Columns

The rumour capital

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 15 2000
Columns

The rumour capital

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 15 2000

The rumour capital

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

One thing about our nations capital is that, for better and worse, Ottawa is a small town dressed up as a big city. In places like Montreal, Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver, enough people do enough different things that residents are always surprised when they bump into someone they know. Not so in Ottawa, where, despite the proliferation of high-tech industries, politicians, civil servants, lobbyists and journalists rule. For those who work in those fields, a walk on the Sparks Street pedestrian mall at midday is like live pinball: the trick is to continue in a straight line to your destination without being sideswiped by an acquaintance. Go to any one of a halfdozen restaurants for lunch or dinner, and it’s the same again.

That can be comforting or discomfiting. Life in a fishbowl involves an elaborate code of etiquette. One rule, for example, is that very often the people you are most polite to are the ones you most despise. Watch the elaborate courtesy with which, say, Jane Stewart will greet a journalist who slagged her recently. Neither side is fooled about her feelings, but rules are rules: she is exquisitely polite. The reverse is also common: politicians are often at their mdest in public to people who are friends in private. First-time visitors to Parliament Hill are often starded by the sight of MPs from different parties, who minutes earlier were bellowing at each other in the House of Commons, making dinner plans together. You can disagree, but you both still have to eat.

It’s striking to a former resident to revisit the city and be reminded of the importance of such rules. One occasion was the annual Politics and the Pen charity dinner last week, which brought together the usual suspects from media, politics and other components of the chattering class. In the last few years, it has taken over from the now-televised-andboring Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner as the best occasion on which to meet and greet. For an evening, people act as though they really, really like each other: sometimes, it’s true. It’s sort of the same with the rumours that people dish: it’s seldom clear where they originate or if they have a factual basis, but that doesn’t detract from the joy of passing them around. Knowing inside stuff, even if bogus, is better than no stuff. Have you heard about how Transport Minister David Collenette will replace Roy MacLaren as high commissioner in London? The logic: that would let his smart, superbly connected wife, Penny, a former adviser to Jean Chrétien who now has a high-placed job working for gazillionaire Galen Weston in Toronto, switch to the Weston family’s London operations. Anything to it? Dunno, and the people who do aren’t talking. And there’s the big rush Southam Inc. is putting on Globe and Mail executive editor Edward Greenspon to become editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen—or

perhaps not. In either event, Greenspon is far too cagey to confirm or deny something like that.

Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau coined the description “tag-sniffing” to describe the practice by which journalists check out the importance of people before they decide if they’re worth talking to. The same is true at any Ottawa event—and the premium is on people who are both powerful and genuinely interesting. Peter Herrndorf, now running the National Arts Centre, is one of the few who can schmooze just as effectively in either Toronto or Ottawa. Paul Martin, who appears to actually enjoy these things, is everyone’s target—especially since Chrétien, as PM, doesn’t work rooms like this anymore (his surrogate, Eddie Goldenberg, appears in his stead). And by the way, did we mention that Raymond Chrétien is telling friends he will retire as ambassador to Washington in January? Perhaps. But that brings us to former U.S. ambassador James Blanchard, a Clinton intimate who, like his ex-boss, is a great raconteur who never forgets a face or name. One of the few others who works a room as well as he does is his successor, Gordon Giffin, whose childhood in Montreal and Toronto gives him a leg up on Canadians who presume he is ignorant about the place. Told that someone grew up in the Montreal community of N.D.G. (Notre-Dame-de-Grâce), Giffin responds: “Ahh, people call the place No Damn Good.” Correct, and only a Montrealer could know that.

The other interesting thing about such events is the line between who comes—and doesn’t. In the traditional Ottawa calendar, this is one of the events that matter. No one of importance from the Canadian Alliance showed up—in large part because Preston Manning, Stockwell Day and others were in Toronto for a dinner honouring Mike Harris. But Joe Clark chose the Ottawa event. For those who care, these things are announced months in advance, so acceptances and omissions are more than casual decisions. Similarly, the Alliance will select a new leader on the weekend that includes June 24—which marks Quebec’s Fête nationale, the 10th anniversary of the election of Chrétien as Liberal leader, and the final collapse of the Meech Lake accord. Stockwell Day urged the Alliance to reschedule the convention because of the Quebec holiday. The party chose to stay with its original plans. Cozy nights, custom and accommodation with tradition have always been among the ways federal politicians choose to do business. Ottawa is stmctured accordingly. The Alliance, like Reform before it, chooses otherwise. If they ever win power, the way the capital functions will change dramatically. So will the country. That’s bad news for Ottawa traditionalists. Neither the past nor the future is what it used to be.