This week, Maclean’s honoured Lloyd Axworthy with our Lifetime Achievement Award for a former parliamentarian. In recent years, the award has gone to the late Flora Macdonald, a Tory trailblazer for women in federal politics, and Peter Milliken, whose decade-long run as Speaker made him the longest-serving House referee.
Before accepting the award at a reception in Ottawa, Axworthy spoke about his Winnipeg roots, his influential run as a Liberal cabinet minister, and his return to his home city as a crusading University of Winnipeg president. Below, condensed and edited for clarity, is our interview with Axworthy:
Q: What was your childhood like?
A: I was born in North Battleford, Sask. Both my mom and dad were from Saskatchewan. My dad’s father homesteaded there and on my mother’s side they ran small stores in places like Melville and Bangor and Yorkton. But anyway, my dad had joined up and I was about ready to see the world, we were in North Battleford. I was born there on Dec. 21 in ’39. The family story goes that my dad came to see me and didn’t come back for six years.
So I was a wartime child. My mother went back to Winnipeg. It was an interesting time, while I don’t remember every scene of it, I do remember that my father and uncles were all overseas. I remember everyone gathered around the table and I was under it as a 3-year-old. I remember the siren would go and people would be reminded that the casualty lists were coming out and there was a kind of stillness in the air. It was living in a time, the question of the impact of the war on a family was with me for long time.
Q: Winnipeg was a place with a lot of interesting political ideas in the air at that time, some on the left, some church linked. When would you have first become conscious of that?
A: It probably happened most directly when my family moved to the North End, which has always been the entry point, a working class community. Ukrainian, Jewish, Polish. Being a WASP kid, it was the ultimate minority. So we learned to talk fast or run fast. But it was a terrific experience. I was playing baseball for COAC and we went to dances at Pozifo [?] I became very conscious quite early of different languages and food and girls and everything else.
Q: Was your family political?
A: Not directly. They were very active in the United Church. We had wonderful ministers. Roy Wilson and Lois Wilson—she eventually became the moderator of the United Church, very famous woman. When I got into Foreign Affairs she did some dangerous, tricky missions for me, like going to Sudan and places like that. Sunday night youth meetings were full of snap, crackle and pop. The United Church in Winnipeg at that time was still very much infected with the social gospel notion of Protestantism. You define yourself by what you do, how you live up to the gospel teachings. At a pretty young age, 13 or 14, I got involved in youth parliament, representing our church in the community. We debated issues like the nuclear weapons issue. I got to go to the UN model assemblies that the Rotary Club put on.
Q: How did you became a Liberal rather than a CCFer? Sounds like it could have tipped either way.
A: I can tell you. In Grade 11 we had a wonderful history teacher, and one day he announced that we were going down to the old Civic Auditorium to listen to a politician. On the stage was this sort of roly-poly guy with a bow tie and a bit of a lisp, who had just won the Nobel [Peace] Prize. Mike Pearson talked about what it was to be a Canadian. I walked out of that place really understanding for the first time who I was in terms of a political scene. It was certainly that talk by Mike Pearson that gave me some political formation. After that, I started reading the histories of Gladstone and Laurier and just became immersed in what it was to be a Liberal, but maybe a Liberal of the 1960s, not in the old, classic sense.
Q: You went to United College, which later became the University of Winnipeg. What was that like?
A: United College was then very much aligned with the United Church. It was very much driven by my parents and Roy and Lois Wilson—I would go to United College, there just wasn’t debate about it. There were not a lot of students that I had graduated with; there was still that major barrier, impediment to going on to higher education. I graduated with a class of maybe a hundred odd students and maybe four or five of us went on. That began to fuel my sense of inequality.
Q: North End kids didn’t go on to university in those days?
A: You worked for the CPR, went to work on other things. Friends of mine who were good students, it wasn’t part of a career path. I think there were also financial reasons.
Q: But for you, it was a good experience.
A: United College was a humming place. There was lots of debate. Lots of opportunities to get connected in. I was acquiring what you might call a current-affairs view of the world. I began to see myself going into political life. I’d always had an itch for it, but I began to see it as something I could do.
Q: How do you make the jump to Princeton University?
A: It’s like so many students. You owe your jumps to good teachers. In my case, I had a history prof named Homer Rutherford, who one day came to me and said, ‘How would you like to go to a U.S. college, like Princeton or something?’ I kind of looked at him. My career path was to be a criminal lawyer in the north end. I said, ‘What would that do?’ He said, ‘It would get you out of Winnipeg for a couple of years.’
Q: But how could you afford it?
A: I got a call from the principal’s office saying I was being interviewed by the Woodrow Wilson committee. These were the classic Ivy League guys I the tweed suits and button downs. At the time my dad had taken a job in Edmonton and I was living with my grandmother. Not exactly in the top rung. So I went around to friends and borrow a shirt, a jacket. The old thing I couldn’t replace were the old khaki chinos I wore every day. So I’m sitting down in front of these Ivy Leaguers, and the first question was, “Tell us why you’d like to go to Princeton.” And in a very suave manner, I threw one knee over the other, and my knee came out of my pants…
Q: But you do end up at Princeton.
A: And it was a terrific time to be there. The early part of the sixties. Civil rights and Vietnam. A very lively and active place. I got active in civil rights activities on campus, which was an eye-opener. Incredible experience. Ended up going into the Birmingham march. We drove down and joined in and there was Odetta and Harry Belafante and Martin Luther King Jr. It was one of those experiences.
Q: After Princeton, you return home to Winnipeg. How soon after that do you have a chance to get your feet wet in electoral politics?
A: I ran for the first time in St. James. They just needed a name. My nominating meeting was my family, the family dog and I think one cousin. But I got a little bit of a bite. In 1968, I ran against [NDP MP] Stanley Knowles in Winnipeg-North Centre. That was more of a serious campaign. We thought of ourselves as young Turks. We certainly didn’t beat him, but we came within a couple of thousand votes. I learned a lot of lessons. I liked campaigning. I liked going door to door.
Q: You must have felt you were truly on your way with the Liberal party then.
A: I got invited to go to Ottawa. I was John Turner’s special assistant. Went through the leadership campaign with John in 1968. I was part of that crew of 198 [Turner supporters at the leadership convention] that held out to the end, like the troops at Thermopylae. Nothing but good experiences. John Turner was a good man and a fair man. After ’68 was over, worked for Paul Hellyer and was part of the urban task force he set up. We traveled across the country looked at the federal role in cities, urban renewal and housing
Q: Which led you back to Winnipeg…
A: I was invited back to [University of Winnipeg] to head up the urban institute. That would be 1970. Then in 1972 I ran provincially and won. Then I had nine elections after that, which kind of gave me a string of 28 years.
Q: When was your first federal election win?
A: That was 1979. I still remember getting a call from Keith Davey. I had kind of been part of the Walter Gordon clan inside the Liberal party. Keith said, “You’re kind of 200th on the list.” I said, “Well, okay, maybe that’s Martin Goldfarb’s view, but I’m working on the ground here.” I was against Sidney Spivak, the former Conservative leader here and a very decent candidate. I was probably saved by a flood that came through here. I announced I was going to stop campaigning and go work on the dykes. Got my picture in the papers and kind of slipped through by about 600 votes.
Q: You had provincial government experience by that point, but you were new to Ottawa. Were you surprised that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau appointed you straight into cabinet?
A: I knew the odds were in my favour because there weren’t many Liberals from western Canada. What I didn’t know was the post I was going to get—Employment and Immigration. On reflection, in today’s world, I picked up what [former Conservative employment and immigration minister] Ron Atkey had just started on the boat people. Wonderful experience.
Q: Inspiring, I would guess.
A: Ron Atkey took me out for lunch—those were the days when Tories and Liberals would talk together—and he said, “You’ve got the defining of Canada in your hands. Immigration is going to shape us, one way or the other.” And it did. We tried to reform the refugee appeals system and got involved in a lot of international stuff. There was a concerted effort to allocate resettlement of the boat people. I can say one of the kicks you get after you retire is meeting up with people who along the way you helped. I remember, when I was still an MP, going to St. Mary’s Academy [a Winnipeg Catholic girls’ school] and meeting a young girl who had just won the top prize and was going off to study at Queen’s University, and her parents had come [as boat people], and she said they wanted to meet me. Every once in a while, you get a bit of a glow.
Q: Before we jump ahead, how do you remember Pierre Trudeau’s style as a leader?
A: I think the one thing that ran counter to a lot of the public impressions was that he was very open to debate and discussion of issues, as long as he thought you knew what you were talking about and not simply reading briefing notes.
I think the one that comes back the strongest is the debate over the cruise missile. Foreign Affairs had signed an agreement with the Americans to allow testing in Canadians territory. Some of us—myself, John Roberts, Romeo LeBlanc—thought this would be a terrible move. We were trying to develop new relations with the Russians and so on. At any rate, we were able to keep that debate going for six or seven or eight months.
The then vice-president of the United States, George Bush, came up and wanted to know who the hell was responsible for all this delay. Trudeau, in his kind of way, looked down the table and said, ‘He is.’ So I ended up debating with a bunch of neo-cons about this stuff.
Q: Any other key memories from the Trudeau period?
A: Of course, the thing from that period that still gives me every reason to believe in being in public service is the passing of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the debates that went on around it. To be part of that incredible national discussion around something that has had such an impact on the country since then. Those were good years, fun years.
Q: You served in opposition during the Brian Mulroney years, but could we rush ahead to the transition back to Liberal government in 1993 under Jean Chrétien? He gave you a difficult assignment.
A: He kind of said he had to deal directly with budgets and that was going to involve a lot of major changes to social programs. I was seen as being on the liberal wing of the party and had a certain following, and he asked if I could take two years and bring about reforms. And after that, he said Foreign Affairs is yours. I said, let’s do it.
Q: Was there an Nixon-in-China element in putting you in charge of overhauling Unemployment Insurance—in the sense that it was tough and you were seen a left-Liberal?
A: I think that’s right. Sure. What we tried to do is say we’re not going to just hash and cut and slash. So, in Unemployment Insurance, we moved to Employment Insurance, where we would begin to limit the number of weeks [of benefits]. At that time, you could get the pogey after 11 weeks of work for the next 52. We said, no, it wasn’t going to be that easy, but we’re going to provide work supplements, employment incentives. We tried to shift into training, into job creation.
Q: It wasn’t entirely successful, was it?
A: No, because afterwards it was turned back. It was always opposed by members of Parliament from the Atlantic. After I left it slowly began to unravel step by step. I think it’s too bad, because I today’s age having a national employment system that could put targeted work supports and training could be playing an important role.
Q: Rather than perennial seasonal benefits.
A: Exactly. You’ve got it.
Q: In hindsight, your years as foreign minister look very strategic. You seemed tightly focused on a few goals, notably the international land mines treaty. At the time, were you conscious of the need to maintain a small set of priorities, to not be distracted by everything going on in the world?
A: I came into office just at that period when a lot of rethinking was going on post-Cold War. A lot of the old thinking just didn’t apply any more. There were extremely able people in the department, Paul Heinbecker, for example, thinking about these things. It was clear that the old bipolar world simply was not going to exist.
It was really very much between political staff and public servants that we came around to the idea of human security, that we would be involved in protecting people, rather than national security, which had been standard up to that time. Land mines came along. We were also very active in trying to get a shift in United Nations peacekeeping so it could actually protect people.
You remember Srebrenica? A lot of us were very affected by that—I certainly was. We had to find a way of protecting people. That became a framework into to which we could put our efforts.
Q: So much has grown out of that, including the doctrine of responsibility to protect. Some would argue we need to rethink that, others that we need to reaffirm it. Where do you see R2P, in light of experiences like, for instance, Libya? Do the principles stand up?
A: I think they do. Let’s take Libya as a prime example. Using R2P as an organizing principle, there was a degree of consensus at the UN Security Council: you’re there to protect people. As soon as some of the coalition members started changing the objective to regime change, and the language change, Russia, China and others went off side.
There’s pretty interesting academic literature that says vocabulary counts. And there’s no doubt the Americans and Brits just let their generals kind of misspeak themselves. As soon as that shift took place, it clearly changed the nature of the mission. Even since then, the Security Council has authorized a further five or six R2P-type missions. Central African Republic, Cote D’Ivoire, Mali. These are all based on the principle that the international community has to move in and stop atrocities and prevent genocides. It’s not pretty. I’m not saying it works beautifully.
Q: What do you see as the foreign policy priorities you’d like to see reactivated since we have a Liberal government again?
A: Canada should become a much more engaged player at the United Nations. I think we should be going for a seat on the Security Council. I think we should be supporting a woman for Secretary General. I think we should be heavily involved in rewriting the whole peacemaking script. Ending the direct combat mission in [Iraq and Syria] puts Canada in a little bit of a place to provide other kinds of services. If we’re heading for a ceasefire down the road, then Canada should be helping provide security and protection. I think it’s freed the government not to be caught in a one-dimension policy.
Q: How far do you think we should go in putting Canadian soldiers in harm’s way when they are wearing blue helmets?
A: I think the demand for a much more effective involvement is there, and it can carry real risks. But on the other side of it, I just finished writing a paper with Walter Dorn of the Royal Military College of Canada on the new technology of peacekeeping. Better reconnaissance, automated vehicles, early warning, automatic systems for de-mining. It’s changing peacekeeping just like it is changing warfare. We should be investing in a new technology for peacekeeping.
Q: You spent a whole decade, 2004 to 2014, as president of the University of Winnipeg…
A: It’s almost unheard of these days, given the fatality rates among university presidents.
Q: Right. What were you setting out to do there and what do you think you accomplished?
A: I was a student there and a professor. I knew the place very well. It’s been a home. I knew what was happening in the inner city, the increasing migration of First Nations and Métis communities into the city, new immigrants coming in.
So I brought a basic view, going back to my own experience, that a university, aside from the standards of good teaching and research, has to look at issues of access. I discovered the university was not doing it—none of the universities were doing it. The academic mission didn’t include the question of how do you reach out to populations of young people who were on the sidelines.
Q: So you had to think about getting young people ready to enroll?
A: We started major community work. Working with Grade 4 kids. Opening up drop-in centres. Developing remedial courses. Providing a whole new financial system, we called in an opportunities fund.
We spent a lot of time working on the idea that a university could—to use the words of Kevin Chief, who’s now a provincial NDP cabinet minister, but was my street guy for seven years–put a tap on the shoulder.
And we did. We’ve proven that you can start with a 15-year-old kid, off the street, bring them into a model school, have them go on to university, and get 80s in their courses. I’m talking about real cases. We saw a record. We’ve done the evaluations. A university seriously doing outreach in the community can open up a big, big window for Aboriginal and new Canadian kids.
Q: You did you just plain bricks-and-mortar building, too.
A: It needed it. There hadn’t been any capital investment. I mean, University of Winnipeg, like other universities, was working under a frozen tuitions system. I’d been around the circuit for a while. We had some very significant contributions from good citizens. We raised a quarter of a billion dollars in a 10-year period.
Q: Did you recruit Wab Kinew? He’s become such an interesting figure in Indigenous politics and media in Canada.
A: Wab’s father had been an elder who became an advisor to me. I was privileged: He and a group of elders made me a pipe carrier. We went through a beautiful ceremony and Wab was part of that. In my last year, when I was planning my succession in 2014, I brought him in as associate vice-president for Aboriginal affairs. He’s doing some great work there.
Q: But you didn’t make him a Liberal. He’s now running for the provincial NDP.
A: Well, we tried federally. I think we came close. I think if he had taken the seats that were offered him he’d be a member of Parliament right now.