It was a strange scene on Calgary’s Electric Avenue: gangs of Liberals, mostly young and virtually all inebriated, more Liberals at one time than Calgary had seen before or likely since, and most of them happily oblivious to the black arm bands they sported. Twenty years ago, on the eve of St-Jean Baptiste Day, in Quebec City’s twin city, the Liberal Party of Canada elected Jean Chrétien as its new Leader and the Meech Lake Accord was laid to rest.
I was National Director of the Liberal Party at the time and had been the chief convention organizer. Truth is the logistical organization of the Convention and process itself was a lot easier to post-mortem than the politics and its long-term impacts. To be frank, I’m not sure that the “lessons learned” from that period have been overly positive ones for the Party, or the country, or democracy in general for that matter.
A little more than a year before this, John Turner had signalled his intention to resign as Party Leader having weathered two electoral defeats, a fractious and contentious leadership “review”, public scuffles over his leadership with Party President Michel Robert, an attempted mid-election “coup” and divisions amongst his caucus and between his caucus and party grassroots over the principle-based issues of free trade and the Meech Lake Accord.
As the Party Executive prepared to meet on June 16, 1989 to consider how to proceed, much of the die had already been cast. The Party already had a constitutionally-overdue Biennial (policy) Convention slated for that fall in Calgary at which, incidentally another leadership review was required. Years later, following more and equally contentious “reviews” the Party changed its process to allow for “Leader endorsement votes” to be held only after a losing election. Calgary was deemed a strategically important venue in the Party’s efforts to increase its presence in an increasingly influential, resource-, economically-, and vote-rich province. With the country’s attention fixed on Quebec and tensions surrounding the Accord, a Liberal Convention in the heart of the West would send a positive message to the rest of the country. Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin Jr., the main putative contenders, were both seen as supportive of maintaining Calgary as the venue for these and obviously other political reasons.
Much like the scene on Electric Avenue, the meeting had a surreal element to it. Staff scrambled to find seats for the full house of voting members in attendance, many of whom had not previously either attended or voted; the balance tipped in favour of supporters of Mr. Martin (and Mr. Turner). It was obvious to a blind man that a Leadership Convention in Calgary would cost the Party, which was already in financial difficulty, candidates, and delegates alike significantly more. Never mind, it was strategically important. It was also prevailing wisdom was that a shorter leadership campaign would favour the perceived frontrunner, and that (any) other candidates would benefit by more time to become known and to sign-up supporters and delegates. Holding one Convention only and putting the timing off further would be a further breach of the Party’s Constitution and give short shrift to policy development. Never mind, the public didn’t care about such things and a new Leader would deliver a policy agenda.
The only logistically feasible available dates in Calgary for the mounting of a Convention of this size were June 18-25, 1990 and when Quebec Party President and known Martin supporter, Francis Fox vehemently pointed out the folly in securing a date that could see the actual vote occur on the exact deadline for the approval of the Meech Lake Accord – June 23, 1990 – there was understanding, but, never mind, it was inconceivable that the process would run the full course, and we’ll create a “Meech Lake Strategy” Committee to deal with it just in case. It was far from as cavalier as that, and in the end the decision was made without a recorded resolution; we just sent out a little puff of consensual smoke.
Shortly after the decision to put off the Convention, we began to hear rumours that Mr. Turner, having expecting that the originally planned October Convention would be turned into a Leadership would resign in November. This would place the Party in a bit of a pickle according to the Party’s legal advisors. The Party Constitution did not contemplate such circumstances and had no provisions for the selection of an interim Leader and the law required we have one. Only the Party assembled in Convention could make such a choice. The Caucus however, was free to choose whomever they wished to lead them in the House. The caucus chose Herb Grey to assume the legislative responsibilities of Leader and Mr. Turner retained responsibility with respect to Party, legal and electoral matters. It was in this capacity that Turner let it be known that he considered the appointment of Party President, Michel Robert as Convention Co-Chair, an unnecessary “slap in the face”.
There were several other issues for the Executive to decide, many which presaged further and ongoing debate and discussion in both party and nation. We decided to allow leadership candidates the use of the “tax credit” for donations under certain circumstances; and instituted some basic transparency through limited disclosure of donations and donors. We made attempts to standardize procedures and regulations in an effort to clean up the notoriously hideous process of signing up “instant members” and the obscene amounts of money circulating “outside of the system”. It would not be until 2003 when then outgoing Leader Chrétien would make changes to the Canada Elections Act to govern both leadership and nomination races and recognize in law the concept of party membership. In 2009 the Party finally instituted a national membership.
There had also been some unfortunate long-standing delays regarding the formal recognition of Aboriginal People’s within the structures of the Party formally and the Liberal family informally. This was an area of both personal and political concern of long-standing for candidate Chrétien. The putting off of the convention would once again thwart such efforts which included an intricate proposal for equitable involvement in what was deemed to be the most important decision possible – the choice of a Leader.
Problem was the proposal, out of desperate necessity, would involve the consideration in the opening sessions of the Convention itself of what would be in effect, “retroactive” amendments to the Party’s constitution. According to a complicated formula, based on relative Aboriginal populations by province, territory and riding, delegates of statutorily-defined Aboriginal heritage would be elected as “contingent” delegates. If the Convention voted to amend the constitution at its opening plenary (as it eventually did) these delegates (200) would be upgraded to full delegate status.
Already aggrieved on the issue of convention timing, the Co-Chairs of the Party’s Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee, resigned. The Party executive promptly decided to include another set of “contingent delegate” – the non-elected, appointed members of the Party Executive, its Revenue Committee and Senators, all of whom had been stripped of their automatic delegate status at the previous convention.
Given the length of time before the Convention, the Party wisely decided to hold six “Leadership Forums” across the land beginning in January in Toronto, moving through Yellowknife, Halifax, Winnipeg and Vancouver before delegate selection closed and to Montreal, the largest venue at 3000 participants in early June. These for-the-most-part highly successful, full-day deliberative forums arrived on the scene as Canada launched its first 24-hour cable news channel, CBC Newsworld, and as a result these debates, and the Convention itself later in the year, were for the first carried live, gavel-to-gavel. Leadership candidate and former Quebec Environment Minister Clifford Lincoln, withdrew from the race shortly after the first Forum so that he could run in a recently called by-election in Chambly. A rally was being organized for early February. I was informed by a party organizer that Martin and fellow leadership candidate Sheila Copps, both “Meech supporters” were welcome to attend. Mr. Chrétien, however was not.
While the country was watching this unfold, Chrétien, not so quietly, was sewing the Leadership up, Meech or no Meech, debates or not. Historical connections and the advantages accorded those with years of service and notoriety in Government and the Party, combined with access to formidable funding and a lame Canada Elections Act, helped as much as Chrétien’s popular nature. By the time delegate selection began in March, it was well known that according to (unverifiable) membership sales, Chrétien would likely have a first ballot victory in June. The Party was preparing to unite behind a new Leader, but the Meech Lake Accord would continue to divide.
Francis Fox proved prescient. Not only did the Convention vote ultimately coincide with the Meech deadline, but the last Leadership Forum held in Montreal occurred, in a rather dramatic fashion on June 10, during the same weekend as last-minute and mammoth negotiations to save the Accord, involving three new Premiers, including Newfoundland Liberal, Clyde Wells a former constitutional lawyer viewed as an Accord opponent who had quickly assumed iconic status with respect to this national debate. Scads of Martin’s supporters, many from out of province, joined with Quebec MP, Jean Lapierre in pillorying Chrétien for being out of touch with Québecers with shouts of “vendu” (sellout). It was a nasty scene and a furious Robert had to intervene a scant 8 days before the commencement of the Convention. The shouting squad moved on to Ottawa and Clyde Wells, the next day.
Each morning and each evening during the convention my staff and I would meet with the representatives of the candidates, Mr. Turner and other party notables. On the morning of June 22, with the rest of the nation fixated on the Accord’s pending demise that very day, Turner’s representatives began to express concerns about how the denouement on stage would unfold the following day, particularly with respect to who might be joining him as outgoing Leader and what that would say to the Party and the nation.
That evening, as the Leadership candidates’ speeches took place on stage, some of Mr. Martin’s supporters solemnly sported black arm bands to mark The Accord’s passing. Clyde Wells, arriving after the close of registration, greeted Chrétien with a widely publicized smile and embrace.
At the morning meeting the following day, June 23, the day of the leadership vote, we continued our negotiations with Mr. Turner. A bit later in the day, but before the balloting and results of Leadership vote itself, the Party was ready to announce its new executive. Don Johnston, a former Trudeau and Turner cabinet minister, who had resigned from the caucus to sit as an “independent Liberal” in 1988 over free trade and the Meech Lake Accord had just been elected Party President. I’m not a large person and cell-phone technology at the time was not designed for convenience. My phone, about as large as me, rang immediately. As we met for the first time, behind the stage in the centre of the Saddledome, Mr. Johnston asked me how the announcement of the Leadership vote would proceed. “Well, Mr. Johnston”, I said, “we’re not sure about that. Perhaps you could bear with me for a bit.”
As the results of the first and only ballot were read confirming Jean Chrétien as the Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, two Quebec Liberal MPs, Jean Lapierre and Gilles Rocheleau, sporting their black arm bands announced they were leaving the Party. The other candidates, Pierre Trudeau, Herb Gray, Michel Robert and Don Johnston joined Mr. Turner on stage in welcoming the Party’s new Leader.
Calgary’s Electric Avenue is now known as the Red Mile. Coincidence? I think so.