No Canadian politician got dumped more unceremoniously in 1990 than David Peterson, the urbane Ontario premier whose dedication to civility in public life served the country well, but himself not at all. During his five years as premier of Canada’s richest province, he tamed Ontario’s inbred arrogance by pioneering impressive social reforms and opting for national rather than parochial concerns. Then, on Sept. 6, in one of Canada’s most astonishing political turnabouts, his party was trounced at the polls and he lost his own seat.
Yet during his time in office, as leader of Canada’s largest bloc of anglophones, he played a crucial—and personally costly—role in attempting to get the Meech Lake accord passed, well aware that constitutional discord could easily escalate into the kind of ugly racial splits that can break this country apart. His statesmanship kept the Meech Lake bargaining alive within the conference rooms, but the voters had lost confidence in the process and, when Peterson called an unnecessary election, they turned on him.
“I’ve never been able to figure out,” the former Ontario premier told me recently in his first interview since the defeat, “the difference between making a very tough decision in politics, which you have to do, and arrogance. I guess the dividing line is that if people agree with you, you’re a great leader, and if they don’t, you’re an arrogant son of a bitch, because you didn’t listen to them. The truth is, there has been enormous consultation going on all the time. We beat our brains out consulting, and people still said, ‘You didn’t consult with me.’ What they were really saying was, ‘You didn’t agree with me.’ Certainly both Meech Lake and free trade were in the public domain for a long time, though in the end I didn’t understand either issue, because they both became so symbolic and value-laden.” Peterson, who has taken no public stands since his defeat, has been quietly sounding out public opinion, and doesn’t like what he’s hear-
‘WhatCanada is going through now was completely predictable. Everybody knew it was going to happen except Clyde Wells. ’
ing. “I have never in my life encountered so many hard-core pessimists,” he says. “You see a juxtaposition of almost intractable problems and you have the sense that, while the country could face one or two at a time, when you have so many, things are just going to get worse. The problem is that there’s no one idea a majority of Canadians are willing to buy into these days. We’ve been struggling for 123 years to define what is a Canadian, and sort of patched it over. It’s not a pretty scene because everything is suddenly up for grabs.”
What worries Peterson most is the decline of the mainline parties which could broker the differences. He blames the rise of such regional phenomena as the Reform party and the Bloc Québécois for destroying the political system and believes that it’s dangerous because the emotional appeal of these new movements is their hostility against some other part of Canada. “The problem,” he says, “is rooted not in the political system but in the media. It’s always instant-gratification time. Anybody can be a hero in this country if he embarrasses someone in power. The Prime Minister makes a speech while some guy dresses up as a waiter and yells at him—and that’s what gets the play. The media are pushing back the parameters to
feature the more outrageous and more confrontational, while thoughtfulness is no longer getting through the system.”
Peterson credits the Trudeau Charter of Rights and Freedoms for “empowering the disempowered,” but stresses that it created expectations no politician could meet, and predicts that political tenures from now on are going to be much briefer. His own, he admits, was cut short by the Meech Lake fiasco, especially his gesture of offering to give up six Ontario Senate seats. “It was a Friday afternoon and everything was falling apart,” he recalls. “Newfoundland needed some assurance that meaningful Senate discussions were going to go on. I went back to my delegation and told them I needed a really crazy idea to save the talks from going down the tubes. Just before I suggested the Senate change, I phoned [my wife] Shelley and told her I’d probably lose my job over it, though I’m not sure I really believed it.
“Why should we have had to take all that abuse?” he bursts out. “Why should we have had to sit there and be dictated to by Newfoundland, a little province that We’re supporting? What Canada is going through now was completely predictable. Everybody knew it was going to happen except Clyde Wells, and he just refused to believe it.” Even though his ardent support for Meech was a major factor in his defeat, Peterson has no regrets. “I wouldn’t have done it any differently,” he says. “It was the only chance to save the accord, and we damn near did it.”
He stood with Brian Mulroney on Meech but Peterson is appalled by the GST and free trade. “We had it all,” he laments. “We had everything going for us, if we’d just kept our mouths shut. We had a $10to $20-billion trade surplus with the U.S. and virtually free access to its market, with none of the disadvantages. In the Free Trade Agreement, we got nothing.”
Relieved to be out of the line of fire, Peterson has yet to decide about his personal future. He has had numerous offers, including a university presidency. “I’ve made a decision for the moment not to make any decision,” he says, although he has agreed for now to lecture part time in politics at Toronto’s York University. “I’m not planning any political resurrections, though at the risk of sounding immodest, I believe I’m one of the few anglophones with any currency in Quebec, and I’m prepared to expend it for the right cause at the right moment. When you lose in politics, you go from being a hero to being a bum. But I never let my self-esteem depend on political success or failure. I still think politics is the highest calling.”
Despite his own defeat, the failure of Meech Lake and Canada’s precarious state, Peterson remains optimistic about his own and Canada’s future. “There are cycles in history and cycles in moods,” he concludes. “Perhaps out of this one, we’ll re-examine ourselves as never before. We just need a lot of people to pluck themselves up and go across the border to Detroit, stand in the middle of it, look back at Canada and wonder why we screwed it all up. As for myself, this is a country I will always fight like hell for.”
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