Frontlines

Won’t you come home Jim Jerome?

Roy MacGregor February 12 1979
Frontlines

Won’t you come home Jim Jerome?

Roy MacGregor February 12 1979

Won’t you come home Jim Jerome?

Frontlines

Roy MacGregor

The immediate problem is to find his footing. In the haste to change from the dignified Speaker of the House of Commons into the scrappy member of Parliament for Sudbury, James Jerome has forgotten his galoshes back in Ottawa. So now he moves with the uncertainty of leather on ice up Durham Street, head bowed to a glass-slivered wind from the north. He passes the beverage room of the Coulson Hotel, open only a few minutes, where already the shuffleboards ring with angry takeouts. He passes a variety store where a bundle of Sudbury Stars lean upside down against the door, the headline reading: “National Steel closes April 1, 250 jobs to go.” Jerome adds that figure to the 4,000 jobs dropped by Inco and Falconbridge over the past months and arrives at total despair. Today marks the fourth full month of the strike of 11,700 Inco workers. Yesterday there were children on the Copper Cliff picket line, their confused shouts at management forming tiny vapor clouds in the air, then vanishing, instantly forgotten.

Jerome stomps into the office of Doug Frith, chairman of the regional government. Frith is waiting with a tick list of local concerns to work through and leans forward anxiously as Jerome settles deep into the office couch, his sad, prairie dog eyes hinting at the worth of such an exercise.

What are the chances of Burwash being revived as a federal maximum security prison? None. What about the grant for the Sudbury Theatre Centre? I can only try again, but arts money is tight. How about the Eldorado uranium refinery, what chance does Sudbury ( have? No worse than 50-50. '

Frith leans back, the snow swirling fitfully in the window behind him. This morning, the midpoint of Sudbury’s long winter, the total snowfall reached 67.8 inches and was officially deemed the worst winter on record; when the people heard this, they didn’t even think of the weather. Frith rubs his eyes. “My God, Jim,” he says. “We’ve got to have some good news.”

In the break just before the current session of Parliament returned Jerome full-force to his role as Speaker, he had come to his riding to deliver some small encouragement. On a local television program he had announced tenders were about to be called on his pet pro-

ject, a $30-million taxation data centre for the area. The woman interviewing him, however, would rather have talked about the strike, as if somewhere there might be an unturned tsk for it, but Jerome would prefer not to talk about the strike: it is long past faith healing. At the door she takes his hand, smiles and half-jokingly tells him, “You’re so wishy-washy since you became Speaker, James.”

Outside, where the Sudbury air is strangely clear of sulphur, there are other scents building: perhaps the blood of a prime minister, possibly an NDP sweep of a frustrated labor region. Hard to believe that precisely one year ago James Jerome finished the last page of an article for an international bimonthly, The Parliamentarian, and concluded: “I am confident that the [upcoming] campaign can be vigorous without being partisan and that decisions and events during this Parliament can be discussed fully, without vindictive reflections on either side.” Naïve, that, but who—least of all the impartial Speaker of the House—could foresee that electioneering would move from handshaking to eyescratching in so short a time?

Barely a month after Jerome wrote those words he found himself sitting in the Speaker’s chair recognizing John Rodriguez, the NDP member for Nickel Belt, Sudbury’s neighbor riding, who was rising to demand the House begin an emergency debate on the layoff of over 1,000 hourly rated Sudbury miners. James Jerome’s personal passions were sorely tempted to break free of the Speaker’s black robes he has been wearing since 1974. But the seams held. The Speaker decided he would have to abide by his own 1975 ruling that there should be no such debate for one-industry problems; Rodriguez’s call was therefore rejected. It was, clearly, a courageous decision that probably cost votes, but Jerome had known for some time there was to be no victory for him in this dilemma. When the layoffs first

PORTRAIT

were announced he had moved privately, outside of the House, to bring federal and Ontario cabinet ministers together with labor and industry spokesmen to try to work out a solution. None was found, but for his troubles Jerome, who is generally conceded to be a fair and able speaker, drew a mild editorial slap from The Toronto Star: “Nobody blames Jerome for this ... Yet he is in a position of moral conflict of interest.” There are, of course, any number of solutions suggested for the Speaker problem, but, as Jerome says, they invariably have the effect of “simply creating new problems.” An impartial Speaker who is also a partisan MP—as Jerome is—might be in danger of drifting toward a Jekyll-Hyde existence, but a permanent, appointed Speaker could seriously impede the House of Commons, by turning into a “coldhearted, professional, procedural man” who is difficult to fire should Parliament tire of him. The best answer possibly lies in MP Stanley Knowles’ annual private member’s bill—which the government annually ignores—to create a special seat for the Speaker to be known as the Parliament Hill constituency, with the other MPs the voters. A Speaker would come to the chair in the traditional way—a veteran member selected by the prime minister and seconded by the leader of the opposition—and would show over the course of a trial period that an election to make him permanent Speaker for one term would be in order. Knowles, the CCF, then NDP, member for Winnipeg North Centre and a recognized procedural expert, has been offered the Speakership by three prime ministers—St. Laurent, Diefenbaker and Pearson—and each time turned it down because of its obvious difficulties. Though he believes Jerome is “doing quite well —I give him first-class marks,” it is not a position he would accept.

Jerome convincingly argues that his constituency has actually been better served during the four years he has been Speaker. One of the perks apart from an immediate $20,000 raise is the right to an executive assistant who serves as “the acting member for Sudbury.” “On balance,” Jerome says, “[the constituents] probably win more than they lose.” They don’t see him as much—Dave Laballister, his executive assistant, calls Jerome “a virtual prisoner in Ottawa”—but Jerome does manage a couple of days every two

weeks in his riding. It’s no longer so important to be seen—television in the House has made him the first celebrity Speaker—but he must be heard.

To this end he sits in the bleak back room of a Sudbury radio station, sipping warily on a cup of coffee as the phone buttons wink with calls. A caller can’t get his pension, an unemployed bricklayer wants a promise that the new tax centre will be constructed out of the caller’s favorite building material, a woman whines that her husband’s issue of the banned American sex magazine Hustler has been caught at the border with its pants down. Jerome dutifully notes each complaint in his left-handed scribble and promises to return in two weeks with answers. It is all small stuff, but Jerome constantly reminds himself of the first time he ran for office, in a 1967 byelection, and lost by a slim total that worked out to less than one vote per polling station. “If you think that you can get one more vote,” he believes, “then for God’s sake go out and get it.” In 1974 he won by a remarkable 10,174-vote margin, but it will not be so easy this time. With the big things all so sour in Sudbury this year, the election may be won on the small things.

Across the room from the guest microphone someone has tacked an inspirational thought to the wall, an Adlai Stevenson quote that claims “Freedom rings where opinions clash.” If Jerome could read it, and he can’t in the distance, it would remind him more of his alter ego than his present incarnation. In recent months he has, in his role as Speaker, tangled with a furious John Diefenbaker who felt Jerome was deliberately cutting him short (Dief later apologized privately), forced apologies from the prime minister, the justice minister and the Opposition House leader, and very nearly been the centre of an actual constitutional crisis. André Ouellet, then minister of urban affairs, made comments early last summer that Jerome took to imply that Elmer MacKay, a Conservative MP, was guilty of racist remarks. Jerome insisted Ouellet withdraw his remarks. Ouellet refused. Jerome insisted again.

Again Ouellet refused. A third time and again refusal. The obvious next step was for Jerome to name Ouellet for unparliamentary conduct and, as traditionally happens, the Government House Leader (Allan MacEachen) would then move a motion of support for the Speaker, forcing Ouellet to leave the chamber. Jerome looked at MacEachen and suddenly realized the House leader

was not likely to move such a motion, which would have forced Jerome to resign. With Parliament due to rise for the summer the next day there would have been no Speaker to preside over the final hours. “It came within an ace of being a full-blown constitutional crisis,” Jerome says. Perhaps the only other one who realized the severity of the situation was Stanley Knowles who immediately crouched over his desk and wrote out his own motion of support, but doubts it would have saved the day. Fortunately, Jerome asked a fourth time and Ouellet gave in. “It just goes to show you how fragile the position is,” says Jerome.

When he took on the job he did so convinced he could, before his tenure ended, initiate improvements in the Speaker’s lot. It was certainly not a job he hungered after; he and a great many others firmly believed Jim Jerome was cabinet material. A brilliant debater— he was once a successful criminal lawyer—bilingual, witty and charming, he would have been a natural appointment were it not that, in those days, Robert Andras owned Northern Ontario’s cabinet allotment (ironically, in these thin days of cabinet material, there are now three from the region: Andras, Jean-Jacques Blais and John Reid). Jerome had determined, “if it wasn’t going to happen this time, it wasn’t going to happen at all.” He had four children, a pregnant wife, and milking the law was beginning to look a lot more promising than making it. When the Speaker’s job fell out of the blue, his wife, Barry, told him: “It’s a promotion, and if you turn it down they’ll overlook you next time around.”

He asked the prime minister for an hour alone. It made an odd balance sheet. The $20,000 raise. Duties over 2,000 House of Commons employees. A$67-million budget. A driver. The Speaker’s official residence at beautiful Kingsmere, Mackenzie King’s old estate. But the other side of the decision ... was it really in keeping with James Alexander Jerome, honky-tonk piano player, keen NFL wagerer, the type of man who would once pick up his mother-in-law for Christmas dinner in a convertible with the top down? Could he deal with the Queen of England the same way he dealt with “Grey Owl,” his wild Sudbury crony who dared show up at Jerome’s golf club ball with a pig shot through the heart, antlers tied to its head and the dead animal strapped to the hood of his car?

It was hardly his milieu. Apart from rhetoric there isn’t a great deal to keep the heart pumping. And yet, Jerome not only adapted well, he has come to love it. “He’s like a salamander,” says insurance salesman Dan Newell, a close Sudbury friend. Despite a flawed start— Pierre Trudeau neglected to consult

with then opposition leader Robert Stanfield before the appointment was made, as is custom, and Stanfield therefore refused to second Jerome’s nomination—his ability to blend in made Jerome instantly comfortable in the House. The requirements of a good Speaker obviously go beyond bladder control, and as Jerome moved closer and closer toward fluency in French and a complete grasp of the intricate procedures, he became a popular and respected Speaker in the same manner as his predecessor, Lucien Lamoureux. Jerome showed integrity from the beginning when he refused to move his family into the official residence in time for school, though his appointment had long since been announced. Jerome waited until Parliament opened and officially accepted him on Sept. 30 before he began thinking of himself as Speaker. The family stayed in Sudbury until the following school year began. Since then, there has been some small criticism about his spending—the residence has new tennis courts, and Jerome kept a government Jetstar at his command all one weekend in New Orleans last spring while he and his aides attended a not particularly important meeting—but the knocks are easily muffled by the praise.

At first Jerome toyed with the idea of running as an Independent, as Lamoureux had done successfully in 1968 (without Conservative opposition) and in 1972 (with opposition). But Lamoureux had done so with the clear understanding that the House would act to clear up the Speaker’s dilemma. There were changes—the Speaker gained more power during debate and was moved from 10th to fifth in the “succession” ranks—but nothing was done to alleviate the constituency handicap. Jerome decided eventually that it was

unfair to his riding workers and to the opposition parties for him to try to appeal to the voters as a man above politics, particularly in as volatile an area as Sudbury.

If he wins and is again offered the Speaker’s job—theoretically anyway, a prime minister Joe Clark could offer it as well—Jerome will serve. Only 45, he is already showing concern for his future, though he knows Speakers invariably do all right. Roland Michener lost his seat when he was Speaker and went on to become Governor-General; Lamoureux is now ambassador to Belgium. Four previous Speakers have gone into the cabinet, something Jerome would probably wish. There has even been talk of him being a “dark horse” candidate to succeed Trudeau and though Jerome says he doesn’t take it seriously, nor does he discount it.

But that is hardly the immediate concern. The restaurants are empty in Sudbury, the drinking halls ugly. The longer the strike festers the more it weakens him. He sits, exhausted, talking with old friends in a downtown Sudbury bar and thoughtfully poking the ice in a scotch and water. A waitress arrives with a fresh drink.

“But I didn’t order that,” he says.

“It’s from my brother,” she says.

Jerome looks around. There is no one in the empty bar who could possibly be her brother.

“You helped him once,” she says. “About 10 years ago.”

Jerome’s huge eyes tilt in surprise. Ten years! He accepts the drink and raises it in a quick toast. Not so much to the waitress but to long memories. He knows he will need them all in the months to come.tÿ