Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Marianne Elizabeth MacKinnon April 1, 1958--October 29, 2006

My dear Marianne passed away early Sunday morning, after a dreadful three-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

I can merely sketch in inadequate language who she was, and what she meant to me. Lives overflow words, and they are not narratives. Marianne was a person who opened up the world anew for me, with her huge appetite for life, her pure enjoyment of the pleasures of living. She had a smile that lit up her whole face, and everything and everyone around her. Travelling in particular was an ecstatic time
for both of us--as we began our many journeys here and there in the world, we could feel our spirits lift in harmony. (Of course, getting out of Ottawa can do that for many others as well!) She guided me over the Chilkoot trail, having done this arduous hike three times before, once with young children. She loved Shakespeare, and poetry, and the songs of Leonard Cohen, and blues. We both enjoyed dinner parties, and cooking, and we moved around in our tiny kitchen as a team.

Marianne was born in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and came to the Yukon in the late seventies. She ended up as a Yukon Territorial Government tax inspector, and on at least two occasions looked down the barrel of a gun. Her relatively diminutive size and gender, though, tended to be both literally and figuratively disarming, although she had martial arts training, was a member of the Canadian Rangers, and could handle herself in rough bars. She was a union activist, in her own union (the Yukon Employees Union, a component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada) and in the Yukon Federation of Labour.

She dismantled, piece by piece, my political and academic dogmatism. Marianne's political ethos came down to the dream: people should not only have them, but have the practical means and the encouragement to work together to make them come true. They should have a say in decisions that affect them, and they must be allowed to speak for themselves: if others speak for them, the latter must be held strictly accountable. And sometimes, in fact, it is impossible for others to speak for them with any reliability, especially where there are cultural differences and unique historical experience involved.

What did this mean politically? It boiled down to local control, local organizing, a deep distrust of statism (which I came to share), and workable techniques for activating and encouraging people to get involved in their communities and in society. Working together was the key, and she had a deep and abiding interest, therefore, in conflict resolution.

Marianne was fiercely proud of her Maori heritage, and teachings she received when she was young flourished in her unorthodox thinking. Marianne did not think outside the box: for her there simply was no box. And she very often suffered the consequences: incomprehension and outright dismissal of her ideas. I must admit that I was guilty in that respect far too often myself.

She attempted, for example, as president of the Yukon Federation of Labour, to institute what is sometimes called the "organizing model," (she hated the term) in which the Federation would operate through a committee structure, composed (horrors!) even of non-affiliate representatives, and non-union members. These committees would work in areas that engaged the rank and file and members of the wider community. That was too much for some of the boyz on her executive and at the Canadian Labour Congress: they ensured that this new change to the structure, duly passed by a YFL convention, was never implemented, and it was finally reversed.

The silver lining in that cloud was that she came to Ottawa in 1998 to move in with me, gathered the kids from the far corners of the earth (the Yukon and New Zealand), and quickly earned two degrees in anthropology. She was a driving force in a community group that monitors police activity, the Ottawa Witness Group, and played a key role in drafting submissions to Justice LeSage's review of the police complaints process in Ontario.

She was also active in the voting reform group Fair Vote Canada, but became disenchanted with what we both came to realize was their narrow focus on changing structure rather than our political culture itself. Speaking out on the deficiencies of Fair Vote Ontario's current campaign--largely top-down, and governed from Toronto--merely succeeded in marginalizing us both (I sit on the National Council of FVC, at least for the moment, and lost enormous street cred over this), so that I came to realize from experience what Marianne's life of engagement had always been like. A profound practical respect for radical democracy--activating people on the ground to make their own decisions and get involved on their own terms in social processes that affect them--is, ironically, a surprisingly unpopular position.

Marianne and I began a consulting business, but given our stubborn natures, it took a long time for us to get in sync in terms of its direction. It is sad that, just as we were beginning to collaborate in a relatively friction-free way, reaching agreement on basic principles and designing and implementing a successful retreat for a union up north, she was struck down.

Marianne was a feminist in the gut. She feared eclipse in a male-centred world from the time she was a little girl. She would sometimes feel suffocated by my relative privilege and my intellectual arrogance. I learned to listen from her, if not very well. Days after an inconclusive argument the penny would drop: I would tell her that at last I had figured out what she was getting at, and that I agreed with her. This, for some reason, did not entirely ease her frustration!

We disagreed over many issues, including Charlottetown and capital punishment, but she and her crew turned me around on the gun registry question over the course of a drunken evening at the Gold Rush Inn in Whitehorse. And we agreed on far more, without the need for such drastic measures. Many if not most of my blogposts are final drafts that followed her initial critiques. Some were born of discussions with her.

She leaves two wonderful kids and a partner who will keep learning from her until he, too, passes on. I had always prided myself on what I imagined was my unorthodoxy and creativity, on taking risks, but once I met Marianne I began to realize my limitations. I have never met anyone so free, in both thought and spirit. Haere ra, taku hoa wahine.

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