MP Wayne Marston's politics shaped by poverty and family tragedy

NDP MP Wayne Marston is acutely aware that MPs bring their own experiences to Parliament Hill, those key events that shape who they are. For Marston, that includes childhood poverty, his father’s alcohol abuse, his mother's mental illness and his sister's strangulation when he was just two.

Scarred by mother's mental illness and father's drinking, tragic childhood helped set his path in politics

New Democrat Wayne Marston shares some traumatic events from his past that have shaped his life and motivated his political views 2:50

As Wayne Marston prepares to drive to Hamilton, he chooses a song from his vast repertoire.

Every week the NDP MP clocks more than a thousand kilometres back and forth from Parliament Hill to his Hamilton riding, where he lives with his wife, Barb.

He picks one of his favourite Bobby Darin tunes and Fly Me to the Moon is soon wafting through the car.

For Marston, music was an escape from the grinding poverty of his early life.

Every MP that comes here has to bring with them who they are and how they evolved to who they are.—Wayne Marston, NDP MP

"I had one set of clothes," he laughs. "So when I washed them I had to wait until they dried, or there was nothing to wear."

In the 1950s, poverty was not rare in the small community of Plaster Rock, N.B., so that did not make him stand out.

What did was the dramatic family dysfunction around him.

In August 1949, when Marston was a baby, his 10-year-old sister was strangled. It is believed she was killed by their mother. Marston was in the room when it happened.

Wayne Marston grew up amid poverty and tragic family dysfunction in this home near Plaster Rock, N.B. (Courtesy of Wayne Marston)

"I didn't live the incident because I was only two years old," he says. "But I lived the after-effects of it, so that went a long way to defining me.

"Every MP who comes here has to bring with them who they are and how they evolved to who they are," he says.

Family torn apart by mental illness

His mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and sent to an institution for 10 years. She then went to live with relatives. Marston only learned what happened from his father when he was 12 years old.

"He decided when he was drinking one night to tell me the story of what happened to my sister."
Wayne Marston is pictured in 1957. (Courtesy of Wayne Marston)

Marston did not have a relationship with his mother until he was 42. He will never forget their first visit.

"She hugged me," he says. "I looked out of the side of my eye and I could see her wanting to kiss me. She did a very quick one. That's an important memory." Marston stops, tearing up and is unable to continue for several minutes.

But it was his father's addiction that was even more painful. In Plaster Rock, population of about 1,000 inhabitants, being the town drunk was an ignominious title.

"When I was 12 years old, I used to pick him up and drive him home, because it was safer for the community to get him off the roads."

Marston says that his troubled background scarred him as a young man.

"I had no personal self-esteem until I was 30 years of age," he says. "I remember going to pick up a girl for a date one time and being told, 'No, you are the Marston boy, you can't go out with our daughter. We know about your family.'"

Bit by bit, events happened to boost his confidence.

A path to empathy and politics

He was picked by his fellow Bell Canada workers to be the shop steward.

He pulled a man out of a burning car in 1986 and was awarded a bravery medal by Gov. Gen Jeanne Sauvé.
Wayne Marston was awarded a medal for bravery by Gov. Gen Jeanne Sauvé in 1986, for pulling a man from a burning car. (Courtesy of Wayne Marston)

He ran unsuccessfully against Liberal Sheila Copps several times and then finally broke through in 2006, defeating Liberal Tony Valeri in Hamilton East–Stoney Creek. He's been re-elected twice and now serves as the NDP's critic on consular affairs and human rights.

Marston finds his background often bumps up against Prime Minister Stephen Harper's tough-on-crime agenda.

He's against mandatory minimum sentences and is opposed to reopening any debate on capital punishment. He understands the concept "not criminally responsible" because of his mother's mental illness.

"I have a great empathy for people as a result of where I came from."

He spoke early in June, before the House recessed for the summer, on a bill of rights for victims, arguing for more compassion for offenders.

"It is to come to that place of understanding of what motivates and creates these situations and to pre-empt them from ever happening in the first place. In our family's case, it was the mental illness of a family member," he said to fellow MPs.

Marston is philosophical about his background.

"I don't have any sense of embarrassment about my past — those were things that happened around me."

"I have a sadness for my mother and father, for the way their lives turned out."

But his life now, he says, is "perfect."

"I'm in a place where it's very rewarding here."