The soul of the Canadian personality is supposed to be reticence. This is the country that has made “diffident” a bad word. Politeness is our second name. No one wishes to be pushy and those among us who are aggressive are assumed to be either Americans who have worked out their Vietnam draft-dodger angst or recent arrivals from Hong Kong. No one who is essentially Canadian, heart and brain, is supposed to aspire to anything.
The proof is all around us, in all areas of society. Nobody wants to rise to the top in anything. A noble second place is the dream of life in Canada. At the moment, while everyone genuflects in the direction of the national characteristic, our main example resides with the Few Democrats. The sterling shouter of Question Period, Ed Broadjump, who can rise, indignant, faster than a trout can go for an Abercrombie & Fitch-designed fly, has pronounced to the party that he wishes to retire to the delights of Beethoven and his world collection of cigars.
We all assumed, considering the surplus of talent festering in the social democrat bullpen, that there would be a trampling of bodies on the way to the succession. Instead? Instead, there has been an embarrassing absence of personalities eager to lead the party into the New Jerusalem. The troops marching in entreaties to the front stoop of Stephen Lewis have burnt out the bottom of his coffeepot, and their hot breath has already taken the nap off his last corduroy suit.
Lewis, whose oratory combines the vocabulary of William F. Buckley Jr. with the fervor of Archbishop Tutu, is so overwhelmingly the choice of the NDP brass that his insistence that he ain’t in the game makes everyone else look like used goods. Roy Romanow, the Robert Redford of Saskatoon, has said in his deep baritone, No thanks, banking on being the next premier of Saskatchewan. Nelson Riis, the Arrow collar ad guy from Kamloops, maintains he is staying out. A brief flurry for Ed Schreyer, now back reading the encyclopedia in Manitoba after his stint as high commissioner to Australia, drew a blank.
Why does no one want this job? The number1 choice of the feminists and the NDP women (there is a difference) was Nova Scotia Leader Alexa McDonough, who declined, and so the female candidate is now Audrey McLaughlin of the Yukon. Allan Blakeney, the former Saskatchewan premier, couldn’t even be enticed to run as an MP, and Bob Rae, the Ontario party leader, who one suspects would like the job but can’t get any attention while everyone is pursuing Lewis, sits around confused.
The malady runs deep, even throughout our sporting society. Harold Ballard, the charming relic who supposedly runs the Toronto Maple Griefs, keeps insisting that George Armstrong—who didn’t want the promotion in the first place—is his coach for next year, while the chagrined Chief, due for superannuation himself, tells any sportswriter who will listen that he doesn’t want the damn job—proof of his sanity.
The Toronto Blue Jays, in the process of opening a new stadium that is supposed to surpass both sliced bread and smoked salmon, fumbled all over the map in trying to find a new manager and finally settled on a guy whom they had humiliated by not choosing in the first place. The B.C. Lions, once the richest club in the land, with the first domed stadium that was going to ensure their riches, have confessed once again that they are up for grabs and would like a buyer who will swallow their massive debts.
There is no end to the vacuum at the top. The Liberals, with John Turner retiring to his tennis club, are so disdainful of the choices offered them that they are venturing far afield. Paul Martin is regarded as too unblooded, and Jean Chrétien as too blooded, a man from the Sixties who might not fly in the minds of voters of the Nineties. Quebec’s Robert Bourassa, once a floating separatist himself in the early René Lévesque days, is now pushing the candidacy of Ontario Premier David Peterson as the obvious solution to the Liberal leadership dilemma, and ; Peterson—guess what?— says no flipping way.
The situation is so perilous that there is even the mention of the name of Pierre Trudeau, a situation guaranteed to at least bring a smile to his lips. The news of the lack of top men at the top is such that there is scarcely surprise when Cher, who has the finest belly since Nefertiti, has split with her young lover, a bagel-maker.
What can one say? One can only recall the history that threw up surprising leaders from out of the void. William Lyon Mackenzie King, who avoided the First World War by working in the United States for the Rockefeller family for $25,000 a year (very big bucks in those days), was a surprise winner of the Liberal leadership. Pierre Trudeau, who declined the Second World War by riding around Montreal on a motorcycle and occasionally brandishing a Nazi helmet, was a decidedly surprising choice as eventual Liberal leader.
Eisenhower became president with no political background. Reagan came out of showbiz. Joe Clark was a stunning choice as Conservative leader. Brian Mulroney succeeded him before ever running for anything. The people who go to their graves in politics are the Jim Wrights and the Bob Coateses who have been around so long that they’ve become part of the woodwork and so become too complacent.
The next prime minister of Canada will be someone we have never heard of yet. Almost anyone but Cher’s bagel-maker.
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.