US Army ambulance driver in the 1964 Day of The Martyrs ~ GI Bill graduate of Bowie State, an historically black university ~ one of Nader’s Raiders ~ Canada’s most outstanding consumer advocate ~ Journalist who for years wrote the Lemon-Aid automotive consumer guidebooks ~ Member of the Canadian Federal Parliament 1990 – 1993 (NDP-Quebec) ~ Paitilla resident in his later years ~ Chair of Democrats Abroad Panama 2016 – 2017 ~ Born May 26, 1944, in Washington DC – Died December 2, 2022, in Panama City.
Phil Edmonston, the late great
by Eric Jackson
I was working on a book project that he got me started on years ago, and sent him a more or less completed rough draft of PDF chapters as email attachments. Having received no response, I contacted his wife Michelle Brion, who passed on the sad news that the love of her life had passed away months ago, this past December 2.
When you write for a living you get friends and critics, and as in all times but especially in these polarized days you get some of the former who approach the line of being sycophants and some of the latter who cross the line into wanting to destroy you. In writing and in politics I knew Phil to be both the stern critic and the solid comrade-in-arms and benefactor.
Plus he was a cat person — where could he go wrong with that?
In politics, after external forces within Democrats Abroad perhaps unwittingly imposed a Democratic mirror-image / precursor of the GOP’s George Santos as chair of Democrats Abroad Panama and in mid-purge — in the middle of the 2016 national election campaign! — the short-lived dictatorship fell apart, Phil’s was the voice of equanimity, reconciliation and problem-solving who got our country chapter back up and running. He served as DA Panama’s third chair for the summer and fall of 2016 and into the spring of 2017, taking me on in roughly a role I began several years before, de facto communications director without any title and subject to supervisory controls.
Emotionally, Phil was this calm guy and I’m bipolar of what doctors call the cyclothymic kind. He was tall with little or no flab on him and I’m this short fat guy. He was nine years older than me.
But we also have certain things in common, including some residues of religious pacifism in our backgrounds — my paternal grandmother was a Quaker with an Amish lineage. He was sent to be raised by Jehovah’s Witnesses for part of his childhood but the monarchist world view — actually universal, because the Witnesses believe that God is king of everything — didn’t stik. The disdain for pomp and warfare, however, were with him to the end of his days. (Democrats who believe in DEMOCRACY? That was a good start.)
We were both working class intellectuals, unhappy kids who had dropped out of high school — he to join the US Army as an ambulance driver and paramedic, me to join The Revolution with the WeatherPeople and the Yippies. We both went on to continue our formal educations at uncelebrated state schools — he at Bowie State University in Maryland, me at Eastern Michigan University. Likewise, although we each in a way went on to law school — he to to drop out, me to graduate — lifelong practice and reading were the real bulk of our continuing educations. He was the democratic socialist member of the Canadian federal parliament (the first from Quebec), I was the democratic socialist member of the Ypsilanti, Michigan city council (one of the initial two).
Phil’s first experience with Panama? He witnessed the pain and sorrow wrought by a thousand furies over a Panama having been mostly unwittingly enraged by the act of white kids in a segregated Canal Zone, and colonial American community that didn’t much know nor care for their Panamanian neighbors. A flag was torn in a scuffle, so 27 people were killed and hundreds were wounded. In a way, the most idealized of the Panamanian martyrs, Ascanio Arosemena, was slain while doing on his side of the line the job that Phil was doing in uniform — helping the wounded. Years later Phil described the chaotic scene around the old Tivoli Hotel — where the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute now operates — as the soldiers took over from the Canal Zone cops, wild gunfire from untrained gunmen among the Panamanians in the crowd and the occasional shot from the Americans hit targets both intended but mostly unintended. Later in Canadian politics he got falsely accused of being a draft resister, but Phil was honorably discharged and mustered out of the Army very antiwar.
Upon his return to the Washington area, while a student at Bowie State some 17 miles out of the District of Columbia on the way toward Baltimore, Phil found a true calling as a volunteer working with Ralph Nader. He got deep into the consumers’ rights movement. He honed his research skills. He acquired a healthy disrespect for all the corny tricks that companies which cheat their customers pull, or try to pull.
Later Phil moved to Quebec and took his consumer activism with him. He began to write books about the automobile industry and associated businesses like the insurance companies. On a tip from old colleagues in Washington, he received a leaked Ford Motor Company study about how their vehicles rusted out quicker than did their competitions. Which was a big deal in Canada, with its long winters and salted roads.
Phil had just started the Automobile Protection Association (APA) in Canada and embarked on a campaign to address Ford’s rusting problem. The Rusty Ford Owners campaign, with demonstrations, news conferences, testimonials by Ford owners who got less than they thought they had bought, a wave of small claims court lawsuits and lobbying on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill made Phil a national figure in Canada. Ultimately the Canadian government and automakers agreed on a national corrosion code, with mandatory warranties to cover that issue, and which is still in effect.
And what kind of journalist? An advocacy journalist, for sure, but also a man with a sense of honor, who would run corrections or retractions in the inevitable instances when a long-time reporter gets something wrong.
In 1987 Phil left the APA in other hands to run for Parliament in a Montreal area riding. As Canada’s best known consumer advocate by then, people with inside information about the scandalous would come to him with their scoops on a frequent basis. One of them came with solid information that his opponent was crook. But that was not the sort of campaign that Phil wanted to run, so he withheld those data and lost the election. A little more than a year later the winner was charged and convicted and had to resign from Parliament. Phil ran in the special election and won with two-thirds of the vote, to become the first NDP member of Parliament from the French-speaking province.
So, what was Edmonston’s proudest moment as a federal MP? The way he told it to me, it was his part in applying the “notwithstanding clause” that kept Canada together under a Canadian constitution with both a fundamental law that made English and French the co-equal official languages, in the face of Francophone separatist pressures from Quebec. As in ‘yes, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes English legal and acceptable in Quebec, but notwithstanding that, Quebec is a French-speaking province.’
Phil didn’t run for a second term. He and his wife moved to Florida, but after a few years of the hysteria that ensued after the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the United States, they decided to move to less frantic, more tolerant Panama to get their tropical warmth. While they both got back to Canada frequently enough, an upscale condo tower in Panama City’s Paitilla neighborhood became their new home in 2006, at which he died late last year.
It was not a retire in Panama to die notion for Phil and Michelle. They got into local society, and into learning Spanish. But Phil was a man with values, who had his preferences among the expatriates here. The “preening millionaires” annoyed him, although from the millions of Lemon-Aid guides that he sold before the series was discontinued in 2018, added to by his wife’s earnings from her years as a telecom executive in Canada, the couple lived quite well. Phil never claimed nor accepted moral, cultural or political superiority based on wealth.
Phil served on the board of the Balboa Union Church, helping it along from near-extinction at the end of the Canal Zone and then US military bases era. It’s multi-denominational Protestant, and he actually was a Christian by belief and practice.
He became active in Democrats Abroad, first as just a member, but as an actively participating member.
Come 2016, was Phil a Hillary guy, or a Bernie guy? I never asked, and generally never asked anybody else that question. I was a Bernie guy who always said that I’d support the Democratic ticket in the fall, even if I did have some specific and in one case personal objections to Hillary Clinton. The chair at the start of 2016 was a Hillary guy and when Bernie win Panama by a wide margin he quit in a huff. The vice chair did not care to step up to the top job and I, a board member, said that we needed to have an election. The local bylaws, in order to prevent undemocratic maneuvers, provided (and still do) that if the vice chair position becomes vacant there must be an election by the membership to fill that post.
With the prompting of an offshore asset protection lawyer in Dubai who was the Democrats Abroad global counsel, and without ever considering our local rules, the vice chair resigned, against our rules appointed the secretary as vice chair, then herself resigned along with most of the rest of the board. But I had looked up some of the new “chair’s” online and at meetings claim and knew them to be very improbable. I told my fellow board members that the guy was not whom nor what he claimed to be and was blown off as this guy angling for the top spot himself.
The fraud guy, at a meeting at night in a Panama City bar, said that the new board whom he had appointed to fill the vacancies, had scheduled a meeting for a specific date to remove me from the board. “When and where?” I asked, to no response. Uh huh. Then in three different news media, months later including this one, the tale of just how fraudulent the guy was got published and our man in Dubai told the guy and all his appointees to resign. Which I didn’t do, leaving me as the only board member left standing in a body without a quorum.
What to do? Resist the screaming accusations against me. Convene a special process to reconstitute the board. Remove myself from running for anything, to get the fraud guy’s and his supporters’ suspicions out of the way. TURN TO PHIL EDMONSTON.
And so a new Democrats Abroad Panama board was constituted with Phil Edmonston as its chair. From the global level, we got all manner of interference with participating in online meetings and using the Panama part of the global database to campaign for Hillary Clinton in the general election. Phil got us on the radio in Spanish. We got press releases out. We developed a local mailing list to get around the obstructions from people close to on high. Phil ran Democrats Abroad Panama democratically and effectively, against many odds.
But in many state and local Democratic Party organizations, the same sorts of games being played on us were also being played. So very assured of winning that November, we Democrats blew the election to Donald Trump.
Phil chalked up the demoralizing defeat to exaggerated identity politics. I thought it was more a matter of overconfident and underperforming apparatchiki with exaggerated ambitions running one of the worst presidential campaigns ever.
And then Phil, with me as communications guy and eventual successor for a term, got up from that punch and he led Panama’s Democrats to recover from the blow. That process led him to find and form a new generation of local Democrats and step aside, giving advice, support and friendship but mostly staying out of the way. Always pro-democracy, always pro-labor, ever the pragmatist.
And now Phil Edmonston is for the ages. We hardly know what we lost.
Editor’s note: With input from Michelle Brion, a few garbled details of Phil’s biography were corrected.
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