Chilliwack Fraser Canyon - Rollie Keith 

Keith’s military experience shapes his perspective

Name any major hotbed of armed conflict from the past 50 years and the chances are Rollie Keith has been there.

From the Suez Canal in the mid-50s to Kosovo in the late-90s and Baghdad two and a half years ago, Keith has seen the face of war around the world.

"I’ve been in gunfights, I’ve seen people blown up and I’ve had my friends killed on landmines, and you realize how fragile humanity is and how fragile life is," he said candidly this week.

"It also makes (you) realize how thin that degree of civility and quality of life is, how it could be taken away so quickly by the wrong moves. And that’s one of the reasons that I’m running in politics again."

In late March Keith won the nomination as the New Democratic Party candidate in the Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon riding.

It’s been 11 years since he last ran in a federal election, after losing in 1993 to Conservative MP Chuck Strahl.

But things are different this time around, said Keith, who has been on the campaign trail in the large riding, listening to the concerns from constituents in Pemberton, Lillooet, the Fraser Valley and places in between.

Keith hears a feeling of dissatisfaction throughout the riding and a cynicism about governments in general, both federal and provincial.

"People are cranky and most of that crankiness is focused at the Liberals," he said.

He hopes that "crankiness" will be reflected in the polls.

"This is an important election. It will make a difference. So I’m hopeful we’re going to have a bigger participation than we’ve had in the last few elections. And I’m trying to encourage (people in my riding) to certainly get out and participate."

More than 50 years ago Keith, a fresh-faced high school graduate, set off on what he thought would be a grand adventure in the Canadian Armed Forces.

At that time the Cold War was ramping up and Keith decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.

"My father had been a veteran in the First World War and had fought at Vimy Ridge and the other big battles there," recalled Keith.

"Adventure called me."

His 32 years in the army as a career combat arms officer took him all over the world on peacekeeping missions, like his first posting in the Suez Crisis or as a military observer for the United Nations throughout the Middle East.

His recent trip to Baghdad, before the Iraq war, was as an impartial observer, neither to condone Saddam Hussein’s regime nor to condemn it.

Keith can say with passionate confidence that war, in this case and in many other instances, is not the answer.

"Obviously I’m not saying that there’s never an occasion where we shouldn’t go to war. I was a professional military officer. I’m not a pacifist," he said.

"But I think these wars when we interfere in the internal affairs of other nations for reasons that I don’t think are justified, or are seldom justified, well they don’t turn out for the better."

Keith first retired from the army in 1982 to pursue graduate studies in history at Simon Fraser University.

He later went back to the military for another four years, based at CFB Chilliwack.

This combination of experience and education gives him an edge on his competition, said Keith.

"Very few of the people running in Canada have had my experience of being in civil wars, of being in armed insurrection, of watching their friends blown up or other people blown up," he said.

"By having that intimacy, and my education of course… brings a sense of history and a sense of what life could be. I think that’s an insight and hopefully an intelligence that many of my competitors don’t have."

He said the New Democrats, their leader Jack Layton in particular, understand what life can be like for Canadians.

This includes their platform of mainstream values for a cohesive and co-operative Canada, a commitment to create jobs in a green and prosperous economy, investing in cities, expanding access to post-secondary education and improving health care, among other things.

Keith has been particularly close to health-care issues in this province for more than a decade, in a variety of roles. He served on the local Community Health Council and the Chilliwack Hospital Board. More recently he was chair of the Fraser Valley Health Region, with its budget of a quarter of a billion dollars, before it was dissolved by the provincial Liberal government after their election win in 2001.

"I thought it was really important that we not just throw money at health care but listen to the communities and listen to our citizens who want good health care there for them and their families when they need it," he said.

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