A POLITICAL MAVERICK RETIRES
‘Redneck’ Myron Thompson never left any doubt as to where he stood
In 14 years on Parliament Hill, Myron Thompson built a reputation as the straight-shooting, plain-talking MP from cowboy country who relished a good scrap. But, on this day, the Stetsonwearing Conservative seems more like a sage grandfather than a firebrand populist, moving slowly on an arthritic ankle that’s barking at him something fierce.
He complains about Calgary traffic and happily reminisces about a college baseball career that once drew the eyes of a New York Yankees scout.
Yet, minutes into a conversation about his life in Ottawa — one famously spent sparring with Liberals — it’s evident the 71-year-old isn’t packing it in because he’s lost his trademark fire.
“There are two things I don’t apologize for,” drawls the U.S.-born former school principal, a grin crossing his face befitting the Tory maverick. “One is for being an old Reformer, and the other is for being an old Christian.”
In fact, the Wild Rose MP hasn’t apologized for much since arriving in Ottawa as a fledgling member of Preston Manning’s Reform party in 1993.
Last Monday, he announced this term would be his last in politics.
With a shoot-from-the-lip, conservative style that some critics branded “redneck,” Thompson railed against same-sex marriage, advocated for capital punishment and supported the U.S.-led war with Iraq.
For some, Thompson’s politics and that of the defunct Reform party are happily becoming things of the past.
“Good,” one person responded to Thompson’s pending retirement on a Liberal blog site.
“He is an aged Reform Party dinosaur . . . and he should have been pushed out of our House of Commons a long time ago.”
But one of Thompson’s closest colleagues believes the Tories lose something with the departure of Reform’s old guard. Only about one-third of the 52 Reformers elected in 1993 remain in the Conservative party ranks.
“That group in 1993 was driven by purpose and, you know, Myron clearly represented that,” says Calgary Northeast MP Art Hanger, who is also a member of the ’93 class.
“We brought a position here to Ottawa that hadn’t been expressed for a long, long time that needed to be addressed. . . . We were representatives of the constituency that elected us, not the messengers of the Ottawa that sent us back to the constituency.”
Myron Thompson’s political career was born in Sundre, but his conservative values are rooted in the Colorado countryside.
He was raised on the family farm — the third of four children — near the town of Monte Vista, Colo., a community of about 3,000 people.
“They were hardworking, taxpaying people who liked good law and order,” says Thompson, who was raised a Baptist.
From an early age, Thompson liked baseball. He’d toss stones into the air and whack them with an old bat for hours, first swinging right, then left.
He excelled at the sport in college. One game he hit three home runs. He grabbed the attention of a Yankees scout, leading to an invitation to a minor-league tryout at age 18.
But, while the young man could hit, Thompson wasn’t blessed with the throwing arm to match. The only organization to call him up was the U.S. Army, which drafted him in 1958. Discharged two years later, Thompson resumed his education and became a teacher.
In 1965, he met his wife, Dorothy, at a dance and they’ve been “dancing ever since,” he says.
The couple moved to Sundre in 1968, lured to Canada by the prospect of a one-year, tax-free teaching contract. When the year was up, he wanted to stay. In 1974, he became a Canadian citizen.
As a teacher, Thompson had a simple philosophy: “Rules minimum, common sense maximum.
“Get your head on straight,” he advises, as if speaking to a student.
“I don’t have to make a rule to tell you it’s not good to pee on the wall in the washrooms.” His political interests began to percolate in the 1970s when he saw Canada adopt the
metric system, legislate more bilingual rules and dump school textbooks because they were deemed politically incorrect.
What struck Thompson was that Canadians didn’t have a direct say in such decisions. He also found he liked talking politics in the coffee shops and people liked talking to him.
Popular in his new hometown, Thompson entered local politics, serving as councillor and mayor in Sundre. His involvement with the Reform movement began in the late 1980s after hearing a speech by Preston Manning, a right-leaning populist who believed government should be run from the grassroots.
“I thought, ‘This man has got it right,’ ” Thompson recalls. “I joined (the party)that very night.”
While recovering from a heart attack in 1990, Thompson was encouraged to run for the party’s nomination in Wild Rose.
It took him three ballots to beat future senator Bert Brown in 1992. It was the stiffest test he would ever face.
He’s since breezed through five federal elections, serving under Reform’s successors, the Canadian Alliance and the Conservative Party of Canada. In 2006, he was reelected with 72 per cent of the vote.
Thompson, who has brushed off five heart attacks, didn’t spend his years quietly in Ottawa .
He fought for prison reform, tougher child pornography rules and victims’ rights. He battled with the former Liberal government over spending and same-sex marriage.
An unabashed social conservative, he made headlines with his definition of a traditional family.
“Grandfather, grandmother, mother, father, kids, mother-kids, father-kids,” he rattled off for reporters. “Adam and Eve. Not Adam and Steve.”
It was inevitable Thompson would trade verbal jabs with former NDP MP Svend Robinson, who is openly gay. So viewers of CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes were splitting their sides when the two men appeared in a comedy sketch in bed together with other politicians.
“What he probably doesn’t know — and I can tell the story now — is that I made the arrangements . . . (so) he would be on the far edge of the bed and I would be right next to him so he was trapped,” Robinson says.
“He couldn’t move. And there he was, the poor guy in his cowboy hat and cowboy boots, absolutely mortified. But he was a great sport.”
Robinson says they laughed about it for days afterwards.
“I always had a soft spot for Myron, I liked him,” he adds.
“We were polar opposites . . . but he always treated me with respect.”
Still, Thompson could drive some Canadians crazy.
While people who share Thompson’s views see him as a champion, some who don’t consider him “as a bit of a menace,” says Judy Stewart, who twice ran against him as a Liberal.
“His strong stands on things, I just thought sometimes he was just being foolish,” Stewart says. “He made us look like we were rednecks.”
However, Stewart says there’s no question he was loved by voters, adding: “He’s a good man and he did what he thought was in the best interests of his people, whether I agree with him or not.”
Indeed, Thompson says it’s the constituency work he’ll miss most.
The odometer on his Buick is a testament to the statement. He’s logged more than 225,000 kilometres on the three-year-old sedan.
Now, he feels it’s time to move on.
“I find it more and more difficult as the years go by to keep the pace that I think is required,” Thompson says.
When he finally ambles off into the sunset, the old Reformer will be romanticized by those who’ll remember fondly his politics and signature Stetson, says Barry Cooper, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.
“He clearly embodied the kind of cowboy West that is despised in some parts of the country — and is a source of pride where he’s from.”