Political memoirs often fall into one of two categories. Ascendant politicians write to showcase their potential, as with Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope or Justin Trudeau’s Common Ground. More experienced or retired politicians try to cement their legacy or contextualize a controversial decision, as with Dalton McGuinty’s self-serving Making a Difference. Jack Austin, now ninety-one, tries a different tack in Unlikely Insider, which he wrote with his daughter Edie, a former editorial-page editor of the Montreal Gazette.
Austin assumes the role of key witness and participant as often as he does that of protagonist. In doing so, he spends little time on his own bona fides, instead guiding readers through a time capsule of Canadian history, informed by what and who he saw for the better part of fifty years as a lawyer, principal secretary, cabinet minister, and Liberal leader in the Senate. Befitting his “insider” status, his book is packed with vignettes that feature the likes of Nelson Mandela, Zhao Ziyang, Henry Kissinger, and Queen Elizabeth II, along with numerous premiers, cabinet officials, and prime ministers.
Throughout, Austin frames the access he eventually acquired as a surprise, given society’s widespread antisemitism and his own childhood poverty. “I came of age in western Canada at a time when British Imperial culture was predominant and Jews were very much the ‘other,’ ” he writes in his introduction. Born in Calgary in 1932, he was a product of the Great Depression. His family spent difficult years in tenement housing, sharing a bathroom with several other residents and relying on welfare payments to make ends meet.
After a while, his father was able to buy a small corner store, where Austin worked and came to see education as a path to opportunity. That, and a desire to escape cold Calgary winters, took him to the University of British Columbia, where he studied history and economics before earning his law degree. He went on to teach law at UBC and established a strong reputation as a mining lawyer. In 1963, he was recruited to work as a special assistant to Arthur Laing, who represented Vancouver South in Parliament and served as minister of northern affairs and natural resources. It was this role that helped kick-start a lasting commitment to politics.
Given his impressive career — with stops in the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, in the Prime Minister’s Office, in the Senate, and in two federal cabinets (under Pierre Trudeau and Paul Martin) — Austin is able to provide an informed perspective on many of the same issues that decision makers contend with today. These include reconciliation with Indigenous communities, North American trade, Canada’s complicated relationship with China, energy security, and responsible resource development. The parallels between his early work on these files and contemporary politics suggest that little has changed — except for the names and faces involved. This symmetry is intensified by the direct focus on interactions with Trudeau the Elder, for whom Austin served as top aide from 1974 to 1975, before accepting a Senate appointment. After the prime minister retired from politics in 1984, Austin became one of his regular travel companions.
“He was the right leader for the times,” Austin says of Trudeau, “both at home and abroad, meeting the challenge of Quebec separatism, patriating the constitution, and leading the international community in accepting the reality of China under communist leadership.” Despite this favourable assessment, Austin acknowledges challenges that plagued the prime minister: poor caucus relationships, an inability to contain Western alienation, and the non-linear move away from colonial relationships with Indigenous peoples. Even his comments on the state of 24 Sussex — specifically the polarizing installation of an indoor swimming pool in 1975 — will leave readers with a sense of déjà vu.
In some ways, Austin offers a more personal glimpse of his former boss — his social conscience, his disdain for convention, his parenting — than he does of himself. Trudeau’s highly publicized divorce, for example, is detailed over several pages, whereas Austin’s divorce in the early ’70s is mentioned only in passing.
While the cyclical nature of Canadian history is hard to miss, Austin is quick to recognize areas where attitudes have changed. He describes his long evolution on reconciliation, for instance, starting with an education that taught him little about Indigenous people: “We learned about the buffalo and how they used to range, and about the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. . . .What they didn’t teach us was about how the railway development and farming by settlers disrupted First Nations communities — how they lived, their economic basis — and how the people were pushed onto reserves.”
Austin speaks with pride about the progress that’s been made, including greater economic opportunities for First Nations and the recognition of legal rights. The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, which Austin pushed for as deputy minister of energy, mines and resources, is a prime example. “This marked the first time that Indigenous people in Canada were consulted about resource development,” he writes with satisfaction. “A decade later, as a member of the Senate, I served on the special joint committee on repatriating the constitution and was among those strongly arguing for the constitutional entrenchment of Aboriginal rights.”
Austin describes the painstaking work to recognize Aboriginal rights in the Constitution Act of 1982. He expresses frustration with his Liberal colleagues’ tenuous and inconsistent support for section 35, which was further threatened by provincial objections and a reluctance to entrench rights before they were fully defined. Yet the Indigenous leaders who presented to the joint committee are described impersonally — a disappointing oversight in a book that otherwise devotes considerable resources to detailing public figures. Austin is more expansive on later cabinet committee work, praising, for example, the contributions that Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations and Ed John of the British Columbia First Nations Summit made during the Kelowna Accord negotiations.
Readers may nod in agreement as Austin describes reconciliation. They are more likely to question his analysis of China. Austin had a high-profile and lasting role in fostering a relationship between Ottawa and Beijing. He convinced Chinese officials to participate in Expo 86 in Vancouver, pushed for the creation of the Asia Pacific Foundation, and, with Jean Chrétien, planned the first “Team Canada” trip to China in 1994. He went on to serve as president of the Canada China Business Council from 1992 to 2000, all while serving in the Senate. He remains deeply committed to Canada-China relations and clear-eyed about Xi Jinping’s lurch to authoritarianism over the past decade. But like anyone attempting to justify a sometimes unhealthy relationship, he’s not always convincing in his pronouncements. “As an optimist and a realist,” he explains, “I hold to my original conviction that we have to maintain the strongest and most open communication between the two systems.” That means tackling issues “day by day, working toward common interests, accepting differences where we can, and avoiding conflict where differences are irreconcilable.”
Such an approach is reasonable in principle, but it requires a disquieting level of cognitive dissonance to embrace in practice. To what extent can the left hand work toward economic and cultural integration while the right hand contends with issues like election interference and hostage diplomacy? Of course, Ottawa strives to balance the defence of Canadian values and interests with cooperation on a range of issues, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and nuclear proliferation. But as we deliberately move to “friendshore” our economy, Austin’s emphasis on relationship building reads like a vestige of a different era.
Despite the similarities between today’s politics and Austin’s career, global retrenchment and a more fragmented media and political ecosystem make his unlikely journey appear even more so in hindsight. Yet for all the changes Canada has endured, its fundamental challenges are lasting. To this point, he calls on William Faulkner’s adage that “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.” That commitment to learning from history is complemented by an earnest respect for the public good. At a time when lifelong political leaders are as often denigrated as celebrated, Jack Austin has made a compelling case for a commitment to service built around inclusion, social justice, and long-term nation building.
Jeff Costen worked for three cabinet ministers in Ontario’s most recent Liberal government. He is now a principal at Navigator Limited.