SASKATOON — On Feb. 3, St. Thomas More College’s Department of Political Science hosted a mini-conference titled Bob Ogle: The People’s Priest and Politician, attended by a large and diverse crowd.
Rev. Bob Ogle was a prominent figure in Saskatchewan. He was born and raised in Rosetown, educated at St. Peter’s Seminary in Ontario, and ordained in 1953. He served as a parish priest in Saskatchewan until 1964, when he went on a mission to Brazil. He returned to the province in 1970 and in 1977 was asked to run for Parliament for the New Democratic Party in Saskatoon East. He was elected in 1979, and served until 1984 when he received notice from the Vatican that he could not run again. He authored several books, held a doctorate in canon law, and was an Officer of the Order of Canada. Ogle passed away in 1998 after a long battle with cancer.
Wednesday’s event celebrated Ogle as both a religious figure and a political actor, and emphasized the continuing importance of Ogle’s work in the 21st century. The event was structured in two parts: three panellists (STM engaged learning co-ordinator Caitlin Ward, journalist Dennis Gruending and former premier of Saskatchewan Rev. Lorne Calvert) spoke for 10 minutes each on a different aspect of Ogle’s life and contribution to society. After a short break, former MP Rev. Bill Blaikie delivered a 45-minute address on the intersections between Ogle’s political career and his own. The event was concluded with a question-and-answer period that explored how Ogle’s legacy can inform current politics and social justice action.
Ogle was Ward’s grandfather’s cousin, and she talked about him from a family perspective. She drew on family lore, her own memory, and an interview with her grandmother who worked in Ogle’s campaign office in the 1970s. She spoke about his respect for women and his egalitarian outlook, which was ahead of his time.
Gruending spoke about encountering Ogle in his own line of work as journalist and writer. Gruending authored the entry for Ogle in the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, but had met him in 1978 and known him as a fellow correspondent in the Global South — Gruending for Maclean’s Magazine and Ogle for CJWW Radio in Saskatoon. Gruending recounted how, when he agreed to run for the NDP in Saskatoon-Humboldt in 1996, he sought advice from Ogle, and learned about the Father Bob Method of canvassing: when going door to door, ask the constituents about themselves rather than launching into your campaign promises. Gruending identified this approach as a “pastoral method,” born out of Ogle’s experience as a parish priest and missionary.
Calvert recalled how his entry into the political life coincided almost directly with Ogle’s departure from it. Whereas Ward and Gruending talked about direct personal experience with Ogle, Calvert talked about the “legends and letters” of the priest. Referencing the biblical story of Jacob, Calvert said of Ogle, “Here is a man who wrestled with angels.” He explained the allegory: Ogle had wrestled with many issues and situations, from the decision to run for the party to the daily wrestling with suffering and inequality in the world. Like Jacob, Calvert explained, Ogle carried the injury from the struggle for the rest of his life.
Blaikie’s talk was titled Prophetic Obedience: Reflections on the Life and Work of Bob Ogle, by the junior half of the NDP’s 1979 God Squad. He recounted how he and Ogle had entered politics at a similar time, though at different periods in their own lives. The God Squad in his title referred to Ogle as priest and himself as a United Church minister. Blaikie told of his experiences with Ogle — both funny and poignant — to illustrate a larger point about morality and the need to connect the conflicts and inequalities we see in the world to our Christian duty to do something about it. One particularly striking story was how, on Christmas Eve 1973, Rev. Ben Smillie, a United Church minister, entreated Ogle to speak in his Christmas Day homily about the bombing of Hanoi, which was ongoing. Ogle did so.
The Feb. 3 event was organized and chaired by Prof. Christopher Hrynkow, who teaches in the Department of Religion and Culture at St. Thomas More College. There were several sponsors for the event: the Dubé Chair in Catholic Studies, the Department of Religion and Culture, the Mission and Ministry Office, and the Dean’s Office. Special thanks was expressed to Gertrude Rompré for facilitating.