John Crosbie was in full flight at the federal Conservative party’s fund-raising dinner in Victoria. Acting more like a stand-up
comic than the federal minister of international trade, the Newfoundland MP was delivering a steady stream of one-liners to his appreciative and partisan audience—among them Mary Collins, the new minister responsible for the status of women. Then, Crosbie turned his attention to the Liberal leadership race—and to leadership candidate and Hamilton MP Sheila Copps. “It reminds me of a, I don’t know whether you ever heard this old song,” Crosbie mused. “It goes, ‘Pass me the tequila, Sheila, and lie down and love me again.’ ” The audience burst into guffaws, with Collins joining in. But by week’s end, the laughter had been drowned out by a chorus of outrage. And in the end, even Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called Crosbie’s remarks “unacceptable.”
For some opposition MPs and spokeswomen for women’s groups, Crosbie’s comment had been more than simply unacceptable—and, they said, Collins’s initial willingness to let it pass unremarked had sent the wrong signal during her first week in office. Halifax MP Mary Clancy, the Liberal party’s critic on women’s issues, said that Crosbie’s remark carried an unacceptably sexist message: “Give a woman a
couple of drinks____” Added Clancy: “I cannot
believe that a senior minister could make this statement.” For his part, Crosbie offered only a halfhearted apology. Noting the reaction that it had caused, Crosbie said of his flight of rhetoric, “It must have been ill-considered.” But Collins was also busy reevaluating Cros-
bie’s sense of humor. At the fund raiser, she had called the minister’s speech “absolutely marvellous.” Later, though, she told Maclean’s: “When you take those lines and put them out boldly, it became apparent that they were offensive.”
Still, the “Sheila” at the centre of the political storm, Copps remained relatively unperturbed by the incident. The 37-year-old MP has had previous run-ins with Crosbie. In 1985, Crosbie shouted, “Just quiet down, baby,” in response to Copps’s heckling of Tory speakers in the House of Commons—providing the title for her 1986 autobiography, Nobody’s Baby. And last week, she said, “John Crosbie tends to open his mouth without having his brain in gear.” Mulroney, meanwhile, offered a similar, if more tactfully phrased, explanation while saying that Crosbie would stay on as international trade minister. “If you got rid of all the politicians who put their feet in their mouths, there wouldn’t be anybody left in the House of Commons,” he said.
For the quick-tempered Crosbie, last week’s incident was only one of many controversies that have dogged his career in politics. But many friends and Tory insiders say that the veteran cabinet minister is unlikely to run again in the next election. “If you hope some day to run for prime minister, you try to be careful,” noted St. John’s, Nfld., author and open-line radio show host William Rowe, a former member of the Newfoundland House of Assembly, who has known Crosbie since the 1960s. “But I get the impression that he knows he’s nearing the end of the line, politically.” As
for last week’s contentious quip, Rowe added: “I’m sure he wishes he hadn’t said it. But a part of him probably doesn’t give a damn.”
But for Collins, who also serves as associate defence minister, the incident signalled an uncomfortable beginning to her new duties. She inherited the status of women portfolio from employment and immigration minister Barbara McDougall just three days after the Feb. 20 federal budget laid out $1.6 million in cuts to women’s programs. The majority of those cuts—$1.4 million—are aimed at 80 women’s centres across the country, many of which provide counselling for poorer women, health advice and shelter for those who have been physically abused.
Those cuts have led some critics to question the government’s commitment to women’s issues. And the appointment of Collins, who, unlike McDougall, has no seat on the powerful inner committees of cabinet, has only underscored that concern. “In a way, it is an accurate reflection of this government’s attitude to women,” said Janet Maher, treasurer of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. “Barbara McDougall was not always our best friend. But at least we knew that if she got wound up about something, she could take it to the highest table in the land.”
But Maher said that she found it difficult to criticize Collins’s failure to respond to Crosbie’s statement at the Victoria function. “Let’s face it—it’s incredibly difficult to challenge those sorts of remarks in that kind of situation,” she said. And although she added that the “jury is still out” on Collins, the new minister is known to be a staunch defender of women’s rights. In fact, last week she publicly said that she had “real concern” about the budgetary cuts to women’s programs—an apparent breach of cabinet solidarity that Maher said could cause her trouble with fellow ministers. Added Maher: “This government doesn’t tolerate dissent very well in its own ranks.”
Still, Collins told Maclean ’s last week that she had not split from the rest of the cabinet over the cuts. “I recognize that we have to get our deficit down, and women’s programs obviously have to pay their fair share.” But she also signalled her intention to try to get funds reallocated within the budget for women’s groups. And she noted that concerns about her effectiveness in cabinet were, at this point, unfair. “I know the inner mechanisms of government, and I intend to do my job by building support among my colleagues,” she pledged.
But, as she completed her first week as status of women minister, Collins also acknowledged that so far her new job had not been easy. “I guess it’s like being plunged into the pool right away,” she noted. “I obviously wish the [Crosbie] incident hadn’t occurred, but I recognize that in this job you really are on the front line.” In a portfolio that can often be a political hot seat, that is a reality that Collins will have to learn to live with.
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.