Catching up with retired Liberal MLA Harry Chase

He has been officially retired from politics since 2012, but ex-MLA Harry Chase begins the interview at his Calgary home talking about his current efforts against a law in his second home in Parksville, B.C.

After being asked about how much time he splits between the two homes, Chase starts talking about how he’s fighting against a proposed speculation tax in B.C. that he described as “just a cash grab.”

It is an example of Chase’s political career in general: always with the knowledge that being even a lone dissenting voice can be satisfying in and of itself.

Fourteen years ago, Chase, previously a teacher for 34 years, won an upset victory as Calgary-Varsity’s first Liberal MLA. The district was thought to be deeply conservative.

After his retirement, Chase was succeeded by another PC MLA in Donna Kennedy-Glans. But in 2015, the seat was taken in the NDP wave by Stephanie McLean, now the minister for the Status of Women and Service Alberta, proving that his original progressive victory in Varsity was no fluke.

Reflecting on his electoral wins, legislative career, and the current state of Alberta politics, Chase remains proud of his progressive record. He has much he would like to offer young progressives as the province possibly heads towards another conservative government in 2019.

Chase says that when he and Dave Taylor were elected as Liberal MLAs in Calgary, “it seemed like a miracle,” helping put the first cracks in a four-decade Conservative majority.

Chase acknowledged that his victory then was owed largely to the then-incumbent, former cabinet minister Murray Smith, retiring, as well as the conservative vote in Varsity at the time being split. But he also credited Varsity’s unique characteristics.

He points out that the district had the highest number of post-secondary graduates in the city. However, he notes that his victory was more intangible at the time than partisanship.

“People told me they weren’t voting Liberal, they were voting for me,” he said.

Many voters knew him from his teaching career, as well as his initial 2001 Calgary-Foothills run where he “got [his] name out there.” In 2008, he was re-elected by a wide margin because he “had established himself.”

“The door business is important,” he says, as advice to any young progressives in Varsity. One reason he was re-elected was the simple reason he provided his constituents an update every single month. He says he believes Minister McLean is providing quarterly updates, but seems unsure whether this will be enough to get her re-elected.

For a politician and community leader, “there’s no such thing as a set number of hours.”

“Where I didn’t make a change in legislation, I made a change in individuals.”

He sometimes drove his assistant “crazy” because he worked on issues outside his constituency.

“I’d ask [people], have you asked your own MLA? And they said they got nowhere.”

Harry Chase and the fall of the PC dynasty

He may downplay his career from the ideological point of view, but at the same time, Calgary-Varsity was an arguable bellwether for the collapse of the PC dynasty, completed in 2015.

Asked to reflect on witnessing the beginning of this collapse, Chase says “the writing was on the wall” for the PCs after the forced retirement of Premier Ralph Klein.

When Chase himself retired, he was succeeded by Kennedy-Glans, who ran as a PC but later was a notable figure in the resignation of Premier Allison Redford. Kennedy-Glans was one of the first MLAs to resign from the PC caucus in protest of Redford’s leadership in March 2014.

14 months after that, the Alberta NDP unexpectedly took power, including in Calgary-Varsity. Just as with Chase’s win in 2004, the win was enabled partially by vote-splitting among conservatives.

Unsurprisingly, Chase spoke positively of the NDP government, although he offered some constructive criticism of them.

He is still somewhat involved with the Alberta Liberals – now down to a single seat in the Legislature – but on at least some issues, he is to the left of the socialist-branded NDP.

He expresses frustration with the NDP’s position on clear-cutting forests, and is still active on that agenda.

His favourite Hansard moment

Harry Chase kept this 2008 Hansard clipping in his wallet. He said he took Hansard very seriously.

While explaining his pride in cleverly-worded critiques at the conservative majority in the Legislature, he pulls out a small, weathered piece of paper from his wallet. It is a Hansard clipping from May 1, 2008, where with the skill of a former language arts teacher, he compared the pace of oil sands development to an invasive predatory bird.

Chase said that former PC cabinet minister and brief caretaker premier, Dave Hancock, once said in the legislature “[Harry], you may be a lot of things, but you’re not boring.”

It was a good lesson in being an earnest liberal politician in a province where they have been historically marooned, and may soon be again.