was becoming an increasingly important concern.

Alberta is easily the most conservative province in Canada, and Calgary is its blue heart. Every election cycle it is held as a foregone conclusion that the Progressive Conservatives will slaughter the competition. Statistics speak for themselves. But each election sees Liberal candidates on the ballot, even if, according to past elections, they have only a very slim chance of winning. So why would a left-leaning liberal bother challenging, and how is it that the party sometimes overcomes such adversity?

We hopped back in his rust-red pickup truck, lovingly dubbed “The Chase Mobile” and went back to his campaign headquarters for some lunch.

The 2004 bid for MLA would prove worth the hours logged door to door in those hiking boots. He had a quiet confidence as we’d move from door to door. That year Chase became one of only 17 Liberal MLAs to win in Alberta, in contrast to 61 PCs. He garnered 6,336 votes and beat Michael Smyth by less than 718. He ran again in 2008, and now didn’t want to simply squeak out a victory. This time around it was more decisive, with more than 1,500 people voting for him than rival Jennifer Diakiw. How did he do it?

Much of it likely had to do with his skills as an organizer as well as name recognition. Duane Bratt, head of the political science department at Mount Royal College says:  “Chase, as a long-time teacher in the area, and chair of Friends of Medicare had both those things going for him,” says Bratt.

Harry Chase was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1947 and spent most of his younger years touring Canada with his father, a pilot in the air force.  Chase attended schools in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario before settling in Alberta when he was 18.  After earning his degree in arts and education from the University of Calgary in 1971, he became a teacher with the Calgary Board of Education, a career he held for 34 years – 21 of them spent teaching in the Varsity district he now represents. From teaching art to coaching soccer, he was well liked by his students, with a flair for bringing his creative side with him into the classroom.

Joan Teghtmeyer knew Chase when she was on the parent council for the Calgary Board of Education, and later when they worked together with Friends of Medicare. “He was one of the favourite teachers, and not because he didn’t teach; he got his message through creatively,” says Teghtmeyer.

While still a teacher, Chase was becoming increasingly politically active, often penning letters to the Calgary Herald, most of which focussed on education and health care. One such letter from 1993, titled “The plot of the Masque of the Red Debt,” reads, in part, “King Ralph has let loose the reins of the Apocalyptic Horsemen who are about to ride rough-shod over the municipalities. The Pied-Paper, Halvar Jonson, is now playing the tune destined to destroy the children by cutting their educational throats.”

His time as a teacher would come to shape his views as a politician. In 2004, he was a vocal supporter of the iVote campaign, the goal of which was to get out the vote among students and to see that education in Alberta is a priority. Harry attributes much of his success to campaigns like iVOTE. He would often be seen at rallies with students, trying to inspire them with the idea that their vote mattered and that if they wanted change, they must participate.

Harry at a Save Kananaksis Rally November 2, 2007
Photo by Robert Thivierge, on FlickR at http://www.flickr.com/photos/thivierr/

As important as organizing is, personality also has a role to play. Harry Chase is often described in three ways: kind, stubborn and creative.

Ted Woynillowicz first met Harry back in 1999 when they were both working at Friends of Medicare. “We were holding rallies in front of McDougal Centre and there he was with a sandwich board and we knew we had to be creative to give people a reason to come and Harry says ‘Look, I’ve written a few songs here to the tune of Bob Dylan songs.’” The lyrics had to do with health care. Harry had come prepared with extra sheets with the lyrics so others could sing along. This drew more people to the rallies and their cause.

“We sort of got to chit-chatting and he told me he was thinking of running and I really liked the activist side him, that when he saw something that needed to be done, rather than just complain, he actually tried to go out and be pro-active and do something,” says Woynillowicz.

I said, well, if you decide to run let me know and I will help you.” Woynillowicz would go on to become the official agent for Harry from his 2001 bid to his second election in 2008.
In 2001, Chase didn’t win, but he caught the political bug. He decided to run again in 2004 because, as his official MLA biography states, he wants a better world for his grandchildren.
Woynillowicz says one of the reasons for Chase’s success in 2004 and 2008 is his kind nature. “One time Harry was just driving down the street and went by this bus stop. There was this elderly lady,  she was crying. Harry stopped and wondered what he could do. He gave her his card and told her who he was; that he was an MLA. She said ‘I’ve missed my bus and I am going to go to an appointment and now I’m going to miss it because I can’t get there.’ And well, Harry being who he is, he drove her there, he waited, and then he took her home.”

On another occasion a woman from outside his constituency was concerned about the care that her elderly parents were receiving. Woynillowicz received her call and asked her if she had thought about talking to Harry Chase about it.  After speaking to her, Chase arranged a meeting to hear her concerns.

Even his political opponents have primarily nice things to say about him. Jennifer Diakiw got to know Harry Chase when she ran against him in 2008 on the Progressive Conservative’s ticket.

“My first impression of him? He is a very nice man. Very personable. It was a really civil campaign.”

“I think there were many things that went into his election victories. I mean, he was a teacher in the Varsity area for a long time which means a lot of people had him as a teacher and knew him as a known quantity,” says Diakiw.

She and Chase naturally had their differences, for instance, about what to do with Alberta’s vast oil revenues, but she found it difficult to say anything bad about him from a personal standpoint.

“The reason I decided to run against him was not because he was a terrible person or anything. It’s because I am a classical conservative and believe in conservative ideologies.”

Chase’s friends say that if he has a flaw, it may be that he is too tenacious. While tireless campaigning and making time to listen to people’s problems are surely one of the secrets to his political success, he has been working to trim it back a little to make more time for something else that is also quite important to him – his family, which makes sense, being that they are the primary inspiration for him as a politician.

Nothing is certain in politics, and if you are a Liberal in Alberta, your political future can never be taken for granted. Right now Chase is the infrastructure critic for the official opposition.
After the next election who knows? But it is safe to assume that Harry Chase will be a familiar face at rallies for years to come, and he will have many more doors to knock on.

To his future campaigners, you’ll need good shoes and stamina for the walk.