Post Your Opinion
Fighting the Good Fight
by Roxanne Rimstead

The feisty pose on the front cover of The Fight of My Life is of Maude Barlow, arms folded, holding a flag and announcing herself to be an "unrepentant Canadian". Still fighting for a more humane, inclusive nation in an age when many are resigned to post-nationalism, Barlow would rouse us against the harsher consequences of globalisation, which she identifies as corporate greed, unregulated capitalism, environmental havoc, sweatshops, and monoculture. Convinced that renewed nationalism is a vehicle for more relevant local action and for greater social justice for women, the poor, regions, workers, and ordinary Canadians in general, Barlow describes her disillusionment with party politics and promotes populism instead. It is no accident then that the flag waving on the front cover appears against the backdrop of thousands of Canadians demonstrating for change.

What might not be readily apparent from the cover is Barlow's long history of involvement in feminist battles. In her role as the first female teacher at the Canadian Police College, an advocate for women workers and prisoners, and senior advisor to Trudeau on women's issues, she has a long track record of educating and mobilising people to act on issues such as violence against women, women's work conditions, job sharing, affirmative action, and nontraditional skills for women. Indeed, her progressive brand of nationalism and international, citizen resistance is fed by a concern for everyday power in the lives of women and families. Much of her grittiness and moral fibre come from a willingness to fight for the interests of real people rather than party platforms. Throughout lies the assumption that party politics and citizens' politics are as much at odds in today's Canada as big business and social programs. Her harshest judgments against politicians are reserved for those who grow too distant from the people, and are arrogant or jaded about their own access to power. Key decisions in her own life enact these values (e.g., leaving the Federal Liberals and accepting to chair the populist movement protesting Free Trade, The Council of Canadians, and refusing to back Mel Hurtig when he attempted to found a political party out of the latter).

Without apologies, The Fight of My Life shows that Barlow put public and collective concerns before private interests. Revealing little about her interior life or personal relations, her private lifeline is capsulised in the first twenty-three pages under the heading "Youth". Here Barlow touches only fleetingly on ancestors, family, childhood illness, two marriages, education, and lifelong friends-mostly to set the stage for her evolving social consciousness. Few readers will fault the book for failing to deliver the private "confessions" the subtitle promises, though, because it more than compensates with an informative, sincere, and sustained account of the details behind the public life of one of Canada's most popular political activists. It is eye-opening to get her take on Trudeau, Turner, Chrétien, Mulroney, Conrad Black, John Crosbie, Paul Martin, and others. She casts an uncommonly frank eye on personalities in power, their actions and beliefs, not to mention the corporate interests sometimes pulling their strings.

The information about Canada in this book is vital. Though readers may tire of the specifics of political battles and the author's tendency to size up friends and enemies alike according to their political positions alone, Barlow's long-range vision of Canada is informative, courageous, and inspiring. In simple, accessible language she articulates some of the most crucial social issues we face as a nation (trade agreements, taxation policies, social programs, environmental and labour controls), and offers a brave vision for change and empowerment on the local level. There is not one simple or dogmatic agenda informing her politics but rather an honest engagement with specific, local struggles, and their place in the evolution of her own public consciousness. For example, when Barlow visits the low-wage industrial ghettos of Mexico created under free trade zones, she tells stories of workers who walk two miles to work only to arrive at toxic and ill-paid factory jobs, street kids who are hungry and dead-eyed, and babies drinking Pepsi out of a Pepsi-Cola baby bottles because of a lack of clean water.

Barlow is a doer, not a thinker, and the autobiography shows how she learned about the issues before taking a stand and how we all can do the same. Not a fringe personality or a distant observer, she has fought "the good fight" in mainstream institutions, holding important positions and rubbing shoulders with some of the most powerful figures in Canada. This is why many of her opponents see her as being in the game-the very game of which she is critical-rather than out of it like other bleeding hearts, do-gooders, and political mavericks, and why she is practically a household name in Canada. Those of us who are not too jaded to believe in the possibility of change must applaud her gumption and find her a truly likable and trustworthy character by the end of the book, albeit a team player more than a true maverick or "political nonconformist" as she sees herself.

The autobiography is an excellent introduction to her earlier, mostly co-authored works, all of which are highly informative. Straight Through the Heart is on the Federal Liberals' sellout of social liberalism to a big business agenda. Class Warfare tackles the topic of the erosion of the Canadian educational system through underfunding. The MAI and the Threat to Canadian Sovereignty is concerned with the environmental and social fallout from the Multilateral Agreement to Investment that secures global privileges for corporations at the expense of reduced power for local and national governments (reduced powers, that is, to protect their environment, and their health and working standards). The Big Black Book, on the elitist, anti-feminist, anti-nationalist, and rightwing views of Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel, is a fascinating study exposing this marriage of myopia largely through the writings of these newspaper moguls, and not by demonizing or attacking them. And Parcel of Rogues deals with the ills of Free Trade and the corporate financing of the Mulroney government's push toward it. These earlier works are more substantially researched and reflective than the autobiography, but The Fight of My Life offers a good overview of the issues raised and how they are connected in Barlow's own coming-to-consciousness.

This autobiography does not have to be read from front to back. The reader may jump ahead from chapters on feminism to those on the international environmental and labour concerns to get an idea of the range of resistance Barlow has in mind, from the family to women's prisons to APEC. Most importantly, the book can serve as a good home reference on populism in Canada because of the brief, historical overviews of resistance movements against Free Trade, NAFTA, and the MAI, and what they mean to ordinary people. In the end, The Fight of My Life is not really a confession at all, but the record of a public life, a very public life. And that is precisely why it matters. 

Roxanne Rimstead teaches English at universities in Quebec and has a book forthcoming on poverty narratives in Canada.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us