Slippery Slopes

It was a tough winter for farmers in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Heavy snowfall combined with frigid temperatures forced many to move their cattle inside. Then, unexpectedly, a deep and sudden …

It was a tough winter for farmers in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Heavy snowfall combined with frigid temperatures forced many to move their cattle inside. Then, unexpectedly, a deep and sudden thaw caused rivers and streams to overflow their banks, surrounding lowland barns with water. High water can be hell on earth, especially in calving season.

Our visit to the family homestead in the region, with children and friends jammed into cars, praying for good skiing, coincided with Prime Minister Paul Martin’s tour of Quebec, with handlers and strategists crammed into hotel rooms and, presumably, praying for a warm reception.

Carefully calculated to show the man in full, in charge, and unafraid, the tour had Martin promising reform, an end to cronyism, and a thorough airing of the scandal over the $100 million of public money that had vanished into a sponsorship program designed to keep the Canadian flag flying in Quebec. On March 17, Martin delivered his core message to the Quebec City Chamber of Commerce: “Nothing is more important than integrity,” he thundered, “integrity of the individual, integrity of government. . . . We’re going to change the way Ottawa works. And we are going to do it, come hell or high water.”

Brave, if clichéd, words from a man who, almost from the moment he took the oath of office last December, has had to face a grave and gathering storm of trouble. Everywhere he turned, he found demons – often, it seemed, of his own making. One of his first acts as prime minister was to cancel the very sponsorship program that blew up less than two months later. Then there were the ham-handed attempts to sideline Liberals close to the former prime minister, Jean Chétien, most memorably during the fraught nomination process that left Martin’s sole rival for the leadership, Sheila Copps, out in the cold and fuming.

And more old spectres were returning to embarrass him. The former Minister of Public Works, Alfonso Gagliano, exiled to Denmark when the sponsorship scandal first broke more than two years ago, was back in Ottawa. But instead of falling on his sword like a good centurion, Gagliano continued to protest his innocence.

Worse still, the excuses Gagliano offered to the Parliamentary committee investigating the affair echoed those of his new prime minister: that he hadn’t known about the massive cash transfers to pro-Liberal advertising firms in Quebec; that he had been a busy man, dealing with the big picture, not the minutiae.

Perhaps more ominously, buried just beneath the sponsorship imbroglio lay the issue of the $161 million in federal contracts and grants doled out to Canada Steamship Lines and its subsidiaries while Martin was the company president and, for at least part of the time, finance minister.

In the lounge of a ski lodge on Mount Sutton, I overheard two clusters of canny Quebecers discussing politics, in each of our official languages. The group speaking French agreed that Martin’s stirring up of the sponsorship scandal, far from reassuring them that the federal government was in good hands at last, had only succeeded in making Quebecers look corrupt. The group conversing in English agreed that electorates must hold those in high office to high account, and that the key question to put to Mr. Martin was: “How much did you know and when did you know it?” Both groups felt that integrity would be a tough sell, especially since Martin’s list of leadership campaign contributors reads like a Who’s Who of big business in Canada. But the interlocutors diverged on Martin’s greatest problem: was it restoring integrity, or was it the creeping return of the country’s great bête noire, Quebec nationalism? The polls were already suggesting the Bloc Québécois would trounce the Liberals in Quebec in a federal election.

For the first time in many years, I felt the sting of the two solitudes. One way or another, under Chrétien, the influence of the Parti Québécois and its strange bedfellow, the Bloc Québécois, had faded; the Clarity Act was proclaimed, and Quebecers seemed content within the family. With the crisis behind us, I had felt comfortable again in the province of my birth. Now it seemed that even in the Eastern Townships, where the French and English have coexisted peacefully, nothing was clear any longer; that historical ghosts had once again begun to haunt our conversations, muddy our thinking, and drive some of us to consider other options.

If the polls were right – if a minority government were a real possibility and national unity once more became a serious issue – then, I thought, Martin might want to consider why his campaign, begun with so much promise, now appeared to have so little, and why, far from moving the country forward, he had managed only to return us to a place we thought we’d left behind.

Ken Alexander