June 12, 2003 Halifax Herald

Honorary Chief Savage made a difference

WHEN John Savage was installed as a reform-minded Liberal premier of Nova Scotia, vowing to end political patronage and other excesses, he joined a very exclusive club - one other member, Don Cameron, his predecessor. Like Don, he was soon subjected to scorn for his efforts. In fact, the experiences of both men were the subject of a June 2, 1995, column I wrote entitled: "Political reformers: damned if they do or don't." The following are a few quotes from it:

"When Don Cameron assumed the premiership of Nova Scotia, with financial and political reforms high on his agenda, the media almost universally turned on him. It sometimes seemed as if they were being directed by his opponents, the status quo politicians . . .

"In almost every news report, his leadership was depicted as arrogant, insensitive and non-productive. Very little attention was paid to this fact: Under his administration, many positive and proactive changes were founded; for example, the Human Rights Act reformed . . .

"Then, when he was defeated, for doing what most of us wanted done in the first place - spending cuts, debt control, etc. - the news media were in the front row condemning him for accepting a public service position. A justification for this unbending animosity still escapes me . . .

"With Cameron's departure from politics, another reformer, John Savage, appeared on the political scene. Guess what? Almost immediately a campaign is on the way by the media to brand him as an arrogant and insensitive performer. In order to keep the anti-Savage flame burning brightly, almost every news item about him or his government's performance has a negative comment.

"One might be excused for asking: What's going on? In the past, while we muddled through several patronage prone regimes, nary a negative word was said about the leaders. Is there an unwritten and mysterious code afoot which states we must bring to their knees any reformer who tries to bring into politics a higher moral standard? In view of the lack of support given to those who try, one would think there is . . ."

In spite of the opposition they encountered, both men initiated positive changes that Nova Scotians are now benefiting from.

However, John Savage was much more than a political reformer. He worked diligently to see positive social changes enshrined in our society, and elsewhere. The Mi'kmaq were also beneficiaries of his foresight. In recognition of this, the Millbrook Mi'kmaq First Nation community made him an honorary chief.

One of the most positive actions he took on our behalf involved me, personally. The following is the gist of the story.

In 1993, after having the first edition of my history of the Mi'kmaq, We Were Not the Savages, published, I needed a keynote speaker for its launch. After due consideration, I decided to ask John Savage. Due to the book's controversial subject matter and his position as premier, I wasn't expecting a yes; however, I gave him a copy and asked if he would do the honour. Within a week or so, he came back with a "would be honoured to do so."

In view of what was then a widely held view by the vast majority of Nova Scotians that the British colonial presence in Nova Scotia had bordered on the saintly, his acceptance of the task of launching a book that knocked the props out from under such a view was an act of political courage. For the help he gave, lending the prestige of the office of premier to the launch, which helped tremendously to spread the word about the contents of the book, I'm deeply grateful. To see a few pictures of the event, go to http://www.danielnpaul.com/Images3.html.

In fact, I don't know if John knew this, but the book has changed a great many non-First Nation people's negative attitudes towards First Nations peoples to positive. It's now used in many educational institutions as course material, as a reference in many books and student papers, etc. This is the kind of social change he worked to see founded and in this instance, was very instrumental in helping to found.

There were a few funny moments that occurred when our paths crossed. The Savage name, of course, was often part of the exchange. One of the funniest incidents that I recall was after a meeting we had with the chiefs in 1993. I was at the time executive director of the Confederacy of Mainland Micmacs. The subject of the meeting was a controversial, contentious tax issue.

We were coming out of a legislature boardroom when a horde of waiting news media, with mikes and cameras at the ready, smelling what they hoped was the makings of a good story, came charging towards us. As they went by the premier, they shouted that they wanted to talk to him, and would be with him in a moment.

Then, probably thinking that I would have far meatier comments than he, they surrounded me and began to fire all kinds of deviously constructed questions in the hopes of eliciting stinging comments. When I looked toward John, he had a huge smirk on his face and mouthed something to this effect: "I'm glad I'm only premier."

John went to meet the Great Spirit with great courage and dignity: "I'm not maudlin about it, I'm not crying about it; I'm accepting what happens to everybody sooner or later." Hats off to the memory of John for a life well-lived! Please join with me in asking the Great Spirit to assure the tranquillity of His loving son in the Land of Souls for eternity!

Daniel N. Paul


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