Canada, a country that has always stressed what it is not, is having trouble finding what it is.
Canada is not urban gang wars, or deranged loners shooting up cafeterias and bank lobbies with alarming regularity. It is not foreign adventures of the Vietnam or Nicaragua variety. It is not the Ku Klux Klan. Canada is not movie stars winning high office. It is not 30 million people making do without health insurance.
In short, Canadians are eager to tell you, Canada is not the United States.
And until now, Canada has not experienced the kind of wrathful, divisive politics that leave a citizenry unable to decide which they despise more, a leader’s policies or his personality. Canadians may have disliked some of their heads of government--Pierre Trudeau springs to mind--but they didn’t hold them in utter contempt.
Now, though, that has changed. Hate and contempt enjoy a free companionship in the nation’s response to the person of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Canadian politics has been demonized.
“To say he’s unpopular is an understatement,” says John Sawatsky, author of “Mulroney: The Politics of Ambition,” a best-selling book on the prime minister. “He’s the most unpopular prime minister we’ve had since we’ve had polling. People have just come to despise him.”
Mulroney says he will one day be admired--even reelected for the measures he is taking today, but public opinion polls suggest that day is a long way off. A Gallup Canada poll taken in June showed that 68% of Canadians thought Mulroney should resign. In August, another Gallup Poll put Mulroney’s approval rating at 12%--the lowest in the history of Canadian opinion sampling. In yet another survey, a commissioner selected by Mulroney to take the nation’s pulse came back with the conclusion that there is “a fury in the land against the prime minister.”
Indeed, in Toronto, the mood has grown so intense that one local jewelry store has begun selling toilet plungers with Mulroney’s head on the handle. And at the prestigious Globe and Mail newspaper, the top three books on the bestseller list are either exposes of the prime minister’s personal life--Sawatsky’s is No. 1--or of his economic policies. All are serious reading, not gossip-column fare.
“There’s obviously a climate now where these books can flourish,” says Linda McQuaig, author of the third-ranking “The Quick and the Dead,” which probes Mulroney’s alleged links with buccaneering U.S. businessmen. “They reflect the mood of the public.”
This sea change in a country whose political fights are normally well mannered comes at a time when Canada urgently needs a respected, credible leader. In the coming months, the French-speakers of Quebec are expected to make a decision on whether to take their leave of the rest of Canada, driven away by nationalist forces of the sort now at high tide in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Thus, Mulroney could end up being the man who rescues Canada--or the one who presides over its demise.
In trying to decide how--or even whether--to convince the Quebecers to stay in the confederation, meanwhile, English-speakers in the rest of the country are having to grapple with the increasingly unanswerable question of what Canadian nationhood is all about.
As it happens, the Canadian confederation was never a natural coming together of like-minded entities. Its various regions have long held different attitudes and conflicting ideals, and now the glue that has bound them together appears to be cracking.
Along with the Quebecers, native groups in Canada are also rejecting rule by Ottawa, and their protests have caused some major disturbances of late. Last year, for instance, the army was called in to put down a land dispute with heavily armed Mohawks. And now, the Cree of northern Quebec are fighting a multibillion-dollar hydroelectric project being built on their ancestral land and saying that, if Quebec leaves Canada, they too will leave and form an autonomous sovereign state.
At the same time, Canadians in the vocal and prosperous west--angry about high levels of taxation and about Ottawa’s preoccupation with Quebec--are clamoring for an overhaul of the basic Canadian compact. They want to elect the national Senate--senators are now appointed by the prime minister, and tend to behave accordingly--to be able to recall politicians who stray from their electoral mandates and, in a variety of other ways, to seize power from the despised politicians of the center.
It will take skilled statesmanship at the top to forge a compromise between the disparate interest groups in today’s Canada. Yet few Canadians would call their prime minister a statesman.
On the contrary, Canadians say, it was Mulroney himself who drove the ship of state onto the rocks.
This reading of events is not unfounded. Separatist urges in Quebec seemed to have been extinguished until Mulroney became prime minister in 1984. The Francophone province had held a referendum on the possibility of sovereignty in 1980 and voted, however grudgingly, to stay put.
That might have been that, except Mulroney--himself a fluently bilingual Anglo Quebecer--noted upon taking office that Quebec had never signed the Canadian constitution, and pressed on the 10 provinces a package of amendments to bring Quebec on board. The amendments would have given Quebec special status as a “distinct society,” but two English-speaking provinces refused to ratify them, complaining that Quebec was getting preferential treatment. The constitutional proposal died, and Quebecers concluded that les anglais had all but shown them the door.
Since then, separatist feelings have surged. Earlier this year, the Quebec legislature called for a second referendum on the sovereignty question to be held before October, 1992. Since then, the Mulroney government has been busy devising another set of constitutional proposals, these aimed at persuading Quebecers that the rest of Canada still wants them and that they should abandon plans for another referendum.
The proposals have not been well received, however. A committee of parliamentarians touring Canada to collect public response to the package had to return to Ottawa in embarrassment last week after trying to hold a town meeting in Manitoba and failing to attract a single participant.
Quebec is not all that vexes Mulroney, and the nation, these days. Canada is now emerging from a painful recession; economists say private enterprise suffered more in the last two years than at any time since the Great Depression, and labor groups estimate that more than 300,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost. The popular wisdom has it that Mulroney’s vaunted free-trade accord with the United States is largely to blame.
“If you want a syrupy, sugar-coated, unrealistic Canada, you go ahead and talk to somebody else,” Mulroney retorted on a recent call-in show, noting that the ingrown, uncompetitive Canadian economy is in urgent need of structural reform and that trade liberalization and belt-tightening are necessary.
But the public remains unconvinced. Canadians have reacted in outrage to a new 7% value-added tax Mulroney imposed on virtually every transaction in the Canadian economy this year.
“Canadians have had so much wealth in the last couple of decades that people have become spoiled, and they don’t understand that there isn’t this sort of magic tap in Ottawa that we can turn on,” says Sawatsky.
International events--and Mulroney’s response to them--have also conspired against the prime minister. Despite his progressive stands on apartheid, arms control and human rights, Canadians regard him as little more than a lap dog of the American President.
When he sent three aging warships to the Persian Gulf in the early days of Operation Desert Shield, Canadians railed that he was aping the warlike ways of George Bush. And later, when Canada was offered a seat at the negotiating table in key trade talks between the United States and Mexico, the Globe and Mail called it mere payment for “Mulroney’s unquestioning support of the United States in the Persian Gulf.”
Likewise, in October, when the Mulroney Cabinet agreed to let American submarines pass through what are considered Canadian waters on their way to an acoustic testing site off the Alaskan panhandle, critics once again accused Mulroney of toadying to Washington.
It is not just Mulroney’s official acts that have so angered Canadians, however. It is also his forensic style, which, without too much disrespect, can be called grating.
“There is something about his manner,” says Sawatsky. “He smiles a little bit too easily. And there is the hyperbole.” For example, Sawatsky notes, during a flap over improper use of government aircraft, Mulroney referred to the planes as “sacred instruments of travel.”
“Clearly he is going beyond what he ought to be saying,” Sawatsky says. “That alienates a lot of people. People simply do not believe him.”
In October, Mulroney appeared for a time to have found a graceful exit from his Canadian predicament. To the amazement of scornful Canadians, his name appeared on a short list of candidates for the post of secretary general of the United Nations. For all the fury at home, Mulroney is liked and respected in international circles, and he was considered a reasonable compromise between the industrialized West and the Third World.
As the secretive selection process began to drag on, however, Canadians grumbled. Much as they may have wanted to palm off the prime minister, they didn’t appreciate what looked like his attempt to cut and run for a better job.
Mulroney finally had his name struck from the candidates’ list. It wasn’t just the general criticism of job-hopping that forced his hand, though; it was also the Quebec problem cropping up again.
At the moment, Mulroney commands a solid majority in Parliament--158 of 295 seats--but his caucus includes a number of potential sovereignists from Quebec. The Quebec members of Parliament have stood firm with the prime minister until now because they are convinced that he can best serve the interests of their province.
With Mulroney edging toward an exit to the United Nations, however, the Quebec MPs began making noises about abandoning his Progressive Conservative caucus. And if the Quebec contingent were to pull out, there would be no real forum in Ottawa for Quebecers committed to Canadian national unity.
“It would have disastrous consequences if Mulroney would leave,” says Sawatsky.
In light of these events, Mulroney’s presence at the national helm suddenly began, oddly enough, to look indispensable to more than a few Canadians. And that is what Mulroney has said all along. Against all odds, the prime minister is predicting that he will lead his party to a third parliamentary majority in elections he must call before the fall of 1993.
Sawatsky agrees that he could indeed hold onto power. There is, after all, no one on the horizon whom Canadians would consider a savior. Canadians are fed up with politicians in general these days and, while Mulroney is taking the brunt of their wrath, the leaders of the two main opposition parties are considered non-starters.
In the last Canadian election, Mulroney lagged in the polls, yet managed to win by making it not a vote for or against himself or his party but a referendum on the issue of free trade.
“People forgot all about how much they dislike Brian Mulroney,” says Sawatsky. “He’ll do that again.”
Name: Martin Brian Mulroney
Title: Prime minister of Canada
Age: 52. Born March 20, 1939, in Baie Comeau in province of Quebec.
Personal: Married the former Mila Pivnicki in 1973. They have three sons and a daughter.
Education: Holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish in Nova Scotia and a law degree from Laval University in Quebec City.
Professional: Partner in a law firm in 1965-76; joined Iron Ore Co. of Canada as executive vice president of corporate affairs in 1976, and served as president and director in 1977-83; elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in 1983 and later that year was elected to Parliament. Elected Canadian prime minister in September, 1984.
Leisure interests: Tennis and swimming.
Quote: “If you want a syrupy, sugar-coated, unrealistic Canada, you go ahead and talk to somebody else.”