Closeup/Politics

The Hon. Don

The Middle East? Say, that reminds him of a story!

Robert Miller December 12 1977
Closeup/Politics

The Hon. Don

The Middle East? Say, that reminds him of a story!

Robert Miller December 12 1977

The Hon. Don

Closeup/Politics

The Middle East? Say, that reminds him of a story!

Robert Miller

If diplomacy was all anecdotes, the Kissingers and Gromykos, the David Owens and Cy Vances of this imperfect world would be playing respectful second fiddle to Don Jamieson’s Paganini. Jamieson, 56, is Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs. He is also an indefatigable talker, an occasionally heroic trencherman and drinker, a former broadcaster who rose from Newfoundland poverty to millionaire status, and certainly the only member of the unity-obsessed Pierre Trudeau gov-

ernment to have voted twice against Confederation. His awed colleagues in the federal Liberal caucus call Jamieson “the bionic mouth” in tribute to his oratorical skills, and to spend some time with him is to realize that this Newfie jokester is a raconteur without peer in Canadian public life. “There’s a story about that . . .’’he’ll begin, no matter what subject has popped to mind, and he’ll proceed to tell it in his deep, newsreader’s voice. Jamieson’s stories are polished, to the point and usually

very funny. But, as he says, he’s had lots of practice and, besides, “In Newfoundland we’ve got a story for everything.”

Alas, anecdotes are not enough in an age when foreign policy continues to be dictated by the big bankbooks as well as the big battalions. So Don Jamieson, like most of his Canadian predecssors, is required to pursue the so-called “quiet diplomacy” preferred by the External Affairs “careerists,” the mandarins who pitter-pat up and down the gleaming corridors of the Lester

B. Pearson Building in Ottawa, fingering their old school ties and looking faintly harassed, as though the latest cable from Bujumbura might have some horrible effect on their indexed pensions. Essentially, quiet diplomacy is walking softly and carrying a small stick.

Given his ebullience, his compulsive bonhomie, Don Jamieson wondered whether he was right for the job when Trudeau offered it to him just over a year ago. “1 thought: my goodness, I’ll have to change my whole style,” he recalls. “The first four months were a bit difficult, but then, as we say in Newfoundland, I’m an old horse for a long road.”

Now, under his leadership, much of the ritual stuffiness of the foreign policy business is being stripped away. Sitting in his airy, tidy office on the top floor of the Pearson building, Jamieson says, not unproudly: “I’m an informal sort of guy. I like to get on a first-name basis. I’ll just say to someone, ‘Look, we’re going to be at this for quite a while so why don’t you call me Don?’ and usually it’ll work... When I was in Russia last year it took about a half hour before [Soviet Trade Minister Nikolai] Patolichev and I were telling jokes.”

For two decades now, Canada has been searching for a comfortable role on the world stage, one befitting its true stature rather than its accidental and fleeting postwar importance. Over the years, the country has sought to play the honest broker in a succession of crises, to act as middleman between the power blocs, to cosy up to the Third World, to flirt with Europe, even to dabble in studied coolness toward its American neighbors.

His first priority, he concedes, is to smooth Canada’s frequently bumpy dealings with Washington. Jamieson is unabashedly fond of the Americans (indeed, he got his real start in politics helping in a campaign to make Newfoundland part of the United States). “Our relations with the United States are the overriding concern today. Our geography and trade make it essential that we get along well. In my view, any foreign minister who failed to think so would be a failure.” He says he has developed a good working relationship with U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Under Jamieson’s management an independent Canadian foreign policy “will never appear to be anti-U.S. just for the sake of being anti-U.S.,” which is the way it has sometimes looked in the recent past. Certainly, his attitude toward the Americans is less equivocal than his ministry’s has frequently been. At the turn of the decade, for example, the government published A Foreign Policy For Canadians, a white paper that devoted exactly one sentence to the all-important question of U.S.Canadian relations (it hoped they would continue to be good) but used hundreds of pages to reflect upon the significance of the Pacific Rim, Africa, Asia, etc. One can’t imagine Jamieson signing such nonsense.

In the year since he took over from Allan

MacEachen, Jamieson has traveled a fair distance. He has taken his jokes and his corpulent frame (he is currently on a diet and hence on the wagon, having shed roughly 50 pounds since May; “the creamed-chicken-and-cocktail circuit on this job was killing me”) to Latin America, the Soviet Union, Europe a couple of times and, of course, to Washington.

He was familiar with much of the territory anyway, having previously served as Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce, also a traveling portfolio. Late this October, he was off again, to Israel, Spain, Greece and Egypt, showing the maple leaf and pondering the imponderables that preoccupy these countries. It is heady stuff for a Newfoundlander who had to drop out of school as a boy and take a five-dollar-a-week job as a bellhop. But, as Jamieson makes clear, his roots help keep his feet on the ground. “Every time you start thinking you’re going to go into the history

books as the guy who finally solved the Middle East one of your constituents says, ‘Never mind that. When are you going to fix the plank on the wharf?’ ”

It is 6.40 a.m. (Newfoundland time) and a foggy dawn is creeping up on Gander. In the dining room of the Albatross Motel, where the food is so good Guide Michelin ought to rate it, a group of politicians and their aides are huddled over breakfast. The Liberals’ Atlantic caucus is on a four-day swing through Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and the tour is going well, thanks in part to the rigid discipline imposed by Heather Jamieson, special assistant to Fisheries Minister Roméo LeBlanc and Don’s middle daughter. (Jamieson and his wife, the former Barbara Oakley of Greenspond, Nfid., have three daughters—Donna, Heather and Debbie—and a son, Roger.)

The beach-ball form of Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs rolls into the diningroom, a minute or so behind

schedule, ignores his daughter’s reproving glare and accepts a cup of coffee. “What ho!” teases MacEachen, who has beaten his successor to breakfast. “What news on the ticker? What from our embassies?” Jamieson chortles, appreciating the irony. “They’ll never find me here.” A waitress hovers. “I hope,” Jamieson says to her, “that I didn’t scare you to death when you brought me that cup in my room.” She blushes, as Jamieson explains to MacEachen that he was in the shower when the waitress knocked. Then he turns to her: “My dear, you now know all the deep secrets of the Department of External Affairs.” The room breaks up. So does the waitress. Don Jamieson, a master politician who says diplomacy is “simply politics exported,” is working his turf.

He is known, in Newfoundland, as “the Honorable Mr. J.” and aside from Joey Smallwood, with whom he has had his differences, he is probably the best-known citizen of his province. Broadcasting made him rich and famous, politics made him powerful. For 20 years, Newfoundlanders got their news from him—first on radio and later over television—and he became sort of a Newfoundland Walter Cronkite, instantly recognizable, authoritative, yet never aloof. It is an image that has helped him be reelected handily in his riding of Burin-Burgeo ever since he entered parliament in a 1966 by-election.

Jamieson likes to talk about his broadcasting days, even though he’s quick to say he wouldn’t want to go back to a daily onair grind. “Now that I’ve seen some of the problems,” he laughs, “I shudder to remember that I used to bang out 25 commentaries a week. Half an hour at the typewriter and that was Africa solved . . . But you know, we weren’t bad. You see some of these kids today, they haven’t the foggiest. They shove a mike at you and say their editor asked them to ask so-and-so and could they please have 60 seconds.” He recalls the days when he was working for Joe Butler at VOCM, the only commercial broadcasting operation in Newfoundland until Jamieson and Geoff Stirling finally got a license for CJON in 1952. “Joe only had one turntable. If something went wrong with it, I’d have to talk until he got it fixed. That’s when 1 learned to ad lib.” Jamieson’s broadcasts, first on radio (which remains his favorite medium) and later on television, had a massive following. While his friends recall some of his more brilliant performances—the time, for example, when he filled several hours of dead air by himself because he was on live and a royal tour was running far behind schedule—Jamieson likes to remember his bloopers. “One time,” he laughs, “I was doing a live report and got tangled up in a horrendous spoonerism. ‘And there,’ I intoned, ‘his scarlet robes in sharp contrast to the rather sombre suits of the other dignitaries, stands His Arse the Gracebishop.’ ”

By any standards, Jamieson was a good

broadcaster. He served four consecutive terms as president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, wrote a monograph on the problems of the industry, published as The Troubled Air, “really to sort out my own thoughts on it,” and grew rich in the process. Today he and Stirling have split their empire, on the orders of the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, with Stirling keeping the television and FM stations and Jamieson taking over the AM stations. Previously, Stirling had owned 51% of Newfoundland Broadcasting Company and Jamieson 49%. Earlier, when eyebrows were raised over a cabinet minister holding a broadcast license, Jamieson had sought to sell out entirely to Stirling but the CRTC rejected the idea. Today, Jamieson’s holdings are in a blind trust, to comply with federal conflictof-interest rules, which is managed by “my best friend and trustee, Allan Waters.” For his part, Jamieson doesn’t deny being a millionaire but simply laughs: “I rely on Allan Waters to keep me in the manner to which Eve had no business becoming accustomed.”

Jamieson, born in St. John’s in 1921, may have inherited some of hisjournalistic talent from his father, Charles. “He had the official title of Compiler of the Public Dispatch,” Jamieson says. “It seems quite fantastic today, but in the 1930s the public dispatch was the only way people outside the St. John’s area got the news. The government appointed a compiler to prepare a daily summary and it was wired to all the telegraph offices in Newfoundland, where the people would go and read it.” His father died when Jamieson, the oldest in the family, was in his teens. His mother had to work in a restaurant to make ends meet and “I had to quit school. I think I’d finished grade 10. Anyway, I got a job as a bellhop in the Newfoundland Hotel. It paid five dollars a week, with 25 cents deducted for uniform.” After a couple of years, though, Jamieson was able to go

back to school. “I wanted to take a business course, and the only one available was at a convent, the Mercy Convent. There were only three or four boys among about 40 girls. I was the only Protestant.”

Armed with his business diploma, Jamieson landed a job with the then—and still—powerful Crosbie empire. Just before the Second World War, the Crosbies acquired the Cocoa-Cola bottling franchise for Newfoundland and Jamieson became its promotion manager.

After the war, Newfoundland began to wonder where it was going. It had been administered under a London-appointed commission for several years and agitation was beginning for a return to responsible government. Jamieson was one of the agitators. There were a number of options, including full independence, association with Canada and the one Jamieson’s friend and boss, Ches Crosbie, preferred, union with the United States. After Joey Smallwood and confederationists had won the referendum, Jamieson covered the union negotiations in Ottawa.

Politically, Newfoundland was a Smallwood fiefdom and Jamieson and Stirling were too busy consolidating their holdings to worry much about politics anyway. But then Jamieson met Lester Pearson, they became friendly and politics began to beckon. Jamieson worked on Pearson’s disastrous 1958 election. “I don’t think I’ve ever admired anyone more than I admired him at that time,” Jamieson says. “I traveled across the country with him and he knew he was going to get creamed, and yet he never quit.”

When Pearson finally became Prime Minister, he immediately began trying to recruit Jamieson as a Newfoundland lieutenant to replace the ready-to-retire Jack Pickersgill, but Jamieson was busy with his CAB duties. Finally, in 1965, he was ready.

Anyway, the deal was that a seat would be opened up via a Senate appointment, but then there was a hitch and Jamieson had to wait until a by-election the following year. He won and soon entered the cabinet, as Minister of Defense Production. Since then he has steadily worked his way up through Transport, Regional Economic Expansion, Trade and now External.

For years, Jamieson maintained a home in St. John’s and traveled back and forth to Ottawa. Recently, though, he bought a house in Ottawa and now his only residence in Newfoundland is a year-round cottage on Sound Island in Placentia Bay. “My grandfather settled there from the north of Scotland,” Jamieson says. “It’s a vacant island, now, but it’s a great place.” Aside from Sound Island, Jamieson’s favorite place is his 40-foot boat, the Deejay. “It’s a play on my initials, and also a radio reference. My earlier boat was called the Station Break. I enjoy the boat. It’s a great way to get around, to talk to the fishermen. And it’s a beautiful bay.”

It hasn’t been all sweetness and light for Jamieson. Politics is a grind and he has by no means won all the battles he’s fought. He and Smallwood have been feuding for years. (Once, when Jamieson went to Smallwood’s house to lobby for the late Robert Winters, during the 1969 Liberal leadership campaign won by Trudeau, Smallwood pointedly greeted Jamieson carrying a copy of Trudeau’s book, Federalism And The French Canadians, and later, in Ottawa, delivered most of the 84 delegates to the current Prime Minister. Winters was a narrow runner-up.)

“You know,” Jamieson said one morning over coffee aboard the CN ferry Nautica, which plies between North Sydney, NS, and Port aux Basques, “1 understand Donald Macdonald’s decision [to resign as finance minister]. He’s still young. He has time to start another career. I told him not long ago that it was time to make up his mind. If he was going to stay, I promised him I’d support him for the leadership one day. But he decided to go, and, on balance,

I think he’s done the right thing.”

As for himself, he’s decided to run at least one more time. “I think I have something to contribute on the national unity issue. I understand some of the Quebeckers’ frustrations. I really do. When I was young I had a tremendous feeling for Newfoundland, for my country, if you will. I fought against Confederation then, but the results today, the situation in Newfoundland and the way it has worked as part of Canada argue clearly in favor of unity, rather than separation.” With that, Canada’s Newfie foreign minister arose and began preparing to sign a pipeline treaty with U.S. Ambassador Enders, to address a delegation from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference and, later in the day, to welcome King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium. It was not going to be a first-name kind of afternoon.^1