Leonard Barry Pashak, former NDP MLA, dies at age 83

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Leonard Barry Pashak, who was one of the first NDP MLAs to be elected in southern Alberta, died on Wednesday at age 83.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said in post on social media that Pashak was a proud representative for his constituents in east Calgary during his two terms.

"My deepest condolences to the Pashak family and to friends of Barry," she wrote on Saturday.

Pashak was born in Calgary in 1937, and grew up in the neighbourhood of Mission. He completed his masters in sociology at the University of Calgary in 1971.

"He was a really, you know, proud Calgarian. He loved the city," said his son, Zak Pashak.

He didn't like the idea that anyone would be oppressed. - Zak Pashak, on his father Barry Pashak

He taught math, sociology and political science at Mount Royal College — now called Mount Royal University — for more than 25 years, before his participation in the teachers' union nurtured an interest in politics.

Zak described his dad as analytical, well-liked and passionate about social justice causes — from loudly voicing dissidence against the Vietnam war and later conflicts, to his support of labour rights and public housing efforts.

He said he remembers during the Gulf War, his father called the U.S. embassy to share his thoughts on the country's military actions.

"He didn't like the idea that anyone would be oppressed," Zak said. "I think part of what drove him in a general way was caring about people and being a bit anti-authoritarian."

Mount Royal University Archives
Mount Royal University Archives

After a series of unsuccessful runs in both provincial and federal politics, he won his first term in 1986, defeating Progressive Conservative candidate Moe Amery.

He, alongside Bob Hawkesworth, became one of the first two NDP MLAs to be elected in Calgary. That election represented a breakthrough for the party — it was just its second term as official opposition, growing from two to 16 seats.

Hawkesworth said there was a strong bond of trust between the two colleagues in their opposition role, working to keep the ruling party accountable.

"There were two New Democrats to represent the city and southern Alberta. We had our individual critic responsibilities, and then there were 16 of us trying to, in the House, take the pulse of the province as a whole … I think Barry and I both felt stretched in order to do that work," Hawkesworth told CBC.

Submitted by Natasha Pashak
Submitted by Natasha Pashak

During Pashak's time in office, he served as critic for the energy and education portfolios, and Hawkesworth said Pashak did especially strong work as chair fo the public accounts committee.

"He did a great job highlighting the need for better documentation, better disclosure … the work we did in those years laid the groundwork for much better fiscal reporting than we had when we were in the legislature."

Pashak won a second term against Amery in 1989. But, after his district Calgary-Forest Lawn was abolished in 1993, he ran for re-election in the redistributed district of Calgary-East — where he was defeated by Amery.

That wasn't the end of his time in politics. From 2000 to 2001, Pashak served as the leader of the Equity Party, a now-defunct experimental political party which aimed to develop all of its policies through an online forum.

Zak said despite political differences, his father shared a strong friendship with former Calgary mayor and Progressive Conservative Premier Ralph Klein.

"They were very different sides of the political spectrum, but they sure liked sharing a beer together," he said. "He wasn't in there to just vilify and fight, he was there to try and make positive progress for his constituents, he really did believe in that mandate."

Submitted by Natasha Pashak
Submitted by Natasha Pashak

One of Pashak's lasting achievements was his advocacy for what is now International Avenue — the section of 17th Avenue S.E. in Calgary known for its diverse restaurants and shops.

Zak said as a child, he learned so much about different ethnic and cultural communities by attending political functions with his dad.

"He really realized the importance of immigration to Calgary," Zak said, adding that he believes his father was one of the first people in the city to print campaign literature in a variety of languages, so everyone in the riding could hear his message. "This was someone who really wants engagement in the community."

Submitted by Natasha Pashak
Submitted by Natasha Pashak

Premier Jason Kenney also shared his condolences. "I remember him from the early 1990s as a good man who loved serving his community," Kenney said on social media.

Roughly 10 years ago, Zak said his father largely lost his ability to speak due to a stroke. But he continued to play bridge as a way to socialize during his final years.

Pashak is survived by his children Barrett, Cathy, Matt, Natasha, and Zakary, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, as well as his spouse Wilda.