Defender of the faith
Can John Roberts convert the Anglo hordes?
The meeting chairman, slightly nervous, speaks: “Ladies and gentlemen, because of the weather conditions here and in Ottawa, the Honorable Mr. Roberts is going to be a bit late. We’ll get started in 10 or 15 minutes. In the meantime, may I ask that if you want to smoke, would you please do it out in the hall.” A solitary fanatic applauds. It is the year’s first “accountability session” of the Toronto St. Paul’s Federal Liberal Riding Association and 70 constituents have trekked out in bad weather to hold to account their Member of Parliament, John Roberts, 43, newly appointed Secretary of State, who, at the moment, is wandering around the basement looking for the meeting. He arrives 10 minutes late, carrying a black attaché case in one hand and a pair of fleece-lined curling boots in the other. His tie is askew and his belly, encased in a blue pinstripe vest, protrudes gently over his belt. “You’re putting on weight, John,” a smiling constituent tells him. Roberts laughs and complains that over the Christmas holidays he tried not to eat at all, but it didn’t do any good. He looks like a pudgy Gordon MacRae. He does a few more hellos and thank-yous and moves into the meeting room, throwing his topcoat over a chair. The chairman explains the ground rules for the evening, warning that he will have to ring a little bell—“like this”—if the questions run too long. Roberts smiles at the chairman and says something about ringing the bell if his answers are too long. He sits on the lip of a banquet table, faces his audience d’rectly and prepares to submit himself to their questions.
Liberals in conclave are utterly unlike the faithful of other political parties. For one thing, they are unerringly liberal and everlastingly thoughtful. They are on the progressive side of every issue: capital punishment, foreign aid, energy conservation, native rights and the essential goodness of Pierre Trudeau. They believe in free enterprise, The Toronto Star and Senator Keith Davey and make a point of never missing CBC television’s the fifth estate. They eschew racism but still wonder what Quebec really does want. (A man with a thick accent is talking to a Liberal lady in a red hat in the hall. The man says, “If the French want to go, let them go, I say. And nobody can accuse me of being a bigot, I was a DP [displaced person] myself.” The lady responds: “Excuse me, but I don’t think I like that term. I prefer new Canadian or something.”) The women march for Henry Morgentaler, weep for Bryce Mackasey, campaign for clean air
and pray for good government. The men bitch about government waste, tell civil servant jokes and complain about the godawful tinkering being done with the free marketsystem, but their hearts are with the party, which after all has governed Canada for all but 22 years of this century. Tenure has made them smug, but the Gallup poll has made them wary. These Liberals of St.
Paul’s are the Saturday generation, informed consumers who know where to find the good things in the boutiques and booteries along Toronto’s Bloor Street or in the city’s posh Yorkville galleries.
The women all have good teeth and Oil ofOlay cheeks; the men jogor bat a squash ball around. At political meetings the women wear Frye Boots and expensive ski
jackets; the men, aviator glasses, Isle of Aran sweaters and Harris tweed jackets. They are the concerned and the connected of downtown, sluggishly hip Toronto. They hate Tories without regard to race, creed or color and believe, really believe, that men like John Roberts will keep the torch in Liberal hands. They have come to this public library in the heart of North Toronto looking not so much for an accounting from Roberts but for reassurance. There is no panic among them to be sure, but a distinct sense of unease, like that of Saturday shoppers caught in a stalled elevator.
Tonight they are worried not about bread and butter issues, but about Quebec and bilingualism. Of the 26 questions put to Roberts from the floor, not one deals with inflation, wage and price controls or unemployment. Their concern is Quebec and, as they like to say in St. Paul’s, “John is very good on Quebec.” In the months to come, he had better be. For it will be his task, as minister in charge of Ottawa’s controversial bilingualism policies, to persuade anglophone Canadians of the need to endorse and encourage Quebec’s place in Confederation, at a time when that place is less certain than ever before.
So now, for more than two hours, Roberts tries to destroy myths and alter attitudes about bilingualism, about the November 15 Quebec election that brought René Lévesque’s separatist Parti Québécois to power, and about the future of Canada. Over and over again he tells them: “The purpose of the Official Languages Act is not to force Canadians to learn a second language ... it is a language bill of rights.” A man with a British accent in the front row intones: “It’s a matter of history that in Europe the two countries that have never been able to mix, to assimilate, to understand each other, are the French and the English. How do you expect them to be able to do it in Canada?”
Roberts replies that anglophone Canadians are not Englishmen, and that the Québécois are not the same as the continental French. “They are French-speaking North Americans. When I go to England, which I like to do, I have no feeling at all of being at home. We are both people who have rejected the class structure of Europe. We have a shared history.” A woman asks him why Quebec, in her view, can never seem to run its affairs properly. He tells her pointedly that “the way in which you put your question disturbs me.” He assures his audience that the PQ election victory was not a vote against federalism. He startles some members of his audience by suggesting that a major cause for Lévesque’s win was the bilingualism-in-the-cockpit furor, which meant, to francophones, that Quebeckers weren’t allowed to speak to each other in their own language over their own province. Roberts is alternately encouraging(“If you think we’re in a difficult position now, think where we’d be if we hadn’t made the effort for equal language
rights years ago”) and cajoling (“Let’s try to get out of our minds that we are doing Quebec an enormous favor by letting it be part of this country. It benefits us all to have Quebec in Confederation, particularly Ontario”). His audience seems relieved, but Roberts knows he’ll have to answer the same questions about Quebec at the next accountability session and the one after that and during the next election campaign. Because Roberts knows that if the Liberal government’s posture on bilingualism fails here in St. Paul’s, where some effort is made to be right-thinking and open, it will fail everywhere.
During the last few years of the Pearson administration, it used to be said in Ottawa that nobody in government had better people around him than Maurice Sauvé, the then minister of forestry and rural development. His assistants were invariably young, bright, bilingual and politically astute. Among the very best of these was John Roberts, who was hired by Sauvé in 1966. “He had a very good mind,” Sauvé recalls. “He was well-informed politically and was something of a philosopher. He was, like me, left of centre. He understood French Canada and could have just as easily been bom a French Canadian. He wrote speeches for me that were just about classics.” The speechwriting came naturally to Roberts, as did just about everything else. Hamilton-bom and Torontoraised, Roberts fitted in comfortably with the cadre of tough-minded, New Frontiertype executive assistants who came to Ottawa in the early and mid-Sixties to make Canadians—and Liberals—a better people. Roberts, a gold medalist at the University of Toronto, had taken his doctorate in political philosophy at Oxford and studied at the prestigious Ecole nationale d’administration in Paris. He tried teaching for a while, found he was going nowhere, and decided to try Ottawa. “I wanted to write a book on Canadian government,” he says, “because I thought everybody had gotten it all wrong.” In 1963 he joined the external affairs department, where his first job was trundling office files in a grocery cart from one building to another. He was later transferred to External’s United Nations division, where he acquired an interest in international affairs, and finally to the Far East division.
There he was faced with a problem that seemed typically Canadian. Canada wanted to recognize the Asian nation of Mongolia and invite it to Expo ’67, but officials at External were stymied as to how to make overtures to the Ulan Bator government. There were, after all, few foreign capitals in which both Canada and the Mongolians were represented. Roberts was given the job of finding a way, and this led him into the Great Fermented Mare’s Milk Affair. He discovered that this was the national drink of the million or so Mongolians, and that there was a shortage of the stuff. The Mongolians dealt with the problem by cutting unfermented mare’s
milk with vodka, but lacked the export dollars (or rubles) to buy vodka from the Russians. Accordingly, Roberts drew up an aide-memoire suggesting that Canada’s wheat surplus problems could be eased if Ottawa sent the Mongolians grain,which they in turn could sell to the Soviets in exchange for vodka. Canada would receive Mongolian polo ponies in return. Roberts sent the memo up the line for approval; it was sent back down with the marginal note: “We are not amused.”
By the time Pearson stepped down in 1968, Roberts himself was becoming less amused with his role as a political apparatchik. “I didn’t come into politics for the
game of politics, the way some others did,” he says, meaning that he was more interested in government than in gamesmanship. A Liberal leadership convention was set for April. Roberts had met the then justice minister Pierre Trudeau at a couple of parties, but did not know him well. “And with the political prescience that has dogged my career since,” says Roberts, “I didn’t think he had a chance of winning the leadership.” After Trudeau did win, and proceeded to call a June election, Roberts bought a membership card in the party and started to look for a nomination.
By then, he hadn’t lived in Toronto for eight years and was politically unknown. He was interviewed by the executives of three riding associations and turned down. He finally picked the riding of York-Simcoe, north of Toronto “because nobody else would have me.” The York-Simcoe Liberals told him he was playing a pair of threes against a full house. The Conservatives were running millionaire financier Wallace McCutcheon. But the coattails of Trudeau were long and broad and the landslide carried Roberts to' parliament. The first couple of years in Ottawa were heady ones, as the new Liberal government set out to make Canadian society just. By this time Roberts had acquired a new wife.Beverlev Rockett,a striking former model and professional photographer. (His first wife Brigitte was an aristocratic Belgian who arrived in Ottawa with trunks full of Dior dresses and soon
professed a dislike for things Canadian. After the couple’s divorce, she returned to Europe.) Rockett, who was thoroughly plugged in to the Toronto cultural mafia, introduced her husband to writers, moviemakers, actors and artists. They threw fashionable Sunday brunches where the meal was always a surprise and the wine impeccable. In Ottawa, Roberts sat on the finance committee during the debate on tax reform and was chairman of the committee that reported on the proposed Official Languages Act. Official Ottawa saw Roberts as obviously gifted, but a shade too ambitious. He sometimes talked openly on how he wanted to be in cabinet, and the portfolio he longed for was that of Secretary of State.
Then came the debacle of 1972. The Prime Minister wandered around the country saying the land was strong, and Trudeaumania proved to be as dead as last night’s turnips. In York-Simcoe, the Conservatives threw another millionaire, Sinclair Stevens, at Roberts and he was out, while the Liberals were demoted to the status of a minority government. It all came as a shock to Roberts. He had been a good constituency man, answering all his mail, going to the Legion dances and the church bingo sessions. (Later, some YorkSimcoe Liberals admitted that they hadn’t bothered to vote for Roberts because he seemed such a sure thing.)
The defeat left Roberts jobless. He wanted back into politics, but the closest he could get at that stage was a six-month stint as program secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office. Later, in Toronto, Roberts launched a private consulting business for firms that wanted to deal with governments. It soon proved lucrative. In the meantime, key Toronto Liberals started meeting quietly to find ways of rebuilding the shattered party and gaining control of it. particularly in Ontario (in the 1972 campaign, many of them, like Keith Davey, had been relegated to the sidelines). Liberal bagman Gordon Dryden put together an informal group of Liberals, including Roberts, for what ultimately became fairly regular strategy sessions. Others in the group were Davey, Jim Coutts, Tony Abbott, Dorothy Petrie, Bob Kaplan and Jerry Graftstein, all established members of the Toronto Liberal Sanhedrin. All the while, Roberts himself was planning to run again for office and the riding he chose for the 1974 election was St. Paul’s.
The sitting member for St. Paul’s at the time was Conservative Ron Atkey, one of the party’s brightest luminaries who had ended the 10-year reign of Liberal Ian Wahn and distinguished himself in parliament as an effective debater and hardworking critic of the government. On the day that Roberts kicked off his campaign, Prime Minister Trudeau was in Toronto for a round of appearances. That evening he tried some door-to-door stumping in St. Paul’s with Roberts at his side. As the PM and Roberts walked the leafy streets of the
riding, Keith Davey looked on from the sidewalk, assessing the impact. Roberts’ campaign technique was almost flawless. He carefully worked the influential Jewish vote in Forest Hill and the ratepayers’ groups in the riding’s downtown WASP residential areas. He made only one mistake. In 1972, the right-wing Toronto Sun had said that John Roberts would be a good man for parliament. In 1974 he used that endorsement on a piece of campaign literature, without making it clear that the Sun's support had come in a different election, when he was running in another riding, against another man. The Sun responded with an editorial condemning Roberts for doing that and endorsing his opponent. In the end, Roberts overcame both the Sun and Atkey to win by 1,119 votes. Despite the Sun episode, it was a gentlemanly campaign, and -weeks later Atkey and Roberts were able to talk about it candidly over lunch.
Last September Roberts finally got his wish; he was named to the cabinet and made Secretary of State. That job can make or break a minister; although it is considered a junior cabinet post, it is a highly visible one and often controversial. It is a job in which the minister is either hated or loved by an endless queue of pressure and special interest groups. The Secretary of State is responsible to parliament for such fractious agencies as the CBC, the National Film Board and the Canada Council. He is also charged with implementing the Official Languages Act, overseeing agencies as diverse as the Canadian Film Development Corporation and the citizenship courts. The department funds women’s groups and native groups, sets policy for book publishers, film makers and youth programs. It is responsible for government protocol and, as a macabre flourish, state funerals. In short, the Secretary of State is Canada’s minister of culture and it requires almost a Malraux to do the
job. One of the post’s most visible periods was under Gérard Pelletier, the monastic non-politician who first went to Ottawa along with Pierre Trudeau as one of Quebec’s Three Wise Men. With Pelletier as minister and Jules Léger, now Governor General, as deputy, the department erupted with new attitudes and ideas. Because Pelletier had the ear of Trudeau, competing ministers walked softly around his department. During his period of tenure, bilingualism became a statutory reality when parliament enacted the Official Languages Act, and for the first time Ottawa tried to institute serious programs for young people. When Pelletier finally had had enough of Ottawa—and of the resentment that, in some parts of the country, his mandate on bilingualism earned for him— and moved on to another portfolio (he’s now Canada’s ambassador to France), the job fell to Hugh Faulkner, an amiable, onetime history teacher from Peterborough, Ont. Under Faulkner, the greening of Canada ended. Restraint was the buzzword and by the end of his time in office, Faulkner seemed to have disappointed every book publisher, film maker and artist in the country. According to one Ottawa insider, the Secretary of State’s office is “an intellectual department. It’s also a department viewed with distaste by the technofreaks, the numbers boys at the Treasury Board. They always think of it as a soft department.”
On the cultural side of the ledger, Roberts has the right credentials. He reads widely and voraciously, loves the theatre and sees as many movies as possible—although he closes his eyes during gory scenes. He is an intellectual, able to discourse on the qualities of Wilhelm Freiherr von Humboldt, the 19th-century German diplomat-linguist, or on the latest works of painter Greg Curnoe. Cultural groups hailed his appointment and are now waiting for him to deliver.
But it is in the area of bilingualism that Roberts will likely find his greatest test. When the Prime Minister named him Secretary of State, he told Roberts that his highest priority should be bilingualism. Yet the Throne Speech of October 12 indicated a de-emphasis of the government’s earlier push for a rapid implementation of bilingualism in the federal civil service. “It [the government] believes that a better balance should be established between the money spent to introduce bilingualism in the public service and the money spent to enable more Canadians, particularly young people, to learn to communicate in both official languages.” The government, in other words, was buying the “youth option” put forward by Official Languages Commissioner Keith Spicer. Roberts thinks that in light of the Quebec election, bilingualism has become simply one more—not the main—instrument of national unity. “We should simply say the battle of bilingualism is over and we won,” says Roberts. “The question is no longer how far are you willing to go to accept bilingualism; it’s what are you prepared to do to save the country.”
The extent to which Roberts can persuade all Canadians to accept that proposition will affect not only the tempo and direction of the government’s bilingualism program, but his own political ambitions. Roberts dismisses any suggestion that the idea of succeeding Pierre Trudeau lies in the back of his mind, but there are factions in Ottawa that talk of him as a possible party leader. The talk is whispered and tentative, but with the Prime Minister’s leadership almost a daily topic of tendentious discussion, Roberts’ name and those of some other young ministers have been floated. Whatever the fortunes of Trudeau and the party, there is no doubt in the minds of Liberals of St. Paul’s riding that Roberts would make a good party leader. He is, after all, one of their own.