Frontlines

John Reid: man on the move, finally

Roy MacGregor February 26 1979
Frontlines

John Reid: man on the move, finally

Roy MacGregor February 26 1979

John Reid: man on the move, finally

Frontlines

PORTRAIT

Roy MacGregor

Later, as he sips a midnight tea on the flight back to Ottawa, John Reid will look into the coming months and allow that television “will make me or destroy me.” He will not mention luck. Nor will he realize how fortunate it was that there were only a couple of nervous Instamatics to record his first official speech as Canada’s minister of state for federal-provincial relations. But for now, as those words are delivered flatly in a cold public-school gym-

nasium out in the Toronto flaw known as Scarborough, Reid’s formal talk inspires not a single pair of hands to meet. Wearing a wilted red rose, he sits on the edge of a table and speaks to a large gathering of Royal Folding Chairs, less than two dozen of them actually sporting bodies. At the evening s most impassioned moment—at least the moment that lolls above the rest—Reid

sets out make s points, the first being that the L

erais “are prepared to negotiate with Quebec,” the same as with any other province, and he accidentally ticks it off by thrusting his right fist out—with the middle finger raised. At that moment, in the very province he was inadvertently fingering, the television focus is on Marc Lalonde, the man Reid succeeded as federal-provincial minister last Nov. 24, and on Claude Morin, the Parti Québécois minister with the same duties—but different intentions—as Reid. Lalonde and Morin are appearing on the program Têlêmag, in the third of a series of unity and disunity debates. And not only is it abundantly clear to anyone watching that Marc Lalonde, who as justice minister is supposed to share constitutional angst with Reid, is the Ottawa representative who matters as far as federalprovincial concerns went, but John Reid’s name is never even mentioned. Only five days later, Lalonde and Reid find themselves on each side of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau for the latest in the long drone of constitutional conferences (Maclean's, Feb. 19). Looking like a novice preacher at an auxiliary tea, Reid unfortunately has his scheduled speech—on federal-provincial duplication of effort—scrapped by Chairman Trudeau to save time, turning the new minister into a face without a voice as far as the country was concerned. He had spoken to a lesser audience the day before, on CTV’s Question Period, but it had only worked against him. Forced by his cabinet vows to skirt virtually every question beyond his health, the appearance had been, in the words of one of Reid’s interrogators, “horrible.” But it is John Reid’s personal belief that “out of disaster comes opportunity.” The 42-year-old minister’s most striking feature is his confidence in himself and he is desperately going to need it in the days to come as he moves to become the anglophone face in the unity squabble. The Liberal party dearly hopes to make national unity and the constitution main election issues— after which they may turn water into Dorn Perignon—and Reid is expected by campaign director Senator Keith Davey to be “at the forefront” of the debate. That strategy might well have been shelved were it not that Reid did perform well—albeit away from the cameras—in a number of impromptu reporter scrums at the conference. The

Liberal party’s immediate problem, before making national unity an issue, is to find a cure for the effect large audiences have on John Reid: maverick turns to mush.

In John Reid’s mind anyway, there has never been any doubt that he was the man for the job. He has been thwarted, but never disheartened. High-school elections eluded him, col-

lege votes ignored him, the presidency of the University of Manitoba Students’ Union was beyond him—but from the moment he arrived in Ottawa in 1965 as the member for Kenora-Rainy River, Reid has said he was destined for a cabinet role. That it took nearly 14 years to come was merely a gross inconvenience; when it did arrive he was ready. Whisked by helicopter from the swearing-in ceremony to a secluded federalprovincial discussion, he strode into the lunch and was met by a fretting federal official. “Gosh, John,” he said, “I thought this was a closed meeting.” Delighted, Reid flashed his killer smile and announced: “I’m now your

minister.”

Less than two weeks later, in a Dec. 7 note to his loyal constituents, he hinted this was merely the beginning. “I gather something may happen in time,” he wrote, “probably an appointment as deputy house leader.” Little wonder even his many friends touch on the

words “smug” and “conceited” when discussing him. Says one: “John’s not very humble, and when you’re a servant of the people it helps to have a little humility.”

There are times when opinions, like sculptures, are to be formed and preserved—and let the beholder wrestle with what they mean. When John Reid

was a teen-ager he put a float in a local parade, an outhouse labelled “Conservative Headquarters.” When he grew up he stilled the loons one warm summer’s night on Lake of the Woods standing in the kitchen of a friend’s cottage and loudly, effectively, assaulting the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Ironically, it was Reid’s steeled opinions and franknessqualities that are supposed to be to politicians as consistent tension is to lacework—that held him back so long. In 1969, as a member of a House procedural committee, he tangled with Donald Macdonald, who was then House leader, over a draft proposal for altering the amount of time members would be able to debate bills. Reid denies the connection, but it has been said this was why he never made it into the cabinet while Macdonald was the minister responsible for Ontario, despite the fact that he was annually recommended by another, equally high-ranking minister.

He also suffered from bad geography. Reid’s Northern Ontario riding was simply too close to Robert Andras’

Thunder Bay seat. And there was also the matter of his own ill fortune. Appearing before a spring, 1975, hearing on the government proposals for conflict-of-interest rules, Reid traced a hypothetical situation whereby he, as parliamentary secretary to the House leader, might come into classified budget information and pass it on to parties who might prosper. On July 24, he discovered the Montreal Gazette was accusing him of precisely this act. A parliamentary inquiry later cleared him—the reporter had apparently confused the actual budget with later, and completely open, discussions on post-budget legislation—but the shadow of the inquiry lingered. When John Turner resigned and created a cabinet opening it went to Bud Cullen instead of Reid. And a few months later, when a second cabinet post was allocated to Northern Ontario it went, surprisingly, to Jean-Jacques Blais of Nipissing. Reid was shattered. “It was like talking to someone whose family had just gone down in a plane crash,” says a friend. “It seemed to me that the end had come,” Reid recalls.

Anyone, even someone as totally self-confident as John Reid, would have to realize now that his own prediction would never come true. Sure, it was back in Kenora that they often said “John’s not what you’d call one of the guys,” but it seemed to hold true in Ottawa as well. “I’m not the smoothest team player available,” Reid admits, and he knew then that he would likely be warming the back benches forever.

Over New Year’s of 1978 he decided to get out. It was being said that he should offer his safe seat to Liberal MP Keith Penner who was about to lose his Northern Ontario riding through redistribution. Reid had been around long enough and served loyally enough to expect a reward, and idle talk made it clear to him that a seat on something like the Canadian Transport Commission or the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission was being warmed for him. There were also opportunities in consulting: a procedural expert, he would be invaluable to an anxious lobbyist. “I’d been a bridesmaid for so long,” he says of the cabinet disappointments. He sat down and decided whether or not to run

again. “I eventually came to the very discouraging conclusion that the best place to be was right here,” he says. “The next five years are going to be fascinating times.”

Little did he know then that he would be at the centre of those times. Ostensibly, he went into the cabinet because the Liberals ran short of Manitoba bodies when Joe Guay went into the Senate. Reid’s riding was next door, he had married a Winnipeg woman, had Winnipeg connections and was a graduate of the University of Manitoba. But that wasn’t the whole reason. Nor was it particularly for his other qualities: not his brightness (a thesis short of a PhD in history) nor his remarkable pragmatism (though Robert Winters’ very nearly successful campaign for the 1968 Liberal leadership was engineered to a great degree by a detailed memo from John Reid —as an academic exercise, he says—Reid himself supported Trudeau). No, what finally got him access to the cabinet was a realization by the Liberals that a campaign based on national unity didn’t have a prayer as long as it was fronted by two francophones, Pierre Trudeau and Marc Lalonde. The order went out for an acceptable

anglophone face, preferably fresh.

In the 2V2 months since his appointment John Reid has managed only one change to the austere office he inherited from Marc Lalonde. In the top drawer of the desk he keeps a bright red lead pencil that has been sharpened by a knife and says “Re-elect John Reid.” It is his constant reminder of where he comes from.

If Ontario could be personified so it could be seen crouching down to count its riches, John Reid’s riding would form the neglected rear end. It was, and remains, frontier country, and the people from it are impossible to compartmentalize. Reid’s own family is composed of generational skips, a brash gambler followed by a conservative calculator. His great-grandfather hit up three friends for $6,000 at the turn of the century to start up a sawmill at Fort Frances and had repaid the loans and retired a wealthy man barely 10 years later. His grandfather sold insurance. His father, also John Reid, was and is a dreamer who built an empire in tiny Atikokan, which failed when local industry slumped. A couple of years later he was separated from his wife, then

divorced, a “painful” experience for his children which may, unconsciously, have something to do with John Reid’s abiding passion for keeping his country together.

Reid’s father rebounded to success and is now wintering in Florida where he jokes about his misadventures and laughs at the differences between himself and his son. “I always believed in casting my money along the water and seeing what it caught,” he says. “John has always been a close fellow with a buck.” True to description, Reid’s first act on arriving back in Ottawa from the Scarborough speaking engagement was to have his special assistant make a claim against Air Canada for a pair of rubbers Reid forgot aboard the flight down. From his earliest days he preferred the intellectual rewards of winning to the monetary. As for a loss, it could be rationalized, nothing out of pocket. He preferred bridge and chess (which he played by mail) to games of chance. And unlike his brother who liked to call himself Pope Pat I, John was going to wait and see, and make his move depending on how the board stood at the time.

The move into politics was a natural

opening and he took it. He needed money, a part-time assistant in Ottawa was required by an old business and political partner of his father’s, Bill Benidickson, who had been the Kenora area’s member of Parliament since 1945. Reid decided he liked political life, gave up his PhD studies and became a full-time special assistant while Benidickson served as minister of mines and technical surveys in the Pearson government. When Benidickson moved into the Senate, Reid sought and won the nomination for the 1965 general election. He was 28, cocky, and clearly on his way to the top.

After a while, however, it began to seem he was inheriting more than Benidickson’s seat; he also had his anguish. Benidickson, who had to compete with Lester Pearson and C.D. Howe for Northern Ontario clout, waited a long 18 years before a cabinet appointment came his way. “I began to feel I was tracking his career precisely,” says Reid. Today, Senator Benidickson calls himself a great admirer of his former assistant, but he qualifies his praise with words like “opinionated” and “conceit” and resents that Reid never once sought out his advice on how to wait with grace.

John Reid has said: “I have an evangelical role which I fully intend to play.” This spreading of the good word involves more than 500 federal-provincial meetings to be held this year, many of them to be attended by the new minister of federal-provincial relations. He also says, “The possibility for stupidity is very great,” and he is acutely aware that praising the Pepin-Robarts report on unity as “the authentic voice of people from across the land” is but a meek beginning. As the leading anglophone in the play he must somehow prove that he is not merely carrying the silence of the silent majority. “I’ll probably have one speech for every region,” he says. “And they better be good, because that’ll be my one kick at the cat.”

Unfortunately, his attempts to date have not even caused the cat’s whisker to twitch. A weak speechmaker whose tendency toward detached and rambling analysis creates drowsiness rather than intrigue, he is going to have to revive his image quickly before it dies on the mark. That he can adapt is demonstrated by the fact that, as a univer-

sity student, he affected a Lincolnesque air and said his future lay in timber cruising. One of Reid’s long-standing hobbies is joke-collecting and if he can make people laugh over something they have been crying about since the first constitutional conference on patriation in 1927, he will at least have shown that he is not merely a weak anglophone stencil of the technical Marc Lalonde. Whether he can call on the necessary passion to get any of his thoughts across remains to be seen.

Reid also believes his background as a historian rather than a lawyer gives him a valuable insight into what he calls “merely the present crisis.” But only a foolemdash;and Reid is anything but a foolemdash;would look into Canada’s past to answer Canada’s future. “History is merely a list of surprises,” Kurt Vonnegut has written. “It can only prepare us to be surprised again.”

That is a historical interpretation that John Reid would not likely ascribe to, but nor is he too likely to surprise anyone. As this month’s conference ended, Reid called the bickering gathering a great success, but he also said: “If you really push Canadian history out for the next 50 years, it will probably be selling another constitutional conference.” He did not say who would be pulling up how many chairs to the table. lt;£gt;