Sitting in a small aluminum boat with one hand on the engine’s throttle, Premier Bob Rae absorbed the scenery and tranquillity of Ontario’s early September outdoors. A three-day cabinet retreat had brought him to a modest resort on the shores of Sparrow Lake, two hours’ drive north of Toronto. But after a long day of intense discussions and briefings behind closed doors last week, the 44-yearold NDP premier had time to cast silently for a few pickerel—without luck, as it turned out. Still, the hourlong fishing expedition offered Rae a rare respite from the pressures of office. Since his election two years ago, the rookie premier has wrestled with a record $ 10-billion provincial deficit, a recession, months of constitutional negotiations and criticism from within his own New Democratic Party that he has failed to move fast and far enough to implement his party’s reform-oriented platform.
Even at a young age, he was surrounded by politics. He was bom in Ottawa in August, 1948, the son of a career diplomat and an upper-middleclass Englishwoman with a Cambridge University history degree. One of his father’s closest friends was Lester Pearson, and the future Liberal prime minister was a frequent visitor to the family house when Rae was a child. At the age of seven, Rae’s father, Saul, moved his family to Washington, D.C., to take up a post in the Canadian embassy. And in one of the rituals of youth, Rae took up a newspaper route (his customers included then-vice-president Richard Nixon). He played hockey and baseball, but family members do not remember him scoring many goals or runs. They say that he was more of a bookworm than an athlete. He avidly collected baseball cards, but he could also rhyme off the names of every U.S. president and the year he came to office. At age 11, he made it to the final round of a city-wide spelling bee, but flubbed it when he encountered the word “indictment”—an inauspicious start for a future lawyer.
Later, Rae developed a remarkable athletic tenacity, particularly in individual sports such
as tennis. One of Rae’s longtime friends, who has often been on the losing end of on-court duels with the premier, is Leonard Wise. A Toronto lawyer who is always ready with a wisecrack (“I’m not a socialist—you have to be crazy to believe in that stuff”), Wise is baffled by Rae’s seeming invincibility in tennis. “You look at the guy—he has no muscles and he walks like a duck,” quips Wise. “His form is totally off, but he always wins. He is so consistent and persistent.”
Emotions: From Washington, Rae’s father was posted to Geneva. There, Rae attended a bilingual school for international students and became fluent in French. After returning to Canada in 1966 to do a BA in history at the University of Toronto, Rae moved back to Europe in 1969—this time, to do a postgraduate degree in political theory on a Rhodes
scholarship at Oxford. He crossed the Atlantic again to return to the University of Toronto, where he completed a law degree in 1977. By the time he was first elected to office as a New Democrat MP in a 1978 federal byelection, he had spent almost as much time living outside of Canada as he had in his home country. Rae’s closest friends have not been surprised by his rapid rise in politics. “He is fiercely ambitious,” says Michael Ignatieff, a London writer who was Rae’s roommate during their undergraduate years at the University of Toronto.
At the same time, Rae is a man of strong emotions—and they frequently break through the surface of his cerebral veneer. The night of his election victory over former premier David Peterson, Rae said that he cried after he called his parents. And while he can also appear withdrawn and aloof in public, Rae seeks refuge from the stresses of office with his wife, Arlene, and daughters Judith, 11, Lisa, 9 and Eleanor, 7, at the family cottage on Big Rideau Lake near Ottawa. Those trips also offer Rae a chance to spend time with his parents, who own a cottage on a neighboring island. His brother John, a vice-president of Montreal-based Power Corp. and adviser to Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien, is also a frequent visitor to Big Rideau Lake. During a break from constitutional talks in May, Rae came under fire in the legislature when he travelled to his cottage by police helig copter for a weekend. While £ opposition critics accused Rae of wasting taxpayers’ N money, the premier pleaded, I “I had not seen my children y for about eight days.”
I Rae has also faced criticism from within his own party. Some New Democrats say that he is too close to senior bureaucrats. “He is the son of a diplomat who loves cocktail parties,” one caucus detractor says privately. “He is not a real New Democrat.” Other party purists accuse the premier of endangering the NDP’s chances of re-election and its reform agenda by paying too much attention to the deficit. In a stinging attack published in the September issue of The Ontario New Democrat, the party’s magazine, University of Toronto historian Desmond Morton, a former member of the provincial NDP executive wrote: “Barring the miracle for which most of us still pray, Bob Rae will be a one-term Premier.” Still, even if the next two years are Rae’s last as premier, his government’s farreaching reform program will clearly change the face of the province.
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