THE SOCIAL CONSCIENCE OF JOHN MUNRO
Let his concern — not his example — be your guide
He is 20 pounds overweight, wheezes like an asthmatic factory whistle, smokes more than a pack of cigarettes a day — and he’s worried about our health? He is the Minister of National Health and Welfare and quite obviously the personification of some of his department’s more pressing problems. Canadians in the Seventies are supposed to work less (he puts in 14 to 18 hours a day), relax more (he makes no constructive use of his leisure, mostly because he has none) and, above all, keep fit (he once bought a stationary bicycle, rode it the equivalent of twice around the block, got off and never got back on again). All of which is to say that John Carr Munro has all the inadequacies, hesitancies and torments of which people — as opposed to image politicians — are actually made. He is, image-wise, an eminently unsalable product: his clothes are a taste maker’s travesty, his speechmaking generally inept; he has little charm and no discernible wit. With Munro there is no slick marketing; what you see is what you get — that plus the imperatives that drive him. These imperatives add up to a search for solutions to human, not bureaucratic, problems. In short, the heaviest thing about the health minister is his social conscience.
It’s hard, then, not to have a lot of sympathy for Munro. There is still something in all of us — whether we like it or not — that responds sympathetically to a politician who has got where he is not through money and the tricks of publicity but through hard work and integrity — especially if he also listens to his mother. And Munro, lacking the trappings of personality politics, has gained one of the highest offices in the gift of the Canadian people by working himself baggy-eyed and heeding his mom’s advice.
Kate Munro has been a kind of éminence grise and main push behind her son’s career for 20 years, ever since he ran for high-school president in 1948. She still runs his Hamilton East riding office year round, but her pride in his success turns to tears when she talks of his living and working habits. Munro himself dismisses her concern and that of others around him: “I saw my doctor not long ago and he tells me I’m in pretty good shape.”
Just the same, I got a very good idea of what troubles his mother so much the first time I had lunch with him. “I’m starving,” Munro said, and ordered the five-dollar prime ribs. Innocently I asked what he thought about the guaranteed annual income. He laid down his knife and fork, took a sip of his gin and tonic and set off: “The guaranteed annual income is no ultimate panacea for poverty because of the disincentive for work it would, by its very nature, develop. We must try to enhance the identity of Canadians, not by handing out cheques or by encouraging them to work for a buck no matter what the job is,
but through some kind of meaningful endeavor, putting the right man in the right job, including intelligent retraining.” He continued on this theme, with ramifications and asides, for over an hour. When his driver called for him he departed abruptly, leaving behind three empty glasses, an ashtray full of du Maurier butts — and five dollars worth of untouched food.
Now this incident has nothing to do with Munro’s being a heavy drinker (he isn’t, particularly); it has everything to do with his being obsessed with his work and with learning about it and talking about it. Eating, at that lunch, simply got in the way of the business at hand, and nothing is allowed to do that. When Munro got the health portfolio, he decided to set a good example. With great fanfare, he quit smoking. With no fanfare, he gradually backslid until he was defying up to 30 or so times a day the warning he wants printed on all cigarette packages. Quitting smoking, nicotine withdrawal, you see, was a distraction; it broke his concentration and thus interfered with his work. He never had a chance.
Nicotine was a drug Munro knew. Marijuana, hashish, LSD and speed were drugs he didn’t. And since drug abuse comes under his department he set out to learn, not by simply listening to his advisers but by finding out for himself in the so-called hippie pads of Toronto’s Yorkville, which in 1968-69 sheltered a cross section of kids from all over Canada who were, as they say, into drugs. And he learned more — firsthand from heads, speed freaks, dealers, rock musicians and street-level drug workers — than any other politician in Canada. So when Munro set up the LeDain Commission on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, he knew what he was doing. The commission has subsequently broken through a lot of the ignorance, prejudice and fear that surround drugs by doing just what Munro himself had done — listening to the kids who use them. Whatever legislation comes out of the final LeDain report — and politics, not social conscience, will set its limits — it will at least be informed by the enlightenment that Munro, and after him the commission, gained by paying heed to the voices from the street.
Very nearly one fifth of all the money the federal government takes in this year ($2.9 billion out of $15.7 billion) will be spent by the Department of National Health and Welfare. Eight thousand people work there. Yet scarcely a scrap of paper, even the most ineffectual press release, leaves Munro’s office without being scrutinized and signed by the minister.
Despite the overwhelming workload, Munro has stoutly resisted suggestions in parliament — and in the cabinet — that his dual ministry of health and welfare be split into two. “They’re too integrated J continued on page 38 Munro continued / for that,” he says. But his staff had to scramble to compile a list of the services that Munro oversees, and even then a secretary, presenting the following compendium, had to warn: “There are probably things we’ve left out because there are so many.”
Here, then, is a probably partial list of Munro’s responsibilities. Health: Medicare; drug abuse and its control, including alcohol and tobacco; nutrition under the Food and Drug Directorate, including consumer complaints; child and maternal health care services; abortion information; dental health; health grants; a medical department to check on the health of would-be immigrants; Indian and Eskimo health. Welfare: Old age pensions; family allowances; youth allowances; Canada Assistance Plan; fitness and amateur sports program; family planning; day-care centres (50% federal contribution).
So it is not, perhaps, surprising that Munro sometimes confuses the functions of his myriad responsibilities with those of other cabinet ministers. Once he made a speech criticizing the legal profession as “a sham and a shame,” thereby stepping on the toes of the justice minister and ending up with as much rebuke as the lawyers he was slamming. On another occasion, after a preliminary report of the LeDain commission, Munro told the press: “The government is committed to the abolition of the jail term for the possession of marijuana.” Again he had invaded the justice minister’s territory, and later he stood up in the House and pleaded guilty: “I got carried away and went too far.”
Munro admits that he lacks the image-making assets to become a national political figure. “I know my image probably leaves a helluva lot to be desired across the country,” he says. And most Parliamentary Press Gallery correspondents readily agree with him, though few of them seem to have penetrated Munro’s rumpled and inarticulate exterior deeply enough to discover the integrity within. Before last February’s cabinet shuffle, some of them warned: “Don’t write anything long-range about Munro. After the shuffle, he may find himself in a different post.”
Granted, Munro is decidedly not a member of the inner circle of the Trudeau cabinet. In fact, his personal relations with Trudeau are on the formal side — Munro addresses him as Mr. Prime Minister, even in private. About the cabinet ministers closest to Trudeau, he says: “Sure, they’ve got a lot of influence, but not to the oppressive extent wherein you can’t cope with it.”
The cabinet shake-up duly came, with all its surprises. But there was Munro, the bull in Trudeau’s fine china shop, still presiding in the huge paneled office of his ministerial penthouse. Munro’s special assistant, Bob Blackwood, a dapper, mod type, is constantly trying to get his boss to dress in a manner more in keeping with his surroundings. Around the office, Munro’s suits are usually referred to as “stainless steel.” His adamant reaction: “Well, I don't care a damn what you think — my constituents happen to like these suits.”
His constituents seem equally untroubled by Munro’s lack of cool: he’s a squirmer, a grimacer, a scowler, a shuffler, a wheezer. Says Peter Calamai, an Ottawa correspondent for the Southam papers who sees a lot of Munro: “After Munro has walked up a flight of stairs he’s breathing so furiously you can hear him 30 feet away.”
Actually, Munro was in pretty good shape before he took up politics. At Westdale Secondary School in Hamilton he was a consistent winner in boxing and running. As a Boy Scout he won badges at twice the average rate, 42 in two years. Athletics, especially running and boxing, were useful adjuncts for survival in Hamilton East 25 years ago. This was particularly so if one belonged to the minority Anglo-Saxon “elite,” surrounded by a patchwork quilt of immigrants from Italy, Poland, the Ukraine, Serbia, Lithuania, to name a few. Most of the men — meaning any male of school - leaving age — went to work for one of the two huge steel plants, Stelco and Dofasco, which dominate the area economically and physically, spreading their pall of grime — in those pre-anti-pollution days at any rate — over buildings and washday clotheslines.
John Munro’s father was John Anderson Munro, of straight Scottish descent. He was a lawyer whose political career reached no further than secretary of the local Liberal Association. He died in 1952 when Munro was 21. Munro’s mother was far more politically active. She helped found the Hamilton Women’s Liberal Association and later became its president. As early as 1925 she had campaigned for her father, Doctor Leeming Carr, who became a member of Howard Ferguson’s ultra-Tory Ontario government.
There’s a Munro tradition that John was politically minded before he was in his teens, that where other boys used old magazines as shin guards for pickup hockey games, Munro used copies of Hansard. Munro did indeed prefer reading the biographies of great figures in history to poring over comic books, and one day informed a Hamilton librarian calmly that he intended to become prime minister of Canada.
In 1948, aged 17, Munro entered politics of a sort, when he decided to run for student president of his high school. Kate Munro financed and managed the campaign. It was by all odds the most spectacular, if not the most significant, that the mother-andson team was to stage during their 20-year political partnership. Marching bugle bands trumpeted up and down the streets, followed by chanting troops of Munro supporters. Loudspeakers blared the candidate’s praises. A bevy of teen-aged girls on roller skates, their bodies plastered with large VOTE MUNRO posters, cruised the corridors of the school. An artificial waterfall, bearing the sponsor’s name prominently, was built in the school gym. Overhead an airplane circled, trailing a VOTE MUNRO banner. Naturally, he won easily.
But not long afterward a different kind of educational occurrence nearly put an end to his schooling. In his first year at McMaster University he flunked two out of five of his courses. “The subjects just didn’t interest me,” Munro says.
He hitchhiked his way to Arvida, Quebec, the aluminum city, failed to get a job, and, broke, “gave himself up” at the local police station. Instead of being treated as a vagrant, he was given a bed (“My cell was quite comfortable, actually”) and next morning was sent on his way home.
Back in Hamilton his ambition for higher education returned. He accumulated the necessary money by taking two jobs. By day he worked with a Hamilton City street-repair gang; by night he wrestled freight in a railroad yard. His earnestness impressed the admissions officials at the University of Western Ontario in London, and they agreed to take him on as a second-year student if he could pass the subjects he had missed. He did so.
To conserve his money he lived in a semi-flophouse and took a job as night janitor in Labatt’s Brewery. In three years Munro graduated with “average grades” and a BA in political science. By now he knew that politics were to be his life, and since it seemed to him that the law was the shortest route to political success he enrolled at Osgoode Hall law school in Toronto, commuting daily from Hamilton. Characteristically, the long hours involved in traveling to and from Toronto and taking his law course couldn’t fill all Munro’s time. He added a part-time job in the Hamilton city solicitor’s office, and he and his mother started the political strategy that was to become the Munro trademark: personal visits to every home in the riding.
When Munro was 24 and in his second year of law, he decided it was time for him to plunge into politics — in the comparatively modest arena of city hall. Munro won by the largest plurality ever given a Hamilton aiderman. He was reelected repeatedly until he won his first federal seat in 1962.
It was a furious pace — and it began to take its toll. Munro had become a chain smoker, and weariness had started to show in the bags under the eyes. By 1956 he had opened his own full-time law practice, was still serving on Hamilton council and mapping with his mother the strategy for a federal candidacy, and he was planning to marry. The girl was Marguerite Clay, a college graduate from Sault Ste. Marie. It was, because of Munro's multitude of activities, a sporadic courtship. A close friend of Miss Clay’s remembers that she tried to get a little more of Munro’s attention by dating another man. It didn't work. Munro simply turned his well-known scowl on the rival, snarled “You bug off, hear?” and that was that. But Miss Clay didn’t see her fiancé any more often. They were married in December, 1956, but a largely absentee husband has been the story of her life ever since. In Ottawa they live in a comparatively modest upper duplex with their daughters, Susan, 11, and Ann, 7.
A month after his marriage Munro was immersed in his plans for the federal election expected that summer. For once, he didn’t take his mother’s advice and, for the first and only time in his political career, he lost.
Back in the fall of 1956, when he first started planning his strategy, the Munro stronghold of Hamilton East had a Liberal incumbent, Tom Ross, and Munro didn’t want to contest his renomination. Instead, Munro got the Hamilton West nomination — and the formidable Ellen Fairclough as an opponent. Then in November Tom Ross died. Kate Munro told her son: “There’s plenty of time for you to switch ridings. In the east, you can win easily. In the west, you’ll be beaten.” But Munro decided not to change. His mother proved right.
Munro could sense the rising Diefenbaker tide, and cautiously sat out the 1958 election, which proved to be, as Munro had feared, a Conservative landslide. Munro promptly launched a four-year election campaign aimed at 1962. He still had his law practice, his aldermanic duties and now family life was added. But he managed to campaign as energetically as if the election were imminent.
When nomination day came, he and Kate Munro began their familiar door-to-door visitations, and Hamilton East became garlanded with Munro’s blue-and-orange posters. So much did Munro paper blanket the riding that one newspaper expressed the fear that “when all the Munro posters are taken down, Hamilton East will collapse like a house of cards.” He beat the incumbent Conservative by nearly 4,000 votes.
Munro admits that he went to Ottawa with the resolve to become a cabinet minister in short order. But he spent nearly six years as a backbencher and in the only slightly more prestigious post of parliamentary secretary. And financial problems were besetting him. The cost of his campaigns, added to the expense of running a year-round campaign office, as Kate Munro does for her son, was more than he could keep up with.
Even today, with his $35,000 ministerial salary, Munro says that he’s deeply in debt. “He’s pretty haphazard with money,” Kate Munro says.
In February, 1968, Munro felt that his hour had finally come. A new minister of labor was to be announced. Munro was confident he would get the post, that he deserved it. He and a group of friends were in a suite at the Royal York hotel in Toronto when the announcement came — the new temporary minister of labor was Bryce Mackasey.
Paul Wright, a Hamilton Spectator writer, told me what happened next: “Munro immediately went to the bedroom of the suite. Later I went in to ask his reaction and found him in bed with tears streaming from his eyes. His wife was trying to comfort him. I said, ‘John, what the hell’s the trouble?’
“ ‘To hell with the Liberal party,’ he said. ‘I’m quitting right now. And you get to hell out of here too.’
“Next day he reconsidered, but insisted: ‘It was no ploy, I really wanted to get out.’ ”
It was just as well that Munro did not give up that frustrating day in 1968, because his day was not to be long delayed. At the 1968 Liberal leadership convention, he at first supported Allan MacEachen. When MacEachen was out of the race, Munro threw his support behind Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who subsequently bestowed on him, at 37, the health and welfare portfolio.
The way in which Munro has conducted himself in the portfolio can best be understood in the words of a bartender named Alex, who works in a pub across the street from Munro’s old high school. I was sitting in there one night discussing politics with a couple of friends. Alex, who was serving our table, picked up on the conversation and went into the usual tirade against politicians. “They don't give a damn about the average Joe,” he said. “They all got pockets that deep.” Later he heard Munro’s name mentioned. “That’s a different story,” he said. “That guy ain’t had an extra penny in his life but he’d bust his butt for anybody. He did for me; I was up to my neck in trouble, hardly knew him, but went to see him anyway, and he bailed me out. The only thing he wanted in return was to bum a couple of cigarettes. He was trying to quit and didn’t have any on him.” ■