Column

The new cast of premiers: Arrow-shirt men, coiffed, puffed, almost interchangeable

Allan Fotheringham February 19 1979
Column

The new cast of premiers: Arrow-shirt men, coiffed, puffed, almost interchangeable

Allan Fotheringham February 19 1979

The new cast of premiers: Arrow-shirt men, coiffed, puffed, almost interchangeable

Column

Allan Fotheringham

It is somehow wildly appropriate that the improbable project called Canada be patched together in a recycled railway station. Beneath the vast vaulted ceiling of what used to be the foyer of Ottawa’s Union Station, the 11 acrimonious and spasmodically wellmeaning men who would rule our fate, sit and meditate and pick nits and reshape our tremulous future. A producer for a sitcom called Constitution wouldn’t have it any other way. There are the pristine Doric columns reaching to the sky, testimony to the earnestness of the Protestant work ethic that thought it was recreating Greek citystate democracy when it copied the classic architectural lines of the Parthenon in every two-bit post office headquarters and city hall built across North America a half-century ago. There are the artfully placed ferns tucked into the recesses of this mausoleum to the railway age, designed to tart the joint up since the a television cameras are ° transmitting this boring

séance to the yawning dis-

ciples in Moose Jaw.

In all, not to be knocked. Not to be degraded. What you see is what you get. The improbable nation, this impossible dream, is being fashioned, like a lumpy quilt at a 1910 rural co-operative, in these appropriate surroundings. If the esoteric meanderings of yet another federal-provincial conference are to put the electorate to sleep, we might as well have the ambience of a funeral parlor to do the thing up right.

What is most interesting, to a BNA Act voyeur, is the second lead in this long-running theatrical extravaganza. His name, of course, is Lévesque. Fivefoot-nothing, as those ordinary citizens who have never seen him before are always astonished to discover. Napoleonic complex? Who is to say? The Freudians among us already have enough to cope with in the fact that the three men who will help shape our lives— called Trudeau, Lévesque and Ryan— are all ex-journalists of a fashion and all three (just lie quietly on the couch,

electorate) have gone through the trauma of losing their fathers early. Don’t ever assume that Mackenzie King was a sole aberration. The person who can write the definitive study of the nation will not be an historian or a political scientist but a psychologist.

So there sits René, the diminutive man with the expansive, quicksilver mind. Le Monde declared some years ago: “Only in Canada could a man so intelligent not be prime minister.” What is most interesting, watching this tableau while five men (Trudeau,

Lougheed of Alberta, Davis of Ontario, Bennett of B.C. and Lévesque) attempt to shore up their election/referendum prospects, is the difference in the solitudes. It has been well-recorded how a new cast of provincial premiers—leaving in refuse the pinstripe image of the bookends of the nation, Wacky Bennett and Joey Smallwood—could all imitate successfully the mannequins in the Eaton’s window. Arrow-shirt men. Coiffed and puffed and $300-suited, almost interchangeable in their upwardly mobile, late-’40s career stereotypes. Not a tie ($26 at Holt Renfrew) out of place. Not a chapter out of Gail Sheehy’s Passages unread.

Lévesque, the wild card in this deck, is a relief. Rumpled, runty, the bags under his eyes like some lost luggage, so obviously human, so patently likeable, so quite transparently in a dilemma. Lévesque’s problem is that he is a decent man. While he sincerely feels that his solution to his psychic problem is to dismember the nation, he insists on do-

ing it in a proper, respectable manner. There is no law in the land that says he has to attend this numbing, mind-boggling session where otherwise intelligent men have to sit around and discuss the merits of Atlantic fish vis-à-vis a bill of rights. But he does it. His eyeballs often rolling to the upper reaches of the Doric columns in frustration at what he regards as inanities from his peers, he sits in and attends and indulges—in what an observer more and more perceives as an amusing game between the two—in cranium space games with the man who sits to his right, one Pierre Elliott Cumquat.

Further along around the horseshoe table (the open end left so these men who pretend to be talking in private can have their solitude penetrated by the probing eye of the People’s Network) sits the only other intellectual equal of these two, Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan. As dull as they are dynamic, as well-schooled via Dalhousie and Oxford and waypoints as these two worldly Gallic types, he is the interlocutor. Whenever Mr. Trudeau, secure in his sophistication, tends to trample in his Gucci loafers on the foreheads of the slightly insecure guardians of Prairie or Maritime sensibilities, Mr. Blakeney coughs a bit and says, in his dry, riveting fashion, just wait a goddamn minute. From out of the dust of the Saskatchewan Depression, married to an intellect honed through graduate degrees and his essential Nova Scotia common sense, he throws a verbal spear and pins the prime minister right through the chest.

Mr. Lévesque? The maligned man sits and waits and listens—knowing like the impatient Dave Barrett of B.C. socialism that his dreams of Valhalla have to be put aside for the practicality of getting elected. The fuzzy referendum to tear the country asunder is being pushed, conference by conference, to the back burner. Lévesque looks at himself and shrugs. The compromise that is Canada is proceeding apace. Not to worry.