Few members of Canada’s political, economic, and cultural elite have not crossed paths with Tom d’Aquino over the past four decades. This is a man who simply knows everyone, as his easily readable memoir demonstrates. From the predictable titans of industry and power brokers of Bay Street to the less anticipated — Preston and Ernest Manning, Peter Lougheed, Beverley McLachlin, Peter Herrndorf, Marc Mayer, and Joe Clark, his former roommate — the cast of characters who pepper the pages of Private Power, Public Purpose is truly mind-boggling. International figures appear in an impressive number of cameos, including a French wine tycoon, several British peers, a clutch of Vatican cardinals, and George H. W. Bush: “I’m not in the habit, sir, of being awakened with morning coffee by the commander-in-chief!” Unsurprisingly, then, this book can be seen as further evidence of a thesis first outlined by the Carleton University sociologist John Porter more than fifty years ago: that Canada’s elites are a small but highly interconnected set of actors.
D’Aquino’s rise to membership in this select club is particularly noteworthy given his humble origins in an immigrant family in British Columbia. “Nelson was settled primarily by British immigrants and its population consisted mainly of people of European stock,” he writes. “The community was free of ethnic tensions, and I never sensed any form of discrimination linked to my Italian heritage.” Born in 1941, d’Aquino offers a strikingly similar origin story to the one outlined in another recent memoir, that of Jack Austin, the former Liberal cabinet minister, senator, and close confidant of Pierre Trudeau (see Jeff Costen’s review of Unlikely Insider in the September 2023 issue). But while both men’s careers provide positive proof of Canada’s vaunted ability to successfully integrate newcomers and offer merit-based opportunities, the similarities end there. Austin left his early legal and business ventures to pursue a long and successful career in Ottawa, while d’Aquino essentially did the opposite, abandoning politics, after a brief stint as a junior speech writer in the first prime ministerial office of Pierre Trudeau, for a lifetime in the corporate boardrooms of the nation.
Hence the key words in d’Aquino’s title are “private power.” Apart from the brief description of his early years and the concluding chapters on his philanthropic endeavours with cultural organizations, the author devotes his memoir to elaborating his concept of power and how he utilized it for “public purpose,” which, he explains, is “to act for the benefit of others and society as a whole.” But in the end, and despite his apparent belief to the contrary, it becomes clear that the second half of the book’s title actually means something else entirely.
Rather than serving the best interests of the general public, d’Aquino’s purpose with the Business Council on National Issues was to influence policy decisions in ways that benefited the business community and its interests. Before d’Aquino became president of the BCNI in early 1981, many executives were under the impression that access was synonymous with power. He offers a delightful anecdote about Canadian Pacific’s former CEO Ian Sinclair, who once defended “the old‑boy way of doing things” by challenging d’Aquino’s “revolutionary” ideas. “Hell, I can pick up the phone and call Pierre any time I want. Earle can do the same, including the minister of finance or the governor of the Bank of Canada” (with reference to Earle McLaughlin of the Royal Bank of Canada). D’Aquino had the awareness to point out that such calls rarely got CEOs anywhere — and to convince them that they could be stronger by speaking with one voice.
D’Aquino offers numerous examples of a unified approach to economic policy. At his urging, the business community participated in major economic policy debates more aggressively and more cohesively than in the past. It opposed the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ concerns with unemployment during the 1981 recession, for example, as well as the introduction of wage and price controls and the de-indexation of pensions. It vigorously supported the Mulroney government’s introduction of the goods and services tax and the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement of 1988. More recently, with its North American Security and Prosperity Initiative, it invited the greater integration of the Canadian economy into the larger North American economy through the reduction or elimination of border controls, regulatory regimes, and other “barriers to the movement of people and goods.”
But the “greatly enhanced role for Canadian business in the shaping of national public policy” did not stop there. Under d’Aquino’s influence, as he repeatedly emphasizes with quotes from his many memos and letters to corporate executives and politicians alike, the BCNI expanded its purpose to provide concerted advice to governments and decision makers on a wide range of other issues. This list is rather astonishing, at least for those who were unaware of such interventions at the time. Proposing major parliamentary reform and opposing the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol are just two positions that stand out. And, incidentally, the BCNI failed in its efforts in both cases.
What makes Private Power, Public Purpose truly fascinating and revealing is the way in which d’Aquino outlines his various “accomplishments” without any indication that he is aware that many of these initiatives were not widely supported. Indeed, numerous positions taken by the BCNI at d’Aquino’s instigation were opposed by a majority of Canadians. The closest the author comes to recognizing that not everyone shared his perspective is his statement that “left-of-centre circles, including the New Democratic Party and organized labour,” were not enchanted with the idea of the BCNI. He also describes a three-hour meeting with Pierre Trudeau and several of his cabinet ministers, in 1982. “I did not sense that we were really getting through,” d’Aquino writes. “Warm greetings aside, the tensions at the meeting reflected the overall business-government chill that prevailed during the remainder of Trudeau’s time in office.”
D’Aquino enthusiastically recalls his efforts to thwart the Trudeau Liberal government’s National Energy Program, at one point saying the BCNI should become the “tribune of a counter-revolution in economic thinking.” This was necessary because, after 1974, “the Trudeau government lurched leftwards and embraced a nationalist and interventionist agenda.” Ironically, given his repeated claims of non-partisanship, the BCNI was successful only once Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government came to office in 1984. As a matter of fact, d’Aquino’s various “successful” initiatives were almost all accomplished under Conservative governments.
Readers who opposed the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords may be surprised by d’Aquino’s description of the BCNI’s support for them as among the “milestones marking the Business Council’s engagement in Canada’s constitutional affairs.” Amazingly, he doesn’t seem to recognize either the fatal flaws in the two documents or the pivotal role played by Mulroney in their defeat. Instead, he attacks the interventions of Trudeau, who by then was out of office. Yet, years later, d’Aquino made his own direct interventions when promoting what came to be known as the Calgary Declaration, a document forced upon the Chrétien government by the premiers after the close result in the 1995 Quebec referendum. That declaration led to the Social Union Framework Agreement of 1999, which many experts consider dysfunctional. D’Aquino’s perspective on such developments is clearly reflected in the chapter title “Fighting for National Unity.” Modestly, he concludes, “I believe we did our part to help save a country that in our view was too good to lose.”
In the end, this is inevitably a one-sided account of an important period in modern Canadian history. For those in the business community or the many who find themselves identified in unfailingly flattering terms within its pages, it will be a pleasant and diverting walk down memory lane (apart from Trudeau and Lucien Bouchard, the former premier of Quebec, d’Aquino is assiduous in his determination to say nothing negative about anyone). For those whom d’Aquino would describe as left-of-centre progressives, on the other hand, this book may divulge far more than the author intended — and not in a constructive way. As d’Aquino himself recognizes, the business community in Canada and abroad is currently the target of widespread mistrust and enmity. Private Power, Public Purpose may serve to throw fuel on the fire.