Holly Longdale

The Fastest Gums in the West

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The east writes him off as a raving redneck. But when Rafe Mair shoots from the hip, British Columbia listens

Apart from the bending red bars of the digital clock on the wall, the studio is cold and still. It’s 8:30 a.m. and counting, and the seat for the morning show host is uncomfortably empty. The only promises of anyone’s arrival are an unopened can of Diet Coke under the CKNW microphone and flasks of fresh coffee and water on a tray. Silence hangs heavy within the soundproof walls. Finally, the door opens, with only minutes to the show, and in struts Rafe Mair. He’s taller than I expected, about five-foot-11, and at first glance, looks a little bit like Santa Claus. He has a nice round belly, emphasized by a taut maroon turtleneck, that swells over a belt fed through a gray pair of trousers. His salt-and-pepper hair, still all there at 63, rests in shaggy curls around the collar of his brown blazer. And hanging on his small beakish nose is a pair of wide, thin-rimmed glasses that shield his gently sloping hazel eyes buried in wrinkles. His beard and mustache are snowy white and rough, like neither has felt a razor in a long time. When he talks, you only see a parting of the whiskers on his face – no lips are in sight.

It’s 8:32 now. Mair sits and fills the chair in front of the microphone. He drags the Diet Coke to him, does a sound test, and fiddles with a few coloured buttons. He opens his binder and sorts through it. The only sounds are the station’s news, the occasional snap of the binder’s rings, and the rustle of papers. Eventually, a voice calls out of the cool emptiness, telling Mair he has only seconds to go. He pulls the microphone to his mouth and rests his fingertips on a square red button. His middle finger jerks and the button glows. From the dull hush, a booming voice cuts the studio and rushes over B.C.’s airwaves. “And a very pleasant Monday, the 12th of December, around the province of British Columbia on the Western Information Network, I’m Rafe Mair…”

I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Rafe Mair when I leapt into this story. In fact, all I had was a photograph and a newspaper advertisement about his show. Because I’d lived in Vancouver before I came to school in Toronto four years ago, I considered myself an expert on the goings-on in B.C. But somehow, I had missed Mair, the ex-Social Credit cabinet minister who’d turned to the media to smash his views into public consciousness. My new eastern home, coupled with a shortage of funds for long-distance calls, forced me to find out more about the so-called “voice of B.C.” from Toronto’s journalists.

Few of them had a good word to say. Most think he is a bloated, raving bigot who wants to rip B.C. from Canada’s borders and bomb Quebec – a West Coast crazy, more full of himself than sound ideas.

Maclean’s columnist Allan Fotheringham heads the anti-Mair pack. In the May 16, 1994 issue, Fotheringham began by referring to the “ego of the open-mouth heroes” (his derogatory term for “open-line” radio). He went on to claim that Mair “is now clearly out of his skull, his latest screamer his theory that British Columbia could and should separate.” The shots kept rattling.

Michael Valpy, Globe and Mail columnist, is also critical of Mair’s open-line persona. Having lived in Vancouver and known Mair since his days in the SoCred cabinet, Valpy came to realize Mair was no fool and has even grown to like him. But he does not respect Mair’s opinions of the nation or his on-air personality, calling him “a right-wing mindless bully feeding on some of the worst political emotions of British Columbians.”

Like Valpy, Toronto Star columnist and broadcaster Dalton Camp thinks Mair is a “western xenophobe” cashing in on the exploitation of B.C.’s sensitivities and biases. There is no doubt that Mair’s a right-winger, Camp says. “He’s an honorary chancellor of the Fraser Institute.”

I easily bought into these eastern opinions of Mair because of the eminence of central Canada’s media, and before long, the flat features of Mair’s photograph swelled into an image of a puffed-up, rednecked windbag. I started phoning around Vancouver to get more information about the man. Although some sources offered me a different perspective, I wasn’t really listening. I remained stubbornly skeptical of a rotter named Rafe Mair.

It wasn’t until I returned to B.C. and met the man, not the beast, that I realized I’d been suckered by the eastern media. I saw that along with all the shouting and showbiz, there is a serious thinker who may not reflect all of B.C., but certainly has its respect.

In the Unicorn, a near-empty, dark restaurant neighbouring CKNW, Mair admits between mouthfuls of a BLT “without the L” that he gets on a hobby horse from time to time and knows it can be a problem. But it can also get results. Mair’s tenacious and vocal opposition to the Charlottetown and Meech Lake accords, for example, is widely credited with influencing the province’s strong “no” votes in both referendums (and gained him the legendary nickname “Dr. No”).

“I think there’s a very difficult line between keeping on a matter of great public importance and flogging it to death,” he says. “I don’t know where to draw that line.”

Sincerity is not what you’d expect from an ex-lawyer and ex-politician, which is perhaps why Mair didn’t stick to either career. In 1973, while a lawyer at his private law practice in Kamloops, Mair became alderman of the city, and from there it was a quick step into the Social Credit party. Between 1975 and 1981, Mair was appointed to the ministerial portfolios of consumer services, consumer and corporate affairs, environment, health, and constitutional affairs. But by early 1981, he’d grown tired of compromising his principles and opinions in the name of party discipline. At about the same time, Jack Webster, then an infamous open-line talk show host on CKNW (with whom Mair, as minister of health, shared several verbal blood baths on air), suggested he might make a good broadcaster. Through Webster, Mair was introduced to Jim Pattison, who then owned CJOR, in Vancouver, and that’s when his broadcast career set out on its sluggish journey.

He hosted a show on CJOR, until his contract ran out in 1984. It wasn’t renewed because of Mair’s paltry ratings (which he blames on his inexperience and competition from the more popular CKNW.) After a few months of unemployment, he was offered a talk show on CKNW from midnight to 2 a.m. Since then, he’s slowly moved into the prime spot in talk radio, and his audience is building. Just over a year ago, about 97,500 listeners tuned in to Rafe Mair in the morning; now, it’s about 150,000.

Typically, during the two-and-a-half hours of the show, Mair belts out his editorial (the hottest time of the program) and goes on to do a number of interviews on public affairs. The day I was there, he brought up provincial politics, computers, and communicable diseases (after Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard’s shocking affliction). After his editorial and between interviews, Mair opens the phone lines to all people, questions, topics, and views. No calls are screened. He listens and interrupts, berates some and coaxes others. He even cuts some off. That’s how it goes, five days a week, from 8:35 to 11 a.m. That’s open-line showbiz with Rafe Mair.

I should say that open-line talk shows are a bit of a tradition in B.C. Some of the biggest names in the biz were Webster and Pat Burns (former CJOR talk-show host), who have since stepped back from their microphones. Both were well-known for being blowhards who lobbed lacerating insults to callers and guests with twinkles in their eyes. But these men were very influential, respected and could, some say, sway public opinion with surprising ease. Mair is now a member of this league that lays it on the line. Denny Boyd, a Vancouver Sun< columnist, says he is “the best talk show host B.C.’s ever had.”

It seems out east, though, that this aspect of B.C.’s culture is vehemently pooh-poohed. “There are a number of theories why the isolated province that pulls the mountains over its head is so obsessed with open-mouth radio,” wrote Fotheringham in his May 1994 Mair-bashing column. “Mair is given credit for killing the Charlottetown Accord and electing the Reform crackers in British Columbia, just as Jack Webster before him supposedly could turn elections. Obscure ex-politicians become more famous than the premier once they get their gums into a microphone on a daily basis, a strange phenomenon not equalled in any other city … In other jurisdictions, small boys aspire to become lawyers or industrialists or rock stars. In Vancouver? Open-mouth radio host. Little old ladies hail them on the street and pit bulls turn and flee at their approach.”

Thousands of kilometres away, it’s easy to dismiss the force of an open-liner, but the people of B.C. don’t. One of Vancouver’s media critics, author and professor Stan Persky, says that although Mair is excessive, “he does have an influence …. He’s fairly bombastic and emotionally overcharged and plays into a lot of latent attitudes.” According to Persky, Mair picks up on issues that are already in the public mind and brings them to the surface so that even if most listeners already believe what he says, he serves as an enormous reinforcement.

Neil Graham, managing editor at the Vancouver Province, believes Mair represents western views vigorously. “Sometimes Rafe does a better job of raising issues than the local press. He’s got a strong point of view and he’s not afraid to put it forward …. Rafe belongs to the sledgehammer school of journalism – and as an editor of a tabloid – I like it.”

Mair does hit hard on a diversity of issues, from libel chill to aboriginal land claims to the pathetic performance of political leaders, and some of his thoughts aren’t what you’d expect when peering through the eastern media’s magnified stereotype of a rabid rightwinger. For example, Mair’s latest successful campaign was against the Alcan Kemano Completion Project, a hot environmental issue, in B.C. In the ’50s, Alcan Smelters and Chemicals Ltd. dammed the Nechako River and created a hydroelectric generating station at Kemano to power an aluminum smelter in Kitimat. In the late ’70s, the company wanted to expand the Kemano plant, planning to sell power to B.C. Hydro until the market afforded it the opportunity to build another smelter. However, environmental concerns voiced by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans kept the project on hold until 1987 when a settlement was reached between Alcan and the federal and provincial governments. Construction began but was halted again in late 1993, pending a provincial environmental review.

Originally, Mair was all for the project, being a free marketer by philosophy; he believed all of what he calls Alcan’s “propaganda.” However, since mid-1993, with further study of scientific reports (some arriving by brown envelope), he realized “that this was an environmental disaster of unmitigated proportions.” He loaded his guns and started shelling the project. In the May 1994 issue of Equity, Vancouver’s business advocacy magazine, he wrote, “This project will substantially lower the Fraser River at Hell’s Gate and, given a predictable combination of drought and large salmon runs, will eradicate the Adams River sockeye run and much of the pink run as well. Alcan, with an arrogance I thought went out of fashion when Marie Antoinette’s head went in the basket, refuses to even discuss this unhappy probability.”

This January, the B.C. government killed the project, and a lot of British Columbians are convinced that Mair is the reason why. The Vancouver Sun’s Keith Baldrey wrote that, although the project was stopped this year, “it began to die almost two years ago. That’s when CKNW broadcaster Rafe Mair started a personal campaign against a project he felt was environmentally unacceptable, scientifically unsupportable and politically corrupt.” Baldrey suggests that Mair’s relentless and regular coverage, unmatched by all other media, “eventually resulted in a convenient and extraordinary position for the New Democratic Party government – it was able to kill a massive industrial development because of environmental concerns, and it was able to do so without being accused of being anti-business.” One of Baldrey’s cabinet sources said, “If Mair hadn’t kept a fire lit under this thing for the past year or so, our decision might have been considerably different.” Even The Globe and Mail admitted to Mair’s influence in the province this January when it printed a story on the strength of populism in B.C. In it, Norman Ruff, a University of Victoria political scientist, said, “Rafe Mair is part of the established elite structure of the province. He doesn’t present himself that way to his listeners. But being a popular radio host in this province, he is powerful. And by being at the front of populist campaigns, he is an elite.”

Because of Mair’s forceful opposition to the Kemano Completion Project, both he and CKNW are facing a defamation and libel suit, launched in January by ex-federal Conservative fisheries minister Tom Siddon. (Siddon believes they have made false, malicious statements about his involvement in the 1987 settlement with Alcan.) Naturally, Mair refuses to apologize.

There is little that will stop Mair from saying what he thinks – on air or in print. As the “Voice from B.C.” in his weekly column for the Toronto-based Financial Post, Mair sends loud messages to the newspaper’s national audience. (Bucking the eastern media trend, editor Diane Francis thinks Mair’s work is “good.”) In the paper, Mair has warned, for example, that B.C. may separate unless eastern Canada, particularly Ottawa, starts listening to the province and dealing with its complaints. “The national government is, to a large measure, seen as a money-sucking nuisance most of the time and when British Columbians, also running a deficit, see a portion of their taxes go, for example, to reward Quebec women who have children, the already restless natives get even more antsy.” In person, he is blunter about the discontent in his province. “There is a very serious feeling in B.C. now,” he says, crossing his arms, “that not only have we got some grievances, but if we had to we could go it alone.”

Mair’s politics are provocative, but not as easily fingered as some like to think. His ex-wife, Patti Mair, who is producer of the Rafe Mair Show and met Mair when she was a SoCred cabinet secretary, says, “Rafe is issue-oriented, not ideologically oriented, which explains why, when he was a SoCred cabinet minister, he wasn’t always enamored by all of what the SoCreds were doing.” Because of his provocative thinking and political savoir faire, Mair has been given a monthly forum in Equity, where he often writes about “an imbalance in the Canadian political system,” says managing editor Peter Waal. “Mair feels the west is deliberately not paid attention to in eastern media and politics. He’s got a fair number of people from all walks of life and all political ideologies reading his column. He has a pretty good sense of the pulse of the community.”

But not the whole province. Mair has critics on his own stomping ground too, one of them being Shane McCune, a Vancouver Province columnist who occasionally and publicly trades insults with Mair, calling him the “CKNW open-mouth blowhard RALPH Mair” in return for being merrily misnomered by Mair as “Shane of the [Vancouver] Sun.” As much as McCune admits to Mair’s popularity, he says he’s not representative of the entire province. “Rafe speaks to and for a considerable chunk of the white, male, conservative segment of the population.”

I just can’t swallow this. When Mair was at the wheel of his Cadillac El Dorado, driving the two of us from the station downtown to his house in North Vancouver, he was telling me how great the city had become since the massive waves of immigration. just after he growled “asshole” to the guy ahead of us for making an illegal turn, and speeding dangerously close and fast past him, Mair said he loves and appreciates the variety and colour the many cultures add to life on the West Coast.

This is not the attitude of your typical old white boy, nor is it what you find in some of the columns that Mair writes for The Georgia Straight, Vancouver’s alternative magazine. For example, he’s informed people wishing for more traditional (white European) sources of immigration that many candidates from Europe will not be white, and those that are WASPs will bring talents and grievances with them like all other immigrants. “He represents a populist point of view,” says managing editor Charles Campbell, “and he’s representative of people in B.C. on emotional issues.”

Though Mair slightly broadens The Georgia Straight’sleft-of-centre audience, it’s not to the gross degree that eastern media imply. “Rafe is often called a right-wing columnist,” says Campbell. “I’ve heard that more times than I can count. My perception, after reading a lot of Rafe’s work, does not give that picture. Because of his association with the SoCred party, and his anti-NDP views, people nail him as a right-winger. He’s not so easily typecast as people would wish.”

I was beginning to get the point. At the Pan Pacific Health Club & Spa, I watched Mair and the hotel’s general manager, John Williams, play about 45 minutes of squash – and for every second, Mair was at his “open-mouth” extreme. “VOTE NO! OCT 26 REFERENDUM,” screamed his T-shirt (worn, no doubt, for my benefit). Incidentally, for a man of significant mileage, he was no slouch. He was running, reaching, leaping, and sometimes missing the ball. His raging profanities came almost as often as the squash ball smacked the walls. He blurted a range of curses, all of which I tallied. “Fuck” came out the winner, hands down, at about 12. He got very frustrated with himself few times, called himself an “asshole” and smashed his racket to the floor. But when he returned a tricky shot for a point, he smiled and seemed to offer himself silent congratulations. Finally, Mair won (as he usually does, says Williams).

So when this same showboating, highfalutin, ball-busting man also claims he is shy, it does seem out of character. But en route to North Vancouver, – while we’re driving through the causeway to the Lion’s Gate Bridge, with the mighty trees passing close on either side, Mair tells me he’s a bit of a loner. He’s never gotten used to being approached in public and is still not sure how to deal with it. Even as a child, he was “quite comfortable with his own company.” He still is. “Around the home,” Mair says, “I keep very much to myself.”

At home, there is no audience, just the restful silence of the large homey rooms and the comfort of the many things he loves. Halfway through the interview, Clancy, Mair’s chocolate Lab, bursts into barks from a room close by. He trots over and looks at me with floppy bewilderment. Mair smiles and says, “Clancy, it’s probably just Wendy. Sounds like Wendy. Better go find her!” Wendy, whom Mair wedded last July, comes in the front door and up the stairs. She’s a tall, good-looking, 51-year-old woman, who has retired from nursing. “Hi love,” Mair says as she kisses him. I am graciously introduced and we have a short conversation. Then Wendy disappears into the immaculate expanse of the kitchen, returning with a camera to take pictures of Mair and me. It is, well…bizarre, and at the same time neighbourly. It is a calmer side of Mair that most don’t see, one that loses the mask of the open-line entertainer – and he knows he wears it.

“I am sometimes a provocateur,” says Mair, nodding. “I sort of take a Socratic approach, and a very loud one sometimes, in order to bring out the best of other people and other sides of an argument. That mealy-mouthed arguing that some people would like to hear is not very entertaining and, I don’t think, very illuminating …. One thing you can never forget is that there’s a very serious side to what I do, but I’m also in show business.”

Being so dedicated to his audience may help the public cause, but sometimes Mair’s personal life pays. “One of my flaws that troubles me the most is that in many ways I’m a thoughtless person,” Mair says. “I’m very quick to forget anniversaries, birthdays, that sort of thing. I often forget about the sensitivities of other people. Not as a broadcaster, though. That’s probably when I do think about people most because I’m publicly accountable. But I forget a lot of little things that are important to people close to me.”

There are some things that aren’t little and will never be forgotten. It turns out that Mair’s life has been spun off track by its fair share of black ice. He’s been divorced twice (and blames himself for his first failed marriage). He’s also suffered financial problems that should have seen him bankrupt and peddling on the street because of a bout of full-scale spending. After Mair resigned from politics, he was like a “kid out of school.” He and then-wife Patti bought cars and furniture and got involved in bad investments. “I was a bloody fool,” be says, but is quite proud that he didn’t knuckle under when he was financially whipped. Instead, he paid back the several hundreds of thousands of dollars he owed to his creditors. (The experience hasn’t lessened Mair’s fondness for the green stuff. After a few verbal pirouettes, I pinned his annual income at above $200,000 from salary, freelance, and commercial endorsements.)

But, beyond any doubt, the worst moment of Mair’s life was when his 17-year- old daughter, Shawn, was killed in a drinking and driving accident in 1976. Shawn was the drinking driver. Mair still feels the loss and holds himself responsible in some way. He says a lot of people would get behind the wheel after having a few cocktails in those days. He regrets being so casual about it. “I think when I was in my thirties and forties I could have set the kind of example for my daughter – that she wouldn’t have had anything to drink and driven an automobile and gotten herself killed. If I have anything that nags me – I guess it’s that. Everyone’s responsible for their own actions, and if Shawn were alive today, I’m sure she’d tell me that she was responsible for her own actions, but I think to myself from time to time that I could have done a better job.”

He lowers his head to hide the tears brimming in his eyes, peels off his glasses and tries to rub away the grief. A very deep sadness smothers the dining room like a dense fog. His voice is quiet and broken. “I’m sorry – it kind of sears a little bit.”

Late in the day, Mair takes me to the room in which he does most of his thinking. Usually it’s a disaster, with papers strewn all over, but today, for my sake, Wendy has cleaned it up. It’s here that Mair gets many of his ideas for editorials and columns, a process that he says is instinctive and non-stop. “I have a very strong gut feeling about things that are wrong or don’t seem to be the way they should be, or when I’m getting bullshit, which is most of the time.” Against one wall is a desk with a computer. On the opposite wall is another desk covered with spools of coloured threads and a tall canister of peacock and pheasant feathers where Mair ties his own flies to attach to his considerable collection of fly-fishing rods. Around the room are shelves filled with plenty of books, whose titles confirm that Mair is a dedicated anglophile and history buff (earlier he made a point of showing me his limited-edition china figurine of Winston Churchill). There are old black-and-white photographs on the walls, most of Mair the politician, and a framed collection of caricatures.

At the mention of the eastern media’s negative sketch of him, Mair’s face becomes as animated as the cartoons on the and the air shudders with his criticisms. He believes that central Canadians don’t like to hear that all is not well with the country when they aren’t the ones doing the talking. “It’s people who are used to being the be-all and end-all of power in Canada seeing a threat from British Columbia to their place as the linchpin of confederation of Canada.” His eyes leave me and search the room. Then he slugs a little of his fifth Diet Coke that day (Mair’s a diabetic), looks back with a rugged frown and says with impassioned fury, “If you’re looking for bigotry, strongheadedness, stubbornness, a refusal to look beyond provincial borders, if you’re looking for narrow-mindedness, you’ll find that more in the Ontario attitude! I would grab these people who are criticizing me, by the lapels, shake them and ask, ‘Who is unwilling to bend, who is unwilling to make changes that might take away a little bit of their power?!'” At each question, he shakes his outstretched arms as though he has got handfuls of somebody’s jacket.

He is particularly incensed by the attitude embodied in what he calls “the Toronto Globe and Mail.” “The Globe has got this notion that they are on a mandate or some sort of crusade to be the heart and soul of Canada, and they’re not. They’re a fucking Toronto newspaper! There’s a lot of things in it I read because I know it’s well reported, but if that’s Canada’s best newspaper God help us!”

He says, “Canada’s national newspaper” to himself and snorts. “When they stop saying ‘out in Vancouver,’ then I’ll know that perhaps they’re becoming a national newspaper.”

What happens, Mair says, when you have the opinion makers and mandates controlled by a very small group of people (such as Thomson Newspapers Corporation and Southam Inc.) is censorship of the nation’s news. Consequently, he believes the media in general is out of step with feelings of the Canadian public (as demonstrated by the media’s “yes” stand on the Charlottetown Accord) and the needs of the country. “The institutions of Canada [specifically government] have never been adequately examined by the media, and aren’t to this day, when it should be as plain as the nose on your face that that’s the reason we’ve got a hell of a lot of the problems we have!” He slants the coaster he’s been toying with on the table and throws his hands up in the air.

Neither censored nor complacent, Mair is better at connecting with, and reflecting, the public’s frustrations. He says, “I certainly think my own ability to interpret events has been enhanced by having met payrolls, having been in the real world, having known what it was like not to have paycheques come in and living by my wits, having seen how government works, not just from the legislature but behind closed doors, and seen how the justice system works.” If he were to find someone to replace him at the mike, he would look for a 35-year-old lawyer, preferably female, who’s been in a small practice and done some politics. By their trade, he says, lawyers have to deal with “a broad base of human happenings.” It is the fuel that gives Mair his fire.

A sinking sun behind a thick quilt of clouds made the room gray quickly. It was getting late, so I started packing my writer’s tools. Mair got up, said he’d meet me downstairs and disappeared somewhere in the house. After I snapped the last latch on my bag, I stood stunned for a minute, overwhelmed by a feeling of utter ignorance. For about three months, I had a genuine dislike of Mair because of my willingness to believe what people, so far from this coast, had told me. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything Mair says, but I realized I’d personified everything he told me he hated about the east and the country. I’d made quick, uninformed judgments. I wasn’t paying attention. But I’ve finally tuned in. Now I can respectfully say this audience is listening.


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