Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Bitter Gardener

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney has had a lot of time to brood since he left office in 1993, as the upcoming publication of his memoirs makes clear. It is not unusual for politicians to use their memoirs as an opportunity to settle old scores. But, in an interview with CTV last week, which preceded the release of his eleven hundred page magnum opus, Mulroney 's vitriolic recollections of his two arch political enemies made headlines.

Mulroney's animus for his one time law school chum, Lucien Bouchard, should surprise no one. The story -- that if Bouchard showed up at his funeral, Mulroney had instructed his wife Mila to ensure that the traitor was escorted to the door before the obsequies commenced -- has been circulating in the media for years.

What did stun many Canadians, however, was his bitter attack on Pierre Trudeau. He blamed Mr. Trudeau for scuttling the Meech Lake Accord, which Mulroney had carefully crafted with Canada's provincial premiers. But he went further than that. Referring to Trudeau's anti-war activism in the early forties -- when Trudeau was barely out of his teens -- Mulroney fumed, "This was a man who questioned the allies when the Jews were being sacrificed; and when the great extermination program was on, he was marching around Outremont on the other side of the issue."

One can understand Mulroney's disgust with Trudeau. Rex Murphy -- who argued last year that Trudeau deserved the accolade The Greatest Canadian -- wrote this week in The Globe and Mail that Trudeau's condemnation of the Meech Lake Accord, "blistered where it didn't demean, and only ceased to scorn when it turned to deliberate and scathing ridicule." Murphy conceded that "Mr. Trudeau in full snarl was a terrifying spectacle."

But Mulroney's condemnation of Trudeau in the forties does not consider Trudeau's actions in the context of either time or place. Mulroney neglects to mention the 1944 election in which conscription dominated the debate -- and in which Mackenzie King's campaign slogan was "Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription." Quebecers have historically been loathe to enter what they see as foreign wars. The same dynamic is currently at work as the Royal 22nd Regiment fulfills its mission in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Trudeau was not the only prominent French Canadian who opposed Canada's participation in the war. Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, as a young man, was on the same side of the issue -- a decision which both admitted later was misinformed.

But Mulroney misses the larger point of Trudeau's wartime activities: Trudeau saw Quebec nationalism from the inside; and, in the larger world, he saw the consequences that kind of nationalism had when it was allowed to play itself out on the world stage. Trudeau learned from the experience; and it left him with a passionate commitment to multiculturalism and pluralism. Most important of all, however, it is hard to accuse the man who was prime minister during the October Crisis of 1970 of a lack of "moral fibre."

Mulroney's take on Trudeau also puts in relief his failure to see Lucien Bouchard for who he was. After all, Bouchard began his political journey as an ardent supporter of Trudeau. But, as Lawrence Martin traces that journey in his book, The Antagonist, Bouchard soon deserted Trudeau for Rene Leveque's vision of an independent Quebec. By the early 1980's, Bouchard returned to the Federalist fold to become Mulroney's ambassador to France. But Bouchard joined the separatist camp yet again when he founded the Bloc Quebecois in 1991 -- after breaking with Mulroney over Meech Lake. He subsequently left the BQ to become the premier of Quebec under the Parti Quebecois banner. He has since resigned that position to sit as a private citizen in magnificent isolation. If Mulroney had really understood Quebec Nationalism, he would never have made his Faustian bargain with Bouchard.

For in the end, Trudeau did not kill Meech Lake. Mulroney did that himself by setting in motion what Peter C. Newman called a "bloodless revolution." In his book, The Canadian Revolution, Newman argued that in the decade between 1985 and 1995, Canadian attitudes underwent a profound shift: Canadians traded their traditional deference to authority to open defiance of it.

"Deference to authority," wrote Newman, "the root attitude that separated Canadians from the earth's less timid mortals, had at long last come into open disrepute. As the Mulroney years rolled on, and the attitude toward their namesake shifted from simple derision to blind hatred, Canadians set out to challenge that most painful of paradoxes: that in a functioning democracy like Canada, people get the politicians they deserve. By the early 1990's this sentiment became too painful to endure."

Thus, when Mulroney told Canadians that Meech was a good deal, they simply didn't believe him. And, when the 1993 election rolled around, even though Mulroney had retired and the hapless Kim Campbell had taken his place, the party which had rolled up the largest majority in Canadian history was reduced to two seats in the House of Commons -- and its popular support stood at 7%.

Mulroney's tirade against Pierre Trudeau is simply an attempt to shift blame. No amount of name calling will obscure the fact that Mulroney's poor judgment is at the root of his attacks on both Trudeau and Bouchard. The good news is that Canada survived Mulroney, and so did Trudeau. And, even though Trudeau could be withering in his criticism, as Marc Lalonde reminded reporters last week, Trudeau's reaction to Mulroney's assault on his reputation would probably be something like his reaction to the discovery that, on one of his infamous White House tapes, Richard Nixon had referred to Trudeau as "a son of a bitch." When asked to comment, Trudeau quipped, "I've been called worse things -- by worse men."

The harvest from Mr. Mulroney's garden tastes distinctly sour.

1 comment:

Ron said...

Mulroney is a case study in the bitterness of unrequited self-love. The unspoken question he asks is, "How could Trudeau/Bouchard do this to me?" The answer, of course, is, "Easily!"