The Liberal policy conference late last month was supposed to be part of Pierre Trudeau’s effort to revitalize the party before the next election and to recreate the feisty spirit of Kingston in 1960. Somehow that didn’t happen, despite 20 hours of talk and 29 speeches over three days. “It was a good idea,” said one of the 513 delegates from across Canada, at the mid-point of the session, “but right now the attention span is absolutely zero.” The lack of electricity was understandable, given the magnitude of the two issues on the agenda: national unity and the economy. What is ironic about the Liberals’ failure to invigorate their approach to these issues is that, politically, it probably doesn’t matter.
The plain fact is that Joe Clark and his Conservatives have gone into eclipse since the Quebec election. The mood of the party, reports one Ottawa insider, is “bleak, bleak: I think it’s starting to collapse.” That reading, shared by Liberals, was enough to salve the conscience of those who worried about the outcome of the Toronto conference. A poll of 115 local party leaders across Canada by Carleton journalism students indicated that the Liberals believe Pierre Trudeau is the man for what they rank as the most important issue (national unity). Thirty-two percent of the regional lieutenants cited the election of the Parti Québéecois as the reason, but a surprising 25% also thanked Joe Clark. “Clark is our best weapon,” said Carl Weinsheimer, a Toronto respondent.
Gamely seeking to stay in the picture, Clark paid a three-day visit to Quebec and announced the party’s annual meeting next November will be held in Quebec City. But party strategists were still wrestling with the logistics of selling Clark. When one Montreal organizer suggested that Clark join Montreal children for a skating party, his office vetoed the idea because that was “not his image.”
While the preoccupation with Quebec is hurting Clark, it also obscures the Trudeau government’s current inability to get on with business unrelated to unity. Planned
government initiatives on other issues are currently stalled. The main reason is that until the polls turned around for the Liberals, the Trudeau ministry was paralyzed by what one government adviser calls “a deathly silence” among the populace. Trudeau aides now say that improved fortunes will prompt a return to activism in Ottawa. The Liberals realize, in sum, that talk is not going to win the next election— certainly not the kind that predominated at the Toronto conference.
The Toronto session turned into a vehicle, instead, for Trudeau’s continuing media effort to assert himself as the preeminent Confederation-saver. He also reverted to his old freewheeling ways, hinting that when he is out of Canada he smokes pot, lacing his utterances with “God damns” and telling University of Toronto students that the reason they have trouble finding work is that there are too many kids in university. Skipping the first day of aimless workshops, a puckish Trudeau stopped by a hotel bank branch and wrote a note for swooning tellers that read: “This is a stick up.”
That, as it turned out, was the charge that René Lévesque leveled in the midst of the
policy session about Confederation. He released a 220-page report purporting to show that federalism has cost Quebec $4.3 billion over 15 years. But in the last two years covered by the study, as reported previously by Maclean ’s, Quebec was a net beneficiary of the balance sheet. Quebec’s release of figures, however, will now force Ottawa’s new team of federalist fire fight-
ers to produce their analysis of the statistics for the first time. The new round of oratorical dueling between Quebec City and Ottawa will serve Trudeau’s strategy of keeping the temperature up on the Quebec issue. He argues that only a Lincolnesque “ ‘rededication to the union’ on the part of all Canadians” will keep Quebec in Confederation. But he concedes that English-
Canadian interest in the issue might wane unless there is a realization that “we may be in this problem for a long time.” However, regional grievances, not common solutions, were the hallmark of the conference workshops. Westerners warned against a preoccupation with Quebec at the expense of economic and transportation policies. Lloyd Barber, president of the University of Regina, noted: “We are not happy with a country that begins somewhere around the Gaspé and ends somewhere east of Kenora.” From Quebec, there were reminders of the seeds sown by intolerance for the French fact. As La Presse publisher Roger Lemelin put it: “For too long the French Canadians, the co-founders of this country, have been treated as guests who are permitted to enter only from the back door.” A willingness to heed the message from Quebec was evident among Anglo Liberals. Says Manitoba MLA Lloyd Axworthy: “It’s starting to sink in that these guys in Quebec City are not just television stars trying to entertain us. They mean business.” ROBERT LEWIS
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