The Lesson of Harvey Smith: Put the people first
WINNIPEG, MB. – The passing of longtime Winnipeg council member Harvey Smith evokes the end of an era, a savvy working-class populist who knew the value of giving quotes to newsmen and grief to bureaucrats and other politicians. Harvey traded in publicity but kept his causes – the average west-end homeowner, the downtrodden taxpayer, the poor and indigent – at the forefront whenever possible.
I was aware of Harvey before I met him since he had been a staff member at Tec-Voc and a favorite of a couple of young wrestlers I broke into the sport with. He was considered a quirky character – the ties being the least of it – who wasn’t likely to ratfink on errant students. By 1984, my mentor Yoram Hamizrachi foresaw the need for upstart multicultural activists like our growing upstart group to establish bridges at city hall beyond Mayor Norrie’s coffee klatches, and Smith was one of the first I called upon to bring into our meetings and build trust.
Harvey helped me early on understand the horse-trading that went on at the 29 member Council. He was there when I made my first speech in the chamber, opposing an expensive and ultimately useless ‘blue ribbon’ Race Relations Committee. His leap to provincial politics was brief but as he was a cab user, and I was a taxi driver and labour rep, he continued to pick my brain for information and ideas. (It was proud moment when I eventually got him to commit to favoring municipal control of the taxi industry be restored by the province, but it took 25 years.)
When I garnered a regular drive-home radio slot on KICK-FM, Harvey was a key go-to guest. With so much of the focus of The Great Canadian Talk Show on city services (garbage collection, bus costs, and crime), his Daniel McIntyre ward was impacted by almost every topic we covered, and he was never shy to chime in. We gave him a platform to blast council and the administration for inaction on derelict buildings, the bedbug epidemic, and especially the sorry state of city backlanes. His brilliant stunt naming the most decrepit laneways after members of Executive Policy Committee was one of my all time favorites.
Harvey was never shy about speaking his mind. When the notion of civic intervention regulating impromptu roadside memorials came up in 2009, he insisted, “I’ve never had any problems with memorials,” Smith said. “There is no public demand for this type of legislation.” The Free Press reported when “Coun. Gord Steeves asked Smith whether he thought it was appropriate to leave memorials up in perpetuity, Smith responded, “No one’s going to want to do it forever, you idiot.” Steeves later told reporters “I would invite the public to look at Coun. Smith and I and decide who is and is not an idiot.”
You don’t get that kind of quote opportunity often enough anymore.
One summer he called my cell phone while we were on the air after out latest revelation about how public consultation had been short-circuited by the city bike lane czar, insisted I put him on speakerphone and announced he was demanding the fellow be fired. Live radio, at its finest.
A little know fact is it is my fault he decided to run for reelection in 2010 after the NDP denied him an endorsement. I was running his previous ad as a public service announcement and he called me to ask if there had been some mistake (since he had no recall of saying he would pay for the spots). I told him, well, as long as you’re the councilor, I will make sure the public hears how to reach you. Two weeks later, I got another late night call. “I’m not going away quietly, that’s not me,” Harvey said.
When our talk show was mysteriously silenced, he took it personally. He saw Kick-FM as an invaluable outlet for his community and was the only member of council to attend the public event we produced that revealed the email trail linking another media interest to the actions of Red River College. His loyalty to me knew no limits. He let me take him on late night drives through the inner city, where he saw cops in action, bikes scurrying off in alleys and up sidewalks, and the sketchy clientele lurking around the local convenience store lots. He loved knowing what was really happening in the inner city when the city slept.
When my career was resurrected on Shaw TV with City Circus, Harvey could not wait to come into the studio and speak to the issues and was frequently featured in a video from the council meetings. He challenged Chief McCaskill for not tracking the scourge of stabbings in the city, lecturing ‘Chief Hairdo’ “I want us to be able to take some action to curtail stabbings and to do that you need information. You can’t be in the dark … It upsets me very much that we don’t keep a record of these separately,” he said. “It wouldn’t take much time.”
Harvey, even while the rest of Council feared crossing powerful interests, agreed with our concerns about the repeated begging for tax breaks by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
‘I voted for it, but I have real questions about them constantly coming for more money.’
Of all the emails I have from Harvey, this one stood out:
One thing that I saw firsthand, was the genuine affection Harvey had for Sam Katz, even as he battled and criticized the Mayor on many fronts, not the least of which was the fire hall and other dubious land dealings currently under investigation.
One day as Sam was finishing an interview in the radio studio, Harvey walked into ambush Sam on some ward matter. The back and forth between them was of the sheepdog and coyote variety, both playing their roles, with a nod and a wink.
The most important advice I got from Harvey was when we talked about the rising temperature at City Hall as the scandals mounted: “No one is entirely good or bad”, he said. “You can’t forget that. Some people, really do mean well.”
Harvey Smith, as far as I could tell, always meant well, and I will miss him forever.
Marty Gold is a writer/broadcaster who operates a Public Affairs and Media consulting practice in support of his citizen journalism. He has been speaking at City Hall for over 30 years. His website is at Citycircus,.ca and Marty can be reached via email@example.com