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Madame

 

Imagine you are in an Ottawa hotel suite with the former Prime Minister of Canada and a former President of the United States.  The Secret Service are watching the door, and there’s a photographer getting ready to take some shots.  Imagine that.

But then imagine that the door opens, and in walks Aline Chretien, looking as beautiful and as elegant as always.

And then imagine that the former President, Bill Clinton, rises to greet her, like one would an old friend.  And there is genuine affection and respect in his voice.

Imagine that the former Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, also rises to greet his wife.  And there is love and actual reverence shining on his face, and in what he says to her.  She smiles, and it is such a beautiful smile. 

Imagine all that.  And then Bill Clinton insists that Aline Chretien stands at the centre, at the middle, because that’s where she belongs.  And everyone smiles, and the photographer takes the picture.

In the thirty-plus years I have worked for him and supported him – because I have never really stopped doing either – there has been always one truth about Jean Chretien, Canada’s twentieth and best Prime Minister: he would have never been Prime Minister without her.  He would have never achieved the great things he achieved without her.

In the office, we simply referred to her as “Madame.” She came from a small town, with humble roots, like him.  She did not ever require us to stand on ceremony for her.  She was quiet, much of the time, and left the politics to him.

But she loved people, and people loved her.  One night, he invited me to come to a party at 24 Sussex.  I wasn’t sure why I was there: the place was full of their old friends from Shawinigan, all laughing and talking. There were no politicians or celebrities. They were cab drivers, and labourers, and teachers and waitresses and small business owners.

The Chretiens introduced me to their Shawinigan friends as “a fighter” for them, which was an honour.  And then Madame sat down at the piano – an instrument she had taught herself to master, later in life – and started to play and sing.  And the place was alive with her voice and everyone singing along.

She fiercely defended her husband for years, going back to when they were teenagers.  When the Conservatives mocked his facial paralysis in an ad, she was furious, and told me that “Jean is handsome.” And everyone knows the story, by now, about how she dispatched an intruder at 24 one night, using an Indigenous sculpture to do what the RCMP could not.

But when a too-ambitious Finance Minister tried to drive her husband out, she became resolute.  They had a mandate, and they would not be pushed.  One night, at a wedding, she took me and a couple other former Chretien staffers aside.  She pointed at me. “He tells the truth about Jean,” she said to them.  “He fights for Jean.  We all have to fight for Jean.”

And we did, we did.  But none as much as her.  She was his rock, his truest love, his everything.  And I confess that I am so worried for him, now.

Did you ever love someone so much, that they took your breath away, when they simply walked into a room?

Did you ever find yourself simply sitting at the edge of a group of people, watching your true love charm and delight those people, and saying nothing, because you are so proud and amazed that she chose you?

Did you ever love someone so much that you accepted, as a matter of course, that God sent her to you, so that you could breathe again, and so you could put one foot in front of the other, and go out into the day?

Did you ever owe everything you are, everything you achieved, to just one extraordinary person, who you loved so much that she was the air you breathe?

You don’t have to imagine a true love like that.  You don’t have to imagine it.  Because that is how much Jean Chretien loved Aline Chretien.  

And we all loved her as we love him.


From the archives: September 11 and Sammy

[Written the week after 9/11.]

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon just over a week ago, when the rural Ontario sky was clear and cloudless and seemed to go on forever, my wife and I pulled our 20-month-old son from the water of Stony Lake.

Sam was not breathing, and his little face was blue. His arms and legs lay on the dock of our friends cottage, as still and white as tiny pieces of china. Somewhere, I could hear my wife screaming Sam’s name and mine. I cannot remember very much, but I know that I picked him up and cleared his mouth, and tried to push the water out.

A friend, who is a doctor in Ottawa and who had invited us to the cottage, arrived to perform CPR. After a half-minute or so – 30 seconds in which the world was utterly quiet – Sam started to cough, then cry, and then come back to the world of the living.

We still do not know how long he was in the water, or how the cottage’s side door became unlatched. Following two days at the hospital, it became apparent that Sam – somehow, inexplicably – was just fine. His parents, suffused with guilt and fear and a feeling of powerlessness, weren’t. In the journalistic shorthand favoured by some, it was a near-tragedy. To us, it felt like one. It still does.

Notwithstanding that, I decided it was time to return to work. Numbed by what had happened not 48 hours before, I slipped into my office in a downtown Toronto office tower on an unforgettable Tuesday morning. Within minutes, I learned another office tower in New York City – one containing people I and my colleagues do business with all the time – was facing a tragedy of an entirely different sort.

There has been an avalanche of words in the days since September 11, when unspeakable crimes were committed against you, the people of the United States. Out of all of the images, and out of all of the words, it must be difficult to know very much that is certain. So let me offer one modest certainty, from a neighbour who came close to the edge of an abyss last week, too.

We, your friends and allies in the country to the North, have been outraged, and shocked, by what took place on that Tuesday in New York City and Washington – and greatly moved by the heroism that has taken place since. We have cried at the images flickering on our television screens – and, in our schools and workplaces, we have talked of nothing else. Canadians are, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, profoundly affected by the attacks on the United States of America in a way that is as enduring as your great Republic.

We know, in our deferential Canadian sort of way, that you do not think about us very much, most of the time. (Given our relative population, and the relative degree of influence we wield internationally, that shouldn’t surprise anyone.) But in the days that have gone by since that Tuesday, I can testify to the fact that we have certainly thought a lot about you.

There were many Canadians working in the World Trade Centre on that horrible day, which is one of the reasons we have shared your rage and sadness and dread. But for Canadians, it is not enough to simply state that these outrages could have targeted us. From our perspective, they did target us. Our shared way of life, our systems of democracy, our methods of commerce. If terrorism is a method of creating fear by striking at symbols, we in Canada are no bystanders to all of this. Because many of our symbols are yours, too.

Our relationship with the United States is a complicated one, most days. We watch your television shows, but we sometimes feel our own slender culture is being overwhelmed by the giant to the South. We live more securely under the U.S. defence umbrella, but we sometimes feel we need to be more independent of you, in places like Cuba, or on issues like landmines. We marry each other, and heal each other, and teach other. But we are Canadians, we proclaim to the world, stitching maple leaf flags onto our backpacks, cheering what remains of our hockey teams. We are not Americans, we declare.

Well, in that terrible week – and this week, and I suspect in many weeks to follow – we became Americans, in a way. The attack on you was an attack on us. As our Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, said at a ceremony in Ottawa marking a national day of mourning – a ceremony attended by more than 100,000 people on Parliament Hill, the Mounties estimated – we are with you in this one, and right to the very end.

Our friendship has no limit, Mr. Chretien said in his speech, while addressing the U.S. ambassador to Canada, Paul Celucci. “Generation after generation, we have travelled many difficult miles together. Side by side, we have lived through many dark times. Always firm in our shared resolve to vanquish any threat to freedom and justice. And together, with our allies, we will defy and defeat the threat that terrorism poses to all civilized nations, Mr. Ambassador, we will be with the United States every step of the way. As friends. As neighbours. As family.”

I can report to you that our 20-month-old, Sam, is fine. He speeds around our home, chasing his older brother and sister, seemingly oblivious to what could have happened – what did happen. He survived his brush with finality and, eventually, so will his parents.

You will emerge from all of this, too – stronger, and more united, and filled with moral purpose. And if it matters at all, you should know that we Canadians will be there with you.

Always have been, always will be.


Thirty-six years ago right now

September 4, 1984: 36 years ago today, I was on an Air Canada flight from Ottawa, heading home to Calgary to start law school. The pilot came on the blower. 

“For those of you who are wondering, we are hearing that the Liberal Party has lost every one of its seats,” he said. “And we have a new Conservative majority government.”

The plane erupted in cheers and applause – lots of it. Having just said goodbye to many of my Liberal friends at Ottawa polling stations, and having just finished working for a Liberal cabinet minister on the Hill, I slid further into my seat. A woman beside me noticed I wasn’t as deliriously happy as everyone else. 

“I take it your friends have lost?” she asked. 

“You could say that,” I said. 

On the ground in Calgary, my Dad was there to collect me. We silently listened to John Turner’s concession speech on the way back to my folks’ home on the Bow River. Near the end, Turner said: “The people are always right.’ 

“I’m not so sure about that,” I responded, but – on reflection – I reckoned that Turner was indeed correct: the people are always right. 

And the people had chosen Brian Mulroney, in record numbers. More than seventy-five per cent of eligible voters turned out to give Mulroney an astonishing 211 seats. The Liberals were reduced to a paltry 40 – only ten ahead of the New Democrats.

So began the Mulroney era, and a decade in the wilderness for the Liberal Party of Canada. It was an extraordinary decade, a time of great change, and it is hard to believe it all started 36 years ago today. 

Not many in the media marked Mulroney’s September 4, 1984 triumph, and that is a shame. He changed Canada – not always for the good, but not entirely for the bad, either. 

Meech Lake, Charlottetown, and assorted ministerial resignations, are always cited as the principal failures of the Mulroney era. But the former Conservative leader had successes, too: free trade, which his Liberal successor – my future boss, Jean Chretien – refused to undo. So, too, some of his major economic reforms, which arguably helped return the federation to balanced budgets and surpluses. 

To not a few of us, his most singular achievement was his unflagging opposition to South Africa’s evil apartheid system. This placed him squarely against his closest conservative allies, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and America’s Ronald Reagan. But Mulroney’s determination to end apartheid put him on the right side of history – and earned him the enduring friendship of Nelson Mandela. 

Why does all this matter now, so many years later? Two reasons.

First, Mulroney extraordinary victory on September 4, 1984 – and the historic events that followed that day – should not be forgotten. Whether you approve of his tenure or not, Mulroney truly changed Canada. 

The second reason really has nothing to do with Brian Mulroney at all. The second reason we should recall September 4 is this: when democratic political change comes, it sometimes comes in a way that is dramatic, decisive, and defining. It can be shocking.

That may be good, that may be bad. Depends on the team you belong to, I suppose.

One thing cannot be disputed, however:

As on September 4, 1984, as today, the people are always right.


My latest: Erin’s error

The best way to win the Republican presidential nomination, someone once said, is to run as far as possible to the Right.

Then, when one wins the nomination?

Start running back to the centre.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole heeded that advice. His leadership campaign was brimming with the sort of stuff that right-wing folks love. His campaign’s strategy was to depict Peter MacKay as the squishy One World Government crypto-Liberal, and O’Toole the conservative’s Conservative. 

He was the “true blue” Conservative. He was going to do battle with “the Chinese regime,” which would be news to our military.

He was going to start a fight to “take back Canada” – from whom, he never said, but Indigenous people were likely unamused, having always correctly believed they had Canada first. 

And, of course, O’Toole was going to give social conservatives what they wanted. He was their candidate, because he was the only one who could beat the communist MacKay. 

So:

• he suggested he had “concerns” about banning conversion therapy 

• he mused about creating “conscience rights” to make abortions harder to get

• he intoned that he didn’t like medically-assisted death, and would work to limit its use

• he implied he he would give some the “right” to refuse LGBTQ marriage 

• and he said SoCons “will have a seat at the table” when he became Conservative leader. 

Which, after a clown show of a voting process, he eventually did. He won the Tory crown in the wee hours, when most of us had gone to bed. 

And then, as in a dream, Erin O’Toole switched the script.

It was kind of like the Bobby Ewing dream sequence on Dallas, many years ago. JR was dead and we were trying to figure out the identity of the murderer. And then Bobby woke up, and it was all a dream!

The producers of Dallas lost not a few fans with that little stunt, and my suspicion is Erin O’Toole is going to lose some fans, as well.

On the progressive side of the spectrum, he has created a credible case for the criticism that he has a hidden agenda. On the social conservative side – a side he actively and indisputably courted for many months – there will be feelings of betrayal and anger.

That’s what happens when you try and suck and blow at the same time. That’s what happens when you try to be all things to all people. You end up satisfying nobody, really.

O’Toole had an exceedingly competent campaign team. That is obvious. They were up against a likable, experienced former senior cabinet minister. They were up against the widely-held impression that their candidate lacked charisma, name recognition or a policy or two that were in some way newsworthy.

Despite that, they expertly manipulated the Byzantine Conservative voting process and captured ridings that were ridings in name only.  They decisively beat Peter MacKay by doing that. 

But make no mistake: they also did that by pretending to be the most electable social conservative candidate. The other two social conservatives in the race could not speak French – a nonstarter for a truly national political party.

Sure, sure.  It is true that Justin Trudeau is no longer as popular as he once was. It is true that he has become enmeshed  in multiple ethical scandals. It is true that one of those scandals – the one that has soiled his family name – may yet take down his government.

But only a fool would underestimate Justin Trudeau‘s electoral skills. Andrew Scheer did that, and he ended up looking like a fool. He ended up looking like a guy who couldn’t score on an empty net if his life depended on it.

With a pandemic raging, and Canadians worrying about kids returning to school and businesses going under, it may be that Canadians will forget about Erin O’Toole‘s whiplash-inducing flip-flop. Or they may not care. 

But Conservatives are dreaming in technicolor if they think the Liberal electoral machine has not noticed. They are delusional if they think Justin Trudeau will not take full and frequent advantage of their massive volte-face.

In politics, you have to believe In something. You do.

After last week, to both progressives and social conservatives, it is fair to wonder if the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada believes in anything at all.


Erin O’Toole wants to “take back Canada”

…to what?

To this:

• he has said he has “concerns” about banning conversion therapy
• he’ll create “conscience rights” to make abortions much harder to get
• he says he’ll vote against medically-assisted death
• he wants to give SoCons the “right” to refuse LGBTQ marriage
• he says anti-abortion, anti-gay conservatives “will have a seat at the table” when he becomes leader

So.

Last night wasn’t a leadership vote.

It was a suicide note.


My latest: no election now

There isn’t going to be an election.

Not anytime soon, anyway. Blame Covid.

For a while there, it looked like there could be. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had surged ahead of the leaderless Conservatives. His lead was big – big enough to suggest a Parliamentary majority was likely.

Speculation grew about a snap election. A referendum-election on how to respond to the pandemic, perhaps: big-hearted, high-minded Liberal spending versus mean, miserly Conservative austerity. A renewed majority looked to be in the bag.

And then the WE scandal hit. Trudeau’s mother and brother were caught receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from a charity. A shady, shadowy “charity” that had been handed a billion-dollar Trudeau government contract with no competition.

Almost overnight, Trudeau’s polling lead evaporated. Even without a leader, the Conservatives were running even with the Liberals. The Bloc Québécois commenced declaring its intention to defeat the government if Trudeau, his Minister of Finance and his Chief of Staff did not resign.

Speculation about an election surged once again – but this time, the Opposition parties appeared to be the likeliest winners, not the Trudeau Liberals. WEscam had changed everything. The former winners were looking like losers, and the former losers were starting to look like winners.

But there isn’t going to be an election anytime soon, and everyone in Ottawa knows it. And prorogation isn’t the main reason.

Elections are essentially great big job interviews. Candidates seek public office, and voters consider whether to hire them or not. As in every job interview, those doing the hiring – and those wishing to be hired – communicate back and forth. In an election, they do that via the media and the Internet. Lots of technology. It’s modern.

But quite a bit of our elections, still, take in the old-fashioned way: with candidates, voters, campaign staffers and elections officials interacting in close quarters.

Lining up to vote. Scrutinizing ballots. Counting them. Holding all-candidates’ debates. Knocking on doors. Shaking hands. Holding rallies. Coming to hear someone speak. Handing out campaign literature. Building lists. Putting up signs.

All of those emblems of elections – as antiquated and antediluvian as they may be – are still the way we do things. They’re still important.

But in a global pandemic, they’re also things that can get some of us sick. They’re things that make some of us die.

That’s what happened in Chicago a few weeks ago. During the March 17 Illinois primary, multiple precincts experienced Covid-19 outbreaks. Dozens got sick. One poll worker, 60-year-old Revall Burke, died.

Burke was at the Zion Hill Baptist Church, working as he had during many primary votes. He got sick. Five days after the primary, Burke was dead.

In other states, well-intentioned efforts to prevent voters and campaigners from falling ill failed. In Wisconsin in April, dozens of voters and poll workers got infected. It happened, said a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, to people “who voted in person or worked the polls on election day.” In the days and weeks that followed, many, many more got sick.

Anywhere primaries took place, in fact, experienced coronavirus outbreaks. It couldn’t be avoided.

The obvious solution is mail-in balloting, some say. But in the United States, the ruling Republican Party has literally authorized the removal of mail boxes in locations across the United States. They hope to forestall losing by doing that. And it just might work.

Up here, the same sort of considerations apply. We are simply not ready to conduct a federal general election vote entirely via the postal system. Elections Canada has simply not had enough time to prepare for that sort of historic change.

So, whomever is ahead in the polls – the Trudeau Liberals in the Spring, the leaderless Conservatives in the Summer – the same considerations apply. If you force an election, you are forcing people to participate in a process where they might get very sick.

Where they might die.

No one wants to take that chance. No one wants to be accused of indifference to sickness and death befalling the very people whose votes you seek. Not much of an election slogan, that: vote for us, but do it before you are dead.

The Americans have no choice: their constitution mandates an election takes place. And when it is over, Canadians will mostly agree:

The election can wait.