Nodding almost imperceptibly to one of his aides, Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien signals that he is ready to receive another visitor. The 58year-old veteran politician sits at a table near the back of the Liberal campaign bus, his deaf right ear towards the window. As the landscape skims by in a blur of ocean, forest and wave-washed coastline, the Liberal party faithful are summoned to Chrétien’s makeshift booth—sometimes individually, sometimes in groups of three. The pattern rarely varies. At the approach of each new riding, Chrétien invites rookie candidates to offer their ideas; incumbent MPs, particularly those in Chrétien’s favor, chat with him about baseball and potential campaign issues. Young Liberals, seemingly awestruck, cluster in the aisle while Chrétien reminisces about his 30 years in politics. The subtly choreographed routine is more than a practice run for an election. Says a senior Liberal strategist: “From now on, Chrétien has to look and act prime ministerial.”
After three years of internal dissension on issues ranging from the Constitution to economic policy, the Liberals have settled on the way they want voters to see the party— and the man who leads it. Once caricatured as an ill-atease leader uncomfortable with his own party, Chrétien is now determined to do whatever is necessary to convince voters that he is a prime-ministerin-waiting. Liberal strategists say that the rifts that once threatened to divide an often-unruly Liberal caucus have been bridged. Meanwhile, policies that previously were rife with contradictions have now been catalogued, complete with price tags, in a single thick volume that the Liberals plan to release in the first week of the coming election campaign. Party officials boast of the strongest slate of candidates since the heyday of the dominant Liberal party of the 1970s (page 14). Says senior Liberal policy advisor Edward Goldenberg: “Anything can happen in an election, but we’re as ready as we’ll ever be.”
Still, there is unease in the Liberal camp. Public anger and cynicism towards politicians of all stripes is now so deep, party workers say, that an opposing party can no longer rely on winning the country by default—it must show clearly that it deserves to be elected. Concerned Liberals also note Chrétien’s tendency to mute his attacks on Prime Minister Kim Campbell, treating her as a woman first, and then a political opponent. In the lead-up to the election, Chrétien’s sharpest barbs are aimed exclusively at Campbell’s predecessor, Brian Mulroney. As Chrétien told Maclean’s: “Mulroney is an old adversary. I consider a woman different. You have to be a little more guarded—you can’t be rough. It’s natural because I still open the door to a woman.”
The Liberal strategy has been fashioned to accommodate Chrétien’s strengths—and weaknesses. During the Conservative leadership race, the Liberals embarked on a series of weekend bus tours—a form of campaigning well-suited to Chrétien’s populist style—through Ontario and the West. Like the earlier trips, July’s visit to the Maritimes was aimed at priming the leader and his candidates as much as it was to showcase the Liberal team. Strategists have convinced Chrétien to take a backseat to experienced members of his caucus—allowing them to release policy statements and reap either the credit or the criticism. As well, Chrétien has agreed to soften his speaking style, lowering his voice in the middle of speeches to suggest control and gravity. Says Nova Scotia Liberal Senator Alasdair Graham: “Chrétien can bluster with the best of them. The question is whether that’s what Canadians want to hear.”
The unpredictable mood of the Maritimes is reflected in the newspaper headlines that confront Chrétien and his wife Aline in Sydney, the first stop in a three-day tour of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. During his successful election campaign last spring, Nova Scotia Liberal Premier John Savage promised to break from the tradition of appointing a raft of party loyalists to government positions. Voters welcomed the pledge, but now Savage faces a minor backbench revolt—not to mention a flood of complaints from the Liberal grassroots—because of his refusal to rid the Nova Scotia bureaucracy of Tory appointments. The headlines in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on the morning after Chrétien’s arrival—“No means No, Savage insists,” and, “Pro-patronage Liberals threaten to oust him”—serve as a reminder, if any was needed, that promises to clean up the system are often only acceptable if they apply to the sins of others.
THE LIBERAL LEADER GOES ON THE ROAD TO FIGHT THE NEGATIVE CARICATURES
The black baseball caps bearing the logo of the now-closed Westray coal mine are a defiant symbol of grief—and an age-old lament of a region in which tens of thousands of people are desperate for work. The dozen unemployed miners who wear them stand apart from the partisan Liberal crowd, which has retreated inside a community college in Stellarton, N.S., after rain doused a planned strawberry social. The men, accompanied by the widow of one of the 26 miners killed in the May 9, 1992, explosion that closed Westray,
have not shown up to socialize. In his hand, local union president Randy Facette carries two Westray caps wrapped in plastic. One is for Chrétien, the other for Savage. “Politicians are ignoring us,” Facette says. ‘They have failed us. We want to go back to work. We want to retrieve the bodies of our friends.”
On the gymnasium stage, 20 politicians and political aspirants jostle for seats in two rows that stretch from one end of the platform to the other. Chrétien delivers a stump speech, which by this, the third stop on the tour, has settled into a lulling tempo. But one quip—a dig at Campbell’s initial approval of the government’s $150,000 purchase of furniture from Mila Mulroney— brings laughs and cheers, as it does whenever the Liberal leader uses it. Noting that the furniture includes a $12,000 antique mirror, Chrétien raises an eyebrow and says of Campbell: “When she looks in that mirror at 24 Sussex, what will she see? She will see Brian Mulroney.”
The only speaker to mention Westray is Roseanne Skoke, the candidate for the riding of Central Nova. A Stellarton lawyer, Skoke is a household name in the region because of a legal battle she waged against the Roman Catholic Church. The issue— whether or not she had the right to kneel, as Catholics had been allowed to do in the past, rather than stand when taking communion—split the community. Skoke won the case, but she and her family were ostracized for years—a feeling the Westray miners say that they are beginning to understand. Perhaps because of that, most certainly in appreciation for her acknowledgment of their presence, the miners slowly uncross their arms as Skoke finishes her speech. One by one, they break into applause.
The farewell reception in Beauséjour, N.B., brims with nostalgia for a bygone political era. Three of the Liberals in the crowded Shediac hall, Chrétien and former MPs Fernand Robichaud and Romeo LeBlanc, are local party heroes: LeBlanc for holding the riding from 1972 to his retirement in 1984; Robichaud for relinquishing his safe seat to Chrétien in the byelection of 1990; and Chrétien himself for enabling locals to boast that a potential prime minister twice rented a cottage in the area for three weeks at a stretch. But it is the last scheduled visit by Chrétien to his adopted constituency before the election. In the coming campaign, he will take on the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois in his home riding of St-Maurice, northeast of Montreal.
Chrétien obviously regards Beauséjour with affection. He interrupts a conversation to shout out, as the bus crosses into New Brunswick, “We’re in my riding”—a fact signalled by the clatter of pop cans knocked off chair tables on a typical stretch of the province’s rough roads. “It’s not a big task for me to like the average Canadian,” Chrétien says. “Some people feel that it’s out of the water coming here. Not me. It’s a good mix, French and English, and the people are nice.” Later, inspired by a warm reception in the Shediac hall, Chrétien briefly sheds his statesmanlike campaign posture and delivers a barrage of old-style bluster. He accuses the “scandal-ridden” Tories of giving public office a bad name, and attacks federal economic policies and the loopholes that he says have undercut the supposed advantages of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Quoting boxer Joe Louis, Chrétien says of the Tory record: “When you’re in the ring, you can run but you can’t hide.”
Although they mask their worry well, Chrétien’s staff teeter on the edge of panic as the Liberal bus rolls across New Brunswick. In theory, at least, a tour of the East Coast Liberal stronghold—the party holds power in all four Atlantic provinces, and controls 19 of the region’s 32 federal seats—should be a worry-free jaunt, designed to draw attention to the large and happy liberal team.
In practice, there is at least one complication. For days, repeated telephone calls to New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna’s office in Fredericton have yielded the same response. McKenna’s aides have declined to guarantee McKenna’s appearance with Chrétien on the campaign trail, saying the premier is suffering from a sinus infection. That illness aside, Chrétien and the premier have never been particularly close. New Brunswick residents grumble about McKen-
na’s hardline attack on the New Brunswick deficit, but many outside the province regard the 45-year-old premier as a potential successor to Chrétien. The Liberal leader’s aides are clearly uneasy at the prospect of having to explain a no-show by McKenna.
At 8:30 a.m. on the last day of the tour, McKenna does show up, unannounced and without fanfare. Tanned and relaxed after a two-week vacation at his cottage near Chatham, N.B., the Liberal premier strolls through the drizzle in a monogrammed red baseball jacket. But instead of hurrying to Chretien’s side, he stops at the doorstep of a paper products plant in Dieppe, N.B., for a leisurely chat with reporters. Inside the factory, the Chrétiens, wearing yellow foam earplugs to protect themselves from the deafening noise, wander past whizzing conveyor belts of tissue paper and toilet rolls. “Is Frank here, where’s Frank?” a Chrétien aide chirps when he spots McKenna’s lone accompanying aide on the doorstep. Later, as McKenna and Chrétien disappear into the bus, the New Brunswick official dismisses any suggestion that the premier is eager to switch to federal politics. “These guys,” he says ruefully, referring to Chretien’s contingent, “hear footsteps when there aren’t any.”
During a perfunctory chat, the two leaders discuss resource policy and potential changes to the welfare and unemployment programs. As the bus bumps and lurches along New Brunswick’s abysmal roads, McKenna also reminds his federal counterpart of his appeals to resurrect the national highway improvement program, which Chrétien promises to do by next summer if the Liberals win the next election. In Chatham, they eat pancakes and exchange public compliments at an annual Irish festival breakfast, at which one-third of the audience is American. “People love this ‘I love Canada’ stuff,” McKenna remarks after Chrétien delivers another speech in which he stresses the right of every Canadian to a paycheque. “He’s got to stay right where he’s staying, on this noncontentious stuff.” But Chatham, the hub of McKenna’s riding, is as far as the premier will go. Chrétien has given his New Brunswick colleague a free lift home.
Every July—fish or no fish—the people of the Mirimachi, on the northern Acadian coast of New Brunswick, stage a parade through the centre of Shippagan (population 2,500) to pay tribute to the fishing industry. So many local residents don costumes and take part that there are few spectators along the route. There are angelfish on Rollerblades, Catholic nuns bailing water from a leaky dory, newlyweds bound to each other by ropes looped around their necks and pirates who toss wrapped candy from the cabs of flatbed trucks. For a moment, as children scatter to collect their prizes, it is possible to forget the region’s chronic 30-per-cent unemployment rate. Confesses Percy Mallet, a festival organizer: “We’re so used to having a hard time here that we’ve learned to have fun with it.”
Maritimers are also accustomed to politicians turning up in strange places. Richard Hatfield, the late New Brunswick Tory premier and master campaigner, was known to stroll into clothing stores and poke his head through dressing room curtains just to say hello to voters. Still, there are pockets of awkward silence along Avenue Robichaud in Shippagan as Chrétien passes, waving selfconsciously from the backseat of a maroon Pontiac convertible. Behind him is a troupe of whooping Young Liberals and, even more improbably, the lumbering Chrétien campaign bus. Few of the spectators clap. Most simply stand and stare, perhaps wondering why—since the election has yet to be called—the Liberal leader has chosen to horn in on their parade.
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