The statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office on New Year’s Eve was pointedly brief—only 20 words—and it contained none of the customary expressions of regret. “Prime Minister Brian Mulroney,” it said, “today accepted the resignation from cabinet of the Honorable Suzanne Blais-Grenier, minister of state for transport.” Just one day before, Blais-Grenier had publicly criticized the government’s decision to allow Ultramar Canada Inc. to buy the eastern Canadian assets of Gulf Canada—including Gulf’s east-end Montreal refinery—for $120 million.
Ultramar plans to close the refinery, leading to 400 layoffs. Although BlaisGrenier said she was resigning “in order to not call into question the principle of cabinet solidarity,” Mulroney was widely expected to drop the accident-prone minister. Said Liberal MP Marcel Prud’homme: “I think most likely she was convinced that she was going to be dropped, so she decided to beat those who wanted to get rid of her by a week or two.”
Blais-Grenier’s resignation —the fourth from Mulroney’s cabinet since the Tories were elected in September, 1984—capped a troubled year for the Conservatives. And it underscored one of the Prime Minister’s most difficult problems: finding capable ministers in a caucus in which more than half of the members are sitting in Parliament for the first time. That problem is particularly acute in recruiting ministers from Quebec, where only three of 57 Tory MPs have federal parliamentary experience.
Last week two other Montreal-area Tory MPs, Vincent Della Noce and Robert Toupin, joined Blais-Grenier in signing a petition protesting the Dec. 27 announcement by Industry Minister Sinclair Stevens of cabinet approval for the Gulf sale. They were part of a coalition that included Liberal MPs and Quebec provincial politicians, who referred in their petition to Stevens, who represents a suburban Toronto riding, as an “Ontarian minister.” Although Mulroney took no action to discipline his two other renegade members, Blais-Grenier’s departure left the 39member cabinet with only nine Quebecers apart from Mulroney—seven of them first elected MPs in 1984 and holding mainly junior portfolios—and with just one minister from Montreal, Minister of State for Mines Robert Layton.
The Ultramar controversy highlighted Montreal’s scarcity of cabinet
representation. In her letter of resignation, Blais-Grenier said that “the genuine influence of Quebec ministers on cabinet decision-making seems to me to be insufficient.” Under former Liberal governments, Montreal was always strongly represented in cabinet by powerful ministers. But the Tories failed to elect high-profile candidates from Montreal, and top cabinet posts went mainly to veteran Tory members from Ontario and the West. Said an aide to a senior member of the Quebec
Tory caucus: “We have expressed our disapproval with the disproportionate power of Ontario before, and we will express it again.”
For her part, Blais-Grenier was a focus of controversy during her 16 months in office. As environment minister she offended environmentalists by presiding over budget cuts that ravaged some of her department’s programs and by musing publicly that she might allow mining and logging in national parks. Later, critics attacked her over $64,000 in travel expenses incurred during two trips to Europe totalling 37 days last spring and summer. In her resignation letter, released by her office two days after the announcement, the former social worker said she had “profound respect” for the Prime Minister, but had “no choice but to put my membership in cabinet
on the line” over the transaction. A senior Mulroney aide confirmed that Blais-Grenier submitted the letter of her own accord and had not been asked to quit.
After the departure of Blais-Grenier, opponents of the Gulf deal promised to continue their fight against the refinery closing. They noted that a recent federal government report showed that Quebecers pay from $300 million to $500 million in excess gasoline prices because of insufficient refining
capacity in the province. Said Serge Baril, president of the refinery workers’ union: “Mulroney and Stevens have been manipulated by the multinationals into making Quebec dependent on Ontario for oil.”
For his part, Stevens argued that declining demand for petroleum products in Quebec—down more than 30 per cent since 1979—meant that Gulf would not be able to find a buyer willing to keep the refinery open. As well, Investment Canada spokesman Gordon Dewhirst flatly declared that there was no chance that the government would reverse itself on allowing the purchase by British-owned Ultramar. Said Dewhirst: “Once the minister has made his decision, that is final.”
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