CONSTITUTION

The party or the principle

In Liberal Ottawa, where conformity is prized, the mavericks are few

Susan Riley January 12 1981
CONSTITUTION

The party or the principle

In Liberal Ottawa, where conformity is prized, the mavericks are few

Susan Riley January 12 1981

The party or the principle

CONSTITUTION

In Liberal Ottawa, where conformity is prized, the mavericks are few

Susan Riley

Something dreadful happens to most members of Parliament after prolonged exposure to Ottawa. The ideological roses leave their cheeks; moral indignation is smothered in the dust of countless documents and reports and, after so many hours spent squinting at the tiny print, most lose their ability to see the larger world. Intellectual independence is routinely sacrificed to party line and, because Ottawa—like any large bureaucracy—prizes conformity above all else, appealing quirks of behavior and speech are ironed out as emphatically as hot tar on a roadway. Anyone who dares rebel is treated harshly. He becomes a pariah in his or her own party, the subject of condescending sympathy from the opposition and, after a moment of infamy, is largely ignored by the national media. Jack Horner, Paul Hellyer, James Richardson, Walter Gordon—recent Canadian history is replete with the names of men who wrecked their political futures by refusing to be team players or by tossing aside longtime party membership for independent status or new political stripes.

Nowhere has this homogenization been more evident than in the Liberals’ large Quebec caucus, as exemplary a flock of sheep as ever grazed at the feet of power. But that characterization could be changing rapidly. Pierre Trudeau’s controversial move to bring home the constitution has thrown the flock into a tizzy; incredibly, some of the PM’s most spirited opposition these days is coming from within his own party, in particular from the Quebec wing. Liberals being Liberals, and Ottawa being Ottawa, it may well be the disagreements will be smoothed over by February, when the amended constitutional resolution is back before the Commons. But for a number of Quebec MPs, the constitution is more than just another dry game of strategy—it is a question of conscience. “This is torturing me,” says back-bencher Jean Lapierre. “It isn’t just a political decision. It is nonpartisan; it is larger than that.”

One of the most troubled—and most interesting—of these Quebec MPs is Serge Joyal, the dapper, almost delicate, member from Montreal’s east end. The 35-year-old lawyer, and onetime ostracized maverick, has emerged from the back-benches to rave reviews as cochairman of Parliament’s most glamorous committee—the joint Senate-Commons hearing on the constitution. His rehabilitation was more by accident than design—the result of a comic, historical feud between the Liberals’ first choices, Senator Maurice Lamontagne and the redoubtable Bryce Mackasey. When a miffed Lamontagne refused to share a television screen with his old enemy, the Liberals turned in desperation to the affable, if somewhat anachronistic, Senator Harry Hays* and to their most talented black sheep, Serge Joyal. Joyal’s deftness at handling acrimonious procedural disputes, his evenhandedness (siding with the Tories, for instance, against the committee’s Lib-

*At the constitutional committee hearings last November, Senator Hays told two women's groups: “I'm just wondering why we don't have a section in here about babies and

children____All you girls will be out working

and we 're not going to have anybody to look after them. ’’ eral hit man, Senator Jack Austin) and his deep courtesy to witnesses have earned him widespread respect.

Joyal’s original sin was monumental politically. In 1976, he—along with his close friend, the moody, bright and attractive Pierre De Bañé, now minister of regional and economic expansion; Quebec City area back-bencher Louis Duelos and former cabinet minister Jean Marchand—broke publicly with Trudeau and the cabinet to support the Gens de l’Air, the Quebec air traffic controllers’ union, in the bitter dispute over the language of the airways. Overnight, he became, in the words of Montreal city councillor Nick Auf der Maur, “a national hero in Quebec, like Marilyn Bell did in English Canada when she swam Lake Ontario.” But in Ottawa, Joyal was sent straight to his room—no supper, no promotion—and, notwithstanding a superior mind and glistening academic record, was left to languish politically and to indulge his other great love, the arts.

Naturally, Joyal has already been denounced as a sellout by Parti Québécois militants, and some members of Quebee’s academic and media circles. The cynicism may not be entirely misplaced; the early development of Trudeau’s constitutional plan was marked by sleazy offstage manoeuvring, much of which was revealed in a leaked memo that predicted the failure of last fall’s first ministers’ conference before it even happened. In Ottawa, many people believe the Trudeau constitution script has already been written in a secret war room and the public consultation stage is just a sham. But Joyal is determined to give the parliamentary committee credibility. “Even though we have a Liberal majority, this committee must not be superficial. We have to be credible—we owe that to the people who come here,” he says. He has personal reservations about Trudeau’s plan, which he is keeping to himself at this point, but he is hoping amendments that will be added next month will make it possible for him to swallow the package without

an acute attack of moral indigestion. His performance will be watched closely, not just by nervous Liberals but by skeptics in Montreal, who have always detected a whiff of opportunism about Joyal.

In 1978, when he ran for mayor of Montreal against Jean Drapeau, his third-party liberal coalition collected a less than expected 25 per cent of the vote, partly because Joyal was tagged a separatist in English Montreal and a federalist in nationalist quarters. Critics say that defeat was the beginning of a turnaround in Joyal’s political approach: he decided to get back into the fold.

But he certainly didn’t show any early signs of conformity back in Ottawa. He may be the only MP in recent memory to show up in the Commons wearing a skinny disco tie and neat denims (he is certainly the only one with a large personal collection of 19th-century costumes); and he missed the crucial pre-Christmas vote that brought down the Tory government in 1979 because he was in New York, talking to his American publishers about a book he is writing on antique dress. But Joyal, son of middle-class merchants in a working-class neighborhood, is no radical. There is, first of all, his tolerance for others—an attractive personal trait, but a potential drawback for anyone interested in serious political change. Joyal is amused, rather than appalled, for instance, by Senator Hays, whose replies to witnesses he has tactfully vetted since the feminist incident—so amused that late one evening, after gruelling hours of testimony, Hays’s behind-the-hand wisecracks sent Joyal into a fit of laughter, until tears were rolling down his cheeks. “He’s a nice man,” says Joyal of his co-chairman. “He is 72 years old and has achieved a sort of rhythm in his life; I like that.” He was equally tolerant of comittee witness James Richardson, the former Liberal cabinet minister who has spent so much time and effort fighting bilingualism. “I don’t agree with him, but he has started his own political party, he has acted on his ideas,” says Joyal.

In fact, if Joyal is dangerous to the status quo, it may be for this simple reason: he doesn’t need his job in Ottawa to give his life meaning. His first love is art; he sits on the boards of various museums and he numbers many artists among his friends—“people,” as he puts it, “who are always questioning, always challenging, who help keep intellectual curiosity alive.” He also has a rich and, say friends, “unorthodox but very interesting” personal life. His name has been linked with that of Le Devoir columnist Lise Bissonnette, one of Quebec’s most sophisticated journalists, and Michèle Bazin, Claude Ryan’s brainy, chic press assistant. He is also a self-confessed “cinema addict,” and travels frequently to Cape Cod (he’s a New England buff), London and Paris. “I have seen people come to Ottawa and be crushed, destroyed by politics,” says Joyal. “You have to have a safety valve. I don’t feel trapped. I come here freely.”

It sounds like the portrait of an elitist, yet Joyal represents a poor innercity riding—where voters know an upper-class twit when they see one—and he’s immensely popular there. Perhaps that is because, unlike Pierre Trudeau, Joyal’s genuine interest in people doesn’t run along class lines. He doesn’t share Trudeau’s view that the poor simply have to learn to spend their food dollar more frugally to beat inflation. “I would never say such a thing because I don’t believe it,” Joyal says. “I wasn’t brought up with those ideas.” Relations between Joyal and Trudeau are said to be correct, if not warm, but they could cool to sub-zero if Joyal isn’t prepared to give enthusiastic support to whatever compromises are achieved on the constitution in the next few months.

For Louis Duelos, the damage is already done. A Quebec back-bencher, unknown outside his province, he recently made the front page of the Toronto Star when he denounced Trudeau’s plans for unilateral patriation. And it isn’t the 41-year-old former foreign service officer’s first tussle with his party’s curia. “Duelos has never been afraid to argue with Trudeau in caucus,” says one colleague, “and there aren’t many who will do that.” But this time Duelos’ views fly directly in the face of Trudeau’s most cherished ideal: a bilingual Canada. Duelos, and much of the nationalist sentiment in Quebec, is particularly critical of section 23 of the constitutional resolution—the one that guarantees minority-language education to the English in Quebec and the French in the rest of Canada. It is difficult for Englishspeaking Canadians to understand why anyone would oppose such an innocentsounding proposal, but Duelos fears that any federal intrusion in the field of education may lead to a dilution of the French language and undo all the progress made since Quebec’s infamous Bill 101. What would happen, Duelos asks, if oil was discovered in Quebec in 50 years, followed by an influx of anglophone workers, all with the constitutional right to English schooling for their children? Once again, the French language could be swamped and the existing provincial government would be incapable of making any laws to prevent it. So far, reaction to his criticisms from caucus colleagues has been, as he says gamely, “not too bad,” but he is feeling the sting. He remains philosophical about any cabinet hopes, saying: “I love my job, but I could find another. I was not sent here to represent the Liberal party of Canada; I was sent here to represent my constituents.”

Another maverick, Montreal anglophone Warren Allmand, is opposed to section 23, too—but for different reasons. He says it sets up two classes of immigrants in Quebec—those from English-language countries, who would have a choice of having their children educated in English or French, and those from non-English, non-French countries, who would have to send their children to French-language schools. Allmand, who has been a thorn in the government’s side since he was bounced from the cabinet last year, has taken on Indian Affairs as a sort of unofficial portfolio. In fact, his main objection to section 23 is that it denies the Cree Indians of northern Quebec, who historically speak English as a second language, rights that will be guaranteed to an immigrant from America or Australia. There has been so much criticism of section 23 from within Quebec— everyone from the Parti Québécois to the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal has been seething—that it is almost certain to be amended.

But the debate that has inflamed Quebeckers—within and without the Liberal caucus—more than any other concerns language rights in provincial courts and legislatures. Under the existing constitution (the British North America Act), Quebec and Manitoba, for historical reasons, are required to provide legal and legislative services in both official languages. Many Quebeckers, and others, would like to see that provision extended, at least to cover Ontario and New Brunswick, where most of the francophones outside Quebec live. Others, including 24-year-old Jean Lapierre, one of the Liberals’ brightest young back-benchers on the constitution committee, wonder why all provinces should not be forced to provide services in both languages. “Surely what is a right for one is a right for all,” says Lapierre. And if a constitution is intended to set the moral tone for a nation, practical obstacles should be secondary. Lapierre’s problem is that Trudeau and Jean Chrétien may have made a widely rumored, but hotly denied, private deal with Ontario Premier Bill Davis: in return for Davis’ support at the bargaining table last September, the Liberals apparently promised not to force French courts and legislature on Ontario. For some disillusioned Quebec MPs, it is an ignoble capitulation by the men who brought “French power” to Ottawa in the ’60s. For many ordinary Quebeckers, it is just a sour replay of so much of Canadian history: Quebec does all the giving, while Ontario does what it wants. New Brunswick has said it will go ahead and bind itself constitutionally to provide services in both languages; Ontario argues that while it already does provide some court services to francophones, to push the issue would merely provoke a backlash. But, argues Lapierre with irrefutable logic, “There is a difference between a right and a privilege.”

This situation puts young Jean Lapierre in the unfortunate position of perhaps being forced, by his own conscience, to bite the hand that feeds him. It was' Chrétien who, recognizing Lapierre’s formidable capacity for work and political skills, put him on the committee over objections from more senior members. Now Lapierre is in disagreement with the party brass—he’s even tempted to support an amended version of an NDP proposal on the language of legislatures issue—yet he remains a dyed-in-the-wool Quebec Liberal. On top of everything else his wife, Gaby, a Granby, Que., lawyer, is expecting their first child this month. In one recent late-night telephone conversation, the couple agonized over Lapierre’s dilemma. “I love this job, but I’m young enough, I suppose, to do something else,” says Lapierre. “I have to live with my own conscience for the rest of my life after all.”

For Jean Lapierre, Serge Joyal, Louis Duelos—and a few others—the debate over the constitution is more than just another game of political hardball. It is a matter of personal conscience. Unfortunately, the political hardballers always seem to win in Ottawa. Compromises are made; personal objections stifled; the deals that really count happen far from the television lights. People such as Joyal, with their “safety valves,” are lucky; they can always choose to do something else. The tragedy, perhaps, is not that so many good people are forced to walk away—it is that so many choose party over principle and decide to stay,