ALWAYS THE YOUNG STRANGER
Defense Minister James Richardson has no one to fight for him but himself
One brisk recent winter morning almost two years to the day since he was first named Canadian minister of defense, James Richardson showed up at the cold concrete highrise fortress that is national defense headquarters in Ottawa and they wouldn’t let him in. Generals littered the lobby. Mere captains were coming and going with a flip of their pastel photo identity cards. But James Richardson was stopped at the passgate with not a flicker of recognition. The private on the door was impassive. “You got a pass?” he said.
“I mean, it was embarrassing,” an aide remembers. “I had to say, ‘Look, let him through. This is the minister.’ But he’d only been there maybe twice before. I told them, ‘We’ve got to get him over here more often. We’ve got to get him known. We’ve got to get some pictures of him around here so they recognize him’.”
They sent some pictures of James Richardson over to national defense headquarters and now they recognize him. “Oh yeah, the minister,” says the private on the door now. “Sure I recognize him. But he never comes here. He doesn’t like us, that’s all I know about him.”
Indeed, in many ways that is all anybody seems to know about James Armstrong Richardson III, scion of Winnipeg, voice of the West and the man the military regard as their scourge during the current defense budget crisis, which has been termed “the biggest debate since unification.” His has been a political career that could not exactly be called charismatic. Unique might be a better word. After all, who else could have been in the innermost sanctums of Ottawa power for seven years now and still have the distinction of being one of the least known and most misunderstood men in cabinet, an enigma to the public and a curiosity to his colleagues, the Brand X of federal political life? Who else could have toiled so long and still remain the man they refer to as the Silent Minister?
In the backslapping, desk-thumping boys’ club that is the House of Commons, the shy, awkward, sometimes aloof presence of James Richardson seems oddly out of place. He does not slip and slide with the rest of them. The heady hunger for the spotlight’s glare does not gnaw at the back of his eyes. Once he was actually overheard protesting to a distraught company president about to lose a government contract, “Gosh, it never occurred to me that anybody would be diabolical or misleading.” And one of his more memorable leaps into parliamentary rhetoric nearly sent the bill he was defending under, peppered as it was by 65 interjections and such lines as, “In my opinion the prairie topsoil is one of the sacred possessions of the nation,” which moved Conservative Eldon Woolliams of Calgary to note, “One more speech like this and that topsoil will blow away.”
No, James Richardson came late in life to politics, and not for the usual reasons, and now he wears it like a borrowed suit, with a trace of apology. He hurries down the echoing Commons corridors in his own expensively tailored threads as if in perpetual pursuit of some elusive appointment, which actually may have some basis since he is almost unfailingly late for everything. His full-lipped handsome profile is creased with earnest worry, as if struggling over some constant insoluble inner crossword, which too may have some truth to it since his is perhaps the most puzzling position in all of Canadian politics. Indeed, it is a position which seems to leave James Richardson always out there somewhere on the threshold, never quite making it in the door.
It is dusk on a winter Winnipeg evening. The lobby of the downtown Holiday Inn is awash in TV lights, but the air is charged with anti-climax, a monstrous Prairie shrug. In the land of wheat and money, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau has come to call and James Richardson is not far behind. Well, not very far behind. But certainly not as close as he might have liked. To catch a glimpse of the voice of the West at this particular moment was to see a man who was having a certain difficulty not merely in getting heard but even in getting seen anywhere near the Prime Minister at all.
He edged in closer behind Trudeau’s elbow for the cameras but he seemed to be struggling to keep in the picture. He quickened his pace. He flashed his most dazzling photogenic smile. But still, try as he might, James Richardson could not entirely conceal that this had not been an easy 24 hours.
Only the night before he had heard the news that he was not scheduled to greet Trudeau at the airport and had worried that it would be “a real break in tradition, the first time in seven years.” It was not a break to be taken airily, he knew. After all, it.could confirm rumors that Trudeau was less than pleased with him ever since he let it be circulated that he would not run again in the last election unless the government restored its Air Canada repair facilities to Winnipeg. Trudeau is not the sort of man to be blackmailed lightly. He gave in, of course, flew out to the city himself to announce the news and upstage Robert Stanfield’s western coming. But they say he never quite forgave James Richardson, especially when he went on to deliver the Liberals a victory margin of 7,000 fewer votes in his Winnipeg South riding than ever before. They say 'it could have done nothing to strengthen a rapport that had never been the same since Trudeau had learned of James Richardson’s views on the French-English question. When Trudeau learned of his views on the French-English question he asked him if he wouldn’t please keep them to himself.
Lately, the Winnipeg papers had taken to speculating that perhaps he was an outsider now in cabinet. His aides knew that something must be done. They made a few discreet phone calls. And now after 24 hours of behind-the-
Marci McDonald is an associate editor and a senior writer for Maclean’s.
He looked around and said, “What other corporate boards are there?” He was fascinated by the biggest board of them all
scenes parrying to get him first on Trudeau’s plane, then in his car at the airport, here he found himself jockeying to get in his TV shots, trying not to look like a stranger on home ground.
Lesser men might have been dashed by the experience. But not James Richardson, who believes in the redeeming power of positive thinking, the eternal verities of free enterprise and inspirational verse. On his office wall he keeps a copy of Kipling’s “If you ca,n keep your head when all about you are losing theirs . . .,” beside a chair in his Ottawa office he has fondly placed a sculpture of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and in his left trouser pocket on a leather thong he carries a tiny carved aluminum duck dubbed J. J. after the philosophical seagull. In those awkward Ottawa social pauses when colleagues watch James Richardson fish in his pocket for loose change and in his head for words, he is frequently just fishing for the reassurance of J. J. He reaches for him now. Four hours later, after a dinner during which he has been placed not at the head table with Trudeau but just below it. he will nevertheless relax over a rye and ginger ale and conclude that the day has gone well.
He likes to look on the brighter side of things. Those close to him say he sails through life impervious to slight and oversight, oblivious of derisive sneer and snub. But then perhaps he has good reason. After all, it is nothing new for James Richardson to find himself on the outside. In a sense he was born to it. For to be born a Richardson in Winnipeg is to be forever set off from the common herd, destined always to be once removed , the eternal étranger.
The Richardson building looms in concrete majesty over the windiest corner of Canada, 32 stories and 407 feet of sheer presence twinkling out its solid lofty reassurance like some landlocked Prairie lighthouse, guiding home the sheaves to the corner of Portage and Main. When James Richardson plunged into politics almost eight years ago. he had just started building it. Winnipeg’s first and still its tallest skyscraper, monument to the country’s oldest and least known wholly owned family empire, fulfillment of his dead father’s dream.
Nobody knows precisely what the Richardson fortune is worth but conservative estimates put it at $700 million. Nobody knows exactly what it comprises but at last count there was one of the country’s largest retail investment houses, 520 grain elevators, three wheat terminals with a capacity of 18 million bushels, an insurance company, countless feed firms, stock farms, shipping lines and pipelines, not to mention these four-and-a-half acres of Winnipeg’s most sacred topsoil where James Richardson laid down in mortar and steel the fitting imprint of what it all stood for.
They took his picture against the building when he descended from the glassed-in aerie of his chairman of the board’s office that bright May day in 1968 to announce that he was giving it all up to throw in his lot with Pierre Trudeau. He stood there in the wind, all smiles and promise, and the only ques-
tion then, as now, was what he was doing it for.
“You know,” he says relaxing in his office, grey flannel and shy aristocratic cover neatly laid aside. “I was just interested in being around the big table. I’d been around every other big corporate table — Hudson’s Bay. the oldest company in Canada, Inco. one of the most profitable. Investors Group, the largest mutual fund, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, the CPR. I looked around and said. ‘What other corporate boards are there?’ 1 was fascinated by the big board, the ultimate board of directors, as it were.”
In cabinet, it would be safe to put James Richardson on the far right. Discussing the fate of the Indians and Eskimos, he will suddenly puzzle, “I mean, what did they ever do for Canada? Did they discover gas? Did they discover oil? They didn’t even invent the wheel. Why, when we came here, they were still dragging things around on two sticks.”
They say it has been a comfort to Bay Street to have J. R„ as his aides call him. at the big board — although it has not always appeared to be a comfort to his brother George. George, now reigning Richardson president and a reported Conservative, made a speech during the last election criticizing government meddling in business, which wasn’t exactly seen as a big boost to his brother’s campaign. Still, James Richardson says, “On the important matters, he and I are very close.”
After all, since childhood they were both groomed for the task of being a Richardson, a task he never looked on as a burden, although his children have since often mentioned it that way. “No, I was always rather pleased about it,” he says. “I always say it’s like skiing. If you go off on your own in the fresh snow, you may have more fun, but if you stay in the tracks that are already there, you may go farther.”
The tracks that were already there were laid deep and clean. When James Richardson sits down to talk about himself. he starts back in 1823.
That was the year the first James Richardson arrived from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, in the arms of his father, a small motherless thing of three who soon became fatherless as well. But an aunt in Kingston took him in. later sent him to apprentice to a local tailor and before long he had his own tailor shop. When farmers began to pay for their suits in bags of grain, he developed a canny knack of selling. The back of his shop began to fill up with grain till there was just no more room for material. In 1857 he hung out his shingle finally as a grain merchant, and, as James Richardson III likes to point out. his firm’s centenary was celebrated a decade before Canada’s. There is a sense in the telling that Confederation is nice, sure, but the Richardsons have been around longer.
Through two generations they thrived. But they did not thrive in Winnipeg until 1920 when his father. James Richardson II. a big. vital bear of a man. moved the head office there and shaped the empire to what it is today. He ventured into the brokerage business and built a fledgling airway of the west which was to become the backbone of both Air Canada and CP Air. In the great white mansion he built on the banks of the Assiniboine, where his youngest daughter Kathleen still lives today surrounded by a sweep of treed estate, the affairs that were to become the affairs of the nation were chatted over at the breakfast table and you
A friend remembers him out campaigning at a bus stop: “I don’t think Jim had ever been at a bus stop in his life before ”
learned to read a commodities chart with your cereal.
James Richardson remembers it as a “normal, happy” childhood but three weeks later after pondering it, he will suddenly pull a piece of hotel stationery from his pocket on which he has scrawled: “As a child I always felt that I was in some way unique, special, separate, distinguished . .
It would be difficult not to consider yourself special growing up in a house when CPR president Sir Edward Beatty, financier Sir James Dunn and Winston Churchill came to call. “As a boy I’d always creep in and listen to their conversations,” he says. “I was fascinated by what older people talked about. I wanted to talk about that too.”
Years later, when he was just out of the air force and in England at 23, he would call on Winston Churchill himself, and when he was told the great man was busy, he would leave his calling card with a note saying he remembered Churchill visiting his father’s house and now he was returning the favor. He never thought there was anything odd about it for years.
It was a cocoon existence, shored up by servants, set oif behind wrought iron fences and staunch stone gates, chauffeured to private school across the river in the back of the big old family Lincoln. watching the world through a pane of safety glass. Even Winnipeg was kept at a distance, and when the Richardsons practically donated the city’s entire cultural foundation they shied from the headlines, wanted no credit. If they advertised, there was always the sense that it was a distasteful necessity. “You always down-played rather than overplayed,” he says.
At Queen’s, the family hovered close still. The sports stadium, administration building — Richardson bequests all; although he likes to say that when he was elected class president his first week, “I don’t think more than two or three people knew my father was chancellor of the university.”
He was never a brilliant student. He studied politics and economics, was pleasant, good-looking — boyish. He will be 53 this month, but that’s the word that would best describe him still. In his office now he gets out a letter to a college roommate from the air force describing life, first liberty and the joy of learning to fly, and it is touchingly ingenuous, naively lyrical and brimming with an idealism untarnished by the gritty practicalities of getting through from day to day and pay to pay. He flew a B-10 Liberator bomber, but never got beyond the bases of Canada, patrolling the North Atlantic for submarines. “Of course we never saw any,” he says. Then it was back to the waiting company bosom where, “You were in the same places, the Manitoba Club, the Granite Club in Toronto, you talked to the same people. It was all the same to me.”
A friend remembers him out campaigning the first day at a Winnipeg bus stop. “And it was painful,” he says. “I don’t think Jim had ever been at a bus stop in his life before.”
What few knew is that he was there firmly against the advice of Muriel
Sprague Richardson, indomitable family matriarch, president of the company for 27 years after her husband’s death in 1939 and a formidable woman. “Very,” says her son. To understand what it was to stand up to her is to know that she did not resign and let him become chairman until he was 44 years old.
Nor was his wife, Shirley, a shy, wry Englishwoman who came from Cunard money, any more enthusiastic. She still flies to Ottawa only when she has to, stays instead on the beautiful, drifting 30-acre estate on which her husband built a rambling comfortable house of subdued greys and greens just where the Assiniboine curves, and tends her rare Sicilian donkeys, Welsh ponies and Suffolk sheep.
“It was a personal decision. Not a family decision,” he says. “They said, ‘You’ll just embarrass yourself and us and everybody.’ ” But he came anyway. He’d always wanted to, he says.
Still, the voice of the West did not arrive in Ottawa fully blown.
“I certainly didn’t by any means come down as a champion of the West,” he says. “I was a Canadian then. A starryeyed Canadian. I was innocent, wideeyed. It never occurred to me there were people who were running things for their own narrow interests. It was only after being here that I began to see all the money that was spent in Toronto and Montreal. Eighty-five percent of all federal spending was being done in Ontario and Quebec. They asked why the West was alienated — well, no wonder. Now when I try to get a few small things for the West they all cry ‘Pork barrel.’ Which is extraordinary when they’ve got the whole barrel down here.”
James Richardson insists all he wants is “simple justice.” And in his own unique way he may have done more for the West than other, more vocal ministers before him. He niggled and he nattered till he got the new federal Mint moved lock and stock to Winnipeg when the official plan clearly had it penciled in over there in Hull. He won them defense contracts, aerospace contracts and finally, though he shrinks from the word blackmail, the Air Canada repair hangar that the government had just finished taking away. He managed to turn around the whole course of Ottawa spending which had been merrily centralizing for years. Still, it was all in his own unique way.
The voice of the West was frequently regarded as a tiresome whine in the wilderness, always standing up in cabinet and going on about economic regionalism, especially when, as one minister confides, “Jim has the knack of bringing up questions at absolutely the worst time.”
Even the military was miffed when word leaked out that, in order to accommodate a new defense maintenance hangar awarded to his home town, the flying hours of all 707s had been cut back by one-third so they wouldn’t be ready for a checkup before the hangar was. Indeed, the forces had the suspicion that James Richardson was not their strongest booster in cabinet. As one officer put it, “Let’s face it, he’s more interested in Winnipeg than us.”
On a strip of military tarmac outside Halifax a small clutch of Canadian Forces green huddles in the drizzle to watch a silver speck descend out of the sky, dip, dive, and miraculously materialize as the trim white Falcon disgorging their leader in an elegant navy Aquascutum trench coat. James Richardson is half an hour late but that is nothing. Maritime Command, the larg-
In Cyprus he came out squarely for the Turks
est command in the country with a budget of $458 million, had been waiting for this visit for two years. Since his appointment as defender of the troops in November 1972, he has been meaning to get out and see them, but he has never quite made it. Not that James Richardson hasn’t been otherwise occupied.
First there’d been the matter of turning over the entire military advertising budget to his great and good friend Gordon Hill. Then the 25-day around-theworld trip with Hill, both their wives and a planeload of press, meeting other defense ministers, although one could understand the confusion of the New Zealand wire services that reported they were “holidaying” there.
Now, never having strayed so far as Halifax, he had just returned from his second trip to the Middle East reviewing the troops in a baby-blue jump suit, and, despite years of sometimes trying neutrality on the part of Canadian peacekeeping forces, had managed to come out at a Cyprus press conference squarely on the side of Turkish policy. It was regarded as just one of James Richardson’s gaffes at the time, but later he insisted he knew exactly what he was doing. “If they were asking me what I thought they should do, well, I was telling them,” he says wide-eyed. “You can't always pussyfoot around.” The reaction from External Affairs had been, he admits, “mild shock.”
He had promptly flown home then into a maelstrom over the defense budget which was being ravished by inflation. The forces’ strength had eroded to an all-time low of 78,000, recruitment had been slashed and officers in high places were planting press leaks that despaired over the state of the aged tinny Centurion tank and the lumbering Argus long-range reconnaissance aircraft. Morale had ebbed to a trickle and the whole future of the Canadian military commitment suddenly stood in question. But if the troops were hurting, nowhere was it worse than Maritime Command. As he took the salute there on the tarmac from feisty Maritime Commander Rear-Admiral Douglas (“The Festering”) Boyle, it would not perhaps be an exaggeration to say that as a defense minister James Richardson ranked only slightly ahead of Paul Hellyer in popularity.
Admiral Boyle’s destroyers languished in Halifax harbor, their seahours cut back by one third. His flights had been wing-clipped by the same to save on rocketing fuel costs. “I’ve got
4.700,000 square miles to survey,” he would say later. “My men are working an 84-hour week on the ships at sea. Now they don't mind if it’s meaningful.” Admiral Boyle was determined to show it w'as meaningful. “I told the minister. ‘Give me three days.’ ” he kept saying. But the minister had given him a day and a half. Well, they had warned him. It was a grueling tour they had laid on.
They shuttled him through dockyards and down submarine hatches, through darkened rooms where men played war games against mythical demonic invaders and into tiny cubicles masquerading as helicopters. They gave him a hard hat and trundled him onto a rattling tin can of a school bus. jolted him down dark Atlantic wharves lashed by wind, where divers plunged into the icy brine for him. and always there seemed to be a proper even military voice droning over a shoulder somewhere, “Maritime Command has a direct influence on one third of the population of Halifax, sir.”
At the end of it James Richardson’s eyes were glazing over with exhaustion, or maybe it was just the Gravol taking hold. For then they sent him out to sea for the night on a destroyer with 20-foot waves and a 20-degree roll and more war exercises till 3 a.m., all dressed up in a monstrous green nylon survival suit, wrapped head to toe.
James Richardson, who is so careful of his appearance that he sometimes sends his valet George out to get his shirts from the laundry re-pressed, looked pained at the spectacle of himself as this shambling green nylon bunny but still he went, waved off by the admiral who stayed on land. In the morning James Richardson reported that he hadn’t slept well. Nobody had told him about the strap on his bunk and he kept falling out of bed all night.
That day at lunch he met the boys in green. He wasn’t scheduled to speak, but they cornered him and he found himself on his feet repeating what he’d said so often: that the 12.4% anti-inflation defense increase this year amounted to more than some whole government departments get to spend, more than the sum of whole provincial budgets, that it was better to have a small better equipped force, that things were looking up. His words fell on the cleared table settings like the thud of fresh-caught cod. “He dodged all the questions,” muttered a disgruntled captain. “If he’d just let us know he was fighting for us.”
On the way home, James Richardson knew it had not gone well. “I should have had some jokes,” he told a military attaché. “I always like to tell a few jokes.” The attaché was silent. “Well, sir,” he finally said, “I think it was a very serious matter you were discussing.”
A week later at the semiannual ministerial meeting of NATO in Brussels. James Richardson had a joke. It was the first joke reportedly ever told in those sombre august chambers and when he got up to tell it, the Canadian military contingent led by tall elegant General Jacques Dextrase is reported to have appeared to be searching for a cavity to sink into in the gold broadloom. Before the room convulsed in laughter, there was the longest pause. Not that it bothered James Richardson. “Well, I accomplished something,” he said later. “I was the first to wear a light suit and I was the first to tell a joke.”
His speech to NATO the next day was another first: a pitch that Canada deserved a bigger share of defense contracts for its contributions — an odd plea frpm a country whose NATO commitment is just ahead of Luxembourg and Iceland. Certainly not one that had ever been heard before. Still, it had a familar ring to it. “It was identical to the pitch for the West,” Richardson agreed on the plane home. “It’s only simple justice. That’s all I’m ever seeking. External Affairs were flipping out about it. They said there was the longest silence they’d ever seen. But that didn’t bother me.” He was genuinely delighted as the plane taxied out onto the runway. Then he pulled a hotel envelope from his pocket on which he had scribbled some thoughts on whether he’d like to be prime minister someday. He admitted he’d be willing, but only “to lead a special kind of Canada. My vision of Canada.” But, as he said, “Unfortunately I can’t get into my vision of Canada without getting into my hang-ups.” And it is no secret in Ottawa that his hang-ups are about the French-English question. James Richardson in fact believes that bilingualism is leading us to rack and ruin, not a viewpoint that goes unshared in the West. But in a cabinet firmly committed to the way through two official languages, James Richardson ^certainly finds himself the odd fellow out. “You don’t know how frustrating it is that I can’t put my views on the record,” he says. “It’s really more important to me than the West.” But one thing he wants to make clear: although it seems he did not quite understand what Trudeau was talking about when he agreed to run with him — this bilingual policy came as an awful shock — it’s because he likes the man so much that he’s hanging in there, hoping for a better time.
The plane is airborne now and James Richardson seems pleased to have gotten it off his chest. He orders a rye and ginger and relaxes as the jet arcs up over the Belgian countryside. Down on the streets of Brussels, of course, they were speaking French,