BUSINESS WATCH

A revolt that killed the ‘good old boys’

The once-smug citizens of this once-smug country are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore

Peter C. Newman September 24 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

A revolt that killed the ‘good old boys’

The once-smug citizens of this once-smug country are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore

Peter C. Newman September 24 1990

A revolt that killed the ‘good old boys’

BUSINESS WATCH

The once-smug citizens of this once-smug country are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore

PETER C. NEWMAN

The night before Ontario went to the polls, Conrad Black hosted a private party for 50 of Canada's top moneymen at the Toronto Club, the Empire City’s most exclusive watering hole. It was a significant event—not disconnected with the following evening’s astonishing NDP victory. The guest of honor was Preston Manning, whose 40-minute speech made a profound impression, particularly since it was the Reform Party leader’s first exposure to the cream of the Canadian Establishment.

Although Manning and Robert Rae preach from opposite poles of the political spectrum, Manning’s message was similar to Rae’s, delivered next day in the form of ballots: Canadians have had it. The once-smug citizens of this once-smug country are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore.

The real victims of this mood in search of a movement are not so much David Peterson, Sharon Carstairs or even Brian Mulroney as the system itself. The Liberal and Conservative good old boys (of both sexes) have for generations run their parties and, by extension, the country, like royal courts dedicated to their own perpetuation. That mandate, if it ever existed, has now been exhausted and Canadian political leaders will never again be able to treat voters as objects that can be bought with their own money at quadrennial auctions called elections.

Spontaneously, with no central direction or guiding ideology, Canadians have angrily challenged the legitimacy of their governments. They are fed up with having to subjugate personal priorities to self-selected hierarchies that ignore accountability and give banality a bad name. The switch from the deeply ingrained Canadian tradition of curtsying before closed-shop authority to the new militancy has been rough and will get rougher.

The core of this new-style politics was probably best caught by Ralph Hedlin, a veteran Calgary journalist and energy commentator who was first to recognize the true significance of the Reform Party phenomenon. “We’re reverting to a more active notion of citizenship than the purely electoral and representational theories encompass,” he wrote recently. “The Reform Party has seized on the idea of delegated representation because it has a strong resonance in Western Canada. The co-operative movement provided a training ground for direct democracy and planted the will to define, determine and direct our own destiny. Ingrained in this determination was an anti-state bias and a commitment to decentralized decision-making and local control. In the Reform version of democracy, the people, not Parliament, are supreme.”

This powerful notion, that voters can exercise power on their own behalf, is what propelled Rae to office in Ontario and could very well reward Preston Manning with at least 40 western seats in the next federal election, allowing him to hold the balance of power. It was partly for that reason, and because he is the leader of the only right-wing party left in Canada, that Black invited Manning to dinner.

“We in Toronto and Ottawa have too often paid the price in the past of ignoring centrifugal political movements,” Black commented afterwards. “I thought it was time for us to see that Manning isn’t some lunatic from the nether regions, and for him to see that we’re not a bunch of plutocrats with horns and cloven feet. He is also the only politician in the country who makes an intelligent case for redesigning Canada’s structure and wants Quebec to join in, but makes the sensible point that if the province won’t play, there is life for Canada after Quebec. I feel it’s important Quebec get the message that English Canada is not interested in an endless carving up of a shrinking pie just for the sake of maintaining the fiction that we have a country.”

Black has his own explanation why Canada seems to be the only democracy moving to the left: “When politicians try to govern by raising a wet finger to the wind or on the basis of public opinion polling, the public gets to think that all leaders are interchangeable, that the distinction between a Bob Rae and a David Peterson is very subtle. In fact, it isn’t. Rae is well to the left of where Ontario wants to be and Rae’s followers are well to the left of him. Perhaps all the accumulated chaos will rouse Canadians out of their lassitudes, as they realize that everything’s falling apart—that the country is on the verge of bankruptcy and could crack up.”

Apart from voters’ disillusionment with the current power-holders, the quantum leap in grassroots militancy can be blamed on Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which prompted nearly everybody in this country to re-examine his or her past dues, present entitlements and future aspirations.

Similar resentment is developing along regional lines, with western Canadians and Maritimers in particular no longer willing to accept that Ontario and Quebec should get most of the federal lollipops. Local identity is at the heart of each region’s consciousness, and the citizens of every community feel they’re equally entitled to receive the largess of governments, as well as being equally responsible for providing the tax dollars required. It’s an idea beautifully caught by John Grierson, creator of the National Film Board of Canada. Speaking in a different context, and trying to stress that in Canada no one place should dominate the country’s culture, he said, “Every church, however local, is holy ground, and equally so.”

Ironically, it was Grierson who invented the film documentary that was the forerunner of the television news which helped bring about his ideal. The advent of saturation TV coverage, especially the inspired raw Mohawk footage shown on CBC’s Newsworld, has left politicians with no place to hide. The failure of Meech Lake may have doomed Confederation, but it also proved our leaders can no longer negotiate anything in secret. From now on, it’s got to be open covenants, openly arrived at.

The next test for this revolutionary new doctrine will be the implementation of Michael Wilson’s Goods and Services Tax, which according to a Decima poll this summer was strongly supported by only a paltry four per cent of Canadians. The Mohawk Warriors may have been only the first to use barricades as a protest against unpopular government policies.

Is Ottawa ready for the Rosedale Fusiliers, Westmount Guerrillas and the Shaughnessy Skirmishers?