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Chris Bolin/chris bolin The Globe and Mail

For those of us who come from political families - like Paul Martin, Jack Layton and myself, to mention just a few - Father's Day is an appropriate occasion to remember the political heritage and life lessons we received from them.

My father, Ernest Manning, was elected to the Alberta Legislature in the midst of the Great Depression. He served there for 33 years, 25 of them as premier. During that period, he fought nine successful general election campaigns and presided over the transition of Alberta from a bankrupt agricultural province to a more prosperous petroleum-producing province with expanding physical infrastructure and social services.

I was a year old when he became premier. During all my growing-up years, that was his job. What I remember most vividly from that period, however, is not particular events and activities but principles and anecdotes that he would share from his experience.

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He believed, for example, that there was such a thing as "the common sense of the common people" which, if you believed in democracy, was to be sought out and respected as much as expert opinion. He was an early user of opinion surveys, not only to measure opinion but to "calibrate" his caucus and party members by administering the same surveys to them and then comparing how their views diverged from those of Albertans.

My father also attached great importance to the law-making role of an elected legislator. If you asked him what the Alberta Legislature did in a given year, he would take down a statute book from a shelf in his office and say, "This is what the Alberta Legislature did that year. Whatever went on in Question Period, committee hearings or the debates is only relevant to the extent that it influenced and is incorporated in these laws."

Over his career, he personally dealt with four federal administrations - those of Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent, John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson - and had interesting observations on each. Mr. King was kindly to my father as a new premier, but eccentric and devious. Mr. St. Laurent was dignity personified. Mr. Diefenbaker was a fellow westerner and populist, but had trouble making decisions. Mr. Pearson's model of Canada (as a meeting of two founding races, cultures and languages) was incongruent with the realities of Western Canada.

And on the ethical front, so important to maintaining the integrity of a political party or government, my father insisted that "those of us who make or administer the laws must keep the laws, or we lose our moral authority to govern."

One other behaviour I learned from him, more by osmosis, has both a useful and a dangerous side. Politicians are subject to enormous amounts of public abuse and criticism. Each of us develops our own mechanisms for handling it. Some choose to fight back, blow for blow. Others, like my father and me, resolve never to let them get to us on an emotional level, and gradually develop a hard external shell that eventually becomes almost impervious to provocation.

It's a useful strategy, except for one dangerous aspect: That shell can render us impervious to emotional messages and appeals of any kind, including those demanding a sensitive and emotional response, emanating from friends, family, wives and children.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and spiritual mentor who has written extensively on father-son relations, describes an even darker aspect of this defence mechanism. Commenting on the difficulty most men have in "shedding tears," even when such an emotional response is called for, he says: "I suspect that non-weeping is a price that the male has had to pay for centuries of going to war … You have to split, deny and repress your feeling world to survive such ordeals. In effect, we have chosen the survival of cultural and nationalistic pretences over the survival of the male soul. Yes, men are often warlike, but they have been bred like dogs to be so, overdeveloping some qualities like detachment and stoicism, and repressing others like feeling, empathy and vulnerability."

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This Father's Day, it will be fitting to remember what has been passed on to us by our fathers. But if that heritage, deliberately or inadvertently, has rendered us insensitive to the emotional needs of others, including our own loved ones, let us acknowledge that also, and leave it behind.

Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

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