CANADA/COVER

Enter the two wise men

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 5 1996
CANADA/COVER

Enter the two wise men

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 5 1996

Enter the two wise men

BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Only in Quebec could a political science professor with a fondness for writing newspaper articles about the Constitution be notorious. That opprobrium from sovereigntists is one reason

why Stéphane Dion is Canada’s new intergovernmental affairs minister. And only in a country as rapidly greying as Canada, circa 1996, could the media, straight-faced, mark the elevation to cabinet of two men in their 40s—Dion and his fellow recruit, International Co-operation Minister Pierre Pettigrew—by commenting on the fact that cabinet’s average age is now “only” 49.2 years. Youth is no longer too good to be wasted on the young: now, middle-aged boomers also claim it.

But those responses to Jean Chrétien’s cabinet shuffle were only part of the proof that in politics, what you see depends on

where you see it from. The pro-sovereigntist intelligentsia of Quebec condemn Dion as the last living, centralizing disciple of the Great Satan, Pierre Trudeau. Among their counterparts in most of the rest of the country, there is the opposite concern—that Dion will decentralize powers with indecent haste to appease Quebec. Aside from all that, there is British Columbia, whose politicians increasingly seem to study the rhetoric of Humiliation 101 under Lucien Bouchard. There, the overarching concern was that nothing matters except that their province—with only one full cabinet minister, David Anderson in Transport—was ignored.

For once, all of them may be right. Chrétien, who makes most of his decisions about British Columbia based on the advice of his longtime friend there, businessman Ross Fitzpatrick, to neither

know or care much about the province, and often proves it. He needed only to make Anderson fisheries minister to placate the province, but did not.

But in the province he cares most passion-

ately about—Quebec—he can be proud of his recruits, and everyone else can be suspicious. Dion will face inevitable comparisons with the Trudeau of the 1960s: both are renowned for their combativeness, independent thinking and intellectual rigor, and denounced but feared by sovereigntist foes. But Dion, like too many Quebecers in key roles in a debate involving the entire country, will annoy other Canadians periodically by his lack of knowledge about the rest of Canada. His strength is that he knows that, and will presumably correct it.

The one most likely to cause the most

mischief in English Canada is Pettigrew. Among friends and foes—and he has many of both—it is sometimes said that Pettigrew is “brilliant, but only half as smart as he thinks he is.” He was a genuinely young, smart-mouthed aide to then-Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan in the late 1970s. He also played a key role in drafting Ryan’s beige paper—a hugely complex proposed reform of federalism which suggested a degree of decentralization that horrified everyone outside the province. He is a devout

federalist, but not in Chrétien’s more traditional brand. And he has his own shades of Trudeau: Pettigrew is a genuine iconoclast with a sometimes exotic lifestyle that includes a year-round apartment in Paris.

Dion and Pettigrew will eloquently defend Canada within Quebec. They face just as difficult a task defending Quebec in front of the rest of the country. But their most bitter, undeclared warfare awaits them in caucus. There, the fact that they are new faces taking cabinet places from more established MPs will engender as much resentment as the new ideas they bring. “New guys with new ideas” was how Trudeau once described what he wanted alongside him. Now that Chrétien has found some, Dion and Pettigrew can defend themselves from their declared enemies, but he must protect them from their supposed friends.