Memories from the PMO
We begin to realize we are in trouble in the first chapter, “From Colony to G7 Partner: Canada in a Global World.” One might assume it would explain our changing role in the world. Instead, the meat of the discussion concerns the Progressive Conservative leader Brian Mulroney’s efforts, led by Charles McMillan, the author of this book, to develop policy before the 1984 federal election. The chapter is not uninteresting, but it does point to the fact that everything that follows will be more about Mulroney and McMillan than about anything else.
McMillan was a senior adviser to Mulroney until fall 1987, and he led the PMO’s policy unit, which had to coordinate with lead ministers on the various promises made during the 1984 campaign. His account of how his team operated with deputy ministers, political staffers, the Privy Council Office, academics, and consultants is clear and succinct. (And Mulroney, to judge by his memoirs, regarded McMillan as a key player.)
The government’s main objective was to increase productivity and economic growth, and this required a focus on investment, regional development, science and technology, financial services, privatization, and energy policy. A major program review, defence, social issues, and federal-provincial relations were also pressing matters, as were relations between English and French Canada and the growing demand for Western interests to be fully considered, as they had not been under Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals. Moreover, and critically, it was imperative to establish a better relationship with Ronald Reagan’s administration in Washington, because dealings had become very strained during Trudeau’s long tenure.
Each of these priorities involved major changes, and these changes frightened the public, much of the media, and Mulroney’s own MPs. “The caucus needed weekly assurance to accept policy reforms,” McMillan writes. “The prime minister’s task was part sermon, part policy discourse, part exhortation to avoid the insidious, self-fulfilling Tory syndrome of defeatism and internal dissension.” This was a huge challenge, and McMillan highlights Mulroney’s careful attention to his caucus as one of the great successes of his time in power.
The two main parts of The Age of Consequence are devoted to policy outcomes and to Canada’s future. The first takes up governmental priorities, social justice and rights, national reconciliation, and foreign policy. There is much to like in the discussion of policy and how it was developed, and there are nuggets of new information in McMillan’s recollections. The other part looks at the role of the Indigenous peoples and at trade policy; it also offers an assessment of successful prime ministers and their governments. These are all important topics, and McMillan ranges widely through history and politics.
Although his proclaimed focus is the years after the Second World War, McMillan spends much time — too much time and far too many pages — glossing over the years before 1945. The problem is that he is no historian, not even what we might call a Wikipedia historian.
McMillan notes that Canada’s contributions to Britain’s costs for the Second World War amounted to $4 billion, about $83 billion in current dollars (half coming after 1945). But he oversteps when he says this was “so much greater per capita than the celebrated American support through Lend‑Lease — mostly fifty obsolete destroyers from the Great War and Americans taking over British bases in Bermuda and Newfoundland.” First, neither the destroyers nor the bases were part of Lend‑Lease. Second, Washington spent more than $49 billion (or some $1 trillion in current dollars) on Lend‑Lease, with $31 billion going to the British between 1941 and 1945. In per capita terms, Canada’s aid was perhaps slightly greater than that of the Americans, but their contribution of matériel, food, and oil made British and Soviet survival — and eventual Allied victory — possible.
McMillan also overstates Indigenous participation in the Second World War. “The defence forces and many other Canadians publicly recognized that Aboriginal citizens had participated in combat, in fact far beyond their numbers in the total population. Over three thousand members of Inuit, Métis, and other Indigenous peoples enlisted, including more than 70 women.” According to the 1941 census, the Indigenous population was 116,000. So that’s just over 2.6 percent who served. Even if the census figure was low, compare it with the national population of 11 million, out of which 1.1 million — or 10 percent — enlisted.
There are many more historical errors throughout. If the author had stayed within the period he knows best — that after 1945 — his book would have had far fewer howlers.
Over the past several years, McMillan has taught strategic management and international business at the Schulich School of Business, at York University. According to the website Rate My Professors, some of his students have found him funny and knowledgeable. Unfortunately, many more have found him rambling and incoherent. Only 38 percent say they would take another of his classes. If The Age of Consequence is an indication, they have it right.
This book has many insightful moments, but it too rambles. It’s not a waste of time, as some students have said of McMillan’s classes on Rate My Professors, but getting through its 400 pages is a hard slog. Part of the problem is the author’s tendency to write long paragraphs that begin in one century or one administration and end in another. Too often, he employs quotes without telling the reader who is speaking, and he includes no endnotes to clarify matters; all we get is a list of sources, and some of those are misunderstood. H. S. Ferns, for example, was no acolyte of Mackenzie King, as McMillan labels him (Ferns’s book, The Age of Mackenzie King, co‑written with Bernard Ostry, was a sharply critical attack on the Liberal prime minister).
Much of this book’s material reads as if a student researcher found it and the author then scattered the choice bits almost randomly; he sometimes drops tables into the text without explanation. Elsewhere, the jumbled prose seems never to have been proofread. Twice in the first twenty pages, for instance, Sir Robert Borden’s name is misspelled as Bordon, and R. B. Bennett somehow becomes R. G. Bennett at one point. The index also has numerous names and pages that are wrong. Some of this is likely the publisher’s fault — McGill-Queen’s University Press seems to have eliminated proofreaders — but ultimately McMillan must carry the can for the errors and typos.
What becomes abundantly clear is that McMillan remains a devout supporter of Brian Mulroney, whom he describes as a man of “oceanic political ambitions.” His last chapter, on Canadian prime ministers, appears to rank his old boss among the greatest leaders in Canadian history, or at least the best of the last three-quarters of a century. Three decades after he left office, Mulroney’s impact on the nation and its domestic and foreign policies certainly does deserve a balanced reassessment. Sadly, this book doesn’t provide it.