The Return of the Natural Governing Party, 1992—2006

Mar 18th, 2021 | By | Category: Heritage Now

Thirty years later many might say that the people of Canada made the right decision when they rejected the Charlottetown Accord in the autumn of 1992. The constitutional future the deal envisioned had been conceived in too much haste with too little popular debate. The major provisions for Quebec’s unique status, Senate reform, and aboriginal self-government were not well thought out. And they would almost certainly have made the already too-much Canadian geography more difficult to govern.

Yet when they happened the failure of the Charlottetown and Meech Lake accords seriously unsettled the 125-year-old groundwork of Canadian federal politics. Following one clear fault line, on June 15, 1991 a small group of Quebec MPs who had left the Conservative and Liberal parties over the failure of Meech Lake formed the Bloc Québécois. The Bloc (BQ) was an informal federal analogue to the Parti Québécois (PQ) in Quebec provincial politics. Its first leader was Brian Mulroney’s magnetic, complex former Minister of the Environment, Lucien Bouchard.

The Progressive Conservatives’ drastic and unprecedented reduction to just two seats under Kim Campbell from BC, in the October 25, 1993 federal election, was another mark of unsettled politics. (Ms Campbell was nonetheless Canada’s first female prime minister, after Mulroney’s failed strategic withdrawal in June.) In the same election the Bloc Québécois won 54 of 75 seats in Quebec, and became the Official Opposition in Ottawa!

Anglophone Canada was not to be outdone. In the west a new right-wing populist Reform Party had been founded in 1987 by Preston Manning, son of the long-serving Ernest Charles Manning, Social Credit premier of Alberta, 1943—1968. And in the 1993 federal election the same political unsettling that boosted the Bloc Québécois in Quebec also gave the Reform Party 52 seats in the rest of Canada – 24 in BC, 22 in Alberta, 4 in Saskatchewan, and 1 in each of Manitoba and Ontario.

At the same time (and almost certainly to the country’s long-term advantage, when all is said and done?), more longstanding traditions of political stability were also still alive and well enough. Just as the Meech Lake Accord missed its three-year deadline for unanimous provincial consent, back on June 23, 1990, a Calgary convention had chosen Jean Chrétien to succeed John Turner as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Chrétien was a “Trudeau-era cabinet minister with nearly a quarter-century in Parliament,” sometimes derided as “Yesterday’s Man.” In the 1993 federal election which otherwise “gutted the Canadian political structure like no other” (Lawrence Martin), the Chrétien Liberals nonetheless won a comfortable 60% of the 295 seats in the Canadian House of Commons, with just over 41% of the cross-Canada popular vote.

This victory owed a lot to the 98 of 99 seats the Chrétien Liberals took in the most populous province of Ontario (with almost 53% of the provincial popular vote). But in 1993 they also won every seat available in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, all but one in New Brunswick, all but two in Manitoba, and at least several in each of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and BC. Jean Chrétien himself was both Pierre Trudeau’s heir, and an authentic voice of rural and small-urban francophone Quebec (“le petit gars de Shawinigan”). And this helped keep 19 Quebec seats and a third of the provincial popular vote in Liberal hands, even in the new age of the Bloc Québécois.

In the wider confederation at least 41.3% of the active federal electorate – and a few others who may not have bothered to actually vote (turnout was not quite 70%) – could rest easier on the night of October 25 and the morning of October 26, 1993. Canada’s natural governing party was back in the driver’s seat. Inside the gutted political structure enough Canadians could at least take heart from the deep question about the Liberal Party of Canada that Harold Innis had raised with some bewilderment 45 years before : “What is the alternative?” (And as Innis himself had put it, in “weaker moments the answer does appear conclusive.”)

Yesterday’s man keeps ship of state afloat

Jean Chrétien’s Liberals took office on November 4, 1993. Their first big assignment was to put the very last finishing touches on a new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), largely negotiated in 1992 by the administrations of George H.W. Bush (USA), Carlos Salinas de Gortari (Mexico), and Brian Mulroney (Canada).

John Turner’s Liberals had at least formally opposed Brian Mulroney’s Canada-US Free Trade Agreement in the 1988 federal election. (When both Liberals and Conservatives reversed their positions from the last big contest on this issue in 1911 – which most voters could of course not personally remember 77 years later.) But, again, the arguably crucial “Liberal nationalist” value of Canadian political sovereignty was not as threatened by a three-way Canada-US-Mexico trade deal late in 1993, as by a bilateral Canada-US deal in 1988.

In the campaign for the October 25, 1993 election he finally won handily enough, Chrétien kept some faith with his party’s modern free-trade scepticism. He talked about renegotiating or even abrogating the Mulroney-Campbell Conservative draft deal on NAFTA. But it was also clear that the economic nationalism of the 1960s and 1970s, once dear to the New Democratic and Liberal left, did not inspire the Chrétien Liberals in the 1990s. As the new leader had explained to a party conference in 1991: “Protectionism is not left wing or right wing … It is simply passé. Globalization is not right wing or left wing. It is simply a fact of life.”

The new Liberal leader had also been reminded early on of the elephant in the room Canada still often enough confronts, when he sought advice from Brian Mulroney’s former disarmament ambassador, Douglas Roche. The ambassador told of a 1980s meeting with Ronald Reagan’s Republican secretary of state, George Shultz. At one point Shultz became indignant, and advised Roche : “Look, let’s get one thing straight. The land that you people occupy up there, north of the forty-ninth parallel, geographically speaking, is part of the northern United States.”

In late 1993 Jean Chrétien was facing the more Canada-friendly new Democratic administration of Bill Clinton. And according to the modern confederation’s early historian Frank Underhill (1889—1971), the majority of Canadians “vote Democratic in American elections.” The Democratic president and Liberal prime minister of the 1990s would go on to develop a strong golfing friendship. But the United States still had almost 10 times more people than Canada. In late 1993 President Clinton had no room for serious changes to the Bush 41 draft NAFTA, beyond the labour and environmental side agreements he had already added himself.

As explained by the compelling Chrétien biographer Lawrence Martin, the new prime minister of Canada “had to settle for toothless side declarations to the body of the text – including one saying that Canada would interpret NAFTA in a way that maximized energy security for Canadians … The add-ons to the agreement were a bit of a face-saver for Chrétien, but critics on the left were dissatisfied. He hadn’t lived up to his promises to renegotiate the pact or strike it down.”

* * * *

Many critics on the left liked the early Chrétien regime’s aggressive fiscal reform in finance minister Paul Martin (Jr)’s second budget of 1995 even less. And in some ways this dry financial document has remained controversial over the subsequent quarter century and more.

One left-wing reaction at the time came from Bob Rae, who still had a few more months as Ontario’s first New Democratic Party premier when the budget appeared on February 27, 1995. In Premier Rae’s view the 1995 federal financial plan marked “a historic change that literally ends the Canada that we have known and sets us on a much meaner course.”

The subsequent plain Mr. Rae, who ended his active political career as an interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada (2011—2013), may have moderated his 1995 views as an NDP premier somewhat. The extent to which conservatives have more uniformly admired Paul Martin’s 1995—1997 financial stewardship is suggested in a document published on February 27, 2020 by the right-wing Fraser Institute – “The Budget That Changed Canada : Essays on the 25th Anniversary of the 1995 Budget.”

For the Fraser Institute, what happened in 1995 was “one of the most important federal budgets in Canada’s history. It took decisive steps to finally solve a problem of runaway deficits and debt that had begun in the late 1960s and grown worse, almost without pause, for over three decades.” On a similar view the decisive steps were crystallized by difficulties selling a 1994 Canadian government bond issue on the financial markets. And this was stiffened by a January 1995 Wall Street Journal editorial that called Canada “an honorary member of the Third World.” (Even if others inside the country might take pride in this description!)

A few (more or less) hard numbers seem clear enough. In October 1994 the Globe and Mail’s Ottawa columnist of record, Jeffrey Simpson, informed his readers that Canada’s net public debt had risen from $17 billion 1968—69 to $199 billion 1984—85, to $508 billion 1993—94. Part of the breathtaking increase was just general price inflation. Yet while inflation had risen four and a half times between 1968 and 1994, Canada’s net public debt had skyrocketed 29 times.

In response the 1995 budget prescribed cuts in federal expenditures of $25 billion, and a 45,000 reduction in government employment. Federal transfer payments to help support the Canadian provincial welfare states that had blossomed in the third quarter of the 20th century were reduced dramatically. (See Ontario Premier Rae above.) And there were a few new tax measures to raise government revenue. The almost surprisingly quick result was “a budget surplus within four years.” Meanwhile : “Canadian debt shrank to 29 percent of gross domestic product in 2008-09, from a peak of 68 percent in 1995-96, and the budget was in the black for 11 consecutive years until the 2008-09 recession” (Palmer and Egan).

At the same time, once the budget was balanced at least some of what Bob Rae feared was lost forever returned. John Geddes, Ottawa Bureau Chief at Maclean’s magazine, summarized this trend a decade and a half later. In 1995 “the Canadian government was spending $173 billion a year and taking in just $137 billion in taxes and other revenues. Five years later, the government was, after some very short-term cuts, back to spending almost exactly the same amount, but raking in nearly a third more revenue, about $180 billion.”

Mr. Geddes went on : “After that, with the budget cruising along in surplus, spending climbed steadily to $207 billion over the next five years, as revenues kept right on growing to $212 billion by 2005.” Similarly, in 1995 “the federal government’s workforce numbered 382,000.” It “shrank no smaller than 326,500 in 1999.” After this “hiring picked up again … 380,700 were working for a federal pay cheque in 2006 … The real history … is that firm but hardly harsh spending restraint proved sufficient because the economy cooperated by expanding steadily and rendering up taxes.”

(And then, the year before John Geddes wrote, the former New Democrat-turned-Libertarian journalist Neil Reynolds had directed his Globe and Mail business-section readers to some home truths about the leader of Saskatchewan’s first socialist government in North America. The legendary Tommy Douglas had in “17 years as premier … produced 17 successive budget surpluses.” And he reduced Saskatchewan’s debt from $218 million when he took office in 1944 to $70 million in 1949 and nothing at all in 1953. As Mr. Reynolds saw it, by “reducing the debt, and thereby reducing interest costs,” Premier Douglas “was able to spend more on public services – without raising taxes.”)

* * * *

Left-wing critics notwithstanding, Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government did not get into major trouble over either NAFTA or Paul Martin’s February 27, 1995 budget. Later that year, however, a second Quebec sovereignty referendum on October 30 brought cataclysm much closer.

The stage here had been set when the Parti Québécois won a Quebec provincial election on September 12, 1994 – having previously lost 1985 and 1989 elections to Robert Bourassa’s Quebec Liberals. By this point René Lévesque had passed away (in 1987). But the rest-of-Canada’s reluctance to accept Quebec’s distinct society in the failed Meech Lake Accord was still fresh in many minds. The PQ was led by Lévesque’s former finance minister and more strictly indépendantiste advocate of Quebec sovereignty, Jacques Parizeau. And he had promised another referendum in his winning 1994 provincial election campaign.

At first the powers that be in Ottawa were not too worried. The referendum vote was scheduled for spring 1995 but then put ahead to October 30. Early opinion polls looked better for the federalist (Non/No) than the sovereigntist (Oui/Yes) side. Prime Minister Chrétien and his closest advisors believed the result would be much like the 1980 referendum, when only 40% of the Quebec electorate finally said Yes to “sovereignty association.”

Premier Parizeau tabled the exact second-referendum question on September 7 : “Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Québec and of the agreement signed on 12 June 1995?”

October 30 drew closer, and it became clearer that (as Lawrence Martin deftly tells the story) in 1980 “the separatists had one party in their camp.” In 1995 there was Lucien Bouchard’s Bloc Québécois federally, Jacques Parizeau’s governing Parti Québécois provincially, and a new group of Quebec Liberal party dissidents known as the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), which had first run candidates in 1994 and actually elected the dynamic young Mario Dumont.

Both Mario Dumont and especially Lucien Bouchard were more charismatic politicians with more mass support than Jacques Parizeau (a clever even brilliant man of the classes not the masses, whose father had done well in the Montreal financial sector). Bouchard proved the most effective Yes campaigner. Parizeau’s PQ Government of Quebec was in the ultimate driver‘s seat. But some leadership in the referendum was conceded to BQ leader Lucien Bouchard during the final three weeks of the campaign. And Yes side fortunes continued to improve.

Lawrence Martin’s story goes on : “Unlike in 1980 the separatists now had Bouchard, and the federalists had no Pierre Trudeau … the sovereigntists had two failed accords … as evidence that renewed federalism couldn’t work … they were campaigning against a federalist side that had run up a $550-billion national debt and [then] brought in a draconian budget that slashed social programs.”

The Yes side did increasingly better in polls. On the night of October 30, after several highly unsettling moments when it seemed the Yes side might actually win, the No side “achieved victory by a narrow majority of 50.58 per cent” (Canadian Encyclopedia).

This very narrow margin of the No side win did shock the Canadian democratic political system at large – and in a much more direct way the Chrétien Liberal government in Ottawa. What became immediately clear was that no one in the federal government, or anywhere else in Canada outside Quebec, had any serious plan B for dealing with what almost did happen on October 30, 1995. The key question was : What if the Yes side had won – with the same narrow margin it finally lost by? (As it seemed just might happen, at several points on the evening of October 30.) What ought to be the response of the Government of Canada?

There were also complications in 1995 that lent this question some poignancy. The three main Yes side campaigners (and signatories to “the agreement signed on 12 June 1995” in the referendum question) – Bouchard, Dumont, and Parizeau – disagreed about just what was being voted on in the October 30 contest. Bouchard and Dumont were more attached to the “formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership” in the referendum question. Parizeau was more interested in a unilateral declaration of uncompromising Quebec independence, once “Canada’s” offer on some new partnership inevitably proved unacceptable.

But could Parizeau actually do such a thing on a very slender referendum victory? Would Ottawa have to negotiate terms of secession with Parizeau’s unilaterally independent Quebec government? Prime Minister Chrétien caught his breath, and declared the uncertainty over these questions intolerable. He assured a Toronto Liberal fund-raiser shortly after the 1995 vote that “Never … would this be allowed to happen again.”

Finding an answer would take some time. But it would come – in a Quebec Secession Reference to the Supreme Court of Canada (1998), and then in the Chrétien government’s own so-called Clarity Act, which finally became the law of the land late in June 2000.

* * * *

In the 1996 Census – data for which were collected less than seven months after the very close Quebec sovereignty vote – a somewhat clearer picture began to emerge of the next new Canada the 20th century would bequeath to the 21st. It was not quite like the old Canada still struggling to figure itself out in the 1980 and 1995 Quebec referendums.

There were several remarkable sides to the 1996 numbers as they became available over the next few years. Most strikingly, the increasing de-Europeanization of global migrations to Canada and other such places, that began to gather momentum in the 1960s, was having a growing impact on the larger Canadian society by the 1990s.

In 1996 11.2% of the country’s 29 million inhabitants were what Statistics Canada was now calling “Visible Minorities.” (Or people of colour – black, brown, beige, yellow, red, generally non-white.) By “ethnic origin” this more than 11% Visible Minority population was 27% Chinese, 21% South Asian, 18% Black, 8% Arab/West Asian, 7% Filipino, 6% Latin American, 5% Southeast Asian, 2% Japanese, and 2% Korean.

So-called Visible Minorities were not spread evenly across Canada. More than 95% were concentrated in the four most populous provinces of Ontario, Quebec, BC, and Alberta. Some 70% were concentrated in the three largest Census Metropolitan Areas of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. And the 1996 Visible Minorities who accounted for 11% of the population Canada-wide made up 32% in Toronto, 31% in Vancouver, 16% in Calgary, 14% in Edmonton, and 12% in Montreal and Ottawa-Hull.

By this point as well, Statistics Canada was dividing ethnic origin numbers into “single” and “multiple” origins. Canada-wide 64% reported single and 36% multiple origins in 1996. When single and multiple responses were (somewhat misleadingly) combined, the rankings continued to echo the earlier 20th and later 19th centuries. The four largest old-country groups were still English, French, Scottish, and Irish, followed by German, Italian, Ukrainian, Dutch, Polish, “Jewish,” and Norwegian.

At the same time again, Canadians had self-reported their “origins” since the middle of the 19th century, largely based on categories suggested by statisticians. And there was no such category as “Canadian.” In 1986, however, 0.5% of respondents wrote in Canadian origins, and this increased to 4% in 1991. In 1996 statisticians included “Canadian” as a suggested ethnic origin. Suddenly 31% of total single and multiple responses Canada-wide fell into this category. A subsequent study found that : “Between 1991 and 1996, increasing Canadian responses went hand in hand with dramatic losses in both the British and French ethnic origin counts. In some provinces, notably the Prairie provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, shifts also occurred out of other ethnic groups.”

The largest provincial share of total “Canadian” single and multiple responses was in Quebec (47%), followed by New Brunswick (41%)! Canadian shares were also higher in Atlantic Canada (Nova Scotia 36%, Newfoundland 31%, PEI 30%) than west of the Ottawa River (Alberta 26%, Ontario 25%, BC 22%, Saskatchewan 22%, and Manitoba 19%).

The highest Canadian-origin share in Quebec only several months after the October 1995 sovereignty referendum ought to have been intriguing and even instructive outside Quebec. And the next highest share in officially bilingual New Brunswick pointed to another subsequent study finding that “francophone background” was a “key factor” in proclivity to report “Canadien” origins in the late 20th century.

Finally, as explained by Statistics Canada : “Prior to 1996, census data on Aboriginal persons were derived from a question that asked about their ethnic origin or ancestry. The 1996 Census included a new question that asked more directly if the person is an Aboriginal person, that is, North American Indian, Métis or Inuit.” Possibly inspired at last by the “Rights of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada” in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, this self-reported “Aboriginal [later Indigenous] Identity Population” would grow over the next quarter century.

In 1996 the Canada-wide Aboriginal Identity Population was 799,010, accounting for 2.8% of the total Canadian population – and divided into 554,000 “North American Indian,” 210,000 Métis, and 41,000 Inuit (in the very far north that became the new Nunavut Territory of Canada in 1999). Ontario had the largest aboriginal population provincially (141,525), followed by BC (139,655), Manitoba (128,685), Alberta (122,840), Saskatchewan (111,245), and Quebec (71,415).

* * * *

It could be argued that, what with the likes of NAFTA, the tough-love 1995 budget, and the almost disastrous second Quebec sovereignty referendum, the Chrétien government at least ought to have been on somewhat shaky ground in its second election, on June 2, 1997. And to some extent it was.

The Liberals retained their majority of seats in the Canadian House of Commons, but it was much reduced. They took 155 seats in a 301-seat House, down from 177 of 295 in 1993. Their share of the cross-country popular vote similarly declined, from 41.3% to 38.5%.

The Grits (as the 19th century had christened them, in opposition to the Tories) lost seats dramatically in Atlantic Canada (except for PEI), led by Nova Scotia where the Chrétien-Martin fiscal reformers lost all 11 provincial seats they had won in 1993 – 6 to the New Democrats and 5 to the Progressive Conservatives, now led by Jean Charest from Quebec.

The Liberals also lost seats in all three Prairie Provinces. Preston Manning’s Reform Party doubled its representation in Saskatchewan and picked up two more seats in each of Alberta and Manitoba (and 3 more in BC). When the 1997 dust settled the Reform Party had replaced the Bloc Québécois of 1993 as the “Official Opposition” (or party with the second-largest number of seats in the elected parliament).

This also reflected some BQ faltering in Quebec (despite the 1995 referendum?). It was now led by Gilles Duceppe. (Lucien Bouchard had become the PQ Premier of Quebec in 1996.) In 1997 Duceppe’s BQ won just 44 of Quebec’s 75 seats, with 38% of the province-wise vote – down from 54 seats and 49% in 1993. Meanwhile, the Liberals gained 7 more Quebec seats with an additional almost 4% of the provincial vote.

In Ontario the natural governing party declined ever so slightly in the 1997 election. But Canada’s most populous anglophone-majority province remained the bastion of the francophone Quebecker Jean Chrétien’s Liberal majority in Ottawa – 101 out of 103 seats with just under 50% of the provincial vote. As another sign of other changes afoot, the Ontario provincial government at this point was in the hands of the new hard-right conservative Premier Mike Harris. (And Premier Harris and his wife apparently enjoyed intermittent dinners with the sovereigntist Premier Bouchard and his “French-born, California-raised” wife next door.)

Meanwhile, further west, just over two months after the 1997 federal election, on August 8, four former Conservative and four former Liberal members of the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan established a new democratic organization called the Saskatchewan Party.

The only intermittently interrupted NDP heirs of Tommy Douglas’s legendary agrarian socialist provincial government would remain at the centre of Saskatchewan provincial politics for another decade. And the Saskatchewan Party was certainly no clone of the Parti Québécois. But soon enough it too would come to govern its province, in a 2007 election.

* * * *

One big advantage enjoyed by the Chrétien Liberal regime that lasted just over 10 years – from early November 1993 to almost mid-December 2003 – was its divided opposition.

The government faced four rivals in the elections of 1993, 1997, and 2000, including two conservative parties, the NDP to the further left, and the BQ in Quebec. Biographer Lawrence Martin quips that in one way all this late 20th century incarnation of Canada’s natural governing party had to do to remain in office was just “keep breathing.”

Meanwhile, as quietly understood in many places, these were still difficult times for the Canadian experiment that began in 1867. And the lack of a credible alternative to their seasoned management may have also insulated the Chrétien Liberals from altogether serious assaults on what generous critics might call their old-school managerial style.

In early June 1999 the CBC asked former prime minister Brian Mulroney what he thought of his successor’s adventures. Mulroney answered that he “was enjoying the proceedings.” But he was also “baffled by what he felt was the media’s tendency to let the Liberals off the hook. Chrétien … ‘runs a patronage machine probably without precedent in modern history, and nobody says a word.’”

Some parts of the media finally did get around to criticizing what Jeffrey Simpson called The Friendly Dictatorship in Jean Chrétien’s Ottawa, in his book of 2001. A decade and a half later Jack Mitchell, poet, novelist, and Associate Professor of Roman History at Dalhousie University in Halifax, was urging that : “Prophetic in many ways, The Friendly Dictatorship remains a crucial text on the erosion of Canadian democracy …. Simpson’s … exposure of the authoritarianism of our prime ministerial government rings true even today.”

The much-lamented increasing concentration of political power at the heights of the executive branch in various democracies over the previous half-century (and more) is not unique to Canada. But Donald Savoie’s study of 1999, Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics, spelled out the late 20th century Canadian case. Patrice Dutil’s 2017 volume Prime Ministerial Power in Canada : Its Origins under Macdonald, Laurier, and Borden, would show that the Canadian case had roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Jean Chrétien’s variation on the theme reflected his long history as a street-fighting Iron Man (the title of Lawrence Martin’s prime ministerial biography). He may sometimes have been too aggressive and self-obsessed, but his iron-man act was admired by many voters who also admired professional hockey fights. And his dictatorship was at least friendly. So Jack Mitchell noted in 2016 that with “nine years of Unfriendly Dictatorship” under Stephen Harper fresh in mind, Jefrrey Simpson’s book of 2001 also “provokes nostalgia for the Chrétien Kremlin.”

Old-school North American patronage, in any case, was part of the Chrétien Kremlin’s style of politics. If much of the mainstream media did not dwell on this for patriotic reasons, the opposition parties in parliament tried to compensate. “Shawinagate” became the label for aspiring opposition efforts to scandalize the patronage practices of “le petit gars de Shawinigan” in his own riding. More broadly, Chrétien and his advisors, like many others, do seem to have viewed go-along-to-get-along rewards as customary lubrication for unavoidable democratic political machinery.

A governing party culture in which such attitudes thrived probably did contribute to what ultimately became the so-called “Sponsorship Scandal” (aka “AdScam” or “Sponsorgate”), which would finally do so much to defeat Paul Martin’s Liberal successor to the Chrétien government in 2006. (In the tradition inaugurated by the legendary Pacific Scandal, which brought down John A. Macdonald’s and Georges-Etienne Cartier’s first ruling regime of the 1867 confederation in 1873.)

Yet as Lawrence Martin concluded in his compelling biography such criticism of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien cannot finally “deny him his due. Compared with the country he’d inherited in 1993, the Canada he was leaving behind a decade later was in measurably better condition.”

* * * *

One side of the better condition was a more vigorous Canadian economy, which probably owed something to Paul Martin’s 1995 budget in Canada, and bubbling global economic trends that would ultimately boil over in the Great Recession of 2008 (or 2007—2009). But there is also a more democratic, liberal, and progressive case to be made for Jean Chrétien’s decade in office at the heights of the executive branch, where political power was increasingly concentrated in Canada and beyond

Some signs of broader movement in democratic new directions never went ahead. On Friday, December 18, 1998 CBC News reported : “There may soon be a debate on whether Canadians have out-grown the monarchy … Reports … suggest senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office are promoting the idea. They would like to end the Queen’s role as head of state to mark the millennium … Chrétien is said to be open to a public debate but is concerned about divisions it might cause. Peter Donolo, the prime minister’s communications director, confirmed discussions about a non-monarchical system in Canada had occurred, but says there are no plans to currently move ahead … The plan would be to introduce the idea to test public opinion, without actively promoting it … John Manley, the Minister of Industry is in favour of the idea: ‘I think many Canadians feel a lot of affection for Queen Elizabeth and feel the tradition is important. However, I think it’s also time for us to consider evolving the next stage of our constitutional development.’”

In the end the prime minister’s concern about divisions a public debate on the monarchy might stir was born out in opinion polls. An October 2002 Ipsos-Reid survey found only 48% wanted Canada to end its ties to the monarchy when the Queen’s reign ended. This was up impressively from the late 1970s, but still far from the kind of overwhelming majority that might motivate a democratic government, on a non-urgent constitutional issue in an increasingly complicated country.

Chrétien himself first met Elizabeth II as a junior cabinet minister in the Pearson government in the 1967 Centennial year. He was impressed by how she always spoke (quite good) French with him, and he once told her he was “the monarchist from Quebec.” She had laughed sympathetically when, as justice minister, he said “merde” as a pen broke at the official signing of the Constitution Act, 1982. Half a dozen years after his Canadian prime ministerial career ended Elizabeth II appointed him to the Order of Merit established by Edward VII in 1902. (The only other Canadian politicians so honoured by the British monarchy have been two other Liberal prime ministers, Lester Pearson and Mackenzie King.)

There would be nothing in Canada at all comparable to the November 1999 referendum on the future of the monarchy in Australia – which found only 45% of Australians in favour of one particular kind of proposed Australian republic. The CBC News report of December 1998 about “out-growing the monarchy” in northern North America soon became lost in still potent local survivals of ancient colonial folklore.

The monarchy similarly continued to be represented in the more than 50 member states of the open-ended Commonwealth, into which the old Empire had by now almost thoroughly dissolved – and of which the Queen remained ceremonial Head. In Canada (as in a smaller number of such remaining “Commonwealth realms” as Australia, Barbados, Jamaica, and New Zealand), Elizabeth II was also a dutiful but unobtrusive offshore monarch who was still widely admired, especially among rising progressive female Canadians (as recurrent opinion polls made clear)!

Yet even what would prove ephemeral talk in the prime minister’s office in Ottawa about leaving the British monarchy at last signaled that the modern Canadian democratic nation-building traditions mobilized by Mackenzie King in the 1920s were still alive inside Jean Chrétien’s natural governing party, many decades later.

A more clear-cut and suitably populist case in point arose in 2001, when Prime Minister Chrétien, as explained in a still later CTV News report, “enforced an old law that said a Canadian citizen cannot become a British lord while retaining Canadian citizenship.” The “old law” was the“Nickle Resolution, passed in 1919 by the House of Commons” which “directed that the practice of bestowing titles of honour by foreign governments on Canadians be discontinued. The policy was reaffirmed in 1968 by the government of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson … and again in 1988 by the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney” (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2006, 2013).

The Canadian who finally had to abandon his citizenship to become Lord Black of Crossharbour in the United Kingdom was the media mogul Conrad Black, born into a wealthy Montreal anglophone family in 1944.

Prime Minister Chrétien also qualified his warm personal feelings towards the ancient Canadian traditions of the British monarchy somewhat, when he appointed (or, technically, advised Queen Elizabeth to appoint) Adrienne Clarkson as Governor General of Canada in 1999. Ms Clarkson (née Poy) had arrived in Canada with her parents as a 2-year-old refugee from Japanese-occupied Hong Kong in 1941. She grew up in Ottawa and later worked as a broadcaster for the CBC and a journalist for various magazines. Her Canadian Chinese descent complemented the growth of Canada’s “Visible Minority” population reported in the 1996 Census. And, as later noted in her online Wikipedia biography, she took “a somewhat anti-monarchist attitude toward the position” of Governor General of Canada that she would fill from October 7, 1999 to September 27, 2005.

* * * *

Jean Chrétien’s legacies also involved more substantive contributions to the evolving Canadian democracy of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

His experience with what would finally (? ) be called Indigenous policy in Canada began with a six-year sojourn as Pierre Trudeau’s Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, 1968—1974. He was officially in charge for the assimilationist 1969 White Paper on Indian policy so resolutely rejected by Indigenous leaders – and for the beginnings of the vague new directions that followed.

The vague new directions included the recognition of the “existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada” in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. They also included some second-thought support for aboriginal identities from the last days of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (a Métis in the closet?), at a March 1984 Federal-Provincial Conference of First Ministers on Aboriginal Constitutional Matters.

By late summer 1991, during Brian Mulroney’s second mandate, advocates of the aboriginal self-government that finally appeared in the failed Charlottetown Accord of 1992 had also inspired a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), which reported at last to Jean Chrétien in October 1996. Whatever else, RCAP’s recommendations were too constitutionally radical for the wider political mainstream in the 1990s. The Chrétien government (and its Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jane Stewart) responded formally in January 1998.

The government’s response “emphasized non-constitutional approaches to selected issues raised by the Report. The four objectives of the federal response were renewing partnerships; strengthening Aboriginal governance; developing a new fiscal relationship; and supporting strong communities, people and economies.” The Chrétien government also “issued a Statement of Reconciliation in which it expressed profound regret for errors of the past and a commitment to learn from those errors. This was accompanied by a commitment of $350 million to be used to support community-based healing, especially to deal with the legacy of abuse in the residential schools system” (Canadian Encyclopedia).

The creation of a third northern territory of Nunavut in April 1999 – in the eastern region of the old Northwest Territories – was another Indigenous policy innovation with a long history that concluded under Prime Minister Chrétien. (The history went back to the mid 1970s or even the 1950s.) More than 80% of the new territory’s residents were traditional Inuit. The concept of Nunavut implied a kind of Inuit homeland in a Canadian territory. And this arguably gave at least one territory something almost like what Robert Bourassa’s government of Quebec had wanted as a “distinct society,” in one francophone-majority Canadian province.

* * * *

Meanwhile, Stéphane Dion, Jean Chrétien’s Minister of Inter-governmental Affairs, 1996—2003, worked hard to dispel any lingering uncertainty about what constituted a referendum on a province’s actual secession that the government of Canada needed to take seriously, as raised by the almost alarming 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum.

The 1998 Supreme Court reference had reported that “it would be for elected representatives to determine what constitutes a clear question and what constitutes a clear majority in a referendum held in a province on secession.” The Clarity Act Stéphane Dion introduced in 1999 became law in the middle of 2000. In any specific case it gave the Canadian House of Commons responsibility for determining just what numbers would be required to demonstrate “a clear expression of a will by a clear majority of the population of a province that the province cease to be part of Canada.”

Drawing on the Supreme Court reference, the Act prescribed that in such a case “democracy means more than simple majority rule.” A “clear majority in favour of secession would be required to create an obligation to negotiate secession.” Premier Lucien Bouchard’s PQ provincial government of Quebec immediately rejected this demanding approach. Then in 2005 the federal New Democratic Party under the leadership of Jack Layton (whose grandfather had served in Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale Quebec provincial cabinet) drafted something called the Sherbrooke Declaration. This promised that an NDP federal government (like a PQ and even a Liberal Quebec provincial government) would recognize a simple “majority decision (50 per cent +1) of Quebec people in the event of a referendum on the political status of Quebec.” And NDP support in Quebec jumped from 4.6% in 2004 to 42.9% in 2011.

Jean Chrétien was nonetheless long elected and re-elected himself in a Quebec riding in a sovereigntist heartland. He looked on the Clarity Act as one of his proudest achievements. And the Quebec sovereigntist impulse did gradually weaken over the first two decades of the 21st century.

It may even be that the long slow cooling of the romance began at an event organized to help promote the Clarity Act. Dubbed the First International Conference on Federalism, it was held in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, Canada, 5-8 October 1999. The early parts of the conference were dominated by sovereigntist intellectuals from Quebec. But Prime Minister Chrétien had managed to secure his golfing friend President Bill Clinton for the concluding address.

President Clinton gave a brilliant defence of federalism as a democratic political system that can accommodate diverse regional aspirations. He also punctured a recurrent sovereigntist illusion : that the United States would even enthusiastically welcome an independent or sovereign Quebec, as an act of political idealism in the spirit of the 1776 Declaration of Independence. According to one first-hand if somewhat tendentious report, at the end of the conference in Mont-Tremblant the magnetic Quebec sovereigntist Premier Lucien Bouchard was (for a brief moment at any rate) “visibly shaken.”

* * * *

Prime Minister Chrétien was 12 years older than the Oxford University graduate President Clinton, who was in some ways more like Pierre Trudeau. But Clinton and Chrétien had many other things in common.

There was broad policy agreement and much Canada-US co-operation. Liberal managers sometimes worried that too much talk about good Canada-US relations would hurt the Liberal cause in the true north. “Prime Minister Jean Chrétien of Canada” also briefly appeared at least once on “Christmas at the Clinton White House” on US TV, almost as if he regularly dropped by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to say hello.

Then the slender victory of the Republican George W. Bush late in 2000 changed everything. Like others, the Chrétien government embraced the Bush administration after the 9/11 disaster in 2001, and sent troops to Afghanistan. Iraq, however, was a different case. On March 17, 2003 Prime Minister Chrétien announced that without the backing of the United Nations, Canada could not participate in any US-led war on Iraq.

So Canada did not join the United States in the Iraq War, 2003-2011, just as it had not joined the War in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.

How the natural governing party lost its way in the early 21st century

At the June 1990 leadership convention in Calgary that finally elected Jean Chrétien leader of the Liberal Party of Canada his main rival had been Paul Martin Jr (son of the Liberal warrior Paul Martin Sr, who had introduced the first Canadian Citizenship Act in 1947).

The clash of Chrétien and Martin forces inside the party in 1990 was said to be intense. It subsequently just carried on. In the end it grew into something that led the search for Canadian Liberalism back into the wilderness for almost 10 years. If the iron man’s mid-term stabilizing regime had a fatal longer-term flaw, it was the expanding Chrétien-Martin intra-party warfare that climaxed in the first years of the 21st century.

Surnames may seem to suggest a clash between the federal Liberal Party’s anglophone and francophone elites. But both Chrétien and Martin were on the francophone side of Canadian life. Chrétien’s roots were in small urban and rural Quebec. Martin descended from 18th century Canadien migrations to the Windsor border region of what was later called Ontario, just across the river from Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac’s ancient Fort Detroit. (The fort was established in 1701. In the spring of 1763, after its transfer to British forces, it was besieged by Pontiac, War Chief of the Ottawa, who assured the Martin ancestors nearby : “Je suis français.”)

Paul Martin Jr, born in Windsor, Ontario in 1938, was only four years younger than Jean Chrétien. But he started his federal political career more than two decades later. He grew up in Windsor and Ottawa (where his father was an MP for 33 years, and served in the cabinets of Mackenzie King, St. Laurent, Pearson, and Pierre Trudeau). After graduating from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law in the 1960s, Paul Martin Jr first pursued a business career with the Montreal-based Power Corporation. He became president of the affiliated Canada Steamship Lines in the 1970s. At the same time, he had cultivated his father’s political interests since high school. In the later1980s some young Liberals began to see him as an edgy political-newcomer successor to John Turner.

In the 1988 federal election Paul Martin Jr won the southwest Montreal riding of LaSalle–Émard (where he would be re-elected without much trouble in 1993, 1997, 2000, 2004, and 2006). Then he lost the Liberal leadership to Yesterday’s Man Jean Chrétien in the divisive race of 1990. Whatever else, Chrétien had the much longer federal career at that point, and inevitably knew more party people. On one key issue Martin and his followers broadly supported Brian Mulroney’s Meech Lake Accord. Like the still revered Pierre Trudeau, Chrétien and his followers did not. And at the 1990 convention, as the Accord’s unmet deadline expired, Jean Chrétien won just under 57% of the delegates’ votes on the first ballot.

In a five-candidate race Paul Martin Jr had nonetheless placed a strong second. His paternal heritage, his own undoubted unique talents, his status as a business insider in politics, and his continuing support among (especially younger?) party members made him a key player in the cabinets Jean Chrétien put together after the 1993 election. Martin’s tough-love (and surprisingly fast-working) 1995 budget stiffened and broadened his appeal. He remained Prime Minister Chrétien’s high-profile minister of finance from November 4, 1993 to June 2, 2002.

* * * *

Some informal Canadian Liberal intra-party understanding almost seems to have arisen over the last years of the 20th century. In exchange for the Martin faction’s strong support in the 1993 and 1997 elections, as it were, the Chrétien faction accepted that after two elections, say, Prime Minister Chrétien would politely make way for Prime Minister Martin.

Something of this sort, deepest truth or rank fantasy, at least helps explain why Jean Chrétien called a federal election for November 27, 2000 – some time before what the conventional wisdom would recommend. Early in March 2000 the Ottawa Citizen had reported that Maurice Chrétien, Jean’s older brother, was telling the prime minister “it’s time to come home” to Shawinigan (making way for Paul Martin in Ottawa). If this was the plot, however, the plotters forgot to clear it with the man at the top. It was finally said that Mme Aline Chrétien, the prime minister’s much respected wife, was urging him to lead the party in one last election.

At about the same time, Preston Manning’s Reform Party, still largely a Western Canada conservative cause, was trying to reach out to a broader base by transforming itself into something called the Canadian Alliance. The re-grouped party was established on March 27, 2000. On July 8 Stockwell Day defeated Preston Manning in a leadership runoff. Day had been born in 1950 in Barrie, Ontario, graduated from high school in Montreal, Quebec, ran for the provincial Social Credit party in BC, and then settled in Alberta in the late 1970s. He was athletic, articulate, financially sound, and anchored in the Christian faith.

Meanwhile, the Chrétien and Martin Liberal factions were briefly brought back together by the death of Pierre Trudeau on September 28, 2000. (Shortly before his 81st birthday, and less than two years after the death of his youngest son Michel, skiing in BC. The passionate eulogy at the October 3 funeral in “Montreal’s cavernous Notre Dame Basilica” was delivered by the elder Trudeau’s eldest son Justin, who would become another Liberal prime minister of Canada a decade and a half later.)

The Grit/Rouge party unity soon vanished, and conflicting memories of Maurice Chrétien’s time-to-come-home-Jean message in March grew stronger. An EKOS Research poll gave the Liberals 50% support among decided voters, against only 19% for Stockwell Day’s new Canadian Alliance. The iron man acted. On October 22, The Globe and Mail reported, he walked across Sussex Drive (and along Rideau Gate) on a sunny autumn afternoon “to visit Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson and call a federal election for Nov. 27 – the third in seven years.”

The Globe and Mail went on : Prime Minister Chrétien“defended his decision to call an election less than 3½ years into his second mandate, arguing the Canadian Alliance had launched its election advertising. Canadians do not want a seemingly endless, ‘American-style’ campaign, Mr. Chrétien said.” A bold reporter asked if the real reason for calling the election was the Liberal Party’s big lead in the opinion polls. Mr. Chrétien explained: ‘It’s very important for Canadians, in my judgment, that we win. You know, I’m not going to go to the people and say to them, I’d like somebody else to win. So of course, I’m calling an election hoping to win.’”

The hope was fulfilled again. This time the Liberals took 172 of 301 seats with just under 41% of the Canada-wide popular vote – 17 seats more than their slender majority of 1997. Stockwell Day’s new Canadian Alliance won six more seats than in 1997, including two in Ontario. But it remained overwhelmingly concentrated in Western Canada, especially in Alberta and BC. The old Progressive Conservatives, now led again by Joe Clark, won 12 seats. On the further left the New Democrats led by Alexa McDonough won 13 seats. The Liberals (again) took 100 of 103 seats in Ontario, this time with more than 51% of the province-wide vote. In Quebec they took 36 seats with 44% of the provincial vote – against 38 seats but only 40% of the vote for Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Québécois.

Yet even these upbeat results were not enough to put accelerating tensions between Chrétien and (Paul) Martin Liberals to rest. Biographer Lawrence Martin (no relation) would later explain : “The prime minister sensed that many of his own troops hadn’t been behind him in the campaign, hadn’t stood up for him … He was bitter. He had brought home the bacon again. These people couldn’t take win for an answer.”

* * * *

In the end the agreement the post-2000-election Liberal intra-party diplomacy finally came to seemed to be that Prime Minister Chrétien’s track record entitled him to a full 10 years service at the top. As it happened he served from November 4, 1993 to December 12, 2003. (This would make him the fifth-longest-serving Canadian prime minister, after Mackenzie King, John A. Macdonald, Pierre Trudeau, and Wilfrid Laurier.)

Jean Chrétien’s relationship with the George W. Bush who took office in 2001 may have improved slightly over time. But former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney had closer ties to the Bush-Cheney White House. Distance from a new right-wing Washington can nonetheless lend a dim liberal halo to the later years of the Canadian prime minister who finally declared his country would not join the Iraq War.

At the end as in the beginning, altogether shiny halos lay somewhat uneasily on the prime minister’s head. His government of a country with an important fossil-fuel energy industry had signed the international Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions in 1997. But the Protocol was not ratified by the Canadian Parliament until late 2002 (even though the Chrétien Liberals had working majorities in the House from start to finish). Similarly, Canada’s Kyoto target was a 6% total reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012, with 1990 as base year. But Canadian greenhouse gas emissions actually increased 24% between 1990 and 2008.

Some might call it telling as well that the deep political rationale for the democratic campaign finance reform legislation which distinguished Prime Minister Chrétien’s last year in office was an ultimately failed attempt to defuse the already growing “Sponsorship Scandal.” (Aka “AdScam” or “Sponsorgate”– which would finally do a lot to send the Liberal Party of Canada back into the wilderness in 2006.) The main thrust of the legislation is succinctly summarized by Lawrence Martin as Chrétien’s “plan to severely limit corporate and union donations to political parties with the government picking up the resulting slack.”

Early in 2003 even the 50-something Red Tory guru Hugh Segal was urging : “The motivation behind Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s proposed reforms to campaign finance rules may be attacked by some. But … recent public opinion research that assesses Canadian attitudes about the integrity of our electoral system indicates quite clearly that the Prime Minister and his government are very much on the right track.”

The reforms were much later explained by Leslie Seidle at the Institute for Research on Public Policy. In an (again) ultimately failed stab at putting out “heavy fire over revelations in what was dubbed the sponsorship scandal … Chrétien introduced a landmark law to eliminate corporate and union donations to parties at the federal level” and “limit personal contributions.” In the end the political tactic didn’t work but “whatever the motivation behind the reforms, they now stand as a durable pillar of Chrétien’s legacy. Ottawa has never been quite the same.”

Alex Himelfarb, Ottawa’s senior public servant at the time (Clerk of the Privy Council), has been noted as an enthusiastic policy advisor on this issue. According to analyst Leslie Seidle “ending corporate and union donations to federal parties made Canada ‘very much a model’ internationally … ‘at the vanguard’.” The reforms came into effect on January 1, 2004. And “along with the watershed curtailing of big-money influence” they also “extended Elections Canada’s regulatory reach to cover donations to riding associations, nomination contests, and party leadership races” (John Geddes, Maclean’s, March 2016).

* * * *

Meanwhile, by the middle of 2002 Paul Martin was close to running full time for next Liberal leader. His followers had acquired a strong grip on the party machinery. On June 2 he left the Chrétien cabinet (replaced as minister of finance by John Manley). He spent the summer of 2002 touring the country, campaigning to succeed Jean Chrétien.

In the fall Chrétien announced that he would be resigning soon, possibly spring 2004. The Martin-dominated Liberal party called a leadership convention in Toronto for fall 2003.

Some other potential candidates were deterred by the might of the Martin organization. The campaign led to a coronation on November 14, 2003, when Paul Martin was declared winner at the Liberal convention, with 3,242 of 3,455 delegate votes. Less than a month later, on December 12, 2003, Prime Minister Chrétien resigned and Governor General Adrienne Clarkson appointed Paul Martin – the new leader of the party with a majority in the House of Commons – Prime Minister of Canada.

Martin had no sooner taken office than the gurgling Sponsorship Scandal began to intrude again. On February 9, 2004 a report from Auditor General Sheila Fraser suggested that some federal government “sponsorship contracts” for advertising and related agencies, meant to strengthen Canada’s profile in Quebec after the 1995 referendum, “resulted in little to no work done.” Many receiving contracts were said to have Liberal connections. Prime Minister Martin denied personal involvement in or knowledge of the sponsorship contracts. He established a judicial inquiry to investigate the issue, and appointed Justice John Gomery as its head.

* * * *

Meanwhile again, the Liberals’ once-oh-so-divided opposition was getting its act together at last – on two strategic fronts. The first had begun to unfold some 10 months before Paul Martin finally became Liberal leader.

On January 24, 2003, at a convention in Toronto, delegates elected the 52-year-old Jack Layton leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, with more than 53% of the vote on the first ballot.

Layton was born in 1950 in Montreal, and grew up in a predominantly anglophone Montreal suburb (or exurb, about 60 kilometres from downtown). Both his grandfather and his father were politically active, largely at the conservative end of the party system. (His father finally served in Brian Mulroney’s federal cabinet.) It may have been Jack Layton’s studies with the political philosopher Charles Taylor, at McGill University in Montreal, that moved him to the further left of the NDP.

Layton’s native-son understanding of Quebec would be a key to his ultimate federal political career. Like other anglophone Quebecois of the time, however, he moved west to Toronto in 1970. Here he would acquire an MA and PhD in political science from York University, teach at the later Ryerson University, and evolve into a hard-working and increasingly distinguished progressive city councillor.

He was first elected in Toronto municipal politics in 1982, and finally served as president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in 2001. The much respected former NDP federal leader Ed Broadbent (also a fellow political science PhD), 1975—1989, was a strong supporter of Layton’s successful New Democratic leadership bid in 2003. And Jack Layton finally wrestled the east-end Toronto Danforth riding away from the Liberal Dennis “Chair-Man” Mills in the 2004 federal election.

Layton’s career as federal NDP leader would be tragically cut short by cancer, all too soon after it reached its remarkable height in 2011. Just what he did and did not do in some respects may remain controversial. Yet, whatever else, his appearance early in 2003 as a fresh New Democratic leader, with real depth of experience (and a talented, attractive, and equally political wife, Olivia Chow), was a sign for all who studied the language. The Liberal road ahead for Prime Minister Paul Martin would be more difficult than it had been for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

To underline the point boldly, back in the early spring of 2002 Stephen Harper, a still more remarkable young man who also moved west to find his political way, had succeeded Stockwell Day as leader of the Canadian Alliance. Suddenly the “new right” conservative cause in Canada had an unusually brainy leader, who blended the thought of such global fellow travelers as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher, in a way that made at least some intermittent sense for the most northerly political and economic geography in North America (and especially its oil and gas sector in Alberta).

Harper was born in Toronto in 1959, and grew up in the Toronto suburbs. His father worked at the Imperial Oil head office downtown. (It would finally move to Calgary in 2007.) As an early sign of his intellectual prowess, Stephen Harper was on his Richview Collegiate team for an episode of “Reach for the Top” – a “Canadian academic quiz competition for high school students” on TV. A few months at the University of Toronto nonetheless convinced him that his destiny lay elsewhere. In 1978 he moved to Alberta, and worked for a time at Imperial Oil in Edmonton.

The 20-something Stephen Harper subsequently studied at the University of Calgary, where he acquired bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics. Then Robert Mansell at the Calgary economics department recommended him to Preston Manning. In 1987 Stephen Harper was the bright young man who spoke at the Winnipeg founding convention of the Reform Party. He went on to serve as Reform’s Chief Policy Officer. And he became MP for Calgary West in the party’s 1993 breakthrough election.

Disagreements with Preston Manning and other Reformers kept Stephen Harper aloof from further federal elections, until he won Calgary Southwest as new leader of the Canadian Alliance in a May 2002 by-election. Meanwhile, he served as vice-president and then president of the “Canadian conservative lobby group” known as the National Citizens Coalition, 1997—2002. Along the way he also learned a plausible Quebecois version of Canada’s more elegant official language. (The Beaverton comedian’s headline “Stephen Harper slips into fluent Mandarin during French debate” is humourous but wrong!)

As a sign of further things to come, Harper’s ultimate Canadian Alliance priority was to “unite the right,” so it could at last offer a serious 21st century alternative to the Liberal Party of Canada. After much hard work by various representative individuals, on December 7, 2003 a new Conservative Party of Canada, merging Alberta MP Stephen Harper’s Canadian Alliance and the old Progressive Conservative party (now led by Peter MacKay, with deep roots down east in Nova Scotia), was officially registered with Elections Canada.

At yet another Toronto leadership convention, on March 20, 2004, Stephen Harper was elected leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada. He had some three months to get his united-right organization ready before the federal election that Paul Martin finally called for June 28, 2004. And Harper and his new party at least began to rise to the challenge.

* * * *

In late April 2004 the Martin Liberals were still as high as 40% in opinion polls (widely accepted as majority government territory in Canada’s current first-past-the-post parliamentary democracy).

The trend from there to the late June election seemed increasingly marked by quietly growing public unease over Auditor General Fraser’s February 2004 sponsorship report. The suggestion that some post Quebec referendum “sponsorship contracts … resulted in little to no work done” played to several ancient prejudices, outside and inside Quebec.

In the nature of the parliamentary democracy public unease was promoted by the opposition parties in parliament. By early June poll numbers for Paul Martin’s natural governing party were down to 32%.

In the end the polls showed some late-June tightening. On the surface the Liberals at least retained a minority government when the results came in on June 28, 2004. They still won 36.7% of the Canada-wide popular vote, compared with 29.6% for Stephen Harper’s new Conservative Party, 15.7% for Jack Layton’s New Democrats, and 12.4% (all within one province!) for Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Québécois.

Once the exact final results were known, however, it was clear the Canadian people had elected an unusually complex parliament. To start with, Quebec itself was one place where the Auditor General’s sponsorship report had weakened Liberal support – and in this case boosted the Bloc Québécois. In 2004 the BQ won 54 seats (up from 38 in 2000), with almost 50% of the Quebec provincial vote.

Both Jack Layton’s New Democrats and especially Stephen Harper’s new Conservative Party of Canada also increased their representation in the House in 2004. But neither did quite well enough to exert stable strategic influence over the Liberal minority government.

In a 308-member legislature with a bare majority of 155, the June 28, 2004 election (with not quite 61% voter turnout, at that point the lowest since 1867) finally gave the Liberals 135 seats and the New Democrats 19, for a “progressive” total of 154. The remaining 154 seats went to the Conservatives (99), the Bloc (54), and former Reform/Canadian Alliance independent from BC, Chuck Cadman (also born and raised in Ontario).

It took no deep political science to guess that this would not be a long-lived minority government of Canada – though it finally weighed in around the technical middle of all such historical cases extant.

* * * *

As the new minority Liberals approached the end of their first 12 months in office, they still had moments of natural governing party magic – when it seemed Paul Martin just might (or even probably would) outsmart Stephen Harper, at the very end of very muddy adventures.

In the middle of May 2005 Prime Minister Martin announced that Belinda Stronach, Conservative MP for Newmarket-Aurora in the Greater Toronto Area, was crossing the floor to join the Liberal government as minister of human resources and skills development. She was the daughter of the founder of the Ontario-headquartered auto parts manufacturer Magna International, and a former new Conservative leadership rival to Stephen Harper. According to CBC News, Ms Stronach would “also help the Liberals implement the recommendations in the Gomery report” on the Quebec sponsorship program, due later in the year.

Only a few days later, on May 19, 2005, Chuck Cadman “cast a deciding tie vote to save a minority Liberal government supported by the NDP that the Conservative party … was trying to defeat to trigger an election.” (Less than two months later again, on July 9, 2005, Mr. Cadman died after a two-year struggle with malignant melanoma. Over 1500 people attended a memorial service on July 16, 2005 in Surrey, BC. Prime Minister Paul Martin was among them.)

The Martin minority government also managed to pioneer high-minded policy innovations with Canada’s First Peoples, that would at least have echoes some 10 years later. At a similar point down the road the political scientists Christopher Alcantara and Zachary Spicer would explain that Paul Martin’s historic if later abandoned Kelowna Accord (named after a city in the BC interior) was “a $5.1-billion, five-year agreement designed to bridge the life gap between Aboriginal Canadians and the rest of the population. The accord and the process used to negotiate it were meant to be broad and inclusive, and were unprecedented in scope and scale …”

Alcantara and Spicer give a concise account too apt not to cite at further length : “The Kelowna process began slowly, with informal discussions between Prime Minister Paul Martin and Aboriginal leaders such as Phil Fontaine. The first formal meeting was held on April 19, 2004, and included nearly 150 participants, including the Prime Minister, the entire federal cabinet, provincial officials and representatives from Canada’s national Aboriginal groups: the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Métis National Council, the Native Women’s Associations of Canada and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.”

The political scientists continue : “This first meeting was intended to identify the major issues plaguing Aboriginal communities – health care, housing and education – and provide a road map for discussion in the next stage of the accord negotiations: sectoral round tables based on the priority areas identified …”

Beyond the April 2004 first meeting : “The next phase involved a bilateral policy retreat that was intended to fine-tune the policy areas discussed during the sectoral round tables and fully develop the areas of interest for the accord. The final phase of the process was the First Ministers’ Meeting on Aboriginal Issues in November 2005. The resulting agreement, entitled First Ministers and National Aboriginal Leaders: Strengthening Relationships and Closing the Gaps, aimed to launch a 10-year effort to close the gap in the quality of life between Aboriginal people and other Canadians.”

Subsequent Conservative governments led by Stephen Harper proved almost passionately uninterested in all this Liberal handiwork, and did not pursue the agreement. By the summer of 2015, however, Alcantara and Spicer’s message could be summarized as : “The Kelowna Accord may have been consigned to history’s dustbin, but the process that led to its creation still has much to teach policy-makers about the best way forward.” The message was not altogether lost on the new government that would arise from the autumn 2015 Canadian federal election.

In another somewhat related move, a while before the First Ministers’ Meeting on Aboriginal Issues in November 2005, Paul Martin had made a further contribution to the progressive democratic legacy started by Jean Chrétien’s appointment of Adrienne Clarkson as Governor General of Canada. The end of Ms Clarkson’s term was well in sight by the summer of 2005. In August Prime Minister Martin announced that she would be succeeded by Michaëlle Jean – a Montreal social activist, journalist, and documentary filmmaker, from a Haitian family that had fled the harsh regime of dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier when she was 10 years old. After subsequent studies at Université de Montréal, Ms Jean had become “the first Black person on French television news in Canada.”

On September 27, 2005, in her late 40s, Michaëlle Jean became “the first Black person to serve as governor general” – a “descendant of enslaved people” who “used her office to passionately emphasize freedom as a central part of the Canadian identity” (Canadian Encyclopedia).

* * * *

The fundamental trouble was that no matter what the Martin minority government did, the Sponsorship Scandal that had begun before its time, in the wake of the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum, would not go away.

Prime Minister Martin’s perhaps naive strategy seems to have been that the Gomery Commission he had appointed in February 2004 would at least show the government had not done any great premeditated evil, in trying to gently stroke Quebec’s back after the very close referendum result. The Commission’s findings, on this theory, would finally redound to the governing party’s advantage (ultimately with former Conservative Belinda Stronach helping “the Liberals implement the recommendations in the Gomery report”). The real-world Phase I Report Justice Gomery released on November 1, 2005, however, just made everything much worse.

In very broad strokes Gomery found that while the sponsorship program begun by the Chrétien government in 1996 had high-minded intentions, it had also in some degree been exploited by a few unscrupulous individuals for personal gain. Gomery’s report formally exonerated Paul Martin, as former minister of finance. But it spelled out how some corrupt Liberal party functionaries benefited from implementation of the program. And this soon transformed debate in the Canadian House of Commons into something Prime Minister Martin could not hope to survive – even with the more or less coterminous signing of the Kelowna Accord.

Jack Layton’s New Democrats, who had been at least helping the Martin Liberal minority government stay in office since the spring of 2005 – along with Belinda Stronach and the late Chuck Cadman – now found themselves unable to carry on. (Or, some might stress, they found Paul Martin unwilling to accede to further NDP policy demands for continuing support.) On November 24, 2005 new Conservative Party of Canada leader Stephen Harper tabled a motion “That this House has lost confidence in the Government.” Four days later all three opposition parties joined together to defeat the Martin government, 171—133. And Paul Martin advised Governor General Jean to call a fresh election for January 26, 2006.

The Harper Conservatives had already broken into the old Chrétien Liberal treasure chest in the most populous province of Ontario in the 2004 election. They had then taken 24 of Ontario’s 106 seats at Ottawa, with more than 31% of the provincial popular vote. On January 26, 2006 they won 40 Ontario seats with some 35% of the provincial vote. Moreover, in 2004 the new Conservative Party of Canada had won no seats at all in Quebec, with less than 9% of the provincial vote. In 2006 the functionally bilingual Stephen Harper’s united-right Tories won 10 seats in Quebec, with almost 25% of the province-wide vote. (And this, even the Toronto Star subsequently allowed, made them a “national party” at last.) Meanwhile in 2006 the Harper Conservatives took almost half the seats in BC, and all the seats in Alberta.

The Layton New Democrats also increased their standing in Ontario – from 7 seats in 2004 to 12 in 2006. And they similarly jumped from 5 to 10 seats in BC. Early NDP experiments with the 50%+1-for-sovereignty Sherbrooke Declaration only increased its Quebec popular vote from 4.6% in 2004 to 7.5% in 2006 (with no seats in either case). But Canada-wide New Democrats went from 19 seats in 2004 to 29 in 2006.

The final Canada-wide numbers for 2006 were Conservatives 124 seats, with 36% of the popular vote ; Liberals 103 seats with 30% of the vote ; New Democrats 29 seats with not quite 18% of the vote ; and Bloc Québécois with 51 of 75 Quebec seats and 42% of the Quebec-wide vote.

It was not clear at this point that the Liberal natural governing party of Canada was beginning an almost 10-year sojourn on the opposition benches in Ottawa. But at the end of January 2006 there was no doubt that Stephen Harper’s new Conservative Party of Canada had won some kind of minority government – that could last who knew how long?

For the larger work of which this is a part see The Long Journey to a Canadian Republic.


This is an initial dry-run at what will finally appear in a published hard-copy text, subject to much further checking, correction, and editing. The order of the items here broadly matches the order of the text above. The online linkages reported are as of mid March 2021.

Michael D. Behiels, “Charlottetown : The Anatomy of Mega-Constitutional Politics,” Policy Options Politiques, December 1, 2002.

Daniel LeBlanc, “A brief history of the Bloc Québécois,” The Globe and Mail, August 13, 2010. Updated April 28, 2018.

The Canadian Encyclopedia, “Bloc Québécois,” Article by Alain Noël, Updated by Maude-emmanuelle Lambert, Tabitha Marshall. Published Online March 6, 2013. Last Edited October 24, 2019.

The Canadian Encyclopedia, “Reform Party of Canada,” Article by Trevor W. Harrison, Updated by Richard Foot, Published Online February 7, 2006, Last Edited June 1, 2017.

Cable Public Affairs Channel (cpac), 1990 Liberal Convention, June 23, 1990, Olympic Saddledome, Calgary. “The collapse of Meech Lake … hung over the speeches and subsequent vote, which ended with a first-ballot victory for the Trudeau-era cabinet minister with nearly a quarter-century in Parliament.”

Wikipedia, 1993 Canadian federal election.

CBC Canadian Election Special (as posted by c-span in USA), October 25, 1993. Results reported and analyzed as the returns came in.

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