Friday, August 6, 2010


When Pierre Trudeau defeated the infamously short-lived government of Joe Clark in 1980, one of the lasting phrases Trudeau used to describe his come back victory was "Well, welcome to the 1980's". That phrase is remembered by all of Trudeau's admirers as a statement of the lasting power of his vision, the strength of his character, and the confidence of Canadians in our most charismatic prime minister. Trudeau is the subject of numerous books, articles, and scholarly treatises. He is remembered as a flawed but talented leader, a man of great vision, who saw Canada as a united, bilingual, progressive society, a model for the entire world. He favoured a strong central government which would speak for all Canadians, who would enjoy all rights and freedoms enshrined in a made-in-Canada constitution featuring a Charter of Rights. The federal government, Trudeau reasoned, was the sole voice for all Canadian issues and values. Only federally could the aspirations of all Canadians be realized and protected. The Constitution and Charter were finally realized in the early 1980's and still exist today.

Joe Clark didn't exactly fall into oblivion after his electoral defeat. He continued to serve as an important minister to his successor, Brian Mulroney. Greatly admired by many Canadians, he has, however, paled in comparison to his more flamboyant rival. He became something of a joke to many, and the common phrase used to denote disrespect for the honest but dull leader was "Joe Who"? There may be books on Clark, but they are hard to find, and, I must admit, I have not read a single book about him. As for Trudeau, I have read, at last count, five, and hope to acquire John English's second volume of his life story soon. I enjoy reading about Trudeau, a completely fascinating figure.

As mentionned above, Trudeau articulated a vision of what Canada could be. Whether one admired or tetested him, there is almost unanimous agreement that he had a vision, and, if it had come to complete fruition, it would have put him in the forefront of world statesmen. Clark's vision of Canada was completely different. He tried to articualte a "community of communities" vision, meaning that Canada was a loose federation of different regions of the country, linked together by common values and a desire to work co-operatively on common issues. Not a very inspiring or "sexy" vision. Trudeau was able to mop the floor with Clark's ideas mainly because of his personality and reputation, more than the logic of the debate. Many Canadians shared Clark's idea, but they were swamped by the spell of the man Richard Gwynne called the "northern magus." Clark, therefore, goes down in history as one of Canada's biggest political losers.

Fast forward to 2010. This past week saw the most recent meeting of the "Council of the Federation", an organization of the ten provincial premiers and three territorial leaders. This group meets twice a year to discuss issues of common concern. This group has been meeting like this since 2003, when Jean Charest, the current "prime minister" of Quebec formulated the idea. His provincial and territorial colleagues have enthusiastically met twice a year since. Noticeably absent from this meeting is the federal government, represented by a prime minister or any other minister of the crown. It seems that the premiers and leaders are satisfied to discuss things of great interest to Canadians without the presence of their federal government. Issues discussed include improving internal trade, environmental matters, improving literacy, and bettering relations with governments in the United States. Indeed, the premiers and leaders have, on at least one occasion, attended a meeting of American governors, a situation similar to the Council of the Federation.

The question which emerges from all this, of course, is this: if the Council of the Federation meets regularly to discuss issues of common concern to all Canadians, why do we have a federal government? If the premiers and leaders reach consensus on an issue, all they have to do is pass legislation to that effect in their Legislative Assemblies: as long as the legislation among all jurisdictions is identical, or at least mostly similar, problems can be solved without resorting to a federal government, at least on issues that are within the perview of provincial and territorial governments. Even there, the lines become murky: if the premiers and leaders meet with American governors more frequently and act accordingly, both federal governments can, theoretically, be by-passed. Thus, the provinces can act in the supposedly federal sphere of international relations. Already, the Council of the Federation seeks to expand "provincial" trade beyond Canadian borders to other countries.

At the end of the day, this sounds more like a "community of communities" approach to matters of common concern to Canadians. Whether it is a good thing or not will be the subject of a future blog. But right now, it looks like Joe Clark is the big winner in the legacy of which vision of Canada should prevail. Joe Who? Now we know!!