Shadow Cabinet

Bill Graham’s gothic tale of privilege and politics.

When one of Canada’s most prominent citizens, who has been a distinguished law professor, an early advocate for gay and lesbian rights, a senior minister in the federal cabinet, leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, philanthropist and the chancellor of one of the country’s most prestigious universities, begins his autobiography with a declaration that he does not know where he was born, or the exact date, and that his legal father was a cuckold and not his biological father, the reader knows he or she is in for a candid ride.

But Bill Graham, more properly William Carvel Graham, was also a history major at university, so The Call of the World: A Political Memoir is much more than a compelling and often humorous biography. It is also a well-documented and analytic history of many important developments in the 21st century including the war on terrorism, the Iraq invasion, the Afghanistan deployment and the worrying ascension of national security over human rights—told by an insider who has known and interacted personally with most of the important international players, first as the long-serving chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade and then as Canada’s foreign minister, followed by a stint as minister of national defence.

The Call of the World is really three books wound into 470 pages. Book One is a charming and often quirky tale of privilege, adventure, outstanding academic achievement, intellectual pretension, travels in elite society and a successful political career.

Book Two is a major dissertation on the development of international law and its impact on societies, mostly western societies, and why a  rules-based international trading order is preferable to a “might is right” world, even if it means that countries have to dilute some of their sovereignty in ceding to the rules. He also spins out a thesis about parliamentary diplomacy derived from his eight years of travelling around the world as chair of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee. Rather than supporting the popular media notion that inter-parliamentary delegations are boondoggles to keep the backbenchers happy, he argues they are often an effective supplement to more conventional diplomacy, and indeed often develop relationships that go beyond mundane government-to–government dealing.

Book Three is a play-by-play telling of the story from the al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11 to the eventual invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, including the behind-the-scenes perambulations that kept Canada from joining what turned out to be a disastrous American invasion into Iraq. There is also the parallel but not necessarily linked track of Canada’s involvement with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan followed by the Canadian battle group in Kandahar.

Bill Graham’s personal story, starting with his mysterious beginnings followed by his many endeavours and accomplishments, is an intriguing tale, even without his public life as a parliamentarian and cabinet minister. His telling of it offers us a glimpse into a life of privilege, esoteric pursuits and accomplishments in an interconnected world that included many of the social, business and intellectual leaders of the day.

His mother divorced Loring Bailey, the man who is listed on Graham’s birth certificate as his father, five months before he was born, and Graham has never had any connection with him. When he was about 15 months old, his mother married Francis Ronald Graham, a wealthy 55-year-old widower with ten children of his own, who had risen through the financial services industry from a bank clerk to corporate financier and sugar baron.

When his mother remarried and moved in with her new husband and his family, she sent Graham and his older sister to live with their maternal grandparents in Toronto. His mother may have visited him and his sister in Toronto but Graham has no memory of her, until, when he was four, she decided to put the families together. Thus, he and his sister were put on a train to Vancouver, where the Graham family had moved, to “live with these virtual strangers, our mother and her second husband whom we soon learned to call Dad in the absence of any other.” It seems Graham adapted to this new life with its shades of Downton Abbey: “Every morning, I used to watch [my step-father’s] butler pin a fresh rose on his lapel before the chauffeur settled him into the back seat of the big Cadillac.” (Many, many years later, at his step-father’s funeral, Graham was stunned to be told by his mother that the man they had just buried was also his biological father.)

Nonetheless, Graham apparently prospered through this milieu of mansions, nannies and private schools and eventually got to Trinity College in Toronto, by way of Upper Canada College, and then the University of Toronto Law School, presided over by legal icon Bora Laskin.

He graduated with the gold medal, something that fellow classmate Paul Martin Jr. never let him forget. Years later when facing a problem in cabinet, the prime minister would often say, “You solve it—you won the gold medal.”

Instead of heading immediately to a big law firm on Bay Street, he did the unconventional, heading for Paris to earn a doctorate in the burgeoning field of international law. The experience was transformational. Not only did he master French but he also had to master the Cartesian philosophy and way of thinking embedded in French and international law. The Paris PhD catapulted him into the esoteric world of international law, big multinational negotiations and legal cases, directorships on multinational companies and a lucrative career with the Toronto-based law firm Fasken’s.

He had become a recognized expert in the field, and when his old law school invited him back as a professor to teach international law, he decided the offer was a good time to back away from the nomadic life of the international solicitor in favour of a more settled existence in Toronto with his wife, Cathy, and their young son and daughter. Graham also found the professorship attractive as an alternative to the typical lawyer’s lifestyle: “In truth, despite my family background, a few directorships and my legal career at Fasken’s, I didn’t really fit in as a Bay Street Lawyer. I knew many business leaders and establishment figures, and I had access to them. But neither Cathy nor I were socially ambitious.” (They did not have to be as they were already part of Canada’s elite.)

Graham’s eventually successful political career was full of anomalies, beginning with the fact that intellectuals seldom prosper in partisan politics (Justin Trudeau’s father being one of the other exceptions).

How many other foreign ministers talk about the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, or could quote from Shelly’s poem “Ozymandias”? Graham did during a debate with a former South African ambassador Glen Babb about apartheid. In fact, in his quarter of a century in electoral politics, Graham was never very partisan, even when he was thrust into the role of interim leader of the Liberal Party and leader of the Official Opposition.

Graham’s entry into electoral politics was almost a fluke. He had been a modest supporter of his Rosedale neighbour, Don Macdonald, a Liberal strongman in Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet, and because of his bilingualism, he had had extensive involvement in Quebec issues, including advising the no side in the 1980 referendum.

But he was not actively involved in Liberal Party politics when, in the lead-up to the 1984 general election, he was approached by some people from the Rosedale riding association who were looking for a candidate to confront David Crombie, a popular former Toronto mayor, who had a stranglehold on the riding for the Progressive Conservatives.

Before agreeing to let his name stand for the Liberal nomination, Graham decided he better check whether Anne Cools, the unsuccessful Liberal candidate in the previous two elections and the executive director of the social agency Women in Transition, was intending to make another try.

As he arrived at her office, he overheard her say into the phone, “Yes, I’d be very honoured.” It was Pierre Trudeau on the line, making her the first black woman in the Senate. Cools was obviously no longer interested. So Graham became the Liberal candidate, totally unfamiliar with, and unprepared for, the humble vagaries of election campaigning at the constituency level. He was easily beaten by Crombie. But the political itch had not been scratched, and four years later, in 1988, he did much better, losing to the Conservatives by only 80 of the more than 55,000 votes cast. After many doubts over the intervening five years, he decided to give electoral politics one more try in 1993.

The tide had turned. Jean Chrétien led the Liberals back to power and Graham won easily in Rosedale. It felt, in Graham’s words, like “the first major achievement I had ever earned on my own.”

The Rosedale riding (now mostly Toronto Centre) is heterogeneous mix reflecting the diversity of Canada. North of Bloor street it is uniformly white, Anglo-Saxon, and both upper- and lower-case C conservative. South of Bloor is a polyglottal mix of some of the poorest groups in the country, many concentrated in a large public housing development. Graham claims there were a total of 67 different languages spoken in his riding, and he successfully interacted with and won the support of many of these diaspora groups, often using these connections in his travels overseas. He had to prove he “wasn’t some kind of dilettante playing at politics as if it were a game of polo.”

(It was recently announced that Graham and his wife have donated $1 million to the Dixon Hall Youth Centre in his old riding, which serves many of these groups.)

An outside observer in 1993 might have thought he was possibly a candidate for cabinet as Chrétien looked over his new members of Parliament. Graham had impressive qualifications: a big legal and academic career, prominent roles in royal commissions, and lots of foreign experience. But he had backed John Turner against Chrétien for the Liberal leadership in 1984 and Paul Martin against Chrétien in 1990, so, in the long memory of Chrétien, he was a Martin man.

However, Graham was immensely pleased when, as a consolation prize, he was soon made chair of the foreign affairs and international trade committee of the House of Commons. In The Call of the World he documents a convincing case for the impact of parliamentary diplomacy, especially when dealing with the United States where Congress is as important as the president and the executive on many issues. Parliamentary committees can also have a significant role in policy, if the government of the day will let them.

And Prime Minister Chrétien did eventually appoint him to the cabinet as minister of foreign affairs in January 2002. Martin kept him in foreign affairs when he took over as prime minister in December 2003, but in the cabinet shuffle after the disappointing election in June 2004, he was moved to defence, widely interpreted in the media as a demotion.

Nevertheless, he occupied two of the most senior cabinet positions during a tumultuous period after the al Qaeda attacks on 9/11, which, he says, fundamentally changed western societies. He was also at the table when Canada, in effect, went to war in Afghanistan—Canada’s first war in the more than half a century, since Korea.

In both these posts, he struggled with the conflict between our values and our interests, as has every modern government. The Justin Trudeau government, for example, is facing it today over the sale of armoured personnel carriers to the government of Saudi Arabia. In Graham’s time, the issue was closer relations and trade with China despite China’s human rights abuses. His approach to the dilemma was that “good foreign policy is often about finding that the two [values and interests] may become mutually reinforcing.” But I am not sure this provides much guidance to the policy makers facing the issue today.

Graham’s version of the role Canada attempted to play in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq has its own controversies, but he details the toing and froing as Canada and others attempted to convince the United States and Great Britain not to proceed with the Iraq invasion without the sanction of the United Nations Security Council. At one point, Graham received a call from Paul Cellucci, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, telling him the White House was very angry about Canadian criticism of the American position and warning that “the prime minister of Canada needs to say something nice about the president of the United States, in public, soon.” When Graham passed on the message to Chrétien, he grimaced “like I had reached under the table, grabbed his balls, and turned them eleven times to the left.”

The lack of a Security Council mandate and much justified skepticism about hyped intelligence to the effect that Hussein was still hiding nuclear weapons are what finally convinced Chrétien to refuse to participate, even though there was great pressure that our “interests”—specifically our relationship with the United States—would be severely damaged. Some of the pressures came from Canadian generals who desperately wanted to participate in the invasion with the American forces, Security Council resolution or no resolution.

At one point Canada was involved in an elaborate effort to come up with a compromise resolution that might have stayed the invasion, an initiative that got quite a bit of publicity at the time. Graham suggests Canadian officials had “misled the boss” (Chrétien) in the process by presenting the draft compromise resolution as a fait accompli. At another point, he claims that Paul Heinbecker, the Canadian ambassador to the UN, and one of the people involved in the negotiations, was bypassing his minister to deal directly with the prime minister.

Heinbecker strongly denies there was any conspiracy among officials to mislead their political masters. Moreover, since an ambassador represents the whole country, not just the minister, he says it is quite appropriate to deal directly with the prime minister, especially if it is the prime minister initiating the calls. Although Graham and defence minister John McCallum were participating in the diplomatic flurry and meeting with secretary of state Colin Powell and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, there was only one decision maker on the Canadian side, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

Heinbecker also thinks Graham, in his telling, was far too lenient on Colin Powell and British foreign secretary Jack Straw, who might have been able to stop the invasion if they had had the courage to confront their leaders.

Even with these qualifications, however, the Graham version of the Iraq manoeuvring and the Canadian involvement in Afghanistan is still a good read. It is one of the better explanations I have seen of how and why the Canadian involvement in Afghanistan turned out to be a costly failure. He cites the confusion within the Canadian government about roles and objectives, wrangling among the departments of defence and foreign affairs and the Canadian International Development Agency, and how the turbulent and insecure Afghanistan situation limited the effectiveness of provincial reconstruction teams, an important element of the so-called 3D approach that was supposed to blend defence, development and -diplomacy.

When Graham cites his proudest achievements in politics, however, they do not relate to the international field but says “participating in the struggle for equality for gays and lesbians [as] was one of the great privileges of my political career.” He describes the celebration when Bill C-33 recognizing same sex marriages was approved by Parliament and says the speech he gave in Parliament supporting it “was one of the most significant speeches of my life.”

Graham devotes several pages to gay and lesbian rights and society’s gradual recognition and acceptance of them. In so doing, he raises by inference his own ambiguous sexuality. “As far as I was concerned, equal rights for homosexuals was both a matter of principle and a personal issue. Perhaps because of the discovery of my parents’ secret history or perhaps of my own experience of life, I came to know the complexity of adult sexuality and of the human heart.”

He writes about a threat by the gay magazine Xtra to out him during the 1997 election campaign. “This had been a concern of mine since deciding to enter politics in 1984, but my family and I had always endorsed the idea that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation. Cathy and I loved each other deeply; we had raised a wonderful family; we enjoyed a happy and fulfilling life together, and our private life, we felt, was precisely that: private.” Xtra eventually dropped the story.

He also says his sexuality came up in the vetting process to become a cabinet minister. Asked if there were any potential embarrassments, he referenced a Frank magazine story about “an aspect of my private life” and said that Cathy was perfectly aware of it and supportive. His interrogators said they were also aware of the story but that it was never an issue for Chrétien.

Graham deals in the book with both the general issue and his personal experience in a straightforward and tasteful manner. There is no indication his sexuality had any negative impact on his political career.

The book illustrates in myriad ways Graham’s truly interesting life and substantial accomplishments. He is an astute observer who came to appreciate the political sagacity behind the folksy Jean Chrétien. He was equally candid about the gang of ambitious opportunists, flacks and politicos around his old classmate Paul Martin. He concedes how, in an unexpected way, Martin and his entourage became the authors of their own downfall by pushing Chrétien out before he could deal with the sponsorship scandal.

He clearly enjoyed his encounters with the prominent and powerful around the world—a policy wonk dinner with Hillary Clinton when she was a senator, private tête-à-têtes with the Russian defence minister Sergei Ivanov, inside jokes with Colin Powell and one-on-one chats with British prime minister Tony Blair—all on a first-name basis, of course, and occasionally we get fresh insights from them.

In his relatively short career as a cabinet minister, however, there were not many historically significant gains or major gaffes, although he drew the ire of the pro-Israel lobby for an early speech that candidly restated existing Canadian policy of a more balanced approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He also learned the hard way of the limits faced by a middle power.

The book is sometimes naive, often realistic and always interesting. Graham has a passion for detail and a dry, often ironic humour. He was obviously an extensive note taker, sometimes even using the back of dinner menus at official dinners. But he credits the assistance he received from his nephew, Ron Graham, an established author in his own right, for the fine writing and clear narrative flow that makes the romp through The Call of the World a pleasure.

I was in the Parliamentary Press Gallery for The Globe and Mail during the whole of Graham’s elected career and wrote about him from time to time. But I have to admit that I came away from his book with a greater appreciation of his gravitas and accomplishments than I reflected in my stories at the time—indeed the whole gallery underestimated him. If we had paid more attention to him and done our homework, the Canadian public would have been better informed.