Reading Peter Foster's new book, Self Serve, is a bit like getting trapped at a cocktail party with someone who claims to know who really shot presi-
dent John F. Kennedy. Initially, Foster’s crusade to expose the truth and reveal the evils of Canada’s national oil company, Petro-Canada, is intriguing. He wastes no time in establishing his
premise that Canadian taxpayers were shamelessly and systematically bilked by the cabal of manipulative and self-serving bureaucrats, who spawned the controversial Crown corporation in 1975 and privatized it in 1991. In short order, however, the polemic’s singular bias begins to wear thin. The repetitive message and the shrill tone in which it is delivered diminish the merits of Foster’s frequently sound arguments. Even the archvillain, Petrocan’s slick chairman of 15 years, Wilbert Hopper, ultimately emerges as the victim of a literary mugging.
Foster reserves his most vitriolic rantings for Hopper, who he describes on page 1 as a “cross between a miniature sumo wrestler and a corporate Truman Capote.” But rather than sketching a full portrait of a clearly complex corporate character and a masterful backroom politician, Foster trash-compacts Hopper’s re-
markable record as an unsinkable manipulator and power broker. Sniping relentlessly, Foster compares Hopper to the head of Pemex, “the huge and corrupt Mexican state oil company,” because of his “essentially Latin, come-up-tothe-palacio-md-see-me-Chico style. ’’
Another casualty of Self Serve is Walter Gordon, an ardent economic nationalist who Foster calls “the spiritual father of Petrocan.” Gordon, who died in 1987, was a controversial finance minister under prime minister Lester Pearson, and his legacy has long been the subject of debate among Canada’s economic
historians. Foster, however, dismisses him as a “hypocrite” whose “business associates simply didn’t take his rantings seriously.” But, as the book notes somewhat patronizingly, that willingness to overlook Gordon’s shortcomings was merely a function of the fact that “Canadians are, after all, a tolerant people.”
The same sweeping approach also allows Foster to discount the roots of the national anxiety that led to the creation of Petrocan in the first place. Canada has historically had an uneasy relationship with its monolithic southern neighbor and with the tentacles of foreigncontrolled corporations. Although that national edginess has provided opportunity for political manipulation in the past, there was heartfelt public concern about the security of energy supplies starting at the time of the world’s first major OPEC oil crisis in 1973. As prices soared,
Canadians grew more uncomfortable with the domination of their domestic oil industry by multinational companies, which, they suspected, had other priorities ahead of Canada’s national interest.
Although Foster nods to the prevailing temper of that time, he also discards it as a misplaced “Alice in Wonderland view of the world” and the legacy of “the widespread Keynesian-Galbraithian dream of benevolent intervention that rules much postwar thinking.” Perhaps the fact that he only moved to Canada from Britain in 1976 has limited his understanding of that national panic attack and its reverberations in the collective psyche of Canadians. He was not in the country to experience the chill when the federal-provincial struggle for control over Canada’s oil reserves caused Albertans to threaten that Central Canada could “freeze in the dark.”
Certainly many of the carefully documented flaws in the creation, management and reckless expansion of Petrocan deserve much of Foster’s harsh comment. Indeed, Self Serve provides valuable insight into the years of political bungling and economic waste that have culminated in a perilously bloated federal budget deficit. It also furnishes some intriguing behind-the-scenes accounts of the political and corporate manoeuvrings that accompanied the transformation of Petrocan from a limited tool of the Liberal government’s public policy into a sprawling and unprofitable privatized company. It is unfortunate that Foster has overdirected and editorialized this rich tale, rather than allowing it to tell itself.
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