Closeup/Politics

The fourth wise man

Marc Lalonde: wrong man, wrong place, wrong time?

Barbara Amiel February 6 1978
Closeup/Politics

The fourth wise man

Marc Lalonde: wrong man, wrong place, wrong time?

Barbara Amiel February 6 1978

The fourth wise man

Closeup/Politics

Marc Lalonde: wrong man, wrong place, wrong time?

Barbara Amiel

Everything is affable. He has three hours to kill before attending a dinner dance at Toronto’s Badminton & Racquet Club, and the Honorable Marc Lalonde, Minister of State for Federal-Provincial Relations, is hanging loose. “You see, we’re really all terrified of him because he has no sense of humor,” says his press secretary affectionately as Lalonde launches into another Newfie joke, stopping before the punchline on the corner of the street opposite the Royal Ontario Museum to buy a super casual bag of peanuts.

“And when the Newfie husband pointed the gun at his own head, his wife in bed with her lover began to laugh. ‘Why are you laughing?’ asked the husband. ‘You’re next!’ ” Lalonde keeps smiling when he discovers that it is 6.30 p.m. and the Royal Ontario Museum is closed. “It ought to be open,” he says and intimations of legislation on the hours of tax-supported institutions hover in the ether.

At the coffee shop in the basement of the posh Hazelton Lanes shopping development a few blocks away, a maitre d’ bars the entrance. Lalonde is still smiling. Generally a casual dresser, tonight he is suited up for head table at Versailles. His threepiece dark pinstriped suit hints at sartorial tips from 24 Sussex Drive. The maitre d’ is not deluded. “Dinner?” he asks in front of the vast sea of open-air empty tables. “I think not,” replies the Hon. Marc Lalonde. “Just some espresso, maybe a glass of wine.” The maitre d’ becomes grim. “We do not cater to the coffee trade,” he rules. The Minister of State nods affably, smiles, and turns away. “They’ll starve on their pride,” he says happily.

The evening lengthens. Lalonde’s affability remains unflagging in spite of indifferent salesgirls and in the face of clearly insurmountable linguistic problems. “Coffee sir?” asks the waitress in a neighboring restaurant. “Cappuccino,” replies Lalonde. “Coffee as well?” she demands. Lalonde’s long face broods over the menu. The nose hooks and descends with abandon, its angularity emphasized by a high sloping expanse of forehead forever abandoned by hair. It is the face of a Bourbon, all exaggerated planes and heavy-lidded eyes. Perhaps memories of the fate of Louis XIV’s mistress (who complained to the royal physician that bedroom relations twice a day were too tiring at her age of 75) are flickering in the mind of Lalonde’s press secretary when she asks, in between coffee and strudel, whether or not Mr. Lalonde’s face is sexy. “Many women think so,” she says encouragingly.

Lalonde looks intrigued by the question which certainly puts his features, commonly described as “austere” or even “forbidding,” in a more enjoyable light.

But even an orchestrated wave of Lalondeaumania or revelations of Lalonde’s personal charm will not solve the Minister of State’s problems. His appointment to the sensitive post of Minister of State for Federal-Provincial Relations has not received universal acclaim. On the day he was sworn into the job of gluing together Canada’s autonomy-happy provincial czars, he set some sort of negative record by managing to get the thumbs down from both Alberta premier Peter Lougheed and Ontario’s Bill Davis. “He’s not the right

man,” muttered Davis darkly. The lead editorial in Toronto’s Globe and Mail called the appointment an incredible mistake. “With what government could Mr. Lalonde relate?” asked the Globe. “Monaco?” On a grass-roots level, Lalonde found himself dodging flying cream pies as he walked into a Vancouver radio station to promote his message of federalism and friendship.

Now, here in the gemütlich atmosphere of a Toronto coffeehouse, Lalonde seems at first to confound those critics who label him intransigent, arrogant and cold. But when Lalonde is questioned about the income redistribution policy he helped develop as former Minister of Health and

Welfare, the Minister of State suffers a sea change.

“Doesn’t income redistribution fail to take into account the different value of each Canadian’s contribution to the economy?” Lalonde is asked. Instantly, affability goes the way of Quebec’s quiescence.

“I don’t think,” replies Lalonde, his face very still, “that you understand our policy. I am concerned with a floor for everybody, of course. But at present the differences in income between rich and poor are too great. We must close the gap.”

“Yes, but why?” Lalonde stiffens. “It is more just.” And he closes the discussion. In that split second, both the controversy that has swirled around the appointment of Marc Lalonde and the astonishment that Prime Minister Trudeau would name him to such a delicate job are clarified. Lalonde reflects what seems to some people pretty much the basic problem today with all federal Liberals. They don’t argue their cause, they take it for granted. Positions are declared ex cathedra and then Canadians are lectured on them.

To talk about Lalonde is to talk about Pierre Elliott Trudeau—but not in the beginning, of course. Trudeau came from the inherited wealth of chauffeur-driven limousines and private schools. Lalonde, a tenth-generation Canadian, was the first of his family to break with the land and leave the farm at Ile Perrot for the university. Still, he won his academic credentials with distinction. He graduated in law from the University of Montreal with a Master’s degree and scholarships that enabled him to get a graduate degree in economics and political science from Oxford. He taught at the University of Montreal, lectured at the University of Ottawa and managed to work in a year as special assistant to Davie Fulton, then minister ofjustice. In the midSixties he came together with that group of Quebec intellectuals—Trudeau, Jean

Marchand and Gérard Pelletier—who were aching to lead Quebec away from the looming quagmire of special status into the promised land of special equality. Lalonde joined Trudeau to sign the 1964 manifesto Pour une Politique fonctionelle which, among others things, renounced separatism as a solution to Quebec’s problems. Trudeau and Lalonde threw in their lot with federalism and moved quicklyto nail down power. Though both were social democrats in political inclination, Trudeau, and then Lalonde, joined the Liberal party with nary a twinge. Power was the object and, besides, they had confidence they could remake the Liberal Party in their own image. (They did, though the cost to Canada has been an emasculated NDP and a statist Liberal Party.) In 1967 Lalonde reentered politics as special policy adviser to Prime Minister Lester Pearson and éminence grise behind the rising star of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

They were a curious but complementary couple. Trudeau, insouciant, sophisticated, a carnation in the hand-stitched

buttonhole of his elegant grey pinstriped suits, always ready with an easy, quick thrust at the press or a crowd-pleasing gesture. One step behind, just slightly out-offocus, much like the composition of the large-framed photograph in his office, was Marc Lalonde. In crowds Lalonde was awkward, stumbling, more often than not directing his words to the edges of his broad-tipped shoes, his clipped phrases falling numbly on the ears of restless listeners. But on an administrative level he was the compleat technocrat and ran a tough shop. Stories of his merciless firing of employees (“I want that man out of here by three o’clock”) became part of the Lalonde mythology. Lalonde became known for the quick chop. Said MP Serge Joyal: “Marchand would hit you on the head and then ask you if you were alright and give you an ice pack and Aspirin. Lalonde just hits you on the head. You provide your own analgesic.”

While Trudeau kept himself busy whimsically speculating or philosophizing (often, to the country’s bewilderment, out loud on television) it was Lalonde who was out in the trenches doing the muddy work implementing the Prime Minister’s best thoughts. Explained Liberal MP Pierre De Bañé: “When Trudeau was deciding if he should run for the nomination he said: ‘All my life I have been interested in one of two questions—civil liberties and the Constitution. If I become Prime Minister, I’ll

have to worry about the wheat board.’ ” But not with Marc or a dozen mini-Marcs to take care of the realities of life for the philosopher-king. As Joyal put it: “Trudeau is the humanist. Lalonde is the military man. He’s the dimension that Trudeau doesn’t like to be.”

In the makeup room of Studio Six at Toronto’s CBC, Marc Lalonde is getting ready for an appearance on a local public affairs show. The producer is close to hysteria, her cossack boots stamping up and down the stairs and her trinkets jangling at researchers and secretaries as she tries to cope with Lalonde’s slightly late arrival and the shortage of rehearsal time. Lalonde is immune to the backstage carryings-on and is beaming at the barely coherent producer (female), the makeup person (female) and the script assistant (female). “It is so good to see women coming along now so well at the CBC,” he says quickly shifting into his vocabulary as Minister Responsible for the Status of Women. He seems unaware that women have been in these jobs at the CBC for at least 20 years.

(Back at his home in Montreal, Madame Lalonde, a delicate, exquisitely boned woman, is carrying on her chores as mother and housewife. “I want to move to Ottawa and be with Marc, but he ...” she shrugs her shoulders and stirs the soup.

“I don’t like to discuss politics or my work with my wife,” explains the Minister

Responsible for the Status of Women on the drive from his bachelor apartment in Ottawa to his weekend and holiday home in Montreal. “At home I want to rest.” At the dinner table in the Outrement dining room he sits orchestrating conversation while Madame Lalonde carries the steaming platters of food in and out of the dining room. “It was a good day?” she asks her husband tentatively in broken English as a courtesy to a unilingual English guest. Her husband grimaces and asks the children about their plans for that evening.)

Back in the television studio Lalonde slips into the vocabulary of the Minister of State for Federal-Provincial Relations. Now he is the military man. What will be his strategy for the upcoming referendum debate? “If you are a general in a battle,” Lalonde replies, “one thing a good general never does is broadcast his strategy to the enemy.”

Battle. Enemy. There will be no compromise with federalism. We will never accept special status for any province. The Parti Québécois is in a state of siege.

It is, perhaps, this vocabulary of absolutes that led Ontario New Democratic leader Stephen Lewis to talk about the federal government’s “psyche of rigid positions” and the “belligerency of the federal Liberals.” But shifts in vocabulary—or philosophy—come easily to Marc Lalonde, who managed to go from working for the federal Progressive Conservatives

in the late Fifties to number two man in the federal Liberals in the Sixties. Vocabulary depends on the hat you are wearing or the man who pays your salary.

It was only in 1972 that Lalonde first ran for elected office in Outremont, the second safest Liberal seat in Canada (PET has the first). Four weeks later he bagged Health and Welfare, the most influential portfolio in cabinet (30% of the federal budget) in terms of sheer effect on Canadians’ day-today life. Trudeau was still a media hit then, with his flower-child wife and her confessions of love and stream-of-consciousness monologues. Lalonde took his cue and stepped into the fashionable spotlight lined up to focus on the 1975 International Women’s Year. Grabbing a ministerial brief in each hand, he began to bombard Canadians with the LalondeTrudeau view of the “new society.” Proposals for legislation and “guidelines” on everything from quotas on American football players to the content of television commercials began to issue forth from the up-to-date minister. Every bit of newspeak lingo that drifted into the McLuhanesque horizons of Health and Welfare was immediately appropriated.

In debates Lalonde would refuse to argue or defend his positions. It was all perfectly clear to him. When the Canadian Association of Broadcasters produced figures showing beer consumption remained the same or increased in those provinces that had banned all television ads, Lalonde simply dismissed the figures. “I know all about their arguments, but I don’t believe them. Anyway,” he explained with a perfectly straight face, “I have yet to see any evidence that not banning television commercials doesn’t increase consumption.”

Lalonde’s press secretary, Patrice Merrin, is clutching a sandwich and managing to eat it without muffling her telephone conversation. These days everyone wants an interview with the new Minister for Federal-Provincial Relations and Merrin is declining this request for Lalonde’s appearance on a games show with much grace. The point of all this media greasepaint-and-glamour seems to be twofold. It’s partly Lalonde’s job, after all, to get out and deliver the gospel of federalism-accordingto-Trudeau (and make it clear that any other version is plain antiCanada) but more importantly it’s to merchandise the new Marc Lalonde. Everyone close to the minister is painfully aware of the negative response to his appointment, most of all Lalonde himself, and any conversation with Lalondites inevitably returns to one area. Lalonde’s credibility in Quebec.

Major Quebec figures have dismissed Lalonde as being out of touch with the reality of Quebec. Lalonde’s response is to counter with anecdotes of life on the farm at Ile Perrot or stories of his French-Canadian Chatelaine.

“When they say ‘not credible,’ I say,

‘Okay. Come on. So what?’ Anyway, go around. Ask Monique Bégin. She has a lot of séparatiste friends and the reputation I have in those areas is that I’m a guy who talks straight.”

In fact, Lalonde’s “lack of credibility” in Quebec may turn on one of those little ironies of history. A close acquaintance who has known Lalonde well since their college days together, claims that “to understand Marc you must realize that all his early life he lived completely under the domination of the Church and Duplessis. The family were very simple people, farmers, and Marc was the first to go to university. His brothers are still farmers.”

But today’s new Quebec speaks with a voice that is a heady mix of cynical atheists, sophisticated journalists and cultured aristocrats. Lalonde is trapped in limbo: his acquired education distances him from his roots but his painful awkwardness and cold public stoicism are evidence that he is still too close to Ile Perrot to have acquired the casualness of a Trudeau, or even a René Lévesque.

The 1968 election of Pierre Elliott Trudeau made it absolutely vital to be bilingual not just in language but in ethics. Trudeau insisted on bringing the vocabulary of moral philosophy into Canadian politics and so we had the “just society” and intermittent pronouncements from such advisers as Ivan Head about Canada “taking a more moralistic approach to international problems.” This created obvious difficulties for pragmatic politicians. While Trudeau stayed out of the day-to-

day mucky world of international and domestic conflict, his acolytes found themselves right in the middle of the bog. As most acolytes do, they found it appropriate to use the moral language of their leader but they soon discovered that moral philosophy and practical politics have a way of colliding in the cold world. Lalonde himself had got the Trudeau vocabulary down pat but, as his response to basic questions about policy decisions indicated, he lacked Trudeau’s sophistication and flexibility. He was unable to deftly counter questions about moral inconsistencies in policy with a clever bit of dialectics. He never gave the impression of a man who finds it necessary to think through an idea emanating from his mentors. It remains, therefore, an open question whether or not he could think one through if he tried. Said MP Serge Joyal: “The one quality Trudeau values above all others is loyalty. And Lalonde will go singing to the gas chambers if Trudeau asks him to.” Added another Liberal MP from Quebec: “From the point of view of keeping Quebec in Confederation, Trudeau could not have made a worse choice than Lalonde, who is neither liked nor understood in Quebec. But from the point of serving Trudeau’s needs to have a hatchet man keeping Trudeau’s personal feud with Lévesque going, and allowing Trudeau himself to come in as the statesman above it all, it was a perfectly understandable choice. Too bad for Canada though.”

The Minister for Federal-Provincial Relations is straphanging on the Toronto subway. (“We never fly anything but economy either, when we have to use a plane,” explains his press secretary.) On his way to the World Amateur Squash Championship Finals in a suburb of Toronto, Marc Lalonde is talking about the future of Canada.

Lalonde: But of course a multicultural society is the right kind of society to construct. It is difficult to do, but we must work together to see that everyone has their proper chance to equally share in it. Maclean’s: But realistically, where has multiculturalism ever worked?

Lalonde: There are several examples. I would say India is a good one.

(A tremor passes through the interviewer—Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Karachi riots).

Maclean’s: Well, we have made a beginning. We already have the Untouchables. Lalonde (blithely): And, of course,

Switzerland.

The interviewer is speechless. The Swiss canton system is characterized by the Special Status of its component parts—a solution excommunicated by the Liberal Party. Maclean’s (weakly): You don’t mean the canton system?

Lalonde (wistfully): Of course things are much smaller in Switzerland.

The subway train clatters on. ó