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CHRETIEN LOOKS TO LAURIER « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

CHRETIEN LOOKS TO LAURIER

Did you notice for whom Jean Chretien placed a wreath and gave a speech in praise last week? It was for Sir Wilfrid (yes, “frid”) Laurier, prime minister from 1896-1911, and the first French-Canadian prime minister. It was 100 years ago that Laurier won power, defeating the disorganized remnants from the late Sir John A. Macdonald’s regime which had held office since 1878.

The recent ceremonies regarding Laurier underline something that has been happening to Chretien as prime minister. In effect, he has discovered history books and a concern for how he will rate in its future texts. Naturally he would like to shape the role and repute he wants in history. And so he heralds Laurier “as the most ardent Canadian of his time,” and one “who wanted Canada to become the first modern nation to celebrate its diversity, to practise tolerance, generosity, and openness.”

It seems to me the wreath and speech last week were more than partisan exploitation by a Liberal prime minister of a former Liberal prime minister who has a good rating in history. Chretien is defining his role, notably on national unity, through parallels to Laurier. At first this may surprise the historically-minded because of the remarkable difference in their personal bearings and styles.

Over the years Chretien has chastened a few journalists and even his senior counsel, Mitchell Sharp, for written or spoken comments to the effect that he reads little, including few books. I took, and still take, his insistence that he is a substantial reader as an unnecessary bid to be taken very seriously by a man who is very smart and quick but who learns mostly by listening, watching, and in discussion, not by reading. I first learned this in the ’70s from one who worked for him. “It’s amazing,” she would say, “what he absorbs from meetings and briefings, and his memory is very good.”

Two journalists who have interviewed Chretien this year told me later about his several references to Laurier and to books about him. He drew his parallels to Laurier, including popularity in English-speaking Canada and an emphasis on a Canadian patriotism.

Last month in winding up an evening honoring two retiring Liberal senators of distinction, Keith Davey and Allan MacEachen, Chretien figuratively floored me with a rather learned, accurate statement about the splendid basis for modern Canada advanced in the Liberal Party’s program of 1919, produced at the convention which chose Mackenzie King to succeed Laurier as Liberal leader.

UNDERTOOK NATIONAL SOCIAL NET
In simple language, the platform undertook the creation of a national social net through pensions and health insurance. Of course, its latter day parallel is the Red Book which Chretien unveiled in the last election and, in time, whose promises he shall keep.

As one fond of our history I am delighted at Chretien’s growing awareness of it, even if it may seem self-serving politics. I also savor his recall of 1919 and 1896 because I have copies of what I’ve called since 1993 the first and the second Liberal Party Red Book.

The second one came out after Mackenzie King won the Liberal leadership in 1919. It recounts events of the convention, including the heartfelt tributes to the late Laurier, the speeches of the candidates, and the balloting. More significant for posterity, it outlined the party program approved by delegates which Chretien rather ironically noted had taken subsequent Liberals like Allan MacEachen almost half a century to complete.

As for the first Red Book, which Laurier took into office a century ago, the program was far simpler than either King’s or Chretien’s. The emphasis was on contrast to the Macdonald Tories – Free Trade as against their high tariff policy, and a promise to seek a reciprocity deal with the U.S.

The book exalted Laurier: “In Quebec he is loved, in Ontario he is honored, the great west received him with enthusiasm, the men of the eastern provinces responded to his persuasive eloquence … He is simply a strong, clean-handed, honest-hearted Canadian who knows no province or race or creed.”

A confounding retrospect of Laurier’s 15 years in power is that he left office with the broad respect of the Canadian people in spite of his government’s failures and moral tawdriness. He was seen as an honest proponent of Canada as a whole, not of a region or of big interests.

It seems obvious why Chretien is matching with Laurier. He underlines his great predecessor’s confidence that the 20th Century would be Canada’s; and that having come to pass, what fools would turn from success as a whole to division into parts for the 21st Century?

Source: BY DOUGLAS FISHER, TORONTO SUN

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