The Wordiest MP in Ottawa
Jean-Francois Pouliot has been called a buffoon, a “vocalamity” — and also polite and charming. His nonstop oratory on every subject under the sun has kept him in office (and hot water) for almost thirty years
By GEORGE BAIN
WHEN HE made his maiden speech in the House of Commons on April 14, 1925, Jean-Francois Pouliot, then the new Liberal member for Temiscouata, Que., used words which almost never cross the lips of a new MP. He said: “I insist.”
The average new member makes his first speech clutching in a damp hand a large sheaf of notes, if not a full manuscript, and presenting whatever requests or proposals he may have in a decidedly deferential manner. Pouliot however was not the average new member.
He had only a few heading notes. He covered topics extending from federal highway construction and the need of a ferry between Riviere du Loup and Tadoussac, to the economic differences of Canada and the United States and the freight rate on potatoes. The index to Hansard required more than two inches of type merely to list the subjects.
It was when he came to the just demands of the county of Temiscouata, however, that he began to insist. In this, he had the backing of a resolution passed by the county council of Temiscouata. Its final words were:
This council prays the Rt. Hon. W. L. Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada, and his colleagues to deign to include in (lie supplementary estimates of each department concerned, before the close of the present session, substantial amounts for each of the demands that shall be made by our member, Mr. Jean-Francois Pouliot, in the interests of the county of Temiscouata.
Today, at 64, Pouliot is still the member for Temiscouata, still insisting and still using resolutions from the local council at home to sustain him when he wants to give the government a push in the right (i.e., Pouliot’s) direction. More often than not, on national issues, he mirrors the predominant trend of thought in all rural Quebec, but what he cares about most is championing his own constituency with a suitable show of belligerence.
In Temiscouata, on the lower St. Lawrence, they like a combative member. With only one exception since he was first elected at a by-election in December, 1924, Pouliot has been favored by the voters with majorities ranging between comfortable and overwhelming. The one exception was in 1930 when the Conservatives won 24 seats in Quebec. Temiscouata, by
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The Wordiest MP In Ottawa
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what Pouliot now hints darkly was foul play, came within 117 votes of being a twenty-fifth.
Enraged at what the hated Tories had almost done to him—he rarely uses the word Conservative—Pouliot went to Ottawa and spent the next five years making a holy terror of himself to the government of R. B. Bennett. The performance so pleased his constituents that they rewarded him by swamping his opposition at the next election, and they have been doing it ever since. In return, Pouliot has seen to it that the county has never lacked federal bounty and has given it the most vocal representation of any pa ft of Canada.
In his three decades at Ottawa, Pouliot, whom a Vancouver writer once called “a vocalamity” (Pouliot the next day in the Commons called him “a nasty little fellow”), undoubtedly has spoken more words than any other MP, a record achieved not solely on length of service. C. G. (Chubby) Power, the wartime air minister, has been in the Commons seven years longer and was a cabinet minister for nine years, but he has not equalled Pouliot’s output. The Conservative member for York East, Robert H. McGregor, has acquired in 28 years less space in the indexes to the record of parliamentary debates than Pouliot has in one year.
When is a Gin a Gin?
Pouliot simply has a lot to say. His words, which once were described as “a strange combination of quicksilver and bilge water,” have been lavished on issues important to everyone in the country and on issues important to no one but Jean-Francois Pouliot. He has carried on lively campaigns on such disparate subjects as the lending of $1,250,000,000 to Britain and the labeling of John de Kuyper gin as gin. He objected to both.
Pouliot has become famous for the shock effect of his remarks—formal and impromptu. He once likened an MP who was heckling him to a drum, “very noisy but empty.” Called a mountebank, he replied that he would call his detractor an angel “and both of us will be mistaken.” To underline his objections to the practice of parliament handling divorce bills he once suggested that “all parties who come here for divorce shall be sterilized before divorce is granted.” This seemed a little drastic even to those most anxious to have MPs rid of divorces.
Civil servants are customarily immune from personal criticism in the House because, among other reasons, MPs realize that they haven’t an equal opportunity to answer critics. This has never discouraged Pouliot from attacking them, along with big bugs, brass hats, so-called intellectuals, bureaucrats, the intelligentsia — the terms are Pouliot’s—and, above all, Tories.
He has sometimes gone too far and been ordered by the Speaker of the Commons to withdraw his remarks. Once he spent a month in exile from the House before obeying an order to take back an allegation against R. B. Bennett. At least twice he has been threatened with physical violence by MPs whose feelings he has wounded.
Once in 1934 Pouliot claimed in the House to have defended the right of small wage earners in Cape Breton against Isaac Duncan Macdougall,
then the Conservative member for Cape Breton. Macdougall, a formidable French-Scot, branded the statement a lie, demanded its withdrawal and, when Pouliot haggled, be shook his fist and shouted: “You withdraw; if you do not 1 will go over there and you will do it quickly.” Pouliot was almost literally saved by the bell when his speaking time ran out at precisely that moment and the dispute perished.
At times he has been a harsher critic of his own party than be has of the Tories. During the Second World War he was a source of constant anguish and annoyance to the Liberal government, and particularly to Defense Minister J. L. Ralston. Although rebellious, he stayed in the ranks of the government’s supporters until compulsory overseas service was introduced in November 1944. Pouliot’s break with the party lasted six months; his personal break with Mackenzie King, whom he regarded as having turned his back on anticonscriptionist Quebec, was never fully healed and he made seveial cutting speeches in the House urging King’s retirement.
Praise From Miss MacPhail
Naturally for a public figure who fires so many verbal broadsides, Pouliot is a popular target. The Ottawa Journal in a single editorial several years ago accused him of buffoonery, bad taste, childish antics, atrocious attacks, vulgar abuse and primitive blackguardism, and also questioned his sportsmanship and courage.
On the other hand the late Agnes MacPhail, Canada’s first woman MP, who was not given to loose praise, once described Pouliot as the most polite and charming man in parliament —“when he is not murdering someone in the House of Commons.”
Because of his flavorful individuality —the Parliamentary Press Gallery in a poll a few years ago named him the most colorful MP—Pouliot has played to a wider audience than most of his fellows. The average private member is lucky if he is known in the next constituency and sometimes if he is known in his own. Pouliot has gained more newspaper space and consequently is more widely known than some cabinet ministers.
The audience he has always played to, however, is the one in Temiseouata, and it has seldom failed to respond to his mercurial turns. In 1946 his constituents even gave him a new car the sort of thing that sometimes happens to a big-league ballplayer but rarely to a politician.
Pouliot’s domain fronts on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, about 120 miles east of Quebec City, and runs down to where Quebec and New Brunswick form a corner with Maine. Not many years ago it was lumbering country, but now most of its people are in mixed farming. It is a backwoodsy rural area where high-wheeled buggies still run in the side roads and where people stand in some awe of the man who does the government’s business in the county and speaks for them at Ottawa.
Riviere du Loup, the county town, has a population just under 10,000. Here, on the main street, JeanFrancois Pouliot has his law office, and on the outskirts, his fine big home on a point of land overlooking the place where the Temiseouata River meets the St. Lawrence. The Pouliots, who came from Normandy, have been in Canada since about the 17th century. They have been in Temiseouata for at least 100 years.
Pouliot’s maternal great-grandfather, Louis Bertrand, was a member of the Lower Canada assembly in the lS30s—
the years of struggle for responsible government. HLs grandfather, JeanBaptiste Pouliot, was in the Canadian assembly from 1862 to 1867. JeanBaptiste fought Confederation unsuccessfully, fearing the French-Canadian minority would be swallowed in the union, then left politics. He was elected again by acclamation, however, in 1874, and was in the House of Commons until 1878. Pouliot’s father, C. E. Pouliot, was in the Quebec house in 1890-91 and at Ottawa as a supporter of Laurier in 1896. He died in that year.
These forebears represented the same area Pouliot does today. As great - grandfather Louis Bertrand fought the bureaucrats of the Family Compact, great-grandson fights the bureaucrats he has suspected in recent years of usurping more and more of the power that should belong to parliament. As Jean-Baptiste sought separation from the majority on the issue of Confederation, so JeanFrancois sought separation from it on conscription. He has said that he turned down the choice of two federal appointments in 1940, “because the war was on and I had to protect my people.”
When he goes about the riding Pouliot can call an extraordinary number of his constituents by name. In the 1930s he astounded Mackenzie King, who was visiting Riviere du Loup at Pouliot’s invitation, by introducing to him some 800 persons, giving a word or two of biographical data on each. In a walk of a block or so he will nod to and greet by name perhaps a dozen people and stop to speak with several more. To women he raises, not just tips, his hat, and gives a duck of the head that is the beginning of a bow.
The caller at his office on Riviere du Loup’s main street, Lafontaine, mounts three flights of stairs, passing the haberdasher’s shop on the second floor, to a plain, rather gloomy anteroom. There may be from ten to fifty callers on a Saturday morning when parliament is in session; Pouliot is home only on week ends. In summer the traffic up and down the stairs is more scattered.
One by one they are called in to relate their problems. Often they are seeking federal jobs. Sometimes the constituent has income-tax troubles. Another wants to know what he should do about the renewal of his mailcarrying contract. Occasionally it is a case of someone near and dear to the petitioner languishing in jail. Pouliot dispenses information, promises action on some requests, defers others, dismisses a few.
One of a number of rules of thumb Pouliot has for relations between MP and constituents is, “If they vote for me, they can come to the office and give me hell.” Otherwise, they must do it catch-as-catch-can. It is an arrangement, he points out, that deprives no one of his freedom of speech; it merely regulates where it can be exercised.
In Temiseouata, as elsewhere in Quebec, patronage is recognized as a fact of political life and therefore permissible for conversation in other than whispers. It was of patronage Pouliot was talking recently when he enunciated the further rule, “The plums are for friends, but I will work hard to correct any injustice.”
Pouliot keeps close watch over the distribution of the plums. A few years ago he crossed by boat to a provincial Liberal election meeting on the small island of Notre Dame de l’Ile Verte. He was displeased to find only eleven men in the hall. Although he has argued in the Commons that a man may vote differently in federal and
provincial fields, and is himself a friend of Premier Maurice Duplessis, he could not overlook this disinterest in a Liberal meeting. Work was being done on a government wharf in the district. Pouliot phoned Ottawa and had it suspended. When the election was over he told the foreman—one of the eleven faithful—to employ the ten who had attended the meeting with him. Others were told they obviously were too busy fishing or farming to do spare-time work.
Temiscouata usually gets its share of government works. When a switch to diesel power caused the CNR to close its repair shop in Riviere du Loup the government found it possible, at Pouliot’s urging, to locate a branch of Canadian Arsenals there to make cartridge cases and replace lost jobs. The plant employs 150.
Pouliot is as diligent in fulfilling the social obligations of his role as he is the political. He attends a vast number of weddings, funerals, christenings. He makes hospital visits and looks in at those functions where the MP is expected. Sometimes, facing a tight schedule, he will leave home with two ties, one black, one colored, to be changed as the program demands.
Weddings demand gifts. Pouliot used to buy them himself, but for some years now this has been done by his wife, Marika, an attractive, gracious woman some years his junior. Pouliot used to run heavily to alarm clocks and pictures of Mackenzie King. Madame Pouliot says hers are better, a claim he does not dispute.
To The Voters He’s Great
Jean-Francois and Marika, who was born in Constantinople (but is not, as one report had it, a Near East princess; her German father was in business there), have one son, Francois, a strapping 16-year-old. His present interest is sports, not politics; his father says he will not enter politics. Pouliot himself made his first political speech at 18, on a platform with Sir Wilfrid Laurier at Murray Bay. Laurier was one of the few Pouliot heroes; another was Ernest Lapointe, Mackenzie King’s captain in Quebec.
To the voters of Temiscouata Pouliot—not these textbook heroes—is the great man. They chuckle when he smacks the big bugs and brass hats and tweaks august noses. They recall that when the federal government considered disallowing Quebec’s padlock law it was Pouliot who reminded Prime Minister King that the choice was between Cardinal Villeneuve and Tim Buck. The law remained unchallenged. It was he, too, who stood up to those who would have plucked Temiscouata’s boys into the army. After the war in Riviere du Loup a dinner was given Jean-Francois, “the friend of the soldier and the conscript.”
They know, or the older do, of the high acclaim he won early in his career for a volume on Quebec parish law. It brought commendation from the Pope and from cardinals in several countries. His municipal code of Quebec also won praise from civil authorities.
Pouliot has had voluminous local publicity as well to impress his electors. Even the call letters of the Riviere du Loup radio station—CJFP—are a reminder of him. Pouliot does not own the station; it is owned by Armand Belle, a friend Pouliot describes as “my favorite capitalist. Belle also owns a music store and is manager of Le Manoir hotel, with a cuisine commended by gourmet Pouliot.
Pouliot first came to full bloom politically when the Liberals went into opposition in 1930. A Conservative decision to hold up the building of a
new railway station which the preceding government had planned for Riviere du Loup helped the process. Pouliot launched a campaign of harassment that is still remembered in Ottawa with mingled pain and admiration. MPs groaned when he got up to speak, which he did at every opportunity. They reluctantly learned of the old station’s plumbing defects, its unsafe walls, the bugs it harbored.
Before the session was over Pouliot had 135 written questions answered by the government. When Railways Minister Robert J. Manion protested
that a batch of fourteen would take weeks to answer and asked Pouliot as an act of mercy to drop some of them, the bleak reply was, “I am ready to wait weeks.”
At the end of the session the government sent an emissary privately to Pouliot. If the station were repaired as good as new, would he shut up? He would. When the announcement was made he had one last word, “I have no thanks to offer the government. No one should be thanked for doing his duty.”
Another time Pouliot hounded the
Conservative government for breakdown figures on unemployment. The government agreed that a classification of the unemployed by skills would be worthwhile, but said that such statistics could not be obtained. Pouliot set out to get his own. By cajolery, appeals to civic pride and some judicious bullying he got municipalities to wire him local figures.
Putting them together took three months. Whenever his interest flagged, Pouliot would leave his office, lambaste the government in a speech in the House and return refreshed. The
finished report, containing what he claimed to be a classification of half the unemployed, was presented to the government as a petition. It was declined without thanks, possibly because of the 33 pages of introductory comment by Pouliot under such uninviting headings as: “The Bennett Government Has Left The Canadian People Under A False Impression About The Disastrous Effects of Their Policies” and “The Bennett Government’s Two Other Mistakes.”
In 1936, with the Liberals back in power, the report got a more sympathetic reception. Labor Minister Norman Rogers said that Pouliot “by his industry and patience” had laid the foundation for statistical work on unemployment.
In the campaign for the federal election of October 1935, Ernest Lapointe said at a joint meeting for Temiscouata and Madawaska-Restigouche counties that Pouliot would be given a prominent place in the Liberal Party to reward him for his services during the period of opposition.
From Oct. 14 to Oct. 22 King wrestled with the selection of a cabinet. Candidates camped on his doorstep; other callers brought suggestions. When King’s choices were made known, Pouliot was not among them. Nevertheless he wrote congratulatory letters to all who had been chosen. From Lapointe he received a letter which said in part:
There are so many others who are furious and who have used insulting language and who had not the tenth of the titles that you have to a promotion, that I have been more than touched by the manner in which you are accepting the result of the delicate work that the chief had to do ...
Later there was a note from King, thanking him for his “understanding friendship.”
Not long after the 1935 election Pouliot was invited to consider a judgeship in the Superior Court of Quebec. He turned it down, presumably still hopeful of a cabinet post. Between 1935 and 1939 Pouliot frequently reproached the Liberal government “because the pets of the Tory government are still on a pinnacle.” These so-called pets were mostly financial experts, including the late Dr. W. Clifford Clark, deputy minister of finance, but. also among them was General A. G. L. McNaughton, then of the National Research Council.
Sometimes they were “dangerous men”; at others, sarcastically, “supergeniuses”; again, “a pest.” The reasoning behind Pouliot’s objections was direct enough: they had been appointed by Bennett, thus were Tories. If retained, they would advise the government on dangerous (i.e., Conservative) lines. Also, they had grown too big. “Nobody can touch them; when their names are mentioned everyone is called to order. Are they sacred? No, sir, they are not sacred ...”
In 1938 Pouliot was made chairman of a committee to enquire into the administration of the Civil Service Act. An eminent authority commented the next year that the committee’s “first claim to notice must rest on the bizarre character of its proceedings, which have probably never been duplicated in Canadian history.”
Pouliot brought to the task the conviction that reform was needed, and with it the zeal reformers are supposed to have. Before the committee had produced any evidence he was talking of the “Family Compact practice” which was to be made to “die by exposure.” Witnesses were confronted with rumors and gossip and required to deny them. The secretary of the
Civil Service Commission was told it was being gossiped that he had, or had had, 40 relatives on the government payroll. Going back over most of his 54 years in the service, taking in such distant relatives as brothers of brothersin-law, and interpreting government payroll to mean all who drew salary from the government (one relative was a judge), he eventually acknowledged 16.
Pouliot laid down the doctrine that whether witnesses were criticized fairly or unfairly, it did not constitute an attack. If a member of the committee said something irregular to another member, that might be considered an attack. But since MPs had to vote the money to pay civil servants they were free to question or criticize them in any way.
There were frequent heated exchanges between committee members (“I object to that.” “You can object and be damned . . .”) and between the chairman and members (Chairman: “You are dumb. You think you are a
superman but you are only a pest in this committee”). But for all its noise the committee made no radical recommendations.
The hearing however helped to sustain Pouliot’s belief that the Civil Service Commission was unduly swayed by doctorate degrees, which he holds in low esteem. A young man had won out in competition for a civil service job, the deciding factor being his PhD. Some time later it was discovered that what the commission had read as PhD actually was a DPH—Diploma of Public Health.
The wartime tactics employed by Pouliot in what he has called the protection of his people were vigorous and often vicious. In 1942, at the time of the conscription plebiscite, he was a special writer for the big Montreal daily La Presse. He said not long ago, “It was a big stick in my hands.”
He raged against the Quebec medical boards. At least fifteen doctors were non-Aryans, he complained. A disproportionate one third were English-speaking. The district medical officer should be fired. The doctors were incompetent or worse. The
Pulhems system used to assess the suitability of recruits was “an absurd concoction of the British War Office.” When Defense Minister Ralston said that Pouliot did not know what he was talking about Pouliot turned on him, “ ... It is very dangerous to speak to me that way.”
When reinforcements were the issue he said it was time the English brought reinforcements to the Canadians. “I do not want to scandalize anybody,” he declared, “but I ask you . . . how is it that Canada has to do the whole thing and the other people look from their ivory tower upon us?” He had left the Liberals on Nov. 24, 1944, to sit as an Independent and as “a living remorse” to the government for having introduced compulsory overseas service.
In 1946 he fought a $1,250,000,000 loan to Britain. It was not from any dislike of Britain, he explained, but because it was financially unsound for Canada, bad for Commonwealth trade, and like giving charity to a solvent man since Britain had assets here which it could have liquidated. The government’s subsequent decision that there would be no further loans abroad he has cited as vindicating his stand. “They realized I was right,” he said recently, “but they did not say it. People did not remember ... I have always been ahead of my time.”
In the same year, when King was overseas, Pouliot suggested that the ageing Prime Minister should step down. He proposed C. D. Howe as a successor. Two years later he again took up the theme, this time bitterly. He made contrasts. In other days the prime minister did not act without consulting his ministers and party. ’Things had changed. He did not want to be unpleasant, but he had a duty to perform. It concerned the relations that should exist between the prime minister and his supporters in the House.
“I do it,” Pouliot said, “in the hope that the next prime minister will adopt a different attitude with regard to members of parliament from what we have had in the past fifteen years . . . It is time the Liberal Party changed its attitude of worship of one man and returned to the old system of co-operation between all members ...”
The next year Pouliot applauded the new party chief, Louis St. Laurent, for having indicated the intention to “carry on with Liberal policies as I knew them when I was first elected . . .” He said he was ready to forget his party’s past mistakes.
Today Pouliot rises less frequently from his place in the front rank, next to the cabinet benches. This comparative silence in the once-tireless talker of Temiscouata can be traced to 1946 when the government refused to heed his advice against a British loan. He then stated he would save his words for outside the House. It was not, however, a vow of absolute silence.
He kept his hand in at the most recent session with half - a - dozen speeches, during which he ruffled the Conservatives with the undocumented assertion that R. B. Bennett knowingly assisted the approach of the depression. Among several questions he placed on the order paper was one on a distinctive Canadian flag, which Pouliot thinks desirable but a long way off.
What next? From time to time it has been suggested that Pouliot, after his years in the Commons, will round out his parliamentary career in the Senate. Pouliot would like to go there. It would mean staying in politics, but without the chores of looking after a riding. What it would mean to the Senate is more interesting. The Senate has never had anyone quite like the member for Temiscouata. ★