Politician in exile
Mackasey fights on, but is anybody listening?
The room in the local YMCA is small and noisy. The soft drink machine rumbles in a corner. The door squeaks whenever someone shuffles in, and each time, Bryce Mackasey, professional and polished in a neat grey suit amid the flannel scarves and ski jackets, looks up, distracted. For the former federal minister, it’s his first public meeting as a Liberal member of the Quebec National Assembly in his new Montreal riding of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce since the Parti Québécois roared to victory last November 15. Now it’s a slushy February night and the riding’s tenants want better housing, senior citizens are demanding better home services, the workers want
better job conditions, the mothers better day care. Quebec’s contoversial Bill 22, language and minority rights are way down the list. “Everything is scaling down for him,” comments a constituent, Alexander Muzika. “Even his nomination room was bigger than this.”
Suddenly a woman jumps up. Janet Kask is angry. “Do you plan any more trips out West instead of being here with us? Who do you speak for anyway? You only polarize people.” Without a microphone, Mackasey’s voice, with its Irish overtones, barely rises above the din. Has he, after all, been away from Quebec too long? Then someone else asks: “What in the world are
you doing there [traveling around the country] instead of being here where you were elected?” Mackasey is dispirited. Does he have to defend himself for trying to save the country, for launching a personal crusade to convince Canadians that Quebec must remain in Confederation? “My job is not to be anchored to NDG all the time,” he replies. “My job is to be a unifying force.” When he finally slips away amid the scrapingof chairs, he mutters that “it takes a while to get them up to the level of my issue.”
His issue. The only issue. The most important mission for him: saving Confederation. And if he has to run up and down the country, he’ll do it. If he has to take care of his constituents’ plugged toilets, he will, but “I’m not going to account for my time, day to day, hour to hour.” Not the Mackasey who spent 14 years in federal politics, a voice to be reckoned with, shouldering four ministries: labor, manpower and immigration, the postmastergeneralship and consumer and corporate affairs. Not the joshing, talented strike settler, the man who came closest to bringing peace to the Post Office. Even though the black leather member’s chair in the Quebec National Assembly may be too small for a man who still grasps at national visions and ambitions. Even though, at 55, he is not even in the Quebec government but a member of an enfeebled opposition, not even at home in his federally faithful Montreal-area riding of Verdun with its happy mixture of Irish and French, but in a predominantly English and immigrant riding whose residents are frightened by René Lévesque’s separatist PQ government. Even though, when he rushed to save Quebec—after a quarrel with Trudeau last September landed him out of the cabinet for the second time in his federal career-ready to fight for federalism and, as well, to “contain the passions of the Quebec minorities,” as he put it, he found himself engulfed by them.
Mackasey refuses to look upon all this as any kind of a loss. “That meeting last night wasn’t representative of the people of NDG,” he says. “They know I’m going to remain a national figure. They agree with me.” After all, it probably was he who delivered many of the 26 seats the Liberals eventually salvaged in the 110-seat National Assembly, curtailing at least partly the erosion of English votes to the resurgent Union Nationale. As a result, Mont-
real’s largely English-speaking West Island remains Liberally intact (with the exception of Pointe Claire, which went UN). Now, Quebec’s anglophones are restlessly afloat, like flotsam on a choppy sea, tossing and turning with every pronouncement by Premier Lévesque. In the meantime, Mackasey is rushing east and west in the name of a larger constituency—Quebec’s more than one million anglophones and at least as many francophone Canadians living outside Quebec—“the pawns in this game,” he says.
At Montreal’s Dorval airport, Mackasey keeps dropping his papers and pens, worrying about being on time, no longer eased through all these details by a hawk-eyed executive assistant. “You get used to people doing things for you,” he admits. But though he has lost his cabinet retinue, he still travels with all the slogans that journalists have pinned on him over the years: the little guy’s guy, the last real Liberal, Canada’s Hubert Humphrey, the Irish pug with the rubber mug. Still the man who would be Bryce, he is trailed by a posse of journalists hunting for the “mood of Canada,” crossing paths with cabinet ministers scattered as emissaries to preach Trudeau’s federalist doctrines, defending Confederation against those who think it’s a lunatic’s dream. Says an old friend, former executive assistant and campaign manager, the rotund, blue-eyed Arnie Masters: “If anybody can put forward a moderate position, Bryce can.”
If anybody can. But Mackasey’s political fortunes are fading now, just as is that brave bright light of Trudeau’s federalism. Mackasey is tired and shrinking within his own image of salesman and pop hero. Even as he goes to board the plane heading west, a woman runs up and warns him: “Bryce, you may be 10 years too late.”
It’s a warm day in Kamloops, snug in the heart of British Columbia where the clouds mingle with the mountains. Some 300 people have turned up for a Chamber of Commerce luncheon to hear Mackasey speak—almost as many as on the occasion last fall when Premier Bill Bennett and his cabinet came to town. “French is a long way out from here,” notes a local Liberal, Don McNamee. Indeed, in BC, where there are 101,430 French-speaking residents, it is predicted that more than half will eventually become assimilated, BC is the only province without a single, all-French school and everyone looks south, not east, for inspiration and business. In front of the podium, a tableful of realtors discuss Confederation diffidently, then earnestly, with the easterner in their midst. Later, they listen to Mackasey. But their words and his message, back to back, scarcely touch.
Ron Sjodin: “If we don’t have French signs up here, then it’s all right if they don’t have English signs up there [in Quebec], It all makes sense. Change the Constitution so English isn’t guaranteed in Quebec
and French isn’t guaranteed in the West.” Mackasey: “This is a bilingual country. That’s how I like it.”
Harry Little: “We are in agreement with Quebec in everything except separatism. The impression we get is that Lévesque doesn’t necessarily want separation.” Mackasey: “Please understand that separatism is not just a bargaining position that Lévesque has taken. The rights of minorities must be protected. They must not be overlooked in any solution.”
Sjodin: “You mean there are people in Quebec who don't speak French? If you don’t like the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” Mackasey: “It upsets me when people say that Ottawa is shoving French down anyone’s throat. Is it too much to ask that a French Canadian in Alberta or BC be able to go into a post office and buy a stamp in French?”
Joe Makrocki: “If somebody comes to tell me I am forced to speak French, I’m liable to give them a punch in the mouth.” Later, riding away in his car, Mackasey asks hopefully: “It went well, didn’t it?” That afternoon, on the stage of the local high-school auditorium, Mackasey is sombre. It’s a quiet, tired speech that he gives, incongruous beside the nervous energy of the young people facing him. He tells them how pessimistic one can get “at my age,” finding that barriers have sprung up between people. Canada’s future, he says, won’t be decided by his own gener-
ation—“It’s too prejudiced.” He ends by telling them: “I’ve had a hard time finding Western bigots or racists.” But as we rush off to the airport, Len Marchand, Liberal MP for Kamloops-Cariboo, federal Minister of State for Small Businesses and the first Canadian Indian to sit on the federal cabinet, observes: “At the bottom line, I’ve said it before, they are anti-French. Bilingualism has to be packaged correctly.” And at one point in his relentless monologue through the tour, Mackasey says: “I’m a little moodier this trip. I’m holding back.” Later, almost to himself, he adds: “It will take all the skills I’ve acquired to get the message across.”
The next night, the Yen Lock Restaurant in Vancouver’s Chinatown, perilously overflowing with people, is festooned in red, the Chinese color of luck. It’s a celebration for Chinese New Year, and a fund raising dinner for local Liberal MP Art Lee is completely sold out. (“The tickets started to sell faster when people knew that Bryce was coming,” says Lee.) A Western coterie of Liberals is present—Vancouver’s Simma Holt, Senator Ray Perrault, provincial Liberal leader Gordon Gibson. In the hubbub Mackasey sits quietly.
But when he rises to speak, teacup in hand, it’s the old cajoler at work. Put a little water in your wine, he tells the people of BC. Have respect for each other—that’s all we need to keep the country together. We don’t want to be part of the United-States. Lose Quebec, and we lose the soul of Canada. Tell Quebec, yes, we care, yes, we want you. But as the applause subsides, Esmond Lando, a local lawyer, asks with a shrug: “What single reason did he give to keep Quebec in? So that a French Canadian can go to the Post Office and buy a stamp in French? One hundred thousand Chinese go to the Post Office and they can’t buy a stamp in Chinese.”
On the way back to the hotel Mackasey sticks his jaw out a little more than usual. “It’s going to be alright. If the cause is right and you fight it, it turns out alright.”
Sunday brunch at the Vancouver office
of la Fédération des franco-colombiens. Just a few days away from Montreal, it seems suddenly odd to hear everyone speaking French. But somehow, all these people sitting around plywood tables look just like the members of any other small ethnic club, instead of the tenacious remnants of one of the two “founding nations.” Federation director Jean Riou is quietly detailing how the French community will die without Quebec. “We will lose our homeland, our roots. There will be no more reason for Canada to remain bilingual. We are already being asphyxiated.” There are Quebeckers who move out west, he says, who want to lose their past, who want to become English. The fight is now or never, says federation president Nestor Therrien, and Mackasey is the man to lead that fight. “We’ve found the right dynamic person to explain it to the anglophones.”
Can Mackasey really get the message across? The people who answer the polls and buy tickets for luncheon speeches seem to be in retreat, confused, wondering if maybe bilingualism isn’t “just plain unnatural way out here,” as someone puts it. Mackasey moves among the Westerners like an aging welterweight, ignoring the cracks of regionalism, remembering past victories, a little flabby for the present fight, but hoping that believing in it all will see him through.
There are those who suspect Mackasey’s motives. Former health and welfare minister Judy LaMarsh once dismissed him as an “ambitious nuisance.” Another former cabinet colleague says vehemently: “I never found Mackasey interested in anyone but Mackasey. The ‘little man’ is just a pose. He was a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread.” Mackasey has been accused of using his working-class origins to the hilt—the son of a Quebec City CNR superintendent, forced to drop out of school at his father’s death to work eight “hated” years for CN before going into the printing and sporting goods business.
As a politician, he capitalized constantly on a carefully fostered friendship with the press, spending time with journalists, calling them at all hours. He fed the reporters’ lust for color and information. “He was a good source of dirt on his colleagues,” admits a television reporter. “He wasn’t just a leak. He was a whole bloody wading pool.”
While he may have grandstanded and bragged (on the night, for example, when he read a public list of demands to former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa before jumping into thecampaign forthe November 15 election), one can’t disregard his impressive list of achievements in federal office: an improved labor code, protection for workers against automation, better working conditions for women, a much liberalized unemployment insurance scheme (that was subsequently savaged by high unemployment and his more conservative colleagues). Mackasey cleared
the way for Ugandan East Indian refugees expelled in 1972 and cried openly when they arrived at Dorval. And his friends say, as Masters does—and some detractors agree grudgingly—that “you won’t find a better politician in Canada than Mackasey in terms of instincts. Y ou can disagree with what he believes in, but you’ve got to believe he means it.”
There is no question that he means what he says about Confederation. After all. it’s been his issue right from the start. In 1964, former prime minister Lester B. Pearson sent him across the country to defend the scandal-scarred Justice Minister Guy Fav-
reau and the good name of French MPS. In 1965, as chairman of the national Liberal caucus, he was already denouncing the idea of a special status for Quebec. In 1968, he became one of Trudeau’s staunchest supporters, collapsing with a heart attack on the leadership convention floor. (“A heart problem?” he says. “Yeah. It beats too strongly.”)
One can’t ignore the fact that, had he succeeded in “saving” Quebec from the PQ on November 15, he might now be a leading contender to succeed Pierre Trudeau. And even now, on the subject of his future ambitions, he remains evasive, leaving options open by changing them from day to
day. At the beginning of the western tour he was saying: “My career is only beginning. I’ll be back some day. This is just a side excursion.” By the end. he was talking about getting out of politics altogether. “I’m back in Quebec... where it all began, where it may all end.” Maybe he’ll join one of the many “save-Canada” groups flowering anxiously across the country. There is a touch of asperity in Mackasey’s voice when he says: “Trudeau’s people didn’t want me to go to Quebec. Now they don’t want me to leave. They say I’m the one voice of reason. Just, ‘good old Bryce, stay there.’Butwhenshould I start doing something for my family? I’ve got to think selfishly. The years are ticking by.”
The Jack Horner“roast”at the Edmonton Inn is aglitter with television lights, aswish with long skirts and awash with liquor, resounding with the fortified heartiness of politicians taking the night off to poke fun at the “Wyatt Earp” of the House of Commons and to help him pay off the debts he incurred running for the Tory leadership in February, 1976. Mackasey sits at the head table, along with Labor Minister John Munro, the Tories’ Flora MacDonald, Calgary Mayor Rod Sykes, Tory newspaper columnist Dalton Camp and others, listening with a gathering frown of disapproval to the somewhat tasteless Quebec jokes. “I tried to reach René,” says one 'speaker, referring to the incident in which the Quebec premier accidentally struck and killed a man who was lying prone in the road, “but he was out taking driving lessons.” Everyone laughs but Mackasey. “Any Albertan is safe in Quebec if he doesn’t lie down in the middle of the road,” cracked another. When Camp made a reference to Mackasey’s troubles with the Unemployment Insurance Commission and his problems in the post office. Mackasey stiffened. “Now Bryce is here in Western Canada to save Confederation,” observed Camp, “but don’t be nervous. Bryce has a contingency plan. If all else fails, he’ll persuade Lévesque to hold the referendum by mail.” When Mackasey gets up to speak, he is tired, depressed and
a little drunk. It’s as if all the frustrations of a dimming career and a quixotic mission have welled up inside him. He is barely coherent, his voice is low, dragged out. “When Camp takes a shot at me for fighting for Confederation, maybe it’s because he hasn’t got the guts to do it himself.” says Mackasey, slouching over the podium. “I’m not joking now, the subject is too important. I went to Quebec because the timing was right. Because this country is worth fighting for. And the fight is right here in the other separatist province.” He says he won’t apologize for fighting—"maybe Dalton Camp would laugh but not me.” The chill in the audience, by now complete, leads to some booing. (The next day Mackasey will rewrite the episode, minimize its significance. “I was tired, a little depressed, I’d had a few drinks. I was oblivious to it. I didn't hear the people boo.”) But now he is weaving his way through the crowd, leaning heavily on a reporter who is taking notes. People come up and say that they don't agree with all he said, but he’s a fine fellow. “Was I right? Was I right?” Mackasey asks, his glass empty of scotch, but still clasped tightly in hand. “Camp can go to hell.” As for Mackasey’s future, sure, he might even go for the Liberal leadership. “I’m closer to the people than [former finance minister] John Turner.” Admirers come up for autographs. “You need rest,” says one. “Take care of yourself.” A blond woman with black eyebrows tries to stop a reporter from taking notes. “Don’t write what he’s saying. Don't do that.” And a francophone Albertan says: “You’re going to crucify him. aren't you? Don’t do that.” Mackasey continues to lean. “Leave her [the reporter] alone,” he says. “I believe in the press.” But then he turns and says: “You could cut me up. couldn’t you? You could really cut me up. Don’t do it—for my wife and kids.” Later, much later, he asks about his speech, or perhaps about much more: “Did I act like a fool, did I blow it. or did I speak from my heart?”*^