M. Pelletier breaks his silence


Gilbert Lavoie’s week-long series of excerpts from his twilight interviews with Jean Pelletier continue to provide fascinating headlines in Le Soleil. The former Quebec City mayor and Jean Chrétien chief of staff always loved to talk, it’s just that during most of his years in Ottawa he was selective about who he’d talk to.  So there’s an element of surprise in much of what he told Lavoie. Not that what Pelletier says should be taken as gospel, and indeed just about the only thing missing from Lavoie’s yeoman work is some attempt to put Pelletier’s assertions into context and to test them against the recollections of contemporaries. Still, fun. Highlights:

• Pelletier says Chrétien was a year away from developing a high-speed rail line between Quebec City and Toronto that would have been financed through the sale of Petro-Can shares. But the whole thing was sidelined by Paul Martin, “who was always a bus guy.”

• Pelletier calls Martin a nasty word for firing Pelletier from Via during the sponsorship unpleasantness.

• Pelletier says he supported the Meech Lake accord (he didn’t start working for Chrétien until after its collapse) and he wrote Chrétien a long personal letter explaining his disappointment with the death of Meech. Chrétien read it and discussed it with Pelletier, but it “didn’t change his mind.”

And now there’s more. In today’s installment, Pelletier repeats a claim the Chrétien camp has been making lately: that the Clarity Act was Chrétien’s idea, not Stéphane Dion, and that in fact Dion resisted the idea at first before rallying like, in Pelletier’s words, “a good soldier.” Perhaps even more interesting, Pelletier says he and Dion travelled to Quebec City twice in 1999 to try to persuade Jean Charest to “lead the charge” on Clarity — a passage that demands further explanation, because the Clarity Act as written bound the federal government, not Quebec’s National Assembly, so it’s unclear what Charest’s role would have been. But all of this makes it worthwhile, perhaps, to dig out some personal memories to put the events of the late 1990s into some perspective.

  • A lot of the intellectual work on clarity predates Dion’s arrival in politics. Indeed, it predates the 1995 referendum. Sources include the Reform party’s 20/20 legislation, written by Stephen Harper and (the Reform staffer) Scott Reid (not the Liberal), which proposed overhauling the division of powers while threatening tough consequences for a secession attempt; the writing of William Johnson and other members of the foundering Cité Libre group (Trudeau nostalgists, arch-federalist) around Max and Monique Nemni; and a few roads the federal Liberals peered down but decided not to travel. I was at the Cité Libre dinner in 1994 where Allan Rock, as Justice Minister trying to grab a little Trudeau-ite lustre for a future leadership bid, admitted that a unilateral Quebec declaration of independence would have no legal basis, but called such considerations “a technical detail.”
  • Somewhere there’s a piece I wrote for the National Post within a few days of Dec. 1, 1999, tracing Chrétien’s actions from the referendum until the then-looming arrival of the Clarity Act. There’s a clear line of action from a speech he gave in Toronto, just a couple of days after the referendum, to Clarity. Chrétien tells the Toronto crowd he will “never” let another referendum on a fuzzy question happen again. Many at the time wondered whether he would ban referendums outright. He appoints Marcel Massé to come up with proposals for post-referendum strategy, on a very tight deadline — five weeks, I believe. Massé is soon joined by Allan Rock, who has decided legal questions around secession can no longer be a “technical detail.” Under Rock, the Justice Department intervenes in a Quebec Superior Court case on secession’s legality, then puts a secession reference to the Supreme Court. (Anne McLellan replaces Rock at Justice soon after the reference is launched.) When Dion joins cabinet at the beginning of 1996, he becomes part of a strategy group with Massé and Rock called the G-3. Later Lloyd Axworthy and Sheila Copps are added and it becomes a G-5. Massé revealed his strategy report at the Gomery hearings; every element was substantially in place by the time Dion joined cabinet.
  • Dion’s role from 1996-1999 is largely rhetorical. Which is far from saying it was insignificant. He was the pitch man — incredible but true — for a federal role in Quebec, and for the proposition that secession would entail difficulties its advocates refused to acknowledge. He does this with an endless series of speeches and his open letters to Lucien Bouchard, Jacques Brassard, Bernard Landry and even Claude Ryan. The legal stuff is handled, well, by Rock, and shakily by McLellan. The court’s ruling on the secession reference closely resembles the federal government’s factum. Lucien Bouchard, after promising for 18 months to reject the Supremes’ edicts as illegitimate, announces he’s delighted by their ruling. Chrétien pounces, with a triumphant news conference pointing out all the parts of the secession ruling that Bouchard didn’t embrace.
  • But even then there’s a lot of reluctance about “doing the rules.” The Chrétien cabinet, by and large, is certain that legislating some kind of federal response to the Court reference will cause a backlash. So is Lucien Bouchard’s cabinet. Joseph Facal, Bouchard’s intergovernmental minister, calls the National Post — something Facal never did before or since — and summons a scribe to Montreal so Facal can announce that the Quebec government won’t be bound by anything in the Court reference. It’s a clear attempt to goad the Chrétienites, and it works a charm. Dion tables Clarity within weeks afterward.
  • I’ve never known whether Dion was ahead, behind or right beside Chrétien during all this. But the line from 1995 to 1999 is pretty straight, and includes clear statements by Chrétien and actions by his ministers before Dion arrives in Ottawa. In his autobiography, Chrétien says Dion agreed with him on the substance but thought it was too early to legislate; Dion wanted to prepare public opinion some more first. In his own autobiography, Paul Martin says he didn’t want legislation but that when it became public he supported it. This passage in Martin’s book is refreshing because it actually squares with publicly available evidence.
  • Charest is an interesting case. He certainly hated the Clarity Act, came out and held a news conference against it within hours of its introduction. To this day his government continues to defend Bouchard and Facal’s silly riposte, Bill 99, in court. Yet I’ve noticed he never badmouthed Dion personally. And there was indeed early speculation about trying to get the Quebec Liberals onside.
  • Recall that, as Pelletier mentioned in his last interviews, the Court reference calls on “political actors” to decide whether a question or result was sufficiently clear. Indeed Claude Ryan, from the majestic seclusion of retirement, had declared that he found the vagueness of the 1995 question disappointing and wasn’t sure what he would have made of a narrow Yes victory. But Charest was dead set against any federal intervention in setting the terms. Well then: if “political actors” had a role in determining the question’s clarity; and Quebec federalists didn’t think the rest of Canada had a role to play; then, I argued in a Post column, Quebec federalists, led by Charest, should take the lead, by tabling the wording of an acceptable question in the National Assembly. Bouchard would have been furious but helpless. At the time I heard, very much through the grapevine, that my suggestion had caught the attention of one person close to Chrétien. Pelletier’s interview suggests some version of the same argument made its way to Charest, twice, before Clarity was tabled. It’s no surprise that Charest said no. His is the classic Quebec federalist stance: he prays that the PQ won’t ever hold a referendum and frets when they write the rulebook to their advantage, but he refuses to do anything that might act as a counterweight.

Anyway, all of this is moot. The Quebec secession debate lies dormant, for now. If it thaws, it will be under different actors and in different circumstances. Pelletier’s interview serves as a reminder that nothing definitive about 1995 has yet been written on the federalist side.

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M. Pelletier breaks his silence

  1. “Pelletier’s interview serves as a reminder that nothing definitive about 1995 has yet been written on the federalist side.”

    Do you think someone will ever write it? And if so, who would it be?

  2. From Jean Pelletier’s final interview (H/T Norman’s Spectator):

    “Q The father of the Clarity Act, was it Stéphane Dion?

    A The Clarity Act was Jean Chrétien’s idea. I don’t want to minimize the role of Dion, but in the beginning, he was was not in favour of it. In fact, when the Act was brought to cabinet, there was only one vote in favour, and it was Jean Chrétien. Everyone else was against or unsure, including Dion. …”

    So it turns out that Dion was initially against the Clarity Act, in other words, a follower, not a leader, even on this dossier. All these years, he got way to much credit for this idea.

    How did Dion, once a separatist, become a federalist? He was talked out of being a separatist while doing door-to-door canvassing FOR THE PQ. From Dion’s wikipedia entry:

    “Dion has said that his involvement as “an activist for the separatist cause” ended during a five-hour discussion with a federalist household while he was going door-to-door for the PQ,…”

    Is it any wonder he was a consummate disaster as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada? He was a follower, not a leader.

    • wasn’t his father Leon Dion? A separatist academic?

      • Seriously not a separatist.

        • PW
          My credibility ‘s shot, i missed the absence of a ? Still my other post covers my butt, partially at least.

      • Yes, his father was Leon Dion, an academic. However, he was not separatist.

        • Thankyou- i knew there was a good chance part of that was wrong.

          • Can you two make up your mind. My credibility’s at stake.

          • No problem. I think perhaps what may have confused you is Dion Sr.s advocation of the use of separatism as a ‘knife at the throat’ to wring more powers for Qc out of the federal government.

    • “So it turns out that Dion was initially against the Clarity Act, in other words, a follower, not a leader, even on this dossier.So it turns out that Dion was initially against the Clarity Act, in other words, a follower, not a leader, even on this dossier.
      Is it any wonder he was a consummate disaster as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada? He was a follower, not a leader.”

      You’re still reading from the Cons’ OLD playbook about that leadership tripe. Get over it man!

      • I’ll move on Baloneyguy, but my point was simply that, contrary to what Dion and his dwindling fan base maintain, it wasn’t the Conservative negative ads that did Dion in, it was very much Dion’s own doing and these historical anecdotes were good predictors of Dion’s unfortunate reign.

        • So those adds wer’n’t comtemptable?

          • Nope. The pooping puffin ad and the poopy-puffin-braintrust were only making perfectly legitimate points. Hey, when your peddling a second rate government, attack the man, not the ball.

          • In the 2000 federal election, Warren Kinsella, LIberal Party of Canada spin doctor, openly mocked a man’s religion, which is contemptible. The liberal press thought it was hilarious and piled on. When their man is being pilloried by the opposition all of sudden the media find that negative advertising is bad. Paul Martin ran scare-mongering and unconsiounable ads in both the 2004 and 2006 campaigns with nary a word of criticism from the press. I guess the Cons have read Kinsella’s “The War Room” and have learned on how the game is played by watching the Libs.

            By the way who did Michael Ignatieff hire to run his war room in the next election, indeed one of his first hires as it were?

            Why. none other than Warren Kinsella.

          • Jarrid – if yr talking about S.Day, hilarious just about descibes it. I thought the martin tactics would back fire, they have. The anti – Dion adds ran uotside the writ for a lenghy period – contemptible

  3. This passage in Martin’s book is refreshing because it actually squares with publicly available evidence. So, Paul, stop beating around the bush, how did you like Martin’s book?

    Very nice piece, and thanks for the link to the Soleil work.

  4. Clearly no love lost between these two Liberals, here’s Pelletier on Martin:

    “I have nothing but contempt for him. And, you know, in the Robert dictionary, there’s a word for a contemptible man—bastard. And, in my book, Paul Martin will always be a bastard.”

    He also calls him a liar for good measure during the course of the interview. (H/T Norman’s Spectator)

  5. I have always thought Clarity Act, while nice for us federalists, a complete waste of time because why would a bunch of people who are ready to separate give a toss about rules cooked up by the country they are leaving. If Quebecers decide to separate one day, will not meeting all the obligations of the Clarity Act going to stop them? I don’t think so.

    It also seems likely that if Chretien was really keen to build high-speed rail, opposition from Martin and his apparent love of Greyhound not withstanding, nothing would have stopped him from implementing his vision. But what do I know.

    • jwl, the Clarity Act only defined future federal government behaviour in negotiating any possible provincial secession, I believe. And since the only province to have recently contemplated it has always suggested it would be a negotiated breakup, well, it does matter.

      • I thought the Clarity Act says something about the wording of the question in any referendum, that it has to be ‘unambiguous’ or somesuch, and that there has to be a clear majority of votes in favour of separation, not just 50% + 1.

        All I know is that if separatists were serious about leaving, they would declare sovereignty the day after they won a provincial election and they wouldn’t be worried about what the ROC thought.

        • It does say those things, but those things are the prerequisites for federal recognition that they must negotiate with the democratically-renegade province.

          • In other words no sov association or anything without the consent of the ROC.

  6. “Pelletier’s interview suggests some version of the same argument made its way to Charest, twice, before Clarity was tabled. It’s no surprise that Charest said no. His is the classic Quebec federalist stance: he prays that the PQ won’t ever hold a referendum and frets when they write the rulebook to their advantage, but he refuses to do anything that might act as a counterweight.”

    The thing with Quebec federalist is, they can’t just slip away out of the Quebec public spotlight if things go bad. So if they go out with, say, a proposal for a question, they have to stand by it for the rest of their career. If it’s a disaster, if the PQ find a way to turn it against them, they are in trouble, and for some time. It’s one thing for Allan Rock (or Stephen Harper!) to go out and make bold statements, it’s a whole other deal for Jean Charest.

    The rules of the game aren’t the same on the provincial and federal level. Bouchard learned it the hard way, Charest too. It probably held Duceppe away from the PQ, too.

    But you guys knew that, right?

    • That’s a point.

  7. PW
    I’m confused on one small pt . Above you say Pelletier wrote to Chretien about his view of Meech, Chretien read it but didn’t change “his mind.” Who is the his referring too. I think Chretien favoured Meech and even engaged in some arguement with Trudeau at the time. [ definitely against]. Or is the his referring to Pelletier? Forgive the nit-picking.

    • kc, the “his” refers to Chrétien. I think it’s more accurate to say that Chrétien was broadly against Meech all the way through, but that there was more ambivalence in some of the people around him, especially Eddie Goldenberg. So Chrétien took heat from Meech supporters for supporting its demise — and also from Trudeau loyalists because Eddie and others sought to save it at the end. Don’t worry about being confused; it was a confusing time, and I’m reporting it second-hand because I wasn’t yet a political reporter so I may get nuances wrong.

      • Thanks Paul
        It certainly was a confusing time. I do seem to remember Chretien [ in his book] saying he was himself ambivalent re: Meech[ who wasn’t?] to the extent of arguing his case with Trudeau, without success i imagine. Not a biggie. i was a little surprised to see it in print. Anyway it’s more likely to be my faulty memory than his or yours.

  8. “Pelletier says Chrétien was a year away from developing a high-speed rail line between Quebec City and Toronto that would have been financed through the sale of Petro-Can shares.”

    Chretien always suffered a bit from Napoleonic delusions of grandeur. Remember his plan to tear down many blocks of historical buildings in central Bytown so he could build a grand boulevard leading up to his palace at the top of Parliament Hill?

    Perhaps he got the idea of de-luxe government trains from his hero P.E.T., who waxed poetical about how high speed choo-choos would whisk people up from Boston and New York to board government airplanes at his Taj-Mirabel aerodrome.

    The current gang occupying the palace will start coming up with loony megaprojects soon. Guys like that, with no scruples, no particular intelligence or abilities but with fantasies of power (politicians in other words) will want to leave behind a legacy a little bit more shiny and substantial looking than the smoking money pits of all the bankrupt companies they’re going to be bailing out.

    • Yes! High speed trains stopping in major centres such as Windsor, Toronto, Peterborough and Quebec

      …and choccies for all.

      • When I think major centre I do think Peterborough. Along with North Haverbrook and Ogdenville.

  9. This guy sure seems upset about the loss of his choo choo train. Why is this news now anyway, other than he just died? Paul Martin made three big decisions in his first week as PM, and they were amply covered in the news at the time. He split CCRA apart into the CBSA and the CRA (Customs and Revenue should have been split 60 years ago). He canceled the Sponsorship program, and he canceled Chretien’s train. I remember it well because I agreed heartily with all three of those decisions. (It’s amazing how quickly things went downhill after that – I cannot think of a single subsequent decision by Dithers that made any sense.)

  10. I think the direction in which you are going gives a bit more cohesiveness to Dion’s history. He supported Meech and the Quebec Nation. How did the Clarity Act fit into that, unless it wasn’t his idea? However, the same could be said for many Quebec federalists.

    I think you might be in too much of a rush to re-examine our understanding of Dion. Many of us wonder how things turned out as they did, but the answer is not necessarily to start from the presumption that we began with the wrong understanding of the man in 2006. I think we are better to look at management style than anything else.

    Whether or not Dion came up with the Clarity Act, there is no doubt that he is the guy who ran with it and took the rat cartoons without blinking.

    • This makes a lot of sense. In fact, Dion has shown himself to be so much of a leader that he had to step down twice.
      You know, I’d read that the Coalition was Layton’s idea, but I think it more likely that Dion used his Ben Linus-esque powers of suggestion to implant the idea in Layton’s mind, so that Layton would THINK it was his idea.

  11. Dion’s only political success story was the Clarity Act. His legacy as Environment Minister is a bit of a dud, with lots of of lofty rhetoric about Kyoto, and lots of “symbolic” (but not actual) policy changes that did absolutely nothing to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, which increased from __ to __ per annum during Dion’s tenure. His record as leader of the Natural Governing Party was so pitiful that he is now almost universally regarded as one of the greatest failures in Canadian political history.

    And now, to add insult to grievous injury, the ghost of Pelletier alleges that Dion played only a minor role in engineering the clarity act, implying that Dion’s primary role was as the “fall guy” for the Act: the minister who was sent out to be ruthlessly pilloried and caricaturized by Quebec’s media (and the 20% of the Quebecois population who actually care about such things).

  12. Harper definitely tabled the Quebec Contingency Act in the House in 1996 (Bill C-341). It dealt with the consideration of the ambiguity or clarity of the question asked in a referendum on secession of Quebec from Canada. It proposed that a federal referendum be held concurrent to a Quebec referendum on the issue of partition, and more.

    Dion is a rare politician in that he writes his own texts and a lot (most?) of his speeches. He is likely to write his memoirs – himself. It would be an interesting read.

    Paul Wells mentions the name of Marcel Massé. Now here is THE man of that administration. He was not a flamboyant politician and remains unknown to most Canadians but IMO he was the most influential politician in Ottawa of that decade.

    BTW. Dion did some door-to-door for the PQ when he was in his early twenties. Diane Ablonczy was a member of the Western Canada Concept., also a separatist movement. I won’t hold my breath until I hear Conservatives supporters asking for Ablonczy to step down…

  13. On another note, I’m amazed how many commenters here seem to have forgotten that Dion is no longer Liberal leader. You can stop the attacks now and move on.

    • Be specific, you gutless wonder.

  14. Thank you Loraine – I also was under the impression that Harper had kick started the Clarity Act. The Liberals mishandled the Quebec referendum so badly they were scrambling to put anything together.

  15. I like Pelletier’s little grenade in the Rideau!
    Clearly – from the comments about Martin – he had a deathbed wish to nail that one down once for all!
    Interestingly – he sounds as if he was attempting to put Cretien up in the same stratosphere as Trudeau..while I admire much about Cretien – especially the “Straight from the Heart” version that existed before the handlers shut him down (well – until Gomery) – I don’t rank his achievements in the same league as Trudeau’s – just a quantum jump above Martin’s!
    So PW – are you planning to ghost write Chuck Guite’s memoires?

    • Those wonderful golf balls. How could you fail to love the man.? Well, perhaps not everyone.

  16. Banquo, anyone?

  17. On a serious note, it makes me think that the Chrétien cabinet and PMO was really a team effort — in stark contrast to the current Kremlinesque versions. You had grand old Shawiniganian (Shawiniganois?) King Arthur and umpteen knights: Goldenberg, Pelletier, and young Sir Stéphane. That the Clarity Act may have been a Chrétien initiative doesn’t detract from Sir Stéphane’s victorious combat with the separatist gremlins, it just means his steed was saddled for him; and he may have had the help of loyal squires in the formulating of his arguments, but ultimately the Minister takes responsibility, for better and for worse in Sir Stéphane’s case. History will couple his name with the Clarity Act, and that’s not nothing.

  18. I think we would be wise to accept a dying man’s version of events here: Dion was not initially in favour of the Clarity Act but was subsequently brought onside. He certainly wasn’t the genius behind it.

    In any case his co-operation with Gilles Duceppe and his plan to accept to govern in open consultation with the separatist Bloc Quebecois is the worst betrayal of a federal Liberal Party leader in that party’s history and irreparably tarnishes his role in helping to defend the Clarity Act.

    • You are seriously deranged, Your inchoate anger and your biliousness is off the charts.

      Seek help, you anti-social psychopath.

    • I disagree with your conclusion, MJM. Harper kick-started the Clarity Act but it was so hastily and badly put together that it took the Liberals including Dion almost four years to get something right on the table. I suspect that iw why Dion was initially against – he was against the Contingency Act.