Eleven and a half years ago, I had a lunch at the World Exchange Plaza in Ottawa that would change a small piece of history, and further open a beautiful chapter in Canadian politics which has now just come to a close.
I had completed three years of study at Carleton University, and had spent lots of time over the previous two years seeking a position on the executive of the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA).
CUSA was controlled by extreme left-wing activists who we called “the establishment”. They had mastered the art of winning student union elections by motivating their base, but also by effectively cultivating relationships with particular communities (cultural students associations, fraternities and sororities, etc.) who had an interest in being on the winning side. They were also the cool kids on campus – while I definitively was not.
Losing student elections as a conservative had paid some dividends for me though – it helped me to get noticed by a Conservative Party of Canada employee who happened to be finishing up courses at Carleton. He encouraged me to apply for an internship in the Prime Minister’s Office.
So I was all ready to regard Carleton student union politics as a lost cause and move on, when I bumped into Bruce Kyereh-Addo on Parliament Hill. I knew Bruce from Carleton – he was a big gregarious black guy who had been a CUSA employee. I assumed he was on “their side”, because it seemed that one didn’t usually get a job with the student union if one wasn’t. But, Bruce was actually on the Hill working for a Conservative MP. We decided to do lunch.
We had a good conversation, and I was even more impressed than I had been before – so I suggested that Bruce run for President of CUSA. He decided to go for it.
This was a game changer for the “reform” movement on Carleton’s campus – Bruce was recognizable and likeable, and he had seen the need for change up close. We were never going to get left-wing activists to vote against the CUSA establishment, but Bruce was able to assemble a team that could appeal to some groups who had been a reliable part of their electoral coalition in the past.
There were other deeply impressive people who were part of that campaign, many of whom have gone on to do meaningful things in politics – but Bruce stands out because of his massive personality, and because he was the leader who got it done.
He won that election. He was then promptly disqualified, because the CUSA establishment rarely took the chance of leaving elections management in the hands of someone impartial. We accused them of acting like Hugo Chavez – and at least one of them viewed that comparison as complimentary. Nevertheless, Bruce had laid down the template that would be used in subsequent years and would eventually lead to success.
After the trumped up disqualification, I suggested that Bruce consider seeking the Conservative nomination in Ottawa-Centre. Not exactly an easy riding for us – but not as hard a task as winning a CUSA election, which he had already done. “You’re always getting me into trouble”, he said. That campaign did not work in the end, but if anyone could have delivered the seat it would have been Bruce.
One off-beat anecdote from that campaign worth sharing – a bunch of us were having drinks at my house discussing this and that. We got to chatting about relationships, and one of the guys shared a few details about the woman he was dating at the time, and that she happened to be Polish.
“All my friends are Polish!” he replied exuberantly. “Bruce, clearly all your friends are not Polish, I’ve seen you with people who are not Polish.” This was, though, the kind of exaggerated effort to build a connection with people that made Bruce so warm and appreciated.
Bruce and I lost touch for a while. I returned to Alberta, and became a candidate for the upstart Wildrose party. During that election campaign, I showed up at a photo-op in a barn in Vegreville - and there was Bruce, working as campaign staff far from home.
Full of surprises – the last guy I had expected to see in Vegreville. But like for me, the Carleton campaign had launched Bruce into a blossoming political career. His big personality, and skills honed in a very hostile environment, had led him into a career as a conservative campaigner and staffer. He would encourage me throughout that campaign. When I saw him the day before election day, he told me “man, you’re an MLA already”. Alas, I lost that campaign, but the encouragement meant a lot.
Bruce went on to work at the Alberta legislature, for the Government of BC, for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, and most recently as the Director of Operations to the Ontario Minister of the Environment. He kept moving up, while always being on the move.
And now, Bruce has passed away – taken too soon by surprise, still very much in the prime of life. Had this not happened, he probably would’ve made good on that plan to seek a federal or provincial nomination at some point.
Not improbably, he could have been a Premier or a Prime Minister – deploying his charm and his many Polish friends, as well as comrades in arms from campaigns across the country, to build durable victories. If you can do it under the circumstances we faced at Carleton, you can do it anywhere.
After Bruce’s post-election disqualification from the CUSA presidential race, students started changing their profile picture to the following image:
So, Mr. President, thank you for what you did for our campus and for our country. We lost a lot of battles, but we won some too. And every single one was worth the fight. God bless you and your family, and may you rest in peace.