Only 11 months after MP Jean Lapierre and Senator Jacques Hébert began quietly lining up Liberal caucus support for a new federal department of youth, Lapierre now finds himself in charge of the new portfolio that he helped to create. At 28, the slender Quebecer is also the youngest cabinet minister since Confederation—a distinction that he points to as proof that Prime Minister John Turner is committed to curing the malaise of Canada’s 531,000 unemployed young people. But even Lapierre is careful not to raise false hopes. In an interview last week a few days after taking office, the plainspoken minister cautioned that he has no instant solution to the unemployment dilemma. Said Lapierre: “I hope that no one is expecting me to make a major announcement. What we are trying to do is to come up with a range of initiatives that respond to certain groups and needs here and there. But I cannot promise you a rose garden.” Ascension: Lapierre himself is amodel of youthful ambition and success. The eldest of five children born to a mechanic, he grew up in the small fishing village of Bassin on Ile du Hâvre Aubert, one of the Magdalen Islands near the mouth of the St. Lawrence. Later, Lapierre moved to the town of Granby in Quebec’s Eastern Townships where, at 16, a high school class project on the 1973 provincial election sparked his interest in politics and served as his entrée to the local Liberal party organization. By the next year Lapierre’s enthusiasm as a volunteer campaigner had caught the attention of André Ouellet, the Liberals’ chief organizer in Quebec, who hired him as a special assistant when Lapierre moved to Ottawa to attend law school. In 1979 Lapierre ran for federal office and captured a former Créditiste seat in the Eastern Townships riding of Shefford after the incumbent, Gilbert Rondeau, was convicted of several charges, including arson. Since then Lapierre’s fortunes have risen along with those of Ouellet, Turner’s Quebec campaign manager during the recent Liberal leadership race. Said Liberal MP Pierre Deniger: “Jean Lapierre is the most political of all MPs. He is a true disciple of André Ouellet.”
Indeed, Lapierre’s rapid ascension from back-bench obscurity to a $110,880-a-year post in the cabinet has irritated several of his Liberal colleagues. Government whip Charles _
Turner, for one, complained to reporters last week that Lapierre and another new cabinet member, Indian Affairs Minister Douglas Frith, had not “earned their keep” as MPs and did not deserve to be promoted. Said Turner: “You just cannot walk in there just because you have got a big name and a lot of money and walk into cabinet.” He added that such promotions “cause morale problems” in caucus. Meanwhile, an aide to the previ-
ous youth minister, Céline HervieuxPayette—herself a protégée of Finance Minister Marc Lalonde—said that Turner had been planning to shut down the fledgling ministry until Payette and others intervened to save it. Added back-bench Quebec MP John Campbell, a supporter of Jean Chrétien in the recent leadership race: “Céline Hervieux-
Payette was a very competent and wellrespected, dynamic woman doing a fine job in a portfolio which she knew inside out. If Jean Lapierre had to be repaid for
favors to the Turner campaign, I wish they would have given him another portfolio.”
Lapierre’s immediate challenge is to make his mark by devising attractive employment programs while keeping close controls on spending. One option that he is studying is the creation of a youth apprenticeship program similar to one in Britain that combines 13 weeks of on-the-job training with an equal amount of classroom instruction. At the same time, Lapierre said that existing make-work schemes, such as the $16million Katimavik program, might have to be redrawn and simplified so that participants receive actual job training “instead of just beautiful human experiences” that are of little value to potential future employers. And Lapierre also plans to open discussions with the provinces over the level of government spending on youth training in the nation’s schools. Said Lapierre: “Right now we are spending something like $3.7 billion a year on postsecondary education for a privileged minority of youth, but only $1.3 billion on job creation for all the others. Maybe what we need are new funding formulas in order to get rid of the unfairness in the system.”
Progress: Still, Lapierre said that he does not plan to take over direct responsibility for any of the 87 federal programs that currently affect young people-programs that now are scattered across various departments. “My role is to serve as an advocate for youth,” he said. “I do not need to take over the administration of things just for the sake of increasing my own power.” In fact, Lapierre’s department is tiny by Ottawa standards. Its skeleton staff of 14 is preoccupied with planning Canada’s contribution to next year’s United Nations International Year of Youth.
Lapierre says he is confident that he will be able to make some progress in his new portfolio before the next federal election. Indeed, the election itself may help to put some unemployed young people to work, he added. Explained Lapierre: “Politics is a very wonderful place for young people to get started because there is always a vacuum waiting to be filled.” But the youthful minister stressed that whatever method young people used to look for employment, it had to be practical. Added the minister: “In the past we could afford to let our youth dream. But when you are hungry, you have to be pragmatic.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.