COLUMN: Tenacity fondly recalled

Benno Friesen was an outstanding MP when he represented Surrey in the House of Commons for 19 years.

Friesen, who retired in 1993,  gave the annual Mel Smith lecture at Trinity Western University in Langley last week. The lectures are sponsored by the Smith family in memory of the longtime provincial deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs and constitutional issues.

His reflections on his days in Ottawa reminded me of the good job he did for the community.

I knew him well and covered his campaigns, and his observations from Ottawa, during most of his years as an MP. I admired his work ethic, his clear-headedness and his strong work on behalf of constituents.

On one of the first occasions I met him, I was not a reporter. A group of us who were concerned about changes to legislation on gun ownership met with him at what was then the Green Timbers Hall on 88 Avenue.

The changes were initiated by the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, and Friesen was a first-term opposition Conservative MP. He took a considerable amount of time to explain the legislation, why it was being proposed and listen to the concerns that the group, mostly hunters and sport shooters, expressed.

Friesen was part of two Conservative governments – the short-lived Joe Clark government in 1979 and the Brian Mulroney/Kim Campbell  majority government, in office from 1984 to 1993.

He was never in cabinet and said last week that he never aspired to it, as he doesn’t feel his strengths lay in administering a government department.

Instead, he was an influential member of the Conservative caucus, perhaps playing his strongest role as caucus chairman during the leadership transition from Clark to Muloney. The caucus had been divided during the leadership race, which came about when Clark received support from only two-thirds of delegates to a 1982 Conservative convention.

Friesen, who backed Clark’s continued leadership, took on that job with the same quiet determination that he applied to constituents’ issues, and earned a great deal of respect from MPs from all parts of the country.

The Conservative caucus, which never had many Quebec MPs until the Mulroney landslide in 1984, was very different after that election. Friesen managed to work hard to unite the MPs, and give them all a voice at the caucus meetings.

He struck up an excellent relationship with many Quebec MPs. Soon after the election, he invited a young rookie MP,  Jean Charest, to speak  to his constituents at an event in Newton. This was at a time when no one imagined that Charest would one day be the long-serving premier of Quebec and, before that, a respected Quebec MP.

He also became good friends with Benoit Bouchard, who served in Mulroney’s cabinet and made a number of visits to Surrey during the Mulroney era.

Bouchard gave a particularly passionate defence of free trade on one visit here, which I found impressive. Free trade is one of the Mulroney government’s lasting legacies.

It was obvious to me as an observer that Friesen represented Surrey well in Ottawa, without blowing his own horn. At that time, Surrey had two MPs, both of whom were shared with other communities.

When the Conservatives started to fall apart with the rise of the Reform Party, Friesen, with his characteristic loyalty, remained committed to the Conservatives. Even when former colleagues joined Reform, he stuck with the Conservatives. He eventuality backed the merger of the former Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties to become the current Conservative Party.

Surrey has grown a great deal since the 1970s and 1980s. It now has four MPs and will soon have five. Surrey residents have served as premiers of B.C. and in the provincial cabinet. Our current mayor, Dianne Watts, has a high profile and is widely admired across the province.

Yet it will be hard for any of them to do a better job of representing Surrey than Friesen did in his 19 years.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

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