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From the archives

Our Violent National Game

The great hockey debate continues

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

The “Hamlet” of the Maritimes

Portrait of a political leader who can't seem to make up his mind

Geoffrey Stevens

The Right Flight: Bernard Lord and the Conservative Dilemma

Jacques Poitras

Goose Lane Editions

348 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 0864923767

When it comes to politics, there really are two Canadas. There’s Atlantic Canada and there’s the Rest of Canada. For a majority of central and western Canadians, politics is, well, politics. Most of the time, there is no true commitment to parties, politicians or causes. Politics represents an occasional electoral exercise, to be discharged as expeditiously as possible to minimize its intrusion on the more important things in life, such as the pursuit of money, golf, gardening, the perfect martini or other personal indulgences.

But among Atlantic Canadians, politics is elemental, a 12-month passion, not a mere quadrennial diversion. It is a region where victory still means patronage—jobs on the public payroll, paved roads, new schools, and so on—and defeat means waiting until next time for a crack at the pork barrel. And although politics may divide easterners along the fault lines of family, religion and language, it is also a glue that helps to hold small communities together, creates common interests and inspires shared fun.

It may be partly a factor of community size, but Atlantic Canadians do get involved. They know their politicians, they know what they stand for, and they know their strengths and weaknesses. They track political discourse, and they are instantly aware when politicians shift their ground, when they are evasive, when they trim their beliefs to exploit changes in the political breezes. No other region, I am sure, could have produced the late Dalton Camp, the brilliant political insider and columnist who hailed from Woodstock, New Brunswick. And Atlantic Canadians go out to vote— 83 percent of Prince Edward Islanders, for example, made it to the polls in the 2003 election, despite Hurricane Juan, which had battered the Island the day before, downing trees and power lines. (It was so bad that the chief returning officer had to use a chainsaw to clear his driveway on election morning.) That 83 percent, by the way, was 26 percentage points higher than the turnout in another provincial election a few days later— in hurricane-free Ontario, where only 57 percent managed to set aside their ennui long enough to vote.

Given this passion for politics, why has it been so long since anyone from the four eastern provinces served as prime minister of Canada? It has been 84 years. The last one was the First World War PM, Sir Robert Borden, a stolid citizen of Halifax, who held office from 1911 to 1920. (I anticipate an objection from pedants. Yes, I am deliberately excluding that famous son of Hopewell Hill, New Brunswick, Richard Bedford Bennett, a Tory who had the misfortune to be prime minister in the depths of the Great Depression. But Bennett left Atlantic Canada when he was 27. He settled in Calgary, went into legal practice with Peter Lougheed’s grandfather, got involved in politics there, and fetched up as prime minister in 1930, 33 years after he had abandoned New Brunswick. I count him an Albertan.)

Using Borden as our milestone, in the past 84 years there have been 13 prime ministers: five from Quebec (Louis St. Laurent, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin), two each from Ontario (Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson), Alberta (Bennett and Joe Clark) and British Columbia (John Turner, in truth a carpetbagger from Ontario and Quebec, and Kim Campbell) and one each from Manitoba and Saskatchewan (Arthur Meighen and John Diefenbaker, respectively, both transplanted Ontarians). But there has been no prime minister in all those years from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI or Newfoundland.

It has not been for lack of political talent. The East produces politicians who are every bit the equal of those from points further west. Nor has it been for lack of Atlantic ambition. Newfoundlander John Crosbie made a brave, albeit unilingual, run for the Conservative leadership in 1983, as did Nova Scotia’s Robert Winters and Allan MacEachen on the Liberal side in 1968. Some did make it to national leadership— Tory Robert Stanfield and New Democrat examples—but none was able to reach 24 Sussex Drive. One of them, Peter MacKay, also a Nova Scotian, had the dubious distinction of being, for a twinkling, the last national leader of the now disbanded Progressive Conservative party.

Geography and demography make it difficult for a politician from a small province, especially one in an impoverished region, to climb to the heights in Ottawa. When they seek leaders, the big parties look to regions that have population, clout and money. It is no accident that the Liberals, who are almost always in power in Ottawa, have never (with the arguable exception of Turner) chosen a leader who was not from Quebec or Ontario. Another factor is that provincial, not federal, politics is where most of the real action is in the Atlantic provinces. The region produces great provincial politicians—Joey Smallwood, Robert Stanfield, Louis Robichaud, Richard Hatfield and Frank McKenna, to name a few—but, with the exception of Stanfield, they have chosen to remain provincial.

This brings us, circuitously, to the subject of this new book by Jacques Poitras, The Right Fight: Bernard Lord and the Conservative Dilemma. It is a curious book, which is not entirely surprising because Bernard Lord himself is a curious figure. The boy premier of New Brunswick—he was only 33 when he was sworn into office in 1999— Lord was for a time the bright, bilingual hope of the federal Tories. A popular favourite to succeed Joe Clark when he stepped down for the second time as national PC leader, Lord pondered, wavered and finally decided to stay in New Brunswick. The job went to MacKay in May 2003.

Then, when the PCs merged with the Canadian Alliance, Lord was courted to carry the progressive banner in the leadership race. The pressure was intense. Someone, he was implored, had to step forward to stop Stephen Harper. He dithered for a while, was poised to jump, then pulled back again, leaving his campaign machine with its wheels spinning and no place to go. In Ottawa, they dubbed him “the Hamlet of the Maritimes.” Between his two flirtations with federal leadership, Lord had a near-death experience, politically speaking. He called a provincial election for June 2003 and everyone expected him to win handily.With voters up in arms over auto insurance rates and obviously disenchanted with Lord’s Conservatives for a variety of other reasons, he barely clung to office, winning a majority of just one seat.

It is not at all clear where fate will take Lord now. Ottawa could come calling again, and that could happen sooner than later if Harper, who displays no great enthusiasm for his job, decides to step down and return to Calgary to edit policy tracts or whatever he does for fun. Or Lord could stay in New Brunswick, win the next provincial election and consolidate his position as a Conservative premier in the mould of Richard Hatfield, who achieved remarkable success in straddling the deep divide between English and French in the province. Or, quite possibly, Lord could lose the provincial election and fade away, to be remembered, if at all, as a promising young man who passed on chances to become a national leader and, perhaps, the first Atlantic prime minister since Borden.

This uncertainty complicates Poitras’s task and undermines his book. A provincial affairs reporter for CBC Radio and a former reporter for the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal, Poitras knows his stuff. He is particularly good when he addresses the fundamental issue in New Brunswick politics: language. The province is one third French-speaking, mainly in the north where the resettled descendents of the Acadians who were expelled in 1755 maintain a vibrant cultural and political life.

Thanks to the Herculean effort of the Hatfield government, New Brunswick is Canada’s only officially bilingual province, a fact that still rankles among some members of the English-speaking majority, which is concentrated in the south. That anger boiled over in 1991 when the Confederation of Regions party, a virulently anti- French movement, won enough English seats to form the official opposition in Fredericton, before folding its racist tent and fading away. I like the way Poitras handles the COR aga; he understands the phenomenon without sympathizing with it. I also like the sensitive manner in which he treats Hatfield who, despite a complicated personal life, achieved great things in New Brunswick, and played a major and enlightened role on the national stage in such issues as language rights and constitutional reform. He took positions that he knew would be resented at home because he was one of those rare politicians who believed it was more important to do what was right than it was to be popular.

Poitras is two thirds of the way into the book before he finally gets around to Lord. Bernard’s father, Ralph Lord, was a bush pilot from rural York County who moved to the Lac Saint Jean district of Quebec, where he lived with a local family, learned French and married their daughter. He and Marie-Émilie had four children; Bernard, the youngest, was born in Roberval, Quebec, in 1965.When Bernard was seven, Ralph moved his family back to New Brunswick, settling near Moncton.

Bernard grew up speaking the two languages with equal facility. He delivered both English and French newspapers, played hockey with English friends, but attended francophone schools. He moved “seamlessly between the two languages and two communities without a second thought,” Poitras reports. “‘When you’re growing up,’ he says, ‘you don’t overanalyze these things.’” He went on to study social sciences at the French-language Université de Moncton, then law school.

Central casting would be hard-pressed to come up a more perfect practitioner of New Brunswick politics. English New Brunswickers regard him as one of their own, while Acadians think he is one of them (a perception that is reinforced by the fact that he married an Acadian girl). But Lord, who lists no place of birth in the Parliamentary Guide, is not Acadian. He is half English New Brunswick and half French Quebec— a combination that works exceptionally well for him. There may be a clue to his linguistic orientation, however, in the fact that when he phones to say goodnight to his children, he says it in French.

If Lord’s ability to function on both sides of the language divide is one of his dominant political characteristics, his patience and caution are another. He displayed both when offered chances to move into federal politics. And, as Poitras notes, his work ethic is a third: “Lord enrolled in law school, driven to succeed, he says, by values of hard work, discipline, respect for others and the importance of finishing what you started, all learned from his parents.”

The big problem with The Right Fight is that it was written, I suspect, in the expectation that by the time it appeared in bookstores Lord would be the national Conservative leader or perhaps even prime minister. As it is, he is mired in New Brunswick and Poitras does not seem to know what to make of that. His treatment of the 2003 election is cursory, leaving the reader to wonder why Lord really came so close to electoral disaster.

One of the best-kept secrets in New Brunswick in the 1999 and 2003 provincial elections was that the Lord campaigns were run, not by the local Conservatives listed on the organization chart, but by a hired gun operating from Toronto. John Laschinger, a product of the Bill Davis Big Blue Machine who has directed campaigns for, among many others, John Crosbie, Peter MacKay, Ernie Eves, Belinda Stronach and David Miller (for mayor of Toronto), called the shots in those elections, and he would have managed a Lord run for national leadership, too. “Lasch’s” secret is still safe. It is not in The Right Fight.

At the end of the book, the reader—along with the author—is left to wonder what will happen next. Will Bernard Lord screw up his courage, go to Ottawa and become the first Atlantic prime minister in eight-plus decades? Or is he destined to be a historical footnote—one in a long line of Atlantic Canadian leaders who stayed at home?

Geoffrey Stevens was a former Ottawa columnist for The Globe and Mail, a former managing editor of both the Globe and Maclean’s, and the author of several books.