A good and gallant man

I did an interview today with Catherine Christie-Luff of CPAC who is preparing a five-part series looking at specific periods in Canadian history. The series, which airs this fall, begins in 1917 with conscription and ends in 1988 with the free trade debate. She has spent the last six months doing archival research for film and still photos and is now conducting interviews. Among those she’s done so far are with historians Robert Bothwell and Stephen Clarkson. Among the luminaries who have agreed to be interviewed are author Michael Bliss and Jean Chretien.

My modest participation focussed on Robert Stanfield, my boss from 1970 to 1976, when he was leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. Her first question was “Why is Robert Stanfield remembered ‘as the best prime minister Canada never had.'” I’ve put the descriptive in quotes because it came from Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn who all too rarely gets credit for the oft-cited phrase. My answer was his character; Stanfield put country ahead of himself. When the Liberals lost a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons during the 1968 Liberal leadership race, Stanfield could have demanded that the government resign. But Bank of Canada Governor Louis Rasminsky intervened and told Stanfield the Canadian dollar was in peril. If the government fell, there would be severe international consequences, he said. Rather than choose what was best for him (taking over as prime minister), Stanfield choose what was best for Canada. There was another vote, and this time the Liberals had sufficient MPs on hand.

Another interview topic was divisive tactics by former PC leader, John Diefenbaker, who never embraced Stanfield as his successor. Indeed, Dief did plot against him, I said, but so did Pierre Trudeau. The prime minister brought before the House of Commons a resolution confirming the Official Languages Act. Bilingualism was already the law. Stanfield agreed with the steps Trudeau had taken and had voted in favour of bilingualism. Trudeau was just being conniving; he knew that some members of Stanfield’s caucus would vote against the resolution, thereby embarrassing Stanfield. Indeed, more than a dozen did. But Stanfield pressed on regardless.

Stanfield gave as good as he got in House debates and I told Christie-Luff that every year he bested Trudeau when it came to humour in their speeches at the off-the-record Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner. Trudeau couldn’t get a laugh even with material written for him by the CBC’s Larry Zolf. He simply had no sense of timing.

As for public policy, Stanfield had a vision of the country as a whole place. He was filled with good ideas that were lifted by the Liberals. Indexing income tax brackets as well as wage and price controls come to mind. He was never angered by such theft, even taking a bow during John Turner’s budget speech when indexing was announced. Nor did he ever hold a grudge. Not even against Doug Ball, the photographer who took the photo of Stanfield dropping the football during the 1974 election campaign. Unlike the Kennedy clan, he neither got mad nor sought to get even.

No, Stanfield never won a federal election. But I always thought it was better to lose with grace rather than win with guile. I was proud to work for him.

1 Response

  1. David Waite says:

    Politicians of the calibre and personal integrity of Robert Stanfield do not much care for the spotlight which fuels and feeds some of the press, but instead quietly attend to their goals and agenda which address the greater common good.

    While their stories (largely) do not sell newspapers on a regular basis, it is we – their fellow citizens – who, often without knowing it, benefit to this day from their accomplishments, a most honourable legacy.

    Unfortunately many of these improvements remain relegated to textbooks and The Dictionary of Canadian Biography, advances which deserve as much front-page news as the only fumble of many throws tossed that sunny day.

    (Others of similar calibre who spring to mind: David Lewis, Grace MacInnis, Stanley Knowles, Tommy Douglas, J.S. Woodsworth, Eugene Forsey and many more…)

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