CAN RALPH COWAN DEFEAT THE FRENCH SINGLE-HANDED?
A report on the Toronto MP who’s become a oneman WASP backlash, and Ottawa’s angriest man
HE WAS 15 MINUTES late for lunch, and when he arrived he said abruptly, “I was waiting outside.” It could have been an explanation or even an apology, but it sounded as though he thought me an insufferable fool for not also waiting outside, and expected me to be damned grateful he was still willing to talk. And that must be a large part of Ralph Cowan's trouble: even when he’s just saying “Hello, how are you?” he sounds as though he might be telling you go to hell on a handcart.
On the other hand, most of the time Ralph Cowan, MP, really is angry. In fact, he’s probably the angriest, most splenetic, acidulous, vituperative, eruptive, apoplectic and generally bad-tempered man in Canadian politics. When he’s really incensed about something — his own leader Lester Pearson, perhaps, or French Canada, or “that bloodsucking behemoth” the CBC, or the way some kids do their hair — he snarls from the side of his mouth and his language becomes not only intemperate, but contemptuous as well: what else is it when an intelligent man stubbornly says “Vitnam” for Vietnam and “Micklewraith” for G. J. Mcllraith, Minister of Public Works? In such moments of truly apocalyptic anger, Cowan tends to grit his teeth and his voice squeaks and the decibel level soars so that even across the dinner table it’s hard to tell whether he thinks you’re deaf, or whether you’ve suddenly become the smallest public meeting in political history.
It all helps make it comfortingly easy to dismiss Ralph Cowan as an arch-reactionary, or a right-wing misfit in a left-leaning Liberal government — or as a nut. But a rightist
reactionary wouldn’t support medicare and portable pensions and other social legislation the way Cowan does — and (hopefully) a nut wouldn't be sitting in parliament. The truth is that when Cowan gets off the subjects of Pearson, French Canada and the CBC, he begins to make a lot of sense to a lot of people. It's often reactionary sense, perhaps, but he does proffer defensible points of view on a wide spectrum of subjects a politician should properly have in mind, ranging from birth control (don't change present laws) through capital punishment (retain it), divorce (don't make it easier), the National Hockey League (“the slave-trade in players”), immigration (it shouldn’t be permitted to alter the present French-English ratio) to abortions (present laws should not be liberalized).
Since the status quo symbolizes security, Cowan's rasping and very, very loud voice speaks for the reactionary within us all. He also obviously speaks for a great many of his own generation: he’s 65 — and 2,180,400 of the electorate are over 60.
But preeminently he is the voice of the WASP backlash. English-speaking Canada’s initially sympathetic reaction to Quebec’s quiet revolution is, in places, beginning to give way to impatience, intolerance or, at best, exasperation. To many, Ralph Cowan, elected Liberal MP in Toronto’s dominantly conservative and Anglo-Saxon York-Humber riding in the past three elections, is something of a hero when he tells Pearson, in effect, “I'm fed up with French Canadians who want the earth at the expense of English Canadians who’ve worked damned hard for everything they’ve got and
don’t deserve to have it taken off them and given to Quebec, which had the same chances as everyone else but didn’t damn well take them.”
Other Cowan campaigns always seem to hark back somehow to this apparently obsessive dislike of Quebec and its pressures for a changed role within Confederation. He says his disenchantment with Prime Minister Pearson, an erstwhile friend whom he now vilifies at the drop of an adjective, began “when I started to realize how much he’d sold his soul and his country to those French-Canadian bastards.” And his attacks on the CBC (they've abated a little since This Hour Has Seven Days went off the air) seem to have begun in 1964, when the corporation’s No. 2 Toronto station, CJBC, switched to French-language broadcasts. He fought that change in court, but lost.
Cowan’s credentials as a WASP spokesman are impeccable. He’s a nonsmoking, teetotal elder in the Presbyterian church, who grew up in Peterborough, where Lester Pearson spent some of his childhood years living nearby.
Cowan fought to retain the Union Jack as Canada’s flag as fiercely as he’s fought for anything, and says, “I’m a staunch supporter of the Queen — no one can take that away from me.” He and his wife Helen even look like the North American stereotyped notion of an upper-middle-class English couple. Cowan is slender, given to wearing suits of banker cut and color, and looks a lot like Lester Pearson, though Pearson may have a better tailor. Mrs. Cowan is gracefully grey-haired, charming and self-effacing when husband Ralph is talking shop. / continued on page 41
continued from pape 30
To Cowan, press-gallery newsmen are, at best, “hired hands”
Both look 10 years younger than
The Monday we met for lunch ¿nd he was late. Cowan had chosen ihe Round Room restaurant at Eaton’s self-consciously better-class store at Yonge and College in Toronto. It was a predictable choice: m decor, menu, service and clientele ihe Round Room is a model of the sort of anyone-for-tennis gentility Anglophiliacs like Cowan often create Adíen being True to Their British Heritage. Cowan says the Round Room is the best restaurant in town, which it possibly was in 1947.
Anyway, before the tomato juice arrived and while I was trying to decide whether Cowan's brusque “1 was waiting outside” was an insult or an apology, he embarked on an attack on reporters in general and ihe Parliamentary Press Gallery in particular. He has a love-hate relalionship with press-gallery reporters, who tend to small-l liberalism whenever they think about their personal politics which — happily — isn't often. Cowan detests them: he calls them all "hired hands.” They love him for the headlines: "Maverick MP assails Pearson . . . Liberal rebel defies leaders . . . Cowan says retain hanging . . . abortion law's . . . contraception laws . . . liquor laws" . . . et al. In private they will solemnly tell you they think Ralph Cowan is a pain in the parliamentary neck.
Outrage — then sarcasm
The gallery's latest offense had been in reporting a speech he'd made the previous week. He'd been quoted as saying that Pearson w'as a "weak leader” who constantly gave in to Quebec's demands. (Cowan said he didn't say that — he only implied it.) And then the gallery reporters had begun writing stories quoting "wellinformed sources” to the effect that Cowan was about to be kicked out ol the Liberal Party. This outraged Cowan, because, he said, he was a good Liberal and a friend ol all his fellow MPs. Around this time Russell Honey, chairman of the Liberal caucus. had issued a statement inviting Cowan to resign from the party since he seemed unable to support the policies of the party and its leadership. A CBC reporter had shown Cowan the statement and now Cowan was attacking a fruit salad and snarling. "I told the reporter this Honey has no power to do anything and that it w'as like me inviting him to resign from the CBC, but this reporter — he's all of 35 and he’s been in Ottawa for six months, so of course he knows better than I do.”
(Cowan relies heavily on this kind of crushing sarcasm: he once asked Solicitor - General Lawrence Pennell whether the government would consider dispensing with a trial in the case of an Edmonton man accused of killing a policeman "so that his parole six years hence will not be unduly delayed.”)
The day after lunch at the Round Room. Cowan attended an Ontario government reception for Princess
Alexandra, then went on to the funeral of Dana Porter, who had been Chief Justice of Ontario and was a Cowan contemporary at the University of Toronto. At both functions he met many old acquaintances, and later that afternoon, aboard the Ottawahound train, was prompted to reminisce about what sounded like the
Family Compact of Upper Canada all over again: the people he grew up with and went to school and university with, all of whom seem to be in positions of power or influence today. Cowan's stories tend to be of the he-said-I-said-he-said variety. They're always long and very detailed, so that one marvels at his ability to get back
to the point he began with after a half-hour digression which often includes family histories and personality assessments (not often flattering) of everyone who has a role in the story. These stories also have a tendency to reflect well on Cowan, his personality, his talents and popularity . . . particularly his popularity: as one Liberal MP was to tell me later, “Underneath the exterior of Ralph the Bigot beats a soft-hearted fellow who can't bear to believe that people don't like him.
so he usually thinks they do — even when they don't.”
But the train ride passed entertainingly. with Cowan telling disrespectful stories about such respectable figures as bester Pearson. Governor General Roland Michcncr. cx-Govcrnor Cieneral Vincent Massey, a clutch of political luminaries, and Margaret Aitken. the newspaper columnist who held the York-Humber scat for the Conservatives until Cowan defeated her in the 1962 election. He had decided to quit his role of Liberal backroom boy and become a candidate because, he said. "I got fed up with Donald Fleming (Conservative Finance Ministerl who was bankrupting the country."
It emerged, however, that much of Cowan’s asperity is directed at Pearson. The two men knew one another as children; attended the same University of Toronto college (Victoria, WASPish even now); Cowan says he even introduced Mrs. Pearson to Mr. Pearson when she was a fellow student and Pearson a lecturer — and Pearson's widowed mother campaigned for Cowan in the 1962 election. And yet Cowan's attacks on Pearson — at least, those in private conversation — sound almost obsessive. All conversational paths lead back to him. Example (as a chat on rail travel ended): "The old Imperial No. 1 was a very important train in this country. Now if anyone asked Pearson why there's no train of that name now, he'd say, 'That name hasn't been used in years.’ That's no goddamned answer, but
that’s the way that man Pearson is.” Or: “He talks about minority government. but he never mentions the Creditistcs who’ll always vote with the government as long as our great and glorious leader gives the French Canadians every goddamned little thing they ever ask for.” Or: “He's arrogant. No one ever asks what we Liberal MPs think of his policies. We just have to vote for them. Pearson doesn't care what we think: maybe he thinks we're all stupid.”
If Pearson docs think so. then he and Cowan arc for once on the same side. Cowan said he thought that most MPs are “two-bit clerks, two-by-four lawyers, lousy undertakers or grubbyfingered storekeepers.” Then he explained, "The paper I worked for for over 36 years never thought much of MPs, and I haven't changed my opinion much.” That paper was the Toronto Daily Star, where he was widely regarded as an eccentric — but a first-class circulation manager from the thirties to the mid-fifties. His loudness was legend even then: men he worked with say you could hear R. B. Cowan talking on the phone from three floors away. He is still respected at the Star, whose liberal-egalitarian editorial policies are totally opposed to Cowan’s philosophies. Val Scars, a Star editorial writer, says, “On the national scene you may wonder how they could elect a wild man like that, but half the people who vote for him don't care what his politics arc: they just know he looks after his constitucontinued on pape 44
Cowan in caucus is “like having an Opposition member there”
ents. If anyone has a second cousin living in Mesopotamia and wants to get him into Canada, then Cowan’s the man who’ll do it.”
Some of these constituency problems were weighing heavily on Cowan during the train ride to Ottawa. He was at that time negotiating with the Finance Department to get two hospital laundries being built in Toronto exempted from the 12 percent sales tax on building materials. (Later, he won this battle.) Then there was the case of Carl Smith, a Jamaican-born citizen of the U.K., whose application for immigrant status in Canada had been refused by the Department of Immigration. The previous day Cowan had attended a so-called preliminary examination of Smith by a department inquiry officer whose job is to determine whether Smith should be deported. "He’s probably been refused immigrant status because he’s a Negro.” said Cowan. "But he was staying with people in my riding, so I'll do everything I can. These immigration problems make up three quarters of the cases almost any Toronto MP gets. I just get more of them because people know 1 try to work them out.” Another matter was troubling Cowan during the train ride: what to say if he were permitted to speak in the next day’s debate on the Throne Speech. He wanted to talk about the need to compensate victims of criminal acts, and demand an amendment
to the Citizenship Act which makes it impossible for immigrants who've become citizens to lose their citizenship (the law says they lose it when living abroad unless they re-register with Canada every three years). Cowan said bitterly that "that man Pearson” had promised in four successive Throne Speeches to introduce the citizenship legislation “but hasn’t done anything yet.” (An amendment to the act was introduced two weeks later.) Cowan also said he'd once tried to introduce a private-member’s bill on the subject of compensation for criminals’ victims “but a Liberal talked the bill out.” He did it for Micklcwraith (Mcllraith) because “Micklcwraith wanted to get his own hack on me for refusing to give his department estimates unanimous consent and they had to hold over.”
Salt for The Word
It’s easy, listening to Cowan, to imagine that he has a stormy life in Ottawa, punctuated by bitter confrontations with other MPs and reporters. But apparently that’s not so. Russell Honey, Liberal caucus chairman, says, “Having Ralph in caucus is like having a member of the Opposition sitting in with you. But no one fights with him. He just stands up and makes these outrageous statements as though he just got The Word from on high, then he refuses to argue or
discuss them. So now everyone takes Ralph’s pronouncements with a pinch of salt.” There is, however, one story that tells how Cowan attended a committee meeting for the first time in months, spent 10 minutes listening to discussion on a subject that was fresh to him, and then launched on one of his denunciations of the committee’s proposals. A fellow Liberal MP grabbed Ralph from behind, held a fist against his nose and said, "Listen, you s.o.b., if you open your mouth again without knowing what the hell we're talking about. I’ll punch your nose in. We’ve spent months on this.” According to this story, Cowan was conciliatory for days afterward, not because he regretted what he had said but because his colleague was angry with him.
The day after his return to Ottawa by train. Cowan had a lunch date in the parliamentary restaurant and in the elevator asked the operator, “Are you one of these new bilingual ones?" The operator said he was and, when out of earshot, Cowan said. “Ever since Pearson and Lamontagne got in they’ve been trying to get rid of our English - speaking elevator operators and replace them with bilingual ones. As a result we've got some of the dumbest elevator operators in the world.”
At lunch, Cowan still planned to speak when the House sat at 2.30 p.m., but after a whispered huddle
with Liberal whip Bernard Pilon he announced he'd wait until Friday to speak since that would be more convenient to Liberal leaders. He had planned to be in Toronto on Friday, but would change his schedule “because I gather they're planning to introduce the amendment about citizenship next week and if I don't say my piece soon some other s.o.b. will take credit for it, and I've been speaking on this one too long to put up with that.”
Jean-Pierre Goyer. Liberal MP for Montreal-Dollard, stopped at Cowan's table and, when Cowan amiably abused Quebec, he said, “You must know this man a long time to know with what feeling he says what he says.” Later, Goyer said privately, “Cowan is a very intelligent man. but on the subject of the relations between French and English Canada today he is obsessive.”
Back in his office, Cowan dealt with a heavy mail. Like most MPs, he usually receives a score or so letters a day. When he’s in the news, however, Cowan's mail goes up, sometimes to as many as 70 letters daily. This week, he was hot again. A few days earlier, at the invitation of MP Gilles Grégoire, who is as rabid a separatist as Cowan, he spoke at a students’ rally at Jonquière, Que. He told the students, an aggressively French - Canadian group, “It’s time you all accepted the English conquest of 1763, just as the English accepted conquest by William the Conqueror.” The speech was widely reported, and the mail — mostly supporting Cowan
— was heavy. One letter, from Montreal, abused him vilely in French.
But there was another letter, the kind as rare as snow in July: a letter of thanks from the niece of an old man Cowan had helped. The old man was a veteran of the British Army in World War I. He’d lived in Chicago for 40 years, but retained his British nationality. Last year, visiting his niece in Cowan’s riding, he'd fallen sick. Cowan had beaten down the initial objections of the Department of Veterans' Affairs and had him admitted to Sunnybrook veterans’ hospital. Around Christmas his sister in Ireland had sent the old man a ticket to Belfast. It was to have been a family reunion, but he had a heart attack in mid-Atlantic and died at Belfast airport before seeing his sister. This letter was from the niece, Cowan’s constituent, and it thanked him for his help.
By Saturday, Ralph Cowan was at home in Toronto with his wife and the youngest of his four children, a girl of 20, now at the University of Ottawa. In his own home Cowan proved a much gentler man and a thoughtful host, but back in Ottawa there was more talk of whether Cowan would be kicked out of the caucus or the party. He’d done it again: he had been in the House on Friday to have his say in the Throne Speech debate, and had stubbornly provoked another confrontation with party leaders by refusing government House leader Allan MacEachen’s request for unanimous consent to the passage of a resolution heralding new legislation on immigration.
Cowan has done this before — notably last April, when he refused unanimous consent to continue past its allotted time the debate on whether to abolish hanging, and the debate was cut short because all MPs must agree to such procedural changes. On the present occasion, the resolution MacEachen sought to introduce was the first stage of parliamentary procedure designed to increase from $12 million to $20 million the amount the government can spend helping pay immigrants’ fares to Canada. By asking for unanimous consent MacEachen was asking MPs to forgo their right to speak at the resolution stage of the procedure — a not uncommon request if time is short, as it was that Friday evening. But Cowan refused. He interpreted recent declarations of immigration policy to mean that this additional money would be spent on bringing more people to Quebec.
"A government white paner introduced by Jean Marchand expresses concern that the immigration tends to increase the population of English Canada rather than Quebec,” he ex-
plained privately. "Well, at Confederation of Canada the population of Canada was about 30 percent French Canadian, and it's the same today. That’s a big enough French Canada for me, and a lot of other people. We are already constantly giving, giving to Quebec because it’s supposed to be a ‘have-not’ province, and I don’t see why it should get bigger so we have to give it even more."
Given the present conciliatory climate in Canada, and a party leader-
cum-prime minister who would probably enjoy being known as the man who saved Confederation, constantly making inflammatory statements like that takes a measure of courage, or arrogant conceit or insensitivity.
Ralph Cowan quit the Toronto Statin 1962 to devote his life to politics. There was a dinner in his honor. Duncan Macpherson drew a cartoon for the menu which showed Cowan astride a spavined nag, tilting at the
House of Commons, drawn to resemble a windmill. It wasn’t a particularly subtle jibe: Macpherson is not overly fond of Cowan or his policies. But in his speech Ralph Cowan said he thought it very appropriate the House of Commons should be shown as a windmill. There are men who know Ralph Cowan and who were there that night who swear it never occurred to him that it was also appropriate that he should be drawn as Don Quixote. ★