Second wind

Lloyd Axworthy's career has taken flight with a new campaign

BRUCE WALLACE December 1 1997

Second wind

Lloyd Axworthy's career has taken flight with a new campaign

BRUCE WALLACE December 1 1997

Second wind

Lloyd Axworthy's career has taken flight with a new campaign



In the miserly, can’t do, prudence-above-all political culture of end-of-the-century Ottawa, Lloyd Axworthy should be about as fashionable as flower power and peace signs. The caricatures of the man and his politics are deeply rooted: a headstrong politician laden with old lefty ideas and given to anti-American fevers, surviving only because his legendary pork-barrelling skills make him invincible in his Winnipeg riding. Sure, he might be foreign minister now—how much harm can anyone do in that portfolio during these inward-looking times? After three decades in politics, his reputation appeared sealed, his epitaph already written. At a dinner for a departing ambassador in

Ottawa earlier this year, Mitchell Sharp—the doyen of the Liberal party and an old External Affairs hand himself—gazed across the table at Axworthy and joked that he didn’t see a foreign minister, he saw a man who has lavished more gifts on his constituents than any politician in the country. That conventional wisdom—and Ottawa swallows conventional wisdom whole—suggested Axworthy was a politician whose future was behind him.

How deliciously surprising, then, that he is now the hottest cabinet minister in town, the one with sails puffed to busting. Axworthy sits at the tiller of an issue that has become the global flavor of the year. Fourteen months ago, he daringly challenged foreign governments to come to Ottawa by this December to sign a treaty banning the use and production of anti-personnel land mines. At the time “people laughed and giggled,” Axworthy recalled last week. Advisers in Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s office were, to be polite, skeptical. “Land mines? we all asked,” says a laughing Sharp, who is a special adviser in Chrétien’s office. “People were saying, We don’t have a land-mine problem.’ ”

But Axworthy had tapped into a diplomatic issue that was developing tremendous momentum from world public opinion. It was pushed by a dedicated coalition of middle-power governments and international activists, then energized by the sugar rush that came after Diana, Princess of Wales, made it her cause, too. A few countries resisted the pull: China, the United States, and an assortment of predictable rogue states and those still wary of age-old enemies at their borders. But most responded to the irresistibly noble desire to expunge a weapon that indiscriminately maims or kills its victims—most of them civilians. On Dec. 3, delegates from more than 90 nations will come to Ottawa for a formal treaty-signing ceremony—with Axworthy presiding.

In notching up a high-profile success for a Liberal government desperate for political winners, Axworthy has seen his prestige soar. Not that anyone is about to accuse him of suddenly developing star quality. At 57, he stubbornly sticks to his mumbling style of public speaking. Young Liberals do not squeal when he steps from his government limo. But polling shows that approval for his anti-land-mines crusade runs at an astounding 95 per cent among Canadians—which passes for political mania these days. Activists around the world salute him. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (which was won by a U.S.-based advocacy group, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines). And even his old friends in the often-nasty world of Manitoba politics are planning a testimonial dinner. ‘What Axworthy has done with land mines is important,” says former Tory prime minister Joe Clark, now living in Ottawa and still active in international relations through business and think-tank connections. “Accomplishments in foreign affairs are exempt enough from our normal Canadian controversies that they can help do a bit of nation-building, and that’s something we badly need.”

That kind of uncynical talk reinforces Axworthy’s own instincts. He retains faith in an activist Canadian foreign policy that sounds almost quaint under a Prime Minister who tends to see the international community as little more than a great place to do business. “I do have a belief that this country makes a difference, that we have a special vocation,” Axworthy said in an interview with Maclean’s last week in his Parliament Hill office, standing at times to relieve a sore back after eight days of shuttling through the Middle East on a Challenger jet. “Not that we’re better than anyone else. But our history and experience shows that you can use politics to build bridges. And the land-mines issue has been helpful in that all of a sudden people are saying that Canada can make a difference. They are asking what Canada can do.”

Axworthy, of course, has a pageant of ideas on where to go from here. He is starting to redefine Canadian foreign policy for a postCold War world, adding new jargon like “the human security agenda”—a sweeping term covering everything from safe drinking water to preventing human rights abuses—to Canada’s traditional role as a modest middle power and peacekeeper. Trying to strike while the iron is hot, he asked the cabinet last week to earmark $100 million for a second phase of action on land mines, focusing on mine removal and the physical rehabilitation of their victims.

More boldly—and perhaps even recklessly—Axworthy has declared his intention to lead the same kind of coalition that pro'i duced the Ottawa land-mine treaty in a crusade to stop the spread ¿ of small arms to the planet’s darker corners. In unstable places, I battered Kalashnikovs held together with tape can be a far greater z threat to civilians than conventional, hi-tech weapons systems, d The small-arms plan was formulated in typical Axworthy fashion: £ he lit up when officials brought the idea to his attention last summer and he announced his desire to pursue it with little warning to surprised cabinet colleagues. After all these years, he remains a solo act. “Lloyd’s got lots of ideas, some good, some not so good,” sighed one Chrétien adviser, who counts himself among the many naysayers on the small-arms initiative.

But having seen his activist approach pay off on land mines, Axworthy is comfortably back in stride. “In 30 years, I’ve never seen him happier,” says Winnipeg businessman Izzy Asper of his longtime friend. ‘You can trace his style back to his values as a student activist. Lloyd was a very sincere, idealistic kid.” Loyalists say his rather cold, academic demeanor hides a passion to help victims and the voiceless, a private drive reinforced after he and his wife, Denise, adopted a son, Stephane.

riating and impressing supporters with his typically curious, intellectual and often unfocused style. “Other ministers ask: ‘What’s the problem?’ ” said one senior Liberal adviser. “Lloyd asks: ‘What’s the world?’ ” Lloyd Axworthy’s early world view was formed in the mixed ethnicity of Winnipeg’s lower-income North End, on a street lined with neat, post-Second World War houses, where elbows were

Now, he cajoles his officials to come up with the next Big Idea (“everybody was walking around for days asking: ‘what is human security?’ ” laughed one Foreign Affairs official), both infusometimes carried high. “As a kid, you grew up playing basketball for the Community Polish Association, or going to a Ukrainian wedding on a Friday night and you learned how to work together,” said Axworthy. “I developed a strong reaction against any form of discrimination and intolerance.”

Approval for Axworthy's anti-land-mines crusade runs at an astounding 95 per cent of Canadians

The 1950s were a sleepy time, but Winnipeg seemed even more so to outsiders. “A boy meets girl in Winnipeg and who cares?” was the title of a gloomy 1959 essay by novelist Hugh MacLennan, recounting how an American publisher expressed his view of Canadian dullness. But Winnipeg had its own protest culture, too, remembers Tom Kent, who edited the Winnipeg Free Press in the late ’50s.

Kent would later become a central figure in many of the national social reforms such as medicare as an adviser to Prime Minister Lester Pearson. ‘The North End was the one radical bit of what had been an extremely conservative province,” Kent recalls.

Axworthy’s street impulses were complemented by the Christian activism derived from his family’s United Church faith, largely instilled by his mother, Gwen. “My mother was always doing community work,” recalls Bob Axworthy, the youngest of four Axworthy brothers and the only one still living in Winnipeg (former Pierre Trudeau aide Tom now lives in Toronto, while Trevor is in Switzerland) . “You’d come home for dinner and she’d have a prisoner from the Stony Mountain penitentiary sitting across from you.” Lloyd still attends the United Church—modifying a British political expression, he calls it the “Liberal party on its knees”—and says he retains the belief that “your faith is demonstrated by what you do and that, as a Christian, you have obligations.”

The fusion of those beliefs to party politics came when Axworthy was in high school and heard Pearson speak at the old Civic Auditorium. Pearson had recently won his Nobel Peace Prize for helping resolve the 1956 Suez crisis by proposing to send UN peacekeepers to the region. Axworthy was an athlete (football) and part-time Eaton’s model for young men’s fashions (desert boots). “Pearson talked about a special role for Canada,” Axworthy recalls. “I went in a jock, and left saying: ‘Hey, there’s something interesting about this guy.’ I suppose I came out with a sense of what being a Liberal was, and what Canada was. If there was one political hero of mine it was Mike Pearson.”

After completing an undergraduate degree in Winnipeg, Axworthy moved to Princeton University in New Jersey for graduate work in the early 1960s. It was the era of civil rights activism on American campuses and Axworthy drifted down to Martin Luther King’s historic marches in Selma and Birmingham, Ala. “I remember the great thing after Birmingham, when we finished that march and were all camped out and we had people like Mahalia Jackson and Harry Belafonte there. It was a very special time, and when you’re 21 or 22, that stuff makes a big difference to your life.”

After graduate school, Axworthy had a brief fling with the NDP when he got “ticked off with the Liberals” over the 1960 Bomarc missile crisis (Pearson, then in opposition, argued that Ottawa should accept the nuclear-tipped U.S. missiles on Canadian soil— splitting his party in the process). “But I found the NDP too rigid,” Axworthy says now. “I like a debate. I don’t want the truth spelled out for me.” He was back in the Liberal fold by the time of the 1968 leadership race, supporting John Turner over Pierre Trudeau. “I’ve gotten really used to the pragmatism of politics,” he says, skewering suggestions of idealism. “I know what’s just part of the game.”

The game included establishing a solid political base in Winnipeg—not in the rumbly North End of his youth but further south, around the downtown University of Winnipeg where he had helped found a centre for urban studies to test those ’60s ideas on public housing. He was twice elected to the Manitoba legislature, then in 1979 became the embodiment of an endangered political species: a federal Liberal capable of winning a riding in Western Canada. He held two senior portfolios in the Trudeau government, including Transport, and to stay alive made sure that any scattering of federal money in Winnipeg was seen to come directly from his fingers. ‘You think he’d let me deliver one cheque for $5,000?” says Bob Bockstael, who was a St. Boniface MP and the only other western Liberal in the last Trudeau government. After all these years, Bockstael, who left the Commons in 1984, is still bitter. “He never allowed me a thing,” he adds. “But people warned me. They said: ‘Bob, Lloyd’s in it for himself. He’s a loner.’ ”

The small size of Manitoba’s political class does not mean it operates any more politely than elsewhere. Axworthy and Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon grew up blocks and a few years apart in Winnipeg’s North End.

They now war with each other.

“They’re both too chippy to get along,” says a Winnipeg Liberal who knows both men. And Axworthy’s rivalry with Sharon Carstairs, who led the provincial Liberal party through the late 1980s, is legendary for its mutually petty nastiness. While Axworthy agonized over whether to enter the 1990 federal leadership race (finally staying out when it became apparent that he could not raise enough money to run a national campaign),

Carstairs was already using her influence to back her old friend Chrétien. In turn, Axworthy refused to help Carstairs in her 1990 provincial election, when power seemed within her grasp. The night she lost, a painful defeat after such high expectations, he was at a nightclub in Winnipeg where he jumped on stage to sing Blue Suede Shoes. Badly.

Washington so dwarf all other Canadian concerns that Chrétien himself retains ultimate control over the bilateral relationship, relying heavily on advice from his nephew Raymond Chrétien, who is Canada’s ambassador in Washington. His relations with the PMO are hardly cozy Axworthy’s relations with the Prime Minister’s Office are hardly cozy. He feuds with Jim Bartleman, a career diplomat who is the Prime Minister’s principal adviser on foreign affairs. Bartleman shares Chretien’s caution—which frustrates Axworthy’s desire to be an action hero. Bartleman’s daily access to Chrétien is unbeatable in a city where proximity counts, and “the PM is very comfortable with Bartleman,” says a senior adviser. “Chrétien likes a pragmatic approach. He likes Team Canada. And that’s not Lloyd Axworthy.” Perhaps, but the PMO’s early hostility to the land-mine campaign melted with its success (Chrétien aides now pointedly note that André Ouellet, Axworthy’s predecessor, was responsible for convincing the Canadian military to give up its own land-mine arsenal). When the time came to blow up that last Canadian stockpile, it was Chrétien who was photographed with his finger on the button. who crafted the Liberals’ Gulf War policy in opposition in 1991, commiting Canadians to the anti-Saddam Hussein coalition— unless they were actually shot at. “I’m sure the Americans have all that in their briefing notes somewhere,” he says softly. But Axworthy defends his record, likening his politics to those of many American liberals. “I didn’t say harsh things about the

tics are already whispering that Axworthy is overestimating Canada’s weight in the world. It will all come crashing down on this crazy small-arms control plan he is floating, they say. Not

are writing him off again already. □ Axworthy says he is trying, with Albright, to redesign and modernize cross-border institutions to avoid trans-boundary crises like last summer’s Red River floods. But relations with

sexy enough. You might reduce the number of small arms, but you will never get rid of them. “We’ll see,” says Axworthy with a tight smile, still dreaming in a cynical age where the realists

Axworthy argues that his tough, pragmatic side shows he is not ideological enough to live up to his casting as the living representative of old-fashioned Liberalism. “It’s the media that says, ‘You’re anti-American.’ No. I just would like Canada to have its own policy,” he says forcefully. “People forget, but I started the privatization of transportation in this country in 1984. And back then, I was the guy saying that our older social programs were killing us, and I got shot down in the Trudeau cabinet for that. So do I resent the stereotype of my politics? Yes I do.” John Turner once privately predicted no prime minister would ever put Axworthy in foreign affairs because the newspaper clippings file was too thick with quotes from Axworthy bashing Washington. And while it is generally agreed that he gets along well with U.S. Secretary of State Madelaine Albright, there are still people in Washington who remember Lloyd Axworthy as a loud anti-free trade campaigner, or the Axworthy States. I said harsh things about certain American policies and the politicians who produced them. Sure I didn’t like what the Cold Warriors were doing in the 1980s. Neither did a lot of Americans. But people forget that I’ve also had enormous admiration for the States for things like setting up the United Nations.” He has no phobias about American culture. He likes jazz. And, he says with a smile, “I love Broadway musicals.” Axworthy, meanwhile, presses on with his attempt to redefine Canadian foreign policy, updating the Pearsonian vision. “We see the way politics is changing internationally,” he says, “how new players—environmentalists, NGOs—are becoming not just advocates but forceful players in their own right, using the power of new communications to really get things done.” Axworthy calls it the Global Commons, touchy-feely “people power” language that can still evoke sneers from the clubby diplomatic elites who insist they still shape the world. In Ottawa, the skep-