In our lives, if we are lucky, we have some good people who come into it and become a part of it, even if only for a while. Some of us are also lucky to have people who helped us get to where we are, who took a chance on us and taught us the right way to do things. I count myself among those lucky people and today I’m reminded of that good fortune when I reflect on this sad news I heard just before I went to bed last night:
This is news that just breaks the heart and hurts the soul so deeply. John is one of the most decent, kind and hard working politicians and people I’ve ever gotten to know. Period. John is someone to whom I owe more than I could ever have possibly repaid, because he’s the one who took a chance on me, hiring me as a 30-year-old guy from Northwestern Ontario who had never formally worked in politics before but was passionate to do so. John took that chance in November of 2009, hiring me and starting me on a Parliamentary career that lasted nearly a decade, that set me up for so many opportunities and chances that I never thought I’d ever get to see in my lifetime. Or at least that someone like me was supposedly never supposed to get to experience.
Not only was John a great person with a wicked sense of humour, he taught me so much about how to do things the right way, even when I was far from easy. He fought hard to bring in pension protection for people like the workers and retirees of Abitibi-Bowater, he raised concerns about the cost of living in his communities and he stayed true to his constituents all the time, regardless of the price he had to pay personally.
He proved that in spades when it came to the Long Gun Registry, and his promise to vote against it if given the chance. That chance came twice in his two terms, and each time he stayed faithful to his word. And keeping his word was far from easy. The pressure to switch, coming from all angles, was massive. But he listened to his constituents and when it was clear that was their will, he stuck to it. But that’s not where he ended with it, and that’s where the lesson began for me. He made a point of meeting with everyone on the issue, on all sides, to hear them out and discuss it with them. He always did so in a respectful way, even if those who he met with were not always reciprocating that tone. The fact is that in this day and age when we see politicians make uncomfortable decisions, then run for cover and never speak to anyone, John did it right. John believed that everyone had the right to have their say, and he gave them that every chance he had.
The other thing that spoke volumes about John as a person was how he acted when he was punished by Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel for his second vote against the registry. He was punished, stripped of his portfolios and relegated to the backbenches for a while. That hurt to see and I know that John didn’t like it, but that didn’t change how he was going to act. Unlike other politicians who would think of their own discomfort and hurt, then act out by leaking to the media nasty things about the leader or bolt for another party, John just took it. He took it with grace and respect because for him the decision to vote the way he did had nothing to do with him, but it was about respecting the will of his constituents. That is a lesson that many people entering politics could use a reminder of.
John was a great mentor and an even better person. He was one of those people that was easy to work long and hard hours for because you knew that he was doing the same, that he was setting the example. To me there is a sad irony that this all happened when it did because Canada Day was a day that he enjoyed but also worked so hard on. He would start his day at the far west end of his riding, in the Central time zone, and start to work his way eastward. He would stop everywhere he could, a parade in Fort Frances, a pie sale in Shebandowan, festivities in Thunder Bay in the evening before then heading west again for fireworks in Upsala. In all, he would spend his entire day on the road, driving close to 1000 kilometres to be everywhere he could. But it was a part of the job, a part that he loved. He loved being around the people, whether it be stopping to meet with his coffee shop friends at The Persian Man or McDonalds, the people who came to his town halls or people who would just stop him in the street. And he was hard to miss, with his height and his flowing silver locks of hair, which people either loved or hated (or at least that’s what the emails we kept getting on the subject kept saying).
He also loved being on the road on his motorcycle, ever summer at the end of the Parliamentary session driving back home from Ottawa. He even helped to start a motorcycle club for MPs, called of all things the “Hill’s Angels”; you can just imagine some of the emails and comments we got about that. They even got the Speaker of the House at the time to approve using the emblem of the House of Commons on their patch. It was a fun thing to do, to raise money for charity and give back. Plus again, those flowing silver locks flying down the highway, again such a sight.
There are so many more things I could say about John and I have so many good stories about the time I got to spend with him and work in his office. But it wouldn’t be right for me to finish this piece without talking about the biggest loves of his life, his wife Pam, his children and grandchildren. It’s a beautiful thing to see two people so in love and happy, and that’s the beauty I saw when I saw John and Pam together. Seeing pictures of them over the past many years, finishing their home outside of Thunder Bay (a former one-room school house they made into their home), being outside in nature, just brought a smile to my face. In politics one of the biggest sacrifices that we see is family, and for all of his hard work and devotion to his constituents, none of that matched his love and devotion to his family, which really says a lot.
John is someone I owe my current life to, because without him taking a chance on me I wouldn’t be where I am today. I know I am not alone in that, and John has helped to set more than a few of us on our paths with a great example and a chance to prove ourselves. It seems cruel and unfair to see him taken so soon from us, when he still had so much more to give. When he had to withdraw as the Ontario NDP candidate for the last provincial election due to health, you knew that was the case; only a hideous disease like cancer could do that. But to quote John’s words, which Pam put on John’s Facebook page last night, “cancer didn’t get him- it died with him.” That my friends was John Rafferty, unwavering and unbowed, right until the bitter end. Thank you John for everything and more. I am a better man for having gotten to know you and to learn from you, and our country is a better place because of your dedication and service.