Time changes things. Consider the picture that appeared a couple of days ago. Lawrence Martin writes:
The image leaped off the screen a couple of days ago. A photo of Stephen Harper and Jean Chrétien grinning like lifelong buddies in each other’s presence.
“Always wonderful to catch up with a true gentleman and friend,” wrote former prime minister Harper, who posted the pals pic on X. The Conservative warrior obviously wanted his close ties to the lunch-bucket Liberal well known.
Mr. Harper’s protégé, the hyperpartisan Pierre Poilievre, probably wasn’t too thrilled. Mr. Harper, he knew, despised Liberals. Few could doubt that. David Emerson, the floor-crossing British Columbian who served in the cabinets of the Liberal Paul Martin and Mr. Harper, once told me that one of the big differences was the degree of contempt Mr. Harper had for Liberals. It was visceral, he said. “Sometimes it was just startling to me.”
So what was he thinking, giving a former Liberal prime minister a shout out while Mr. Poilievre, headed for an election, works to paint the Liberals as destroyers of the country?
These are, indeed, different times:
What’s pleasing about the Harper-Chrétien photo is that it is such a departure from the temper of our times, which sees polarization at a brutal level and many complaining that the country has never been so divided.
The perennial gripe about Canadian disunity gets a little tiresome. Yes, there are fissures, some of them serious. But when hasn’t there been? And why wouldn’t there be? Given our giant sprawling land mass, given the differences between east and west, between French and English speakers, between Indigenous Peoples and others, between right and left – what is to be expected? That there shouldn’t be divisions is irrational. That the divisions won’t endure is a pipe dream.
The new information age that gives vent to all the yellers and haters makes conditions seem worse. That they are worse than ever, as some claim, is delusional. As I have previously noted, we need only go back to the early 1990s, when we had a separatist party as the official Opposition, when the Reform Party was staging a rebellion in the West, when there was a deep recession with third-world debt levels, and when a Quebec referendum put the country on a knife edge.
That was when Mr. Chrétien was in power and Mr. Harper was soon to be. They were on opposite sides; their ideological differences mirrored those of the country and still do. But despite the differences, they maintained respect for one another.
Their good rapport is driven by a number of commonalities. They were tough-minded, fiscally prudent, problem-solving non-visionaries. They were suspicious of elites and passionate about the Canadian North. Historian Arthur Milnes, who has been in meetings with them, said: “What I witnessed in private is that both men are very funny behind the scenes and simply enjoy each other’s company. I recall them meeting privately at the late Ralph Klein’s funeral in Calgary. With their funny stories about him, they had each other, and me, in stitches.”
That doesn't mean that differences disappear:
Their camaraderie doesn’t mean there’s been a narrowing of the philosophical divide. Mr. Harper chairs the International Democratic Union, a global alliance of right-wing parties. Mr. Chrétien wouldn’t touch that with a barge pole.
But they remind us that political opponents don't have to be mortal enemies.
Image: National Post