Q&A: BRUCE HUTCHISON

A visionary remembers

December 9 1985
Q&A: BRUCE HUTCHISON

A visionary remembers

December 9 1985

A visionary remembers

Q&A: BRUCE HUTCHISON

For 67 years Bruce Hutchison has been a newspaperman and author living in Victoria. As editor of the Victoria Daily Times, associate editor of the Winnipeg Free Press and editorial director of the Vancouver Sun, he established himself as one of Canada’s leading journalists and political commentators. His reputation and prestige took him into the homes of foreign statesmen and such Prime Ministers as Louis St. Laurent and John Diefenbaker for private dinners and conversations. As well, he was a close friend of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s. Now 8f he still writes a weekly column for The Vancouver Sun. A brilliant raconteur, Hutchison has just published his lUh book, The Unfinished Country (Douglas & McIntyre). Maclean’s Vancouver Bureau Chief Jane O’Hara interviewed him at his Englishstyle cottage, where he has lived since 1926.

Maclean’s: In Unfinished Country do you say everything you’ve always wanted to say but never dared?

Hutchison: Well, it represents what I guess are my final reflections on this nation. The main conclusion I came to is that Canada hasn’t prepared itself for a vast, fundamental change. This situation is not only political but, above all, psychological. I don’t think that Canadians as a whole have got through their heads the problems facing them. Maclean’s: Are you talking about the well-being of democracy?

Hutchison: No, that is part of it. The main thrust of the book is Canada’s position in a whole variety of circumstances. Given the vast complications and brittleness of the world’s interdependent society, the fact that the ordinary average citizen cannot understand all the details and the fact that people in general do not like to spend much time thinking—given all that, I am not certain that the democratic process can survive permanently. As well, the Macdonald commission report—however you may regard its wisdom or folly—confirms what I said at least economically: that this economy has to be drastically overhauled one way or another if it is going to prosper in the times ahead. Maclean’s: Does that mean free trade with the United States?

Hutchison: I am all in favor of expanding free trade between Canada and the United States. I am in favor of free trade all over the world. I think this is essential. But a deal confined to two nations in North America could be dangerous if it invited and perhaps compelled retaliation by such nations as Japan and those in Europe that are excluded from the deal. You would end up with a terrible quarrel of trade blocs. This would be dreadful. But it may be possible to negotiate a deal that is good for both Canada and the United States and indirectly to the world economy. I see that as possible.

Maclean’s: Are the Americans any more prepared for the changes ahead? Hutchison: I am not sure they are. I’m not sure the world is. But our situation differs from that of the United States in this sense: they are the richest and most powerful nation in the world; they can stand a lot more damage to their economy than we can. Don’t forget that once before, real free trade was submitted to the Canadian people in 1911 in the form of an agreement with the United States called ‘reciprocity.’ The Canadian peo-

pie were persuaded that reciprocity would lead to annexation by the United States: once the United States had free entry into our market, Americans would proceed to exploit it and gradually begin to control our politics and sovereignty. The nightmare of annexation destroyed reciprocity and the illustrious career of Wilfrid Laurier, one of our great men. He took it to the country in 1911 and was defeated by the Conservatives, who were elected almost entirely by warning against annexation. I was alive then. I heard it being talked about.

Maclean’s: How did we get into the condition we are in now?

Hutchison: We in Canada have made the most ghastly bungle of our national affairs in the past 15 years. Look at the financial and budgetary mess that was left by the previous government to the Mulroney government. When you look at the deficit, you reach this conclusion—that we were seduced by the easy prosperity that followed the Second World War. The world was devastated, we were not. Our physical plants, our economy had been doubled during the war, we had lots of stuff to sell and everybody wanted to buy it. That fool’s paradise turned the normally sensible Canadian head, and this nation behaved in un-Canadian fashion. If one factor of our character is clear, it is that we have been a prudent, thrifty and hard-working people who never took anything for granted. During that big long boom we were on a big long drunk. Now we are in the hangover of a drunk.

Maclean’s: So we are at a turning point? Hutchison: What is happening in the collective mind of Canada? How will our people—this new generation that is now running our country—deal with all this accumulation of problems? That is what we have yet to see. That is why the next few years are so critical in our history. They are going to test all our talents, our virtues, our strengths and our weaknesses.

Maclean’s: Is Mulroney up to that test? Hutchison: I don’t want to pronounce on Mulroney. He has had a bad opening year, some ghastly mistakes. And now the chickens of his impossible election promises are coming home to roost. The worst thing he did was to duplicate or exceed the terrible patronage abuses that Trudeau had committed. His record of patronage is worse than Trudeau’s. He has one quality of leadership: charisma. And a very easy management of soothing words. But whether he has enough strength of decision, whether he has that indefinable something that makes people wish to follow him, I don’t know.

Maclean’s: You were very hard on Trudeau in your hook.

Hutchison: I tried to be fair to Trudeau. His financial record, his economic record, is beyond any possible defence. His treatment of certain persons was also indefensible. He never understood human beings. He understood abstract ideas—philosophies and histories. But he was never in touch with the individual Canadian—and couldn’t be, for some reason, some block in his character. But I tried to be fair by pointing out that he is unquestionably one of the great figures of our history because he brought the Constitution home from England and put it where it belongs, after his predecessors had failed for more than half a century. He installed a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He passed an Official Languages Act and established the ‘French fact’ so firmly that it can never be repealed. And shouldn’t be. These were great achievements. And they suited his cast of mind. The nittygritty of economics and business did not interest him much.

Maclean’s: But you did not like him personally?

Hutchison: He was a strange man. I’ve talked to him a good many times. I knew him first before he ever thought of going into politics. I was doing a piece for Maclean's in 1959 on the second centen-

nial, 200 years after the English conquest of 1759 on the Plains of Abraham. I spent a lot of time in Quebec and Montreal and found myself on the porch of Trudeau’s mother’s house. I had never heard his name before, but somebody told me I must see him. He came out of the house in an old sweatshirt, a pair of slacks and sandals, carrying in his left hand a bottle of scotch. He put out his right hand and his first words were ‘Would you like a drink?’ So we sat down and talked. Well, I wish I could have said that I recognized at once that this was a great man and a future Prime Minister, but I can’t. Later, I knew him in Ottawa when he was minister of justice and again when he was Prime Minister. I had some interesting conversations with him. He could be as charming as could be and then he could be very savage and brittle in his conversations. Maclean’s: Which of the Prime Ministers was your favorite?

Hutchison: I had a deep friendship with Mike Pearson. He was the most lovable guy you ever saw. He talked to me with extraordinary candor. One of the men I admired very much as Prime Minister was St. Laurent. He was a great Prime Minister and a great gentleman. And very able. His intellectual machinery was superior to William Lyon Mackenzie King’s, but he didn’t have King’s political antennae. There was no more honorable man in politics than St. Laurent. But I never was intimate with him. Maclean’s: What about Diefenbaker? Hutchison: I knew Dief extremely well when he was a little-known member of the House of Commons. He was very entertaining because he was the best raconteur I ever knew. He was a good mimic, too, and talked a lot. He once told me that he didn’t know whether he was a Conservative or a Liberal. He was a populist, whatever that means. He really had no basic philosophy of politics. He was anchorless in a philosophical sense. Of course he was a tremendous fellow in Opposition. He did have a sincere sympathy for the little people of the little towns in Canada. And he passed the first Bill of Rights. It was the precursor of the great Charter we now have. But he was a man of such hatreds and animosities in his personal relations with people, even his cabinet. He was paranoid. He did not trust people and therefore his cabinet, with very few exceptions, did not like him at all.

Maclean’s: Was journalism friendlier when you were a young man? Hutchison: It was convivial, but politics was much more dishonest then. Now politics, with all its mistakes and abuses, is far more honest than it was when I was young. Oh, the scandal and corruption and dirty deals they had in those days would really shake you if you knew about them.