Reaching across the great divide

JOHN GEDDES June 15 1998

Reaching across the great divide

JOHN GEDDES June 15 1998

Reaching across the great divide



In another era, Rahim Jaffer would long since have been recruited into either the Liberal or Conservative folds. Poised, personable and ambitious, he would, at age 26, be riding his abundant political skills towards an inevitable cabinet-level job. But in a time of regional and ideological

fragmentation, Jaffer’s political career is on a much less certain trajectory. As the most fluently bilingual member of the Reform caucus, the rookie Edmonton MP has been cast into a unique role as an emissary for western populism in Quebec. Last week, he ventured deep into what is, for most Reformers, terra incognita—Quebec City for a public debate with Bloc Québécois MP Pierre Brien. The next evening, the encounter, pitting

Reform’s concept of a decentralized federation against the Bloc’s vision of a fractured one, was repeated in Edmonton. The exchanges between two regional movements that have redefined opposition politics in the House of Commons since 1993 were friendly—serving notice that Reform is willing to risk brushing shoulders with separatists in a bid to break out of its western stronghold and challenge the dominance of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberals. “This has been by far our biggest opportunity to have our actual substance judged by a large number of people in Quebec,”

Jaffer told Maclean’s. That is not necessarily much of a boast. Reform has been at best a political novelty in Quebec. At worst, the party, which ran TV ads in last year’s election campaign urging Canadians not to elect

another Quebec-born prime minister, has been viewed as menacingly anti-French. But if Jaffer’s chances of winning over many Quebec voters are

slim, his forays into the province might pay off in neighboring Ontario. Softening Reform’s image on the Quebec question could be the key to electoral success in Ontario—a breakthrough that

eluded the party in 1997, denying it true government-in-waiting status. “I think Ontario had some

misconceptions as to what our intentions are on the national unity file,” Reform Leader Preston Manning said last week in an interview. “If Ontario people get an idea of what we’re really up to, that will help, maybe by relieving some fears.”

If anyone stands a chance of persuading wary voters to give the party’s ideas on unity that second look, it might well be Jaffer. He shatters the stereotype of the strident greying-aroundthe-temples Reform hardliner. An Ismaili Muslim whose family settled in Edmonton after fleeing Uganda in 1972, Jaffer has a proven knack for making white conservative voters feel at

ease with a visible-minority candidate. Even more valuable to the Reform party, he was educated mainly in French at the University of Ottawa. While he still practises regularly with a tutor, he is bilingual enough to hold his own in Canada’s other official language. In Quebec City last week, an audience of about 150, made up mainly of separatists, greeted Jaffer politely. But he is under no illusion about how well Reform’s proposal for a reformed federation went over. “I don’t know whether we convinced a lot of people, and I somehow doubt that we did,” he admitted. “But if we get people thinking, then that’s more than the Liberals have done in the past four or five years, that’s for sure.”

Political opponents were quick to accuse Reform of going too far just by showing up for the debate. Sherbrooke, Que., area Tory MP David Price suggested that by sharing a stage with sovereigntists, Reform was tacitly working with Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard to break up the country. “The Reform party has finally come out of the closet,” Price railed in the House. “It wants Quebec out of Canada.” Liberal MPs joked that the two main opposition parties might merge as the “Rebloc.” More substantially, political analysts pointed out that Manning seemed to be moving towards reconstituting the coalition that handed Brian Mulroney two massive majority Tory governments: western conservatives who feel locked out of central Canadian power circles, bedrock Ontario Tories, and nationalist francophone Quebecers searching for an amenable federal party.

Manning bristled at the suggestion he might be following in Mulroney’s footsteps. “The coalition Mulroney built in Quebec was essentially done on a shmoozing basis, which was Mulroney’s modus operandi,” he said. “We’re starting with the principles, not the personalities, and we’re starting at the bottom by distributing stuff to ordinary people.” The principles that Manning hopes will build credibility, if not outright support, in Quebec are mapped out in his New Canada Act. The policy paper released last month calls for substantially strengthening provincial powers in areas like social services, language and culture, while bolstering Ottawa’s clout in fields like interprovincial trade and the regulation of financial institutions. But its most far-reaching proposal is to strictly limit the federal power to spend in provincial jurisdictions—historically Ottawa’s main means of widening its sphere.

Manning carefully refers to the package as “rebalancing,” rather

than a “decentralization” of the federation. But there is little doubt that the aspect of the message that won Jaffer a warm reception in Quebec City is the notion of curbing Ottawa’s power— particularly Reform’s call for giving the provinces unequivocal control over language and culture. Reform strategists know better, though, than to hope for converts from the hardline Bloc and Parti Québécois. Instead, they aim to build bridges to the likes of Parti action démocratique, made up mainly of former members of the Liberal Party of Quebec who favor decentralization just short of outright secession. Mario Dumont, leader of the splinter party, said after the Quebec City debate that he was impressed by the “logic” of the Reform position. More problematic for Reform is the icy relationship between Manning and Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest, who as federal Tory leader once called Reformers bigots, and rebuffed efforts to unite the two parties of the right. Charest’s Quebec Liberal camp remains the natural home in provincial politics for many of the discontented federalists Manning wants to reach out to. “Charest seems to be very personally offended by me,” Manning said. “But I think these ideas are bigger than personalities.” Pitching those ideas to what Manning calls a “soft sovereigntist” audience carries the risk of offending some of Reform’s core western supporters. In Edmonton, Jaffer felt compelled to declare that his friendly debates with Brien would not pave the way for formal Reform-Bloc co-operation. “It’s hardly a first date, let alone a marriage,” he quipped.

But if questions about cozying up to the separatists can be put to rest, some western political organizers predict that linking the aspirations of the obstreperous West and a discontented Quebec will sell well on the Prairies and in British Columbia—as long as Reform sticks re-

ligiously to its long-standing policy of no special status for Quebec. “A soft approach to the underbelly of, if you will, the Quebec politique could be very attractive to westerners,” says Dennis Reaburn, president of the Saskatchewan Party, the newly formed amalgam in that province of Reformers, Liberals, Tories and

NDPers. Former Reform policy guru Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary politics professor, agrees a hankering to make common cause between Quebec and the West is an old—though unrealized—notion in the Reform movement.

The backdrop to the remarkable Jaffer-Brien debates is the prolonged run-up to a Progressive Conservative leadership race. The two leading contenders, veteran Tory strategist Hugh Segal—set to declare this week—and former prime minister Joe Clark, both can be expected to claim that the Tories stand a better chance of uniting Canadians under their leadership than Reform has under Manning. So the pressure is on Reform to overhaul its reputation on the unity file before the Tories are back in the game. A tone of urgency—and frustration—creeps into Manning’s voice as he pleads for a fair hearing. “Everyone objects to any initiative on this,” he says. “But I ask, ‘What’s your alternative?’ Chrétien’s approach is to just sit there like a lump and hope it’s going to work out, or at least not fall apart until he is out of office. That’s not good enough. We’re prepared to push the envelope.” □