HOW LAURIER LAPIERRE STAYS FAMOUS

BLAIR FRASER October 1 1967

HOW LAURIER LAPIERRE STAYS FAMOUS

BLAIR FRASER October 1 1967

HOW LAURIER LAPIERRE STAYS FAMOUS

IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to be a political visitation. Laurier LaPierre, former TV star, present politician and — by his own semi-serious admission — future prime minister of Canada, had been invited down to Summerside, PEI, to judge the island’s Centennial beauty pageant. And since the Centennial committee had laid on a car and a seaside cottage, the LaPierres and their two small sons spent much of their 18-day stay lounging on PEI’s wide, white beaches. But somehow, the family holiday also became a triumphal meet-thepeople tour that George Hees would have envied.

As a candidate, and as one of several plausible contenders for the NDP s post-Douglas leadership, LaPierre is running hard. His fame as the fired co-host of This Hour Hus Seven Days has made him better known than most federal cabinet ministers. And his stature as a bicultural spokesman and a respected academic are beginning to convince people who'd never dreamed of voting NDP that socialists can actually be presentable. Accordingly, LaPierre is currently one of the country's most sought-after celebrities. He receives about six speaking invitations every day. In the months since his purge from Seven Days, he's accepted 120 of them, and also manages to meet another hundred-odd people every week at political coffee parties in his suburban Montreal riding of Lachine. “In a way,’’ he says, “it's a continuation of the nationwide dialogue that started with Seven Days.” So far, the dialogue shows no signs of abatement, which means that Laurier LaPierre — professor, politician, controversialist and connoisseur of Maritime pulchritude — may never stop being a national figure.

The LaPierre Generation: Can it make the NDP win?

BLAIR FRASER

LAURIER LaPiERRE didn’t really expect to be taken seriously when, last April, he told an audience in Timmins, Ontario, that he might be leader of the New Democratic Party by 1970 — “and if I’m leader I'll become prime minister, maybe in 1984.”

LaPierre thought the reference to Nineteen Eighty-Four, the title of George Orwell's black Utopia, was clue enough that he was speaking tongue in cheek. The audience didn’t get it. He was solemnly quoted as having nominated himself "prime minister in 1980.”

He hadn’t quite intended to say so, but LaPierre had no wish to utter a denial or correction. He does believe retirement at 65 should be as compulsory in politics as it is in industry. (That’s what he and his audience were talking about when the subject of leadership came up.) Tommy Douglas, the present NDP leader, will be 65 on October 20, 1969. If the NDP should, therefore, hold a leadership convention in 1970, LaPierre will probably be a candidate — if by then he is still a member of the party that elected him a national vice-president last July. His collision last year with CBC management over This Hour Hus Seven Days showed he is not the easiest man in Canada to homogenize into a smooth, bland team project. It also showed he is not a man to fade unobtrusively into the background of any scene in which he is engaged. Now, having gone into politics, LaPierre admits quite freely that his natural inclination is to go for the top.

Few Canadians have better reason to know that the top is accessible, in this country, to an able man with luck, no matter where he starts from. Long before he became vice-president of a national party, even before he became a television host of national fame (when he took over Inquiry in 1963) he had come a long way from the remote village of Lac Mégantic, Quebec, where he was born 37 years ago.

LaPierre is a fully accredited citizen of both of Canada’s “deux nations,” but within the two he moves at very different levels. In the English-speaking community he has all the necessary credentials to be a member of the Establishment. His wife, the former Paula Armstrong, is a granddaughter of the historian George M. Wrong and a niece of the late Hume Wrong, a Canadian ambassador to Washington. LaPierre is thus related by marriage to a considerable fraction of the old aristocracy of Upper Canada.

To this he can add his own qualifications as a PhD of the University of Toronto, an associate professor of history at McGill who has lately become head of his own new department, an author of many articles on scholarly subjects, editor of one book, author of another, and a public speaker who is in constant demand by select audiences from coast to coast. His excellent English sounds all the better for being delivered in a Maurice Chevalier accent.

But there begins the rub. LaPierre’s English is distinctly better than his French. Not long ago Luc Beauregard, a parliamentary correspondent of La Fresse, Montreal, wrote of LaPierre: “He’s bilingual, all right; he speaks both English and Franglais.”

This has led many people to a wrong inference — that he is one of those Englishspeakers who happen to have a French name, and can pass themselves off as French Canadian among the English. Nothing could be farther from the truth. LaPierre is authentically French Canadian, more so perhaps than some of his French-speaking critics. Neither of his parents can speak a word of English, nor could Laurier himself until he was 13.

Why then does he speak bad French? The answer is simple, and no compliment to Quebec’s educational system. Laurier LaPierre speaks English like the Toronto PhD and the McGill professor that he is. But in his parents’ home he speaks what he himself calls the patois of French Canada’s working class, like the day laborer from rural Quebec whose son he is proud to be.

Lionel LaPierre, Lauriers father, never went beyond grade three in the one-room school of St. Ludger, Frontenac County, where he was born. “My mother, since she was destined to teach school, went to grade six,” their son explains sardonically. Laurier was born, the fifth of seven brothers and sisters, in the village of L.ac Mégantic near the United States border / continued on page 92

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LAURIER LAPIERRE

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in 1929 — just in time for the Great Depression.

His childhood memories are of extreme poverty, such as the day the bailiff took away their furniture and he and his brothers had to go around with a small cart and borrow some from their numerous relatives. He remembers, too, the day his father lost an eye. working for the provincial government as a tractor driver on the hack-country roads of rural Quebec.

After that accident the family moved to Sherbrooke, where the father got a job in a factory. His work consisted of flattening out pieces of rubber between two large rollers, and in the course of this labor he lost most of his fingers, one by one, on both hands. (The safety instructions, which were minimal anyway, were all printed in English, which the work force couldn’t read.) Nevertheless, he continued to work and support his large family, five children surviving of the seven born. His wife helped by running a hoarding house and lunch room, where she served about 100 shift workers each day from a nearby textile factory.

Magic moment

Conscious of his own linguistic disabilities, Lionel LaPierre was resolved that his children should learn English. At 13, when he had finished elementary school in French, young Laurier was sent to St. Patrick’s Academy in Sherbrooke, where for six months he lived in a misery he has never forgotten. He knew nobody in the school, and he could not understand a word the teachers were saying. Each day at lunch time he came home in tears, telling his mother he wouldn't go back. Each day she took the time, while serving lunch to 100-odd men, not only to feed her son but to comfort him and send him off to school again.

Finally came the magic moment when the boy understood, for the first time, something the teacher said to him. “If I’d been grown up 1 suppose I’d have gone out and got drunk, or something. At 13 all 1 could do was to dance, and I danced all the way home, shouting and singing, ‘I understood, I understood.’ ” Pie still, of course, couldn’t read English very well, but he developed a curious liking for the mysteries of English grammar, and with that plus his general aptitude he became a good student.

St. Patrick’s Academy would have been the end of young LaPierrc's education had he not, in adolescence, discovered a vocation, real or fancied, for the priesthood. It took him through a course at St. Charles College in Baltimore, Maryland. He financed his way through the last two years of Arts at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, then an MA and PhD, by taking part-time jobs during term, summer employment, and a full year of work in a Sherbrooke factory.

Plis father, of course, could give him no help financially — it was enough that he was allowed to go to school and college at all. instead of going to work at 13 to help support the family. "I remember once writing

to rey father to say I had no money. Father couldn't write without great difficulty, because he had no fingers, but somehow he made a fist and wrote me a letter in which he sent five dollars. For him that meant his entire beer allowance, for two weeks.”

With memories like these it is not surprising that LaPierre became a militant member of the party that is, he believes, “the party of change.” Thai’s his definition of the Left in politics — the willingness to accept and welcome change, as opposed to the resolute immobilism of older parties, and older men in all parties. Therefore, he sees no contradiction in the tact that he was formerly a Liberal. and is — because there is no provincial NDP party — still a member in good standing of the provincial Liberal Party in Quebec. He looks back on the victory of Jean Lesage and the Liberals in 1960 as a moment of triumph and emancipation.

“To the men of my generation, Jean Lesage’s Quiet Revolution meant the liberation of Quebec — liberation not irom les anglais but from a moribundi past and a static environment. It made us alive. It made us free, again not so much from les anglais as from the parasitic existence of most of our people, betrayed as we were by the professional and clerical élite.”

So when members of the Quebec élite sneer at his French, LaPierre is more defiant than apologetic. He admits, somewhat grudgingly, that he is working to improve it and should perhaps be doing more along this line, but he still insists it is he. and not the élite from the collèges classiques, who speaks the language spoken by the ordinary folk of Quebec. If that is not good French, whose fault is it?

However, LaPierre is defiant of the French Canadians only when he is among them. Among the English he is defiant of the English, a militant defender of French-Canadian rights. And in this field, even more than in others, he has paid the penalty of his gift for vivid extemporaneous speech in either language.

About a year ago he was invited to speak to a teachers’ conference in Estevan. Saskatchewan, for which he prepared a set of impeccably conventional notes. The notes would have taken no more than 35 minutes to deliver, at most. LaPierre spoke for an hour, then answered questions for another hour. According to the horrified Regina Leader-Post, he said among other things that he’d “prefer an independent Quebec tomorrow, by bloodshed if necessary,” to a continuation of the second-class citizenship French Canadians have endured for 200 years.

To this seditious heresy the LeaderPost's reaction was thunderous wrath. LaPierre’s “two-hour diatribe” had amply “confirmed the soundness of the CBC’s decision to drop the Seven Days program.” Other comments in English were in the same vein. (Only the Halifax Chronicle-Herald treated the incident lightly. “What happened to Laurier?” it asked. “A poor prespeech chicken-and-pea dinner?”)

Rather naively wounded by the criticism. LaPierre wrote to the editor of the Leader-Post. He obviously was not sure exactly what he had said, but he rebuked the editor for “your ap-

parent failure to discuss the content and academic value of some ideas I did express” — I.e., the impeccable notes — and for focusing instead on “remarks that were made more in jest than with perversity or cunning.”

But meanwhile another Saskatchewan critic. L. V. Nicks, then president of the Saskatchewan School Trustees’ Association, in a prepared statement put his finger on the heart of the problem that LaPierre presents — not only to the Establishments of both

English and French Canada, but even to the NDP. Nicks professed himself “not unduly concerned with LaPierre’s scurrilous remark that school trustees are social parasites.” What bothered him was the applause that LaPierre’s heresy had drawn from Saskatchewan teachers: "It is difficult to understand how teachers in this province could give a standing ovation to a two-hour attack on our democratic institutions,” as exemplified by school trustees. "Disapproval should have been ex-

pressed by the teachers themselves, at the time.”

There is the problem in a nutshell. Bad enough that this dangerous fellow should go about insulting people, making enemies for himself, his profession and his party. But the disquieting thing is that other folk, who ought to know better, actually applaud him.

For a political party this raises two difficult questions. Do the people who applaud outnumber the people who

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LAURIER LAPIERRE continued

Do his supporters have as long memories as his critics?

are infuriated? And even more important, will those who applaud remember their approval as long and as clearly as the furious remember their fury?

Outwardly, at least, the NDP seems either to be content with the answers, or to have ignored the questions. LaPierre may be the most glamorous but he is not, within the party, the most prominent or influential of a group of young dust-disturbers who are determined to make the NDP the party of youth and the party of change.

Stephen Lewis, the 29 - year - old member of the Ontario Legislature for Toronto-Scarborough West, would probably be accepted as the leader of the group, though, of course, no such formal post exists. Even before he had become an MLA at the age of 25, indeed before he was old enough to vote, Lewis had become a specialist in political technique. He himself says the idea originated with Kenneth Bryden, deputy leader of the NDP in the Ontario House, but most New Democrats credit Lewis with perfecting the method of “saturation canvassing” and campaign-in-depth that has scored at least three upset victories for the NDP in recent byelections. He ran the campaign by which James Renwick beat Charles Templeton in Toronto - Riverdale, a signal triumph over the provincial Liberals. Then he helped Max Saltsman win the federal riding of Waterloo South, supposedly an impregnable Conservative stronghold. Most recently his brother Michael, who at 21 is too young ever to have cast a vote himself, used the same technique to win for Bud Germa of the NDP the federal Liberal fortress of Sudbury, Ontario. (The Lewis brothers are sons of David Lewis, MP for York South and deputy leader of the NDP in the House of Commons.)

James Renwick at 49 is perhaps a bit overage for the NDP's younger set, but he qualifies as an energetic and dedicated newcomer to the party. Renwick became a New Democrat by a process of elimination. Because he was fed up with the entrenched Liberals, he volunteered his services to George Drew's Conservatives in 1953 (he worked for candidate Roy Thomson, who has since become a member of another more ancient house of parliament), and he remained an active Conservative until after the Diefenbaker victory of 1958. Then, disillusioned with the Conservatives, he accepted an invitation to the Liberal policy conference at Kingston in I960. The conference prevented him from developing any illusions about the Liberals. The by-election that made him an NDP member of the Ontario Legislature came in 1964.

Going into politics was a big financial sacrifice for Renwick, who was a thriving Toronto lawyer. One of his partners was that eminent Conservative, the Right Hon. Roland Michener, now Governor General of Canada. Another was Senator Daniel Lang, a stalwart of the Liberals. The firm does well in all political weather. Renwick left it to become a full time MLA,

with an $8.000 salary and a $3,000 expense account. This may be one reason why the younger New Democrats accepted him as one of themselves. and put him forward as the “youth” candidate for national president of the NDP. He ran against 70year-old J. H. Brockelbank, a former minister in Saskatchewan and the can-

didate of the NDP's Establishment. Renwick won by a decisive majority.

Allied with the young Ontarians was a group of young New Democrats from Quebec, of whom the de facto leader is not Laurier LaPierre (even though he was elected a vice-president of the party) but Charles Taylor, an associate professor of political sci-

ence at McGill and of philosophy at the University of Montreal. Taylor is 35, a three-times-defeated candidate in Montreal-Mount Royal who has high hopes of winning next time in the new constituency of Dollard (no longer, he thinks, the safe Liberal seat that used to bear the same name and elect Guy Rouleau as its member). Despite his English name, Taylor is the grandson of one Senator Beaubien and the nephew of another (both Liberals, of course). Like his

LAURIER LAPIERRE continued

English know him-

but do the French?

friend and political opponent Pierre Elliot Trudeau, he speaks both languages, not just fluently but impeccably.

To call Taylor the leader of the young NDP in Quebec is not to imply disloyalty to Robert Cliche, the official party leader in La Belle Province. Tike most Quebec members of the NDP, Cliche is an ex-Liberal, and he left for reasons similar to those that drove his juniors out. But Cliche at 46 is not a natural member of the younger set, anti his personal and family roots are in rural Beauce County and in Quebec City. He will contest a Montreal riding at the next election, but this merely proves an important point: that in Quebec the NDP exists on the Island of Montreal and nowhere else. The young New Democrats of Montreal cheerfully accept Cliche as their party leader, but that doesn’t make him a Montrealer, and they arc essentially a Montreal group.

A new and valued member of the Montreal group is Dr. Denis Lazure, past president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, who until last year was a member of the political committee of the federal Liberal Party in Quebec. Dr. Lazure, who is 41, left his Liberal office soon enough to run against the Liberal candidate in Outremont-St. Jean in a by-election last May, where he racked up an unprecedented 45 percent of the votes cast in what was supposed to be an impregnable Liberal seat. Charles Taylor still burns with exasperation that the NDP’s political experts moved into Outremont too late to give the full benefit of Stephen Lewis’s expertise. He is convinced the NDP could have won Outremont-St. Jean in May, though by no means convinced that it can ever do so again. (By accident or design, the Conservatives ran no candidate against the Liberal in the byelection.)

Closely associated with these young New Democrats is C. G. Gifford, NDP candidate in Notre - Dame - de -Grâce in the last two elections. Gifford is 48, and though he has worked hard to improve his French, he would not yet call himself fully bilingual. So it is an irony of sorts that he has the best chance, on present form, of being the first NDP or CCF member ever elected to parliament from the Province of Quebec.

Gifford in 1963 ran a poor third in NDG, getting only 7,141 votes to 30,532 for Liberal Edmond Asselin. By 1965 he had doubled his former total, drawing 14,071 votes and moving into second place, 3,136 ahead of the Conservative candidate and only 3,725 behind the Liberal winner. But this was on the old boundaries. Since redistribution, NDG has shrunk to a more normal size. And if all its voters made the same choice tomorrow as they did in 1965, Gifford would come within 600 votes of victory.

This was with a strong Conservative candidate in the field, ex-MP Egan Chambers (who, by an ironic coincidence, is Charles Taylor’s brother-inlaw). It’s by no means certain that

Chambers will run again, or that he will choose this riding if he does run. If some nameless, faceless new Tory is the only alternative to a sitting Liberal, Gifford’s chances the next time around should be considerably better.

In any case, win or lose, Gifford is a close comrade-in-arms of the young New Democrats of Montreal island. Into this few, this happy few, Laurier LaPierre came last year as a bit of an interloper. He had, after all, been a Liberal as late as 1965. His true political faith was known to nobody, perhaps not even to himself at that stage. As a television star he had immense popularity with Englishspeaking viewers across Canada, but how much good would that do him in a new, largely French-speaking riding on the island of Montreal?

It’s still too soon for anyone, and least of all for an English Canadian, to answer that question with any assurance. So far, although the NDP has used LaPierre extensively as a speaker — about 30 public meetings between October and the end of May — he has operated mainly in the Englishspeaking provinces.

Meanwhile, he continues to engage in all kinds of other activities, relevant or not. Recently he went with his whole family (wife and two small sons) to Prince Edward Island to be, of all things, judge in a beauty contest. Critics say he is spreading himself too thin. Friends say he is making himself better known. Maybe both are right.

In any case, for better and for worse, Laurier LaPierre is part — not the most important but by no means unimportant — of the NDP’s attempt at a double breakthrough. To achieve truly national stature the party must win new support in two major areas -— among the young, and among French Canadians. LaPierre is an unchallengeable member of both groups. If either attempt succeeds, he will deserve a share of the credit. ★