Canada

None of the above

Canadians are disillusioned with politics and impatient over unity

PATRICIA CHISHOLM May 12 1997
Canada

None of the above

Canadians are disillusioned with politics and impatient over unity

PATRICIA CHISHOLM May 12 1997

None of the above

CANADA The Maclean's Election Panel

Canadians are disillusioned with politics and impatient over unity

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien may not be the most popular leader in Canada’s history, but he outranks the current competition. That, at least, appeared to be the opinion of the majority of panelists canvassed last week for Maclean’s weekly survey of at least 10 undecided voters in each of five ridings across the country. While many criticized Chrétien’s performance on issues ranging from unemployment to national unity, most seemed resigned to another Liberal term—largely due to a perceived lack of alternatives. Objections to the other leaders—Reform’s Preston Manning, the Bloc Québécois’s Gilles Duceppe, New Democrat Alexa McDonough and the Conservatives’ Jean Charest— ranged from lack of national appeal to uninspiring, even unpleasant, personal style. Only Charest appeared to strike a chord in all five communities, but even many of his fans say they are reluctant to support a party with so few seats in Parliament.

That disenchantment with leaders may partly explain what appears to be a changing attitude towards national unity. Convinced that politicians are incapable of resolving the issue, panel members outside Quebec suggested that English Canada has had its say—no special status for Quebec—and that the question must be resolved by Quebecers. And while the Montreal-area panelists were clearly concerned with the unity question, the sense of crisis that surrounded the October, 1995, referendum appears to have ebbed. In fact, Canadians now seem unified in at least one respect: virtually everywhere, voters remain most worried about whether the future holds prosperity—or penury.

HALIFAX So far, the widely watched race between McDonough, incumbent Liberal Mary Clancy and Terry Donahoe, a locally

prominent Tory, has generated no clear trends. But like several other panel members, Condon Macleod, a café owner, believes that the Liberals are in the best position to lead the country.

“Chrétien is not well liked in Quebec,” Macleod acknowledges, “but he seems to understand how Canadians feel.”

When it comes to the other leaders, Jane Machek, an events co-ordinator for the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, is partial to Charest. “I like his earnestness,” she says. “He’s genuine.” She predicts that McDonough will do well in the riding, but is pessimistic about the NDP’s chances at the national level.

“They are too idealistic for an entire country,” she says. As for the unity debate, Machek says enough is enough.

“It’s over and we must go on,” she says. “I don’t agree with recognizing Quebec as a distinct society, because it would be detrimental to the country.” Commentator Stephen Kimber, dean of journalism at King’s College, agrees that McDonough’s personal popularity and high profile could mean an NDP victory in Halifax for the first time ever. The problem for the New Democrats, he says, is that most voters just do not like their policies. “An NDP victory in this riding is not likely to lead to others in Atlantic Canada,” he cautions.

BROSSARD/LA PRAIRIE This sub

urban riding south of Montreal is mostly francophone, but has a large community of anglophones and newly arrived immigrants. It is now held by the Bloc, but some of that support appears to be drifting to the Progressive Conservatives—at least partly because of Duceppe’s lacklustre performance on the campaign trail so far. Like other members of the Brossard panel, real estate broker Ernest Leung has mixed

feelings about Chrétien. While he is the best choice for federalists, Leung says, he does not pay enough attention to Quebec. Charest, on the other hand, lacks a convincing platform but could help the Tories make a comeback based on personal appeal—a fact, Leung notes, that has not been lost on the Tories. “His name is always on the PC bus—instead of the letters PC,” he says.

Leung has little time for Duceppe, citing his narrow focus on separatism and lack of experience. But most panelists in Brossard agree that the unity question demands attention—although not right away. Carole Perreault a homemaker, says jobs are the number 1 priority. “The national unity issue will come back in due time,” she says. Once people are employed, she adds, they can turn their attention to the question and it will be resolved, one way or another.

According to commentator Lindsay Crysler, director of journalism at Concordia University, the Bloc may be suffering from the absence of its former leader, Lucien Bouchard, now premier of Quebec. “On the surface,” he says, “Duceppe lacks the obvious leadership qualities of Bouchard. His tone is more bitter, whereas Bouchard seems impassioned.” Charest, however, is viewed as a fresh face with considerable appeal. “People have either forgotten or they don’t care that he was part of the Mulroney cabinet,” Crysler says.

ST. PAUL’S In this affluent, central Toronto swing riding, panel members were divided on Chrétien’s report card, with slightly more than half giving him failing

grades on issues such as the referendum, personal integrity and initiative. Joanne Johnston, an assistant director with Japan’s external trade organization in Toronto, voted Liberal in the last election but now says that was a “mistake.” Chrétien, she adds, is an uninspiring figure without the qualities needed to unify the country. “We’re united in apathy,” she says, “and the fact that we put up with him.”

Most, however, were even less excited about the other leaders, with Manning drawing several barbs. Many panelists believe that unity should be a campaign issue, but few have faith in the ability of any one leader to make a crucial difference. “It’s too complex to be put down to any one individual,” says civil servant Ken Morris. But Manning, he adds, is “petty” for leaking the Liberals’ campaign platform, and Charest’s promises of jobs and lower taxes are “absolutely over the rainbow—with no real discussion of how you achieve these lofty objectives.” That jaded view of the leaders, especially Chrétien, is not surprising, says commentator Robert Bothwell, professor of history at the University of Toronto. “People get the impression he is winging it,” he says. The Tories, though, could be hurt by the growing unpopularity of Mike Harris’s provincial Conservatives, Bothwell adds.

CALGARY WEST in this com fortable residential riding, which solidly backed Reform in 1993, supz port for Chrétien appears to be based « at least partly on a souring opinion of | Manning, or his party. The Prime Minister may not be a charismatic i force, says musician Mark De Jong, ? but he is likely up to the job of lead! ing the country for another term as 0 long as he surrounds himself with competent people and concentrates on the country’s domestic problems. Manning, by contrast, “is a decent politician but his party is so right-wing, it is bound for fireworks,” he says. “It can never properly represent Canada.” Charest, he adds, has yet to prove himself, but is worth watching.

Like most other panel members, small

business owner Lee Magis is not opposed to the idea of distinct society—depending on what it means. “Quebec is distinct, but I don’t want them to have special powers above the rest of the provinces,” she says. “Canada is full of cultures.” Commentator Keith Archer, professor of political science at the University of Calgary, noted that most of the parties likely will try to avoid the unity question. “A more hardline approach to Quebec seems to be relatively popular in the West,” he said. “Of course, that is not the kind of thing that people want to start engaging in during a campaign—the parties do not want to alienate Quebecers.”

PORT MOODY/COQUITLAM Some

of the country’s most unforgiving voters appear to be in British Columbia. In this suburban Vancouver riding, panelists faulted Chrétien for lack of vision and an inept handling of the unity question. Warehouse worker Jim McNeilly says that Chrétien could even make things worse when it comes to resolving the unity issue. “He has a certain stubbornness about him,” McNeilly says. “He doesn’t listen to Quebec—or any other region of Canada, for that matter.” He dismisses Manning as having only regional appeal, but Charest has earned his respect. “He focuses on his vision, rather than slandering the government. That is refreshing.” Panelists were almost unanimous in saying that the Quebec problem is crucial—but there should be no special deals. “All provinces should get the same responsibilities and powers.” says Nargis Abraham, a communications instructor. “Quebec has benefited from being a part of Canada,” she adds. “I don’t think they will go in a hurry if they really have the option.”

Commentator John Richards, professor of business at Simon Fraser University, notes that while the unity issue may not loom large in people’s everyday lives, it must be resolved. “There is a belligerence in Chrétien’s refusal to deal with it that is very frustrating for people in the West,” says Richards, who once served as an NDP MLA in Saskatchewan. But the concept of distinct society, he notes, has become “unsellable.” Instead, he says, “it would be better to deal with the real problem, which is language.” The majority of francophones in Quebec, Richards suggests, would be satisfied with constitutional protection for Bill 101—the province’s language law—and that would allow the country to move ahead. □

The Maclean’s panel responses are compiled with the participation of experts and students at five universities. In Halifax, Stephen Kimber, dean of journalism at King’s College, is assisted by Erin Pamela Greeno and Jaime Kathleen Little. Lindsay Crysler, director of journalism at Concordia University, and national affairs journalist Ron Lebel are supervising Jean-François Begin and David Gambrill in Montreal. University of Toronto history professor Robert Bothwell is assisted by Kathleen Rasmussen and Ann Flanagan. At the University of Calgary, political science professor Keith Archer is overseeing the work of Carey Anne Hill and Mebs Kanji. At Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B. C, Michael Howlett, professor of political science, and John Richards, professor of business, are assisted by Russell LaPointe and Colleen Wetherall.