Closeup

A renegade in power

Is Jack Horner still his own man? Or Pierre Trudeau’s?

Robert Lewis October 17 1977
Closeup

A renegade in power

Is Jack Horner still his own man? Or Pierre Trudeau’s?

Robert Lewis October 17 1977

A renegade in power

Closeup

Politics

Is Jack Horner still his own man? Or Pierre Trudeau’s?

Robert Lewis

Jack Homer is back to open the fall fair in the home of his father’s birth. Shawville is an Anglo-Saxon island in western Quebec where some 30 Homer families are related by blood and generations of Conservative politics. Tonight, after the parade of bouffant-coiffed princesses (one of them a Horner) and the steer auction (two raised by Homers), Jack is surrounded by four generations of the family in the home of his cousin Mayfred and her husband, Donald Dods. Along with coffee and the date squares, Horner gets an intense roasting about his switch to the Liberal party last April.

“You let a lot of Conservatives down,” Mayfred says, goading Jack into a colorful replay of his political rebirth.

Shirley, another cousin from Montreal, inquires about the fate of Horner’s sister Kathleen.

Throwing his head back with a hearty laugh, Jack confirms that she, too, has changed parties.

Shirley freezes, her ashen face a vision of horror, and croaks: “No, Jack, has she gone too?”

In the Horner clan becoming a Liberal can be a fate worse than death.

With roots planted firmly in four Western provinces, the family is Canada’s only true blue political dynasty. The patriarch, the late Ralph Byron, was a fund raiser for John Diefenbaker and a Conservative Senator, after he moved to Saskatchewan in the early 1900s as a rancher and horse trader. Three of the six sons, Hugh, Jack and Norval, and nephew Albert became MPS in Ottawa (Hugh is now Minister of Transportation in Peter Lougheed’s Alberta government). The three daughters were active in Conservative affairs and Jean, a holdout still, is a regional director on the party’s national executive. Jack, of course, has just become Pierre Trudeau’s Minister of Industry, T rade and Commerce.

Homers pursue their politics with unbridled passion. Their lively banter and raucous argument is rich in nuance and their sparkling eyes reveal an unmitigated joy for the craft. Tonight in Shawville, slapping their thighs and chortling into the wee hours, the Homers accuse Jack of sell-

ing his soul to the evil Grits for the promise of a Senate seat or a trust fund. Horner denies it all and defends Pierre Trudeau, of all people, whom he once likened to Hitler. Somehow Horner manages to survive the roughest test of all in his campaign to explain a remarkable political conversion that was akin to the Archbishop of Canterbury joining the Roman Catholic curia.

For 19 vivid years as a verbal brawler in the Commons Horner epitomized Western Conservatism. He railed against the high priests of Liberalism and all their works,

from abortion and abolition of hanging to unification and metrication. “Canada cannot afford to let Trudeau win in 1978,” he said last year during his campaign for the Conservative leadership. “Joe Clark could do a whole lot better job than Trudeau,” he proclaimed last December.

Having said all of that—and more— Homer these days can be found out on the road, mounting what he calls “The Sell” at banquets and in back rooms. His pitch has nothing to do with exports and the trade balance, and everything to do with deliverance—his own in the east-central Alberta constituency of Crowfoot and the Liberal Party’s in Alberta at the next election. In both places, where Conservatism and anti-Trudeau feeling run deep, Hor-

ner is meeting heavy resistance. Even his personal fortunes in Crowfoot, carved mostly out of an area now represented by PC Arnold Malone, are still uncertain. “If we can win three or five seats in Alberta,” says one experienced Liberal organizer, “Homer’s is the fourth or the sixth.”

In Edmonton last August there was a foretaste of the campaign as Horner was booed when he walked onto the field at half time during a CFL football game to deliver a federal cheque toward the cost of next year’s Commonwealth Games. The incident prompted guffaws in Ottawa political circles that Homer is now the only fan who has to wear a helmet into the stands. A month later in Calgary Horner was heckled again when he appeared as the mystery guest during the taping of CBC panel show, Front Page Challenge.

On a night in early September, at the very hour the show was on the air, Homer wades into the midst of another group of disbelievers in Calgary from the oil and gas industry. Horner is back in town, as he puts it privately, “to knock this booing thing on the head before it gets misinterpreted back east.” Horner’s big, powerful hand chops through the air as he rasps, “Let’s be frank. There isn’t more than one or two of you out there who think that Joe Clark can win the next election.” From the back of the room comes a throaty, plainspoken rejoinder; “Balls!” Homer draws and fires back: “I’ve got my balls. I hope you find yours.”

Homer’s search for a roost began after the shock of his defeat in the Conservative leadership. A man of considerable ego, he says, “I still don’t know why I lost.” Predictably, Horner soured working under Clark, his junior from Alberta whom he dismissed as “a high-school debater,” although Clark went out of his way to accommodate the irrascible rancher. After René Lévesque’s election, Horner’s view crystallized that Clark couldn’t win against Trudeau and, given his absolute hatred of losing, he tumbled into a deep depression last spring. He was ripe for Trudeau’s pitch that he join the inner councils as a voice of

Western Canadian grievances. After 19 — years in opposition, always sniping at laws when it was too late to change them, Horner decided “there comes a point when you can’t keep bashing your head against the wall.”

Two aspects of Trudeau’s approach to Horner were revealing. On the one hand the PM successfully appealed to Horner’s

evident macho instincts with a challenge that Jack interpreted as: “Was I a mouse or a man?” But Trudeau also struck a responsive chord in a less visible side of Horner— an insecurity born of the years of being dis-

missed as a yahoo-cowboy. Horner was taken by the fact that, over their drink at 24 Sussex Drive, Trudeau “treated me as an equal.”

All his life Horner’s brash, outspoken ways have obscured his sensitivity and an inner yearning for respect. He grew up in a competitive family, the middle child of nine, where success was demanded by an overbearing father. But Horner dropped out of university midway through his first year and, until his election in 1958, ran his ranch while his brothers went on to careers as doctors and teachers and lawyers. In the salons of Montreal and Toronto, and in the Ottawa Press Gallery, the fact that Horner could rope a calf, break a horse and talk tough, overshadowed his genuine grasp of government policies and backroom politicking. He recognized that his popular image had hurt him deeply. “It was a handicap that stopped me from reaching what I thought was my potential,” he said softly, gazing out a window onto Parliament Hill. “The media are human beings and they’re lazy. It’s much easier to stereotype politicians and I got stereotyped early in life. I couldn’t shake it.”

Not that he wanted to. “I always liked agriculture,” Homer went on, “and the outdoor life. I was never, never ashamed of it. I wanted to be me, never a phony. The joy in life is the feeling and enjoying, not hiding behind some veneer. But I grew up in an era when there was quite a differ-

entiation between city and country cousins. I was always conscious of that. I never really made it as a cowboy, because I didn’t have time to spend doing it. But I never made it either as an urbane person who covered his feelings.”

At times, Horner was his own worst enemy. His candor was a marvel in a town of sealed lips and tight asses and he was burned frequently for being open and emotional. During my own travels with him, Horner included me in all his private meetings and meals and refused, out of vanity, to answer only one question— about his weight, which is visibly on the increase around his middle.

Over the years Horner used his size (sixfeet two-inches) to intimidate people. One night several years ago in Ottawa, with the booze flowing and his boisterous Western colleagues gathered about, Horner took on the toughest security guard on Parliament Hill in arm wrestling, and won. Another night after a reception at Government House, he and strapping Nova Scotia MP Pat Nowlan ended up wrestling in a snowbank. Horner, it turns out, was a reluctant participant—or so he says: “There’s still something about being the toughest guy in town. A lot of guys have tried to challenge me. But a long time ago I learned that I wasn’t the toughest guy around. I’d walk a

long way to stay out of a fight. The last one I had was when I was 16.”

Homer, however, was usually at the centre of the numerous Conservative political scraps. He staunchly defended party leader John Diefenbaker and openly defied Robert Stanfield, helping to drive him to an early retirement. Liberals, meanwhile, despised Homer for his bitter personal attacks and for opposing their principal policies. Unlike Stanfield and Clark, the Liberals have changed their views about Homer.

The language issue is a case in point. Horner’s reputation is that of a bigot who opposed French. He did, in fact, vote against the Official Languages Act mainly to score political points back home and has never evinced much sympathy for francophone aspirations. But Horner’s criticism of the policy eight years ago, that not enough emphasis was placed on teaching children French, has stood the test of time and has been adopted by the Liberals.

Homer aims to keep pushing the Liberals hard to the right. “I tried my damnedest to make the Conservative Party a conservative party,” he said during his first meeting with the Liberal Association last month in Coronation, Alta. “I don’t mind admitting that I failed. But there are just as many right-wingers on the front bench of the Liberal Party as there are on the Conservative. There is no difference in political parties. It’s the individuals who make the difference.”

Homer is nothing if not an individual and, driving the 150 miles northeast from Calgary to his ranch, it is easy to see why— the sky and the land, as far as the eye can see to the horizon. Horner calls it “my country.” Thin strands of whispy cloud, a mixture of white and grey, seem painted on a massive blue dome. The land beneath is flat as a tabletop. The barren of beige and coffee-colored short grass, buck bush and cactus is broken only by the incandescent red flashings on the necks of oil and gas wells that chug like bucking horses in a slow-motion replay. The air is dry and hot.

Everything is larger than life. Hay bales stacked in rectangles the size of barns back east. Gleaming aluminum Quonset huts big enough for semi-trailers. Oversized $50,000 tractors, with air-conditioning and CB radios, hauling $25,000 combines, cross the fields of wheat and rye like mechanized dinosaurs. Under the giant sky, close to the land, you suddenly feel miniaturized and powerless. It’s a place for standing square, walking tall and talking big; for fixing things on your own when they break down, for gambling against the weather and the cattle market, for railing against governments—all of which John Henry Horner has done for most of his 50 years.

“He goes through the performance in Ottawa,” Horner’s friend and staff chief, Peter Thomson, observed. “But out there, he’s really at home.” Says Horner himself, “I really do lead two lives.” When he made

his first trip to Toronto as a youth, he recalls, he kept trying to find Lake Ontario through the forest of skyscrapers. “Looking back,” he says, “I realized I was just trying to find some space.”

Horner Ranch stretches for 11 miles in one direction, in all a total of 16,000 acres of grazing land and wheat fields, surrounded by 60 miles of barbwire fence. With the 6,000 acres operated nearby by Horner’s married son, Blaine, 26, the family controls more than a Prairie township. Horner has worked the spread since 1947 when he moved away from the family farm at Blaine Lake, Sask., as a 19-year-old bachelor. His father helped out with the purchase, but Horner has converted the original dusty homestead into a modern, mechanized business.

Deer and antelope actually do roam his range, but there also 350 Herefords, 45 fine and frisky thoroughbred quarter horses which are Horner’s special delight, electronically watered wheat fields and about 10 gas and oil wells. Typical farms in the area gross about $50,000 a year, but the investment (one million to $1.5-million) is heavy and the variables (weather, prices and government policy) are as unpredictable as odds in Las Vegas.

Most of the work now is done by two strapping Horner sons still at home: Craig, 24, who has a BA, and Brent, 21, who is currently taking courses at Olds agricultural college. Both boys would like to stay on the land. Horner’s wife of 27 years, Leola, also stays at home while Jack commutes to his duties in Ottawa. At the end of the weekend he drives himself into Calgary in a three-year-old, half-ton truck, returning late Friday when possible.

Leola is a warm and down-home woman who grew up in nearby Sunnyside. She taught school before meeting Jack at a local dance and, clearly, is the family anchor. She is perfectly content to tend to affairs at the sprawling ranch house, a modern bungalow with indoor pool which Horner built in 1967. “People think that

Margaret Trudeau is a private person,” she says with a characteristic glint in her hazel eyes. “They don’t know me.”

From the frequent affectionate pats and hand-holding, it is immediately obvious that the Horners enjoy a warm relationship. Pattering around the house in his stocking feet, Jack is relaxed, quiet and abstemious. Leola, in turn, is protective of their privacy and has suffered through the years as she felt Jack was victimized by the press. “I don’t trust journalists,” she announces evenly while pouring a second cup of morning coffee.

For a time, when the boys were young, the family lived in a house in downtown Ottawa, while hired hands worked the ranch. “In the city,” says Horner, “well, some kids get to delivering newspapers, but mostly they get used to hanging around.” So the family moved back to Pollockville which, until the Depression and the wind blew the settlers off the land in the Thirties, was a thriving community. Now Pollockville, named after a farmer who was post master, is little more than a windblown siding for oil tank cars and a parking lot for a handful of mobile homes for the men who service the area’s oil and gas rigs. The old spirit of community is evident, though, in the two sheets of artificial ice at the modest curling rink, the money for which was raised when Horner organized a sale of donated scrap metal. Grocery shopping, banking and the mail are 50 miles away by gravel road in the towns of Brooks and Hanna.

“It’s a way of life,” says Horner as we bump along the range in his mud-splattered truck, the odometer pushing 89,000 miles. “You plant the crops and you make them grow. You see your cows and horses and you know the good ones and the bad ones. You get a nice feeling.”

It is a hardy tradition that has been passed from one generation to the next. Growing up, a Horner boy knew that when his older brothers went off to school, as Jack puts it, “it was your turn to run the place. You accepted responsibility very early. You made the decisions and, if they were wrong, heaven help you when Dad came home: you stayed out of sight for a couple of days.” Jack still remembers the day his father returned from Senate duties in Ottawa and dished out a tongue-lashing. “That’s hard to take,” says Jack, “when you’re 14 or 15 and you’ve been out in the hot sun all day haying, fighting the flies and mosquitoes. But I guess it made men out of you early. ”

Homer’s relationships with his sons has been a replay—close bonds formed working the land and, to be sure, the heated arguments about where to store the winter feed and what crops to plant. But in the process the old horse-trader instincts were passed to a new generation. On a Sunday morning, while Leola clears the dishes, Jack and Craig sit at the breakfast table calculating the yield from the crop of rye the boys have just started to combine.

Mentally they juggle the multiplication and division of rods, feet and mileage and reckon the field will produce 13 or 14 bushels to the acre—“which,” Jack allows, “is about what you thought it would do by looking at it anyway, but it helps the boys leam. It’s something that is really passed on. I’d be awfully surprised if Blaine didn’t raise his kids the same way.”

The herd of 30 antelope sprinting in a brown wave across the brow of the golden wheat field is a breathtaking sight, but Homer is not amused at all. “Bastards,” he curses, repeatedly tooting the truck horn as he surveys the trampled swath cut through his field. The truck bumps to a halt on a rise

overlooking Berry Creek, a scene reminiscent of an A. Y. Jackson landscape. The poplar grove by the brook has started to turn to yellow and orange in the crisp fall air. “It just burns me up’ ” Horner rasps, breaking the silence as he sits on a rock overlooking the creek below. “Look at that slug of water.”

Provincial irrigation officials, it seems, shut off the flow from a dam which feeds the creek during the hot, dry summer. Now, when he doesn’t need the water, the bureaucrats have made it flow again. “Ran all last winter,” Horner rages. “Then some donkey shuts it off. They should get out and work on the land, one month every

year, two months every two years like the Chinese, so they’d know something about how much you count on water. It makes me boil.”

“Naw, creeks are all the same,” says Homer when I ask him if this is a special place for him on his land. “Swam here with my horses years ago. In the spring of ’48 she ran bank-to-bank. It’s just going to run into the ocean now. Hudson Bay is where it’s going to end up now.”

For Horner, the importance of animals, land and water is what can be done with them. The only flora he identifies is the stuff the cattle eat. Looking down at the wild buttercups, he scoffs, “No good for anything.” He can’t get excited in the least about the unease in such cities as Calgary about the loss of nearby farms to suburbia—not with all this acreage out here. “This land,” he insists, “could be made more productive. The whole country should be ditched,” he goes on, railing

about the policies of his brother’s government. “The money they have to spend in Edmonton is pretty nearly shameful. What they do with it is pretty nearly shameful.”

As for the environmentalists, “they annoy me.” Why, he’s noticed that the rye that was seeded over a pipeline running underground near his ranch house has grown up greener and taller because, he presumes, the trench that was dug for the pipe broke up the hard pan soil which inhibited the growth. “Nature can really heal itself,” he concludes.

We turn abruptly off the rutted roadway into a field where 10 mares are grazing with their six-month-old colts. Horner’s mood

mellows as he points out his favorites. “That’s a crackeijack colt,” he enthuses, gesturing at Buttercup. With a loving look at the mare, 13-year-old Ginger, Horner adds, “She couldn’t possibly raise a bad horse. I raced her as a two-year-old. It’s like raising kids, they each have their own personality.”

Horner’s own makeup is more complex than it appears on the surface. Ostensibly he is a brash, bucking plainsman with an unhealthy loyalty to the big oil companies and cattle barons. But the lessons he’s learned on the land also infuse his politics with a radical populism and a decidedly

anti-authoritarian streak. Roaring along back roads in Crowfoot, he still keeps a mistrustful eye out for the law, which has nailed him more than once for speeding. He scorns the new metric system as “a nuisance,” even though brother Hugh was one of the first provincial ministers to implement the scheme.

Horner was never an unmitigated party man, either. He was so embittered by Diefenbaker’s failure to support his candidacy that he wrote a letter to Dief accusing him of letting Horner down. During a question-and-answer session with high-school students in Hinton, Alta., where brother Norval is the principal, Horner declared: “If you sell your soul to a political party, you forfeit your right to think.”

In Liberal circles, where sheep are preferred to bulls, not everyone is totally at ease with Horner in the barnyard. “He’s a time bomb,” sighs one of Horner’s cabinet colleagues, “and he could go off in any direction.” But in his short six months in the Trudeau cabinet, Horner has gradually won the respect of most ministers. Former finance minister Donald Macdonald originally protested Horner’s recruitment to Jim Coutts, Trudeau’s chief of staff. But he changed his assessment after watching the party’s old enemy in action on the inside. Already Horner has been instrumental in blocking the conversion to metric measurement out West, where the farmers were disgruntled, and he was a vocal hawk on the decision to go ahead with an Arctic pipeline. He has hired Doyle Kuntz, the son of a former Tory MP, to be his special assistant and set him up in Camrose, a town of 10,000 which is the major centre in the expanded northern part of his riding, where 78% of the voters are new to Horner. He is urging voters there to vote for Horner instead of against the Conservatives.

Unlike many Trudeau ministers, Horner has clear views about what he wants to do in his new job. He favors a “meat imports authority” to set realistic, predictable quotas on imports for the cattle industry. He believes that Canada should bargain sales of natural gas to the United States for American purchases of Alberta petrochemicals. He wants to establish a climate, as he told pension fund executives in Jasper last month, “in which you need not fear government intervention.”

Horner’s unease with government intervention, his free-trade instincts and his suspicion of bureaucrats are likely to land him in some heated cabinet scraps—over, for example, foreign investment, protective quotas for the Quebec textile industry and energy policies. He has already had his first row with Agriculture Minister Gene Whelan, the first in what promises to be a series, over a proposal to move the Ottawa headquarters of the Farm Credit Corporation to—you guessed it—Camrose, Alta. Despite Whelan’s opposition, Horner won his argument in cabinet and the move was approved.

The key to Horner’s future prospects in

cabinet depend largely on the support he gets from Trudeau, whose cool and aloof leadership, fueled by paper instead of people, makes the PM an unlikely comrade of the hot-tempered, flesh-pressing Horner. So far, however, Trudeau seems determined that Horner succeed. The PM, who is noted for socializing with his ministers, turned up at a party for Horner at the home of Joyce Fairbairn, his legislative aide and a longtime Horner admirer. Trudeau, who once confessed in exasperation, “You know I never understood the West,” also eagerly seeks out Horner’s views in cabinet on such issues as energy and transportation. After listening to Horner at his first cabinet session outlining the opposition building in the West to the metric system (hectares instead of acres), Trudeau fixed the rest of his ministers with an icy stare and noted that point had not been made before.

Horner’s biggest problem, given the heavy burden of his new portfolio, likely will be maintaining his links with the land

and the people, and thus his reality. He has already noted with surprise that the Trudeau cabinet ministers have little sense of camaraderie and he could find himself isolated without support when he needs it. Calgary Conservative MP Harvie Andre, who has bet $ 100 that Horner won’t get reelected, also submits: “Jack has a great big ego and he just can’t stand not having the answers to problems.”

Against the grey Ottawa canvas, Horner at least promises to be a refreshing and flavorful presence as a minister among more timid souls. Along with the earthy Don Jamieson in External Affairs and Jean Chrétien in Finance, he will bring a more partisan edge to the government’s technocratic tone.

Whether the dynastic Liberal Party can survive a Horner, let alone the family, is another question. Horner is well aware of the skepticism within, but insists pugnaciously: “In my mind, the Liberal Party is equally on trial.” If, in Horner’s mind, it fails the test, some day soon he may be back riding his range joyfully, herding the cattle home with a whoop as the sun sets on his domain.1^?