Canadian News

Signs of the times in Right-Turn City

Roy MacGregor March 5 1979
Canadian News

Signs of the times in Right-Turn City

Roy MacGregor March 5 1979

Signs of the times in Right-Turn City

Canadian News

With a federal election looming, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Opposition leader Joe Clark attended to their weak spots last week. Trudeau and his cabinet travelled to Toronto, where past polls showing Liberal support was “soft” delayed the election last spring and fall. Clark, meanwhile, spent time in Quebec, a Conservative wasteland. The task for Clark is the more daunting—he must try to reverse 90 years of antipathy to the Conservative party in Quebec. Trudeau has to turn around just five years of slipping fortunes in Toronto, which voted overwhelmingly Liberal as recently as 197L

Given that Pierre Trudeau has had any number of imaginary signs hanging over him —halo to raincloud to sword—it was refreshing to find four that were actually printed last week. Finally, no more mistakes in reading them. All appeared in Toronto, and all but one perfectly suited the various versions of the prime minister that came courting that key metropolitan vote.

The first turned up in a suburban stove manufacturing plant. “Yes,” it read as Trudeau passed blindly beneath, “we are the leader, but we can’t afford one dissatisfied customer.” Getting the number of unhappy clients down that low in Toronto would be nothing short of a miracle. Four months since the Liberals were shut out in the Toronto byelections, it is believed they remain a frightful eight points behind the Conservatives, whereas it is but a single point nationally. And though there are 282 seats in all of Canada, the 28 that fit into Metropolitan Toronto will, in the words of one Liberal strategist, “decide whether it’s a Liberal majority, minority or . . . (pause) . . . the other way around.”

Not only have three of the Grits’ most touted candidates disappeared (businessman Maurice Strong, former United Church moderator Bruce McLeod and past University of Toronto president John Evans) but three of the party’s cabinet ministers are in deep trouble in their own ridings (Energy Minister Alastair Gillespie, Revenue’s

Tony Abbott and Secretary of State John Roberts). The Trudeau visit, therefore, was regarded by the Ontario campaign organizers as a “morale builder.” The Tories, seemingly undisturbed by his coming, merely laid out a list of their admittedly impressive candidates and said they were remaining “bullish” on their chances of taking between 15 and 20 of the Toronto seats. And since that is the same number the Liberals like to talk about, it must be pointed out the numbers do not neatly total 28.

So the stove plant was a natural starting point: the Toronto Liberals were counting on Pierre Trudeau to cook up something new and appetizing. Ostensibly in the city for a cabinet road show, Trudeau’s real intention was to gain a head start on the campaign. Looking fresher than he has for months, the prime minister feigned sufficient interest in sheet-metal stamps and air-powered staple guns to impress the new Canadian workers. Delfin Aquiar, who only two days before had received his Canadian citizenship, stood with his eyes glassing over and his citizenship papers pocketed over his heart. “I’m so happy,” he said after Trudeau spoke to him. “Before, in Portugal, I have nothing. Now I have everything. Sure, I’ll vote for him.”

There were 3,000 more such votes apparently delivered the next night when the prime minister appeared before a sweltering Italian-Canadian crowd at a brick wedding cake called Tony’s Ballroom. The sign that time said, simply, “Power To Trudeau” and the flag-waving adorers who didn’t faint (three did) were given precisely the message they wanted to hear most: in a 10-minute speech Trudeau managed fully 17 variations on the verb “to build.”

The one sign that did not hold true appeared outside the Royal York Hotel’s Canadian Room, where Trudeau met Wednesday night with party faithful. The “Thrill Show” poster for a convention next door was tacked so close to the Liberal backslap that the irony could not be avoided. Obviously ill at ease, Trudeau found himself actually asking the party faithful for their help (one Liberal thinker expressed “surprise” and gratitude that he would take such a lowly role for himself). Trudeau’s attack was aimed directly at Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed and clearly if he succeeds in making energy an issue he will do so at the expense of Jack Horner’s lone Liberal seat in Alberta.

“This election will decide how Canada

[will survive,” Trudeau told the Liberal [gathering, “whether as a strong country or as 10 separate principalities with a figurehead at the centre saying ‘aye, aye’ to everyone. The people of Canada are going to vote on the destiny of this country.” The applause was long and loud, but the people had not been given what they wanted: an election date and the key issue. “It’s getting hard to get people to work,” a campaigner for John Roberts confessed. “You phone them up for the third time and they say, ‘I’m too busy this time. Call the election first, then call me.’ ”

Lawyer Trudeau’s virtuoso performance of the visit came, naturally enough, lecturing 700 students at York University’s Osgoode Hall law faculty. Trudeau the charismatic gunfighter teased and wooed with his wit and wisdom-calling René Lévesque “Mr. Quebec” and talking once again about making a deal about the referendum, if one wins the other resigns—and the reception was resounding.

It was when he left the lecture hall that the final sign appeared, a rent-asign that said, simply, “See you next year—safe journey.” Unfortunately, neither 700 students nor 3,000 Italian Canadians can make such a guarantee. With Pierre Trudeau’s map still unclear the pre-campaign sortie into the city may not have penetrated very far.

Early in the visit, the prime minister had looked at a large stove at the Mississauga plant and leaned over toward the executive guiding him. “I wonder,” he said, “If they have one of these at Stornaway.” Stornaway, of course, is the official residence of the leader of the Opposition, and though Trudeau himself is hardly likely ever to deign to occupy it, that property may be precisely where the muddled map is pointing for his party. Roy MacGregor