BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

Breaking with the past

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 20 1994
BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

Breaking with the past

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 20 1994

BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

Breaking with the past

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Of his days as a boy growing up in Shawinigan, Que., Prime Minister Jean Chrétien remembers a town and a time that were very much touched by the Second World War. By 1944, when Chrétien was 10, there was a star in the window of his home, signifying that a member of the family—his brother Gabriel, now 73 years of age—was serving in the Canadian army. So was a brother-inlaw, Jacques Suzer, also now 73. As well,

Chrétien’s mother, Marie, spent much of her spare time knitting socks and sweaters for the troops. There was also an uncle who, Chrétien recalled in a conversation last week, “never really got over whatever it was that he lived through” as a soldier in the First World War. And the white-hot debate over conscription in Quebec—which, as Chrétien said, “we were one of the few families in our area to support”—helped to form his political views, and his obstinacy.

All of which makes Chrétien, at 60, one of the last of a generation of world leaders and Canadian politicians whose views and memories were shaped by the war. For the first time since the 1940s, none of the present members of Parliament are veterans of that war. Even in the Senate, Jack Marshall, one of its few veterans, is to retire this summer when he reaches 75. Of the three leaders whose countries led the D-Day assault on German-occupied France, President Bill Clinton, 47, was not yet bom then, while Prime Minister John Major, 51, is too young to remember the event.

Does that matter? It did, emotionally, last week in Normandy. Chrétien, who

normally keeps his feelings tightly in check, was the most visibly moved of the three leaders during remembrance ceremonies. His voice cracked during his speech, and after each event of the day, he called Suzer, who was also in France, to ask his opinion about it. After the memorial service for Canadian dead at the cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer, he stayed for more than an hour after his scheduled departure time to talk with veterans and their families.

What does that mean in a world where old alliances are crumbling and new priorities forming? Not much, in practical terms. After only seven months in office, Chrétien’s government is already arguably the least Euro-centric and Westernoriented in the country’s history. The Liberals have done their best to pretend that Washington doesn’t exist; closed the venerable but expensive Canada House building in London’s Trafalgar Square; and treated French politicians—or, at least, proQuebec sovereignty Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac—with the same polite contempt they have always received in turn. As well, Canada has questioned its traditional role in UN peacekeeping programs and swung the focus of its attention to the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region.

What is increasingly apparent is that Chrétien, while sharply aware of tradition, is not bound by it. For better and sometimes for worse—such as his government’s shameless pandering to the repressive regime in China—Chrétien has shown a willingness to turn established Canadian foreign policy upside down. That may yet also be true of domestic policy. The real test of that will come this fall, when Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy tables planned changes to social programs. If the Liberals act half as aggressively as they hint, these will be the most profound changes since the present system began in the 1940s. All this from a politician often seen as a transitional leader: one who would set the stage for the next generation, while evoking the values of the previous one. Instead, Chrétien is mastering a far more difficult political skill: talking about the past, even as he breaks with it.