A Time for Leadership

L. Ian MacDonald

February 20, 2020

The quote of the week definitely goes to Justin Trudeau, delivered after the railway blockade forced cancellation of his Barbados visit.

During special statements by leaders at midday on Tuesday, Trudeau observed that “Patience may be in short supply, and that makes it more valuable than ever.” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, calling the protesters “radical activists” then asked: “Will our country be one of the rule of the law or one of the rule of the mob?”

When all the leaders were done, Trudeau left the House for a private meeting and briefing with opposition leaders, with the exception of Scheer, whom Trudeau pointedly did not invite.

“Mr. Scheer disqualified himself from constructive discussions,” Trudeau explained, “with his unacceptable speech from earlier today.”

There are two things Trudeau forgot. In a national crisis, such as the one unfolding this week, unity is the only policy worth pursuing. It’s all most Canadians want to see and hear from their elected officials.

As for Scheer’s “unacceptable speech” in the House, only one person gets to determine that—the Speaker of the House, who alone interprets the rules of order.

Scheer did cross the line of decency in branding Trudeau’s speech to the House “the weakest response to a national crisis in Canadian history.” But so what? He’s a lame duck leader, deposed by his own party, on his way out when his successor is chosen on June 27.

Though he’ll never run against Scheer again, Trudeau still can’t stop running against Stephen Harper, whom he defeated five years ago.

“We have seen this approach through 10 years of Stephen Harper that did not get projects built, because they believed in picking and choosing who spoke for whom.” Trudeau said later Tuesday in question period.

You can say what you like about Harper, but in this case Trudeau’s facts were inconveniently wrong.

It was, after all, Harper as prime minister who famously apologized in the House in June 2008 on behalf of Canadian governments for the historic scandal of residential schools separating Indigenous children from their families.

In the presence of regalia-clad chiefs sitting in the bipartisan aisle of the House, Harper declared: “The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry.”

He then appointed the landmark Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which submitted its 94 recommendations just months before his defeat in 2015. Perry Bellegarde, by then National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, took Harper to task for failing to endorse, much less implement, the TRC report.

Even so, Bellegarde graciously referred back to Harper’s 2008 speech as “a shining moment.”

Everyone knows that attacking Harper during the four years after he left office, then running against him in the 2019 election, worked well for the Liberals.

But there’s a time, such as the one the other day, when it’s not only bad form, but beyond the bounds of political convention. There is a rule of collegiality that a sitting prime minister does not attack his predecessor, especially one he has defeated in an election. Trudeau can reflect on this any time he walks by the portraits of former PMs hanging in the foyer and members’ lobby of the new House premises in the West Block.

They all had defining moments as leaders, which the present crisis could still prove to be for Trudeau. Only the PM can lead the country out of the economic crisis and cultural divide in which it finds itself.

In the dispute over the $6.6 billion natural gas pipeline project in northern British Columbia, the divided home team are the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose it, and the elected councils and hereditary chiefs who support it. The dissident chiefs say they won’t talk to anyone but Trudeau, and not until the RCMP withdraws from the area.

Meanwhile, they won’t even give his ministers a meeting, and have travelled to eastern Ontario to thank the Mohawks who are blockading commercial CN service and VIA passenger trains.  Supply chains are being broken, people can’t get to where they’re going, while 450 CN workers and 1,000 VIA employees have been temporarily been laid off.  Canada is a trading nation whose reputation as a reliable partner is at stake, and is now rationing propane for home heating to its own people in Atlantic Canada in the dead of winter.

There’s a time for talk, and a time for leadership, on both sides, And we’re there now.

It’s an interesting and possibly historic coincidence that on the same day Trudeau’s leadership in the House was so weak, Quebec Premier François Legault met with Abel Bosum, Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Cree, to sign a new $4.7 billion agreement for the further economic development of Cree territory in northern Quebec, notably new rail connections to bring Cree products such as lithium from mines to markets. “The vision for this program came from us,” Chief Bosum said at the signing ceremony. “It represents our vision of sustainable development,” and is a “model of nation-to-nation governance.”

The Cree of northern Quebec are one of Canada’s Aboriginal social and economic success stories, dating from Chief Billy Diamond, then in his 20s, signing the James Bay Northern Quebec  Agreement with Robert Bourassa in the fall of 1975.

It was an historic moment that enabled Bourassa to build his “Project of the Century”, the great hydro-electric dams of James Bay, with the Cree as partners rather than opponents. Diamond himself became a business leader who founded and owned Air Creebec. And the Cree entrepreneurial spirit flourishes to this day.

No one who was there in the premier’s Montreal office for the signing ceremony that day will ever forget it, and the sense they were witnessing an historic moment.

Succeeding generations have the vision and statesmanship of two leaders, Billy Diamond and Robert Bourassa, to thank for that.

L. Ian MacDonald is Editor and Publisher of Policy Magazine.