Dan Heap: 1925-2014

Lesson of the worker-priest's political obstinacy was clear: identify your base and just keep organizing your heart out


It’s not fashionable to use the word nowadays, not even in the party he devoted his life to, but Anglican priest and former city councillor and NDP MP Dan Heap, who passed away Friday, April 25 was a socialist.

For over three decades, his no-nonsense share-the-wealth theology and pacifism elevated activism and gave texture to the social change cause in this city, a legacy that endures to this day.

He had an urgent mission, in the social gospel tradition, to build the kingdom of god on earth, and he and his wife Alice Heap, who died in 2012, crafted out of this a way to live with extraordinary meaning.

The bicycle-riding theist with the oversized glasses and ever-present beard was no warm and fuzzy. He was stubborn to a magnificent degree.

In 1968 he ran federally in Spadina and lost. A few years later he made a provincial bid, again without success.

In his early campaigns, he branded himself a “worker-priest,” despite the fact he was a grad of the elite Upper Canada College. Later ordained, he worked for years in a box factory following the belief of many socialists of his generation that one had to share the life challenges of the working class.

In 1972 he was elected to city council in the old Ward 6 and in 1981 took the federal seat for Spadina when Pierre Trudeau appointed MP Peter Stollery to the Senate to make way for the PM’s lieutenant Jim Coutts, a plan Heap neatly foiled.

One longtime NDPer quipped at the time that the PM elevated Stollery just so Heap would have to buy a new suit. Fashion was definitely not his thing.

The lesson of this political obstinacy was clear: identify your base and just keep organizing your heart out on every matter you care about. He served in the House until 1993 and never forgot he was there at the behest of the grassroots.

Dan Heap deepened the way I saw politics. I worked on his campaigns and served on the Ward 6 NDP exec. But all that seemed less important than what I took in sitting in the living room of his house on Wales Avenue in Kensington.

He and Alice built the riding association along parish lines – in the best sense. It was each according to their needs.

If anyone needed consolation after a loss, care for a sick loved one, baby-sitting or baby clothes, the Heaps took to their prodigious rolodex to find a communal solution. Their grand but definitely unstylish Victorian house – they later sold it way below market price to a social agency saying they wouldn’t profit from their family home – harboured those without shelter and fed the hungry. Socialism in one riding.

Once, they asked to borrow the beloved Volkswagen van I shared with my partner to go out of town. We would never have refused. That was how things worked in the Heap soviet. Too bad the van’s aging generator blew on the trip.

But by the same token, their political organizing was hardcore ruthless. Alice Heap could soften the blow by serving out lasagna during a meeting but once in the circle, the expectations were high. Both were deadly serious about changing the world and so you better darned well phone the list they had given you or set up that meeting, because the poor of the planet couldn’t wait and wars were raging.

Dan – or Don, as Alice called him and he preferred – wasn’t a politico of rhetorical flourishes he had a slow, deliberate way of talking with eyes that hyper-focused on his listener. He was an impatient man forced to patience. Sometimes, as all who worked with him knew, he couldn’t avoid storms of temper.

It’s daunting to realize the issues he tackled so ferociously are still with us.

As immigration critic, he pushed for justice in the system and as a pacifist, opposed U.S. militarism, and Canadian participation in the Western war machine. He campaigned to end NATO flights over Innu territory in Labrador – a major issue in the 80s. And was part of a group in the party urging Canada to leave NATO, an issue the NDP has not dealt with well (though Jack Layton in grand Heap style brilliantly opposed the country’s intervention in Afghanistan.)

A co-founder of Homes Not Hostels and the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, Heap was arrested in 2000 with two others attempting an act of conscience – removing the sword from the cross outside St. Paul’s Anglican Church.

It’s no accident that Olivia Chow, once his constituency assistant, hailed him this week as her mentor. She and Layton built on the dense social base Heap created in the Spadina area and occupied that space between activism and parliamentary efficacy that the Anglican priest so deftly pioneered. If you listen closely to Chow today, you can hear echoes of the Heap influence, as in her inspired speech about sharing communities at the Bain Coop anniversary some months back.

At party conventions, Dan Heap always supported resolutions in favor of what used to be called social ownership – the belief that the resources of the country should be used for the public good. It feels like an antiquated notion these days when the conservative ethos is able to limit so much allowable thought – and NDP strategists heed U.S. Democratic Party theorists and tap populist anxieties as opposed to sticking to egalitarian basics. This is purported to be a dexterous and necessary way of expanding the party’s vote share beyond its core base, and it either works (see Nova Scotia) or it doesn’t (see also Nova Scotia).

I don’t know how the former MP would have viewed all this. For the last several years he tragically has not had the capacity to weigh because of his Alzheimer’s and we are all the losers for it.

But his sad passing has left lots of us out there wishing there was more Heap-ism in our politics and in our everyday affairs. A life of meaning and a shared mission – there’s no greater bequest than that.

nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

A funeral mass and memorial service with a sing-song to follow will be held at Church of the Holy Trinity (10 Trinity Square) Sunday, May 4 at 2 pm.

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