From the Archives: Who Is Kim Campbell? Mordecai Richler Explains in Our October 1993 Issue
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Mar-a-Lago (Shutterstock.com)

It’s not every day that headlines tell us that a former Canadian prime minister has tweeted, as Hurricane Dorian approaches, “I’m rooting for a direct hit on Mar a Lago.” So much for Canadian niceness. Perhaps the one-time PM is auditioning for an appearance on Bill Maher’s hour of hate. Maybe in response our president should forget about Greenland and annex Canada instead.

Or maybe the culprit in question is too obscure to matter. News reports subsequently identified her as Kim Campbell. Not exactly a Trudeau. In fact, she served all of 132 days, in 1993. But as the first woman prime minister of Canada, she attracted attention, and in the fall of that year she would face electoral defeat. The great Canadian writer Mordecai Richler profiled her in the runup to the election, and we ran his essay, “Northern Exposure,” in our October 1993 issue.

His coverage of her begins in earnest at the 11th paragraph, after he describes the demise of her predecessor Brian Mulroney, which set the stage for Campbell’s emergence, however meteoric. Already he detected a rhetorical mean streak in her — but as he also explains, she had a difficult childhood. Treasure his piece, reprinted in full below. —ED.

 

(The American Spectator, October 1993)

Northern Exposure

Canada’s first woman prime minister, Kim Campbell, faces a tough election this fall. Is she woman enough to clean house? Or will she wind up paying for Brian Mulroney’s brazenly corrupt departure?

By Mordecai Richler

Last February 24, Brian Mulroney, Canada’s least popular prime minister in the history of polling, pondering an autumn election in which his troops stood to be decimated if he persisted in leading them, fell on his sword. He announced that, after eight and a half years in office, he would be resigning in June, at the age of 54, so that the Tories could convene to choose a new leader. He would have quit in 1990, he said, but, because of the Gulf War, “it was vital that I stay.” Later, understandably queasy about his place in history, he warned us that his legacy had already been distorted by reporters driven by “personal vendettas” against him, and then he wrestled yet again with the long and intimidating shadow of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, denouncing the former Liberal prime minister for selling Quebec down the river with his 1982 constitution, conveniently forgetting that, at the time, he had thumped the tub for the package himself. Bobbing and weaving, he ventured that the hoi polloi had turned on him only because he had had the guts to take essential but unpopular decisions. There was something in that, but not nearly enough. Mulroney’s necessary free trade deal with the United States and his imposition of a national sales tax, the GST, had not endeared him to the electorate, but neither did they explain the deeply rooted animus against the man.

All politicians lie, but few as often, or mellifluously, as did sincerely yours, Brian Mulroney, his voice, a dead giveaway, sinking into his Guccis whenever he was about to deliver one of his whoppers. Campaigning for the Tory leadership in 1983, he mocked his chief rival for the job, good scout Joe Clark, for playing tiddlywinks with Quebec separatists. Then Mulroney courted them on bended knee, paying for their endorsements with cabinet seats and by punishing the country with wasting years of acrimonious and failed constitutional haggling, which served only to resuscitate the cause of Québécois tribalism. Before assuming office in 1984, he was adamantly opposed to any free trade deal, but once in place he signed one with the United States and another with Mexico. Referendums, he declared, were not the way our folks did things. Then he ordered up one for his second offer of a constitutional elixir, and lost, the country dismissing it as quack medicine. He softshoed into office condemning corruption and then presided over a government that was tainted by a record number of cabinet ministers who were obliged to resign in disgrace, four in all.

On July 9, 1984, when then-Liberal Prime Minister John Turner announced that there would be an autumn election, and went on to deal nineteen patronage appointments to prominent Liberals, Mulroney professed to be shocked. “It’s something out of an Edward G. Robinson movie,” he said. “You know, the boys cuttin’ up the cash.” If he were elected, by gum, things would be different. “I undertake today that all political appointments will be of the highest unimpeachable quality. I’m going to send a dramatic signal of renewal in this area of Canadian life.”

AND THEN, LAST JUNE, Mulroney retired, trailing an unprecedented rain cloud of patronage. Since December 1992 he had doled out 655 plums, 241 of these in his final two months in office, enabling him to establish yet another record. More than 500 of those 11 handsomely paid appointments went to backroom boys and girls, dim relatives of senior Tories, failed candidates and big donors, the most risible going to Mila Mulroney’s hairdresser and the hairdresser’s wife: Rinaldo joined the Federal Business Development Bank and his wife, Pat, the Official Residences Council. And finally twelve slavering Tories, who had not yet dug their snouts into the trough, were compensated with seats in the Senate, comfy beyond compare.

In Canada it is not patriotism that is the last refuge of scoundrels, but a sinecure in our unelected Senate, its members appointed at the prime minister’s pleasure. Our Senate is the traditional pen of aging bagmen, superannuated party hacks, parvenus and, in Mulroney’s case, old cronies who used to imbibe with him in the late, lamented Maritime Bar of Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel or the Mount Royal Club, the favored watering hole of our city’s most affluent tradesmen and corporate lawyers. Until they reach the age of 75, our 112 senators are paid $64,100 a year, plus a tax-free allowance of $10,000, and, among other benefits, they are also entitled to Air Canada freebies for themselves, their families, and retainers. A July Gallup poll revealed that only 4 percent of Canadians favor keeping the institution as it stands. Fifty-four percent would like to see it abolished and 37 percent want senators to stand for election, just like MPs.

Even as this recession-ridden country was still reeling from the shameless display of Mulroney “cuttin’ up the cash,” we were diverted by what many would come to see as a metaphor for the underlying tackiness of the Mulroney years: our prime minister, only weeks out of office, seemingly settling on a second career as a purveyor of used furniture, most of which was not necessarily his own. On July 1, Stevie Cameron wrote in the Globe and Mail, our English-language newspaper of record: “Brian and Mila Mulroney did not have to have a garage sale when they left their official residences last month: the federal government is buying the things they left behind.

“And that includes the custom-built closets made to house the Mulroney family wardrobe.”

A new prime minister, I should explain, traditionally supplements the furnishings already in place at 24 Sussex Drive with his own things, removing them without fuss when he leaves. During Trudeau’s tenure, Liberal supporters built him a swimming pool. He did not tow it away when he left and neither did he demand to be reimbursed for it.

Marcel Beaudry, chairman of the National Capital Commission, which is responsible for official residences, revealed that the Treasury Board had forked out $150,000 for seventy-five items the Mulroneys left behind, including wall paper, Persian carpets, shower curtains, light fixtures, a kitchen table, a $12,000 Venetian engraved mirror, and forty-nine flower vases. Beaudry, who had been appointed to his job by Mulroney a year earlier, proclaimed the sale a bargain, saying it would have cost taxpayers $400,000 for new furnishings had the Mulroneys skedaddled, peeling off the wallpaper and ripping out the light fixtures, leaving the new prime minister in the dark, as it were.

Because Mulroney could not legally do business with the government, the Treasury Board’s check was made out to Mila. But oh dear oh dear, she could produce no invoices. Beaudry had had the goods appraised at replacement value rather than their worth as used furniture. He allowed that he could not distinguish between duvets and cutlery, or whatever, that had originally been paid for by the government, or by the slushy Tory Canada Fund, which had contributed $324,000 toward the purchase of furnishings. Confusion was compounded by the fact that many of the items in the NCC’s appraisal were identical to goods bought for the Mulroneys by the Tory Canada Fund.

What with the country on the boil, outraged by what it took to be mind-boggling sleaze, the Mulroneys, on holiday in France, were finally heard from. A petulant Mila wrote to cancel the deal: “After a decade of public service, which I performed with pride and pleasure and during which I neither received nor expected to receive remuneration of any kind for any of my activities, I am of course disappointed by the suggestion — even from some partisan sources — that I might have sought profit from this transaction. Accordingly, I have instructed my accountant to return immediately your cheque thereby terminating the agreement between us.” And so, Mila ordained, the furniture would remain at 24 Sussex Drive until it could be replaced. Then, no doubt, everything, save the wallpaper, but including a dinner service for fifty, valued at $23,000, would be shipped to the newly acquired Montreal mansion of our first prime minister to have sprung from the working class. The house cost just short of $2 million, and was undergoing a $1-million renovation, according to a recent Montreal Gazette.

ONCE MULRONEY HAD THROWN in the towel, it was assumed that a number of Tory cabinet heavyweights, leading with the elbows, would compete for the leadership, the winner becoming our instant nineteenth prime minister; then, all but one genuflected before the onrushing Kim Campbell. Her rise out of obscurity was astonishing. A first-term MP, elected in Vancouver Centre in 1988, she became Canada’s first female attorney general and justice minister in 1990, and two years later our first female secretary of defense. When she declared herself an official candidate, on March 25, it seemed that she was heading for a coronation. Radiating confidence, she said that she was, at heart, “a Texas line-dancer.’’ And, oh yes, she had once smoked pot and inhaled, she added.

Kim Campbell entered the fray trailing The Photograph and quotes that reeked of arrogance to some, but seemed refreshingly direct to others. The saucy photograph that led British tabloids to dub her “a sexy, dewy-eyed Madonna” was taken for an arty coffee-table book in 1990. Gosh. It showed Kim bare-shouldered, holding her judicial robes before her, suggesting that possibly, just possibly, the naughty girl had posed starkers. “Seriously,” said Ms. Campbell, “the notion that the bare shoulders of a 43-year-old woman are the source of prurient comment or titillation, I mean, I suppose I should be complimented.”

When she ran for the leadership of British Columbia’s Social Credit Party in 1986, coming in last, she warned delegates against Bill Vander Zalm, the theme-park proprietor who would become provincial premier. “Charisma without substance is a dangerous thing,” she said. Two years later, still heckling him, she added, “I only wish I knew him before his lobotomy.” But what was to become her signature quote was plucked from an interview she gave the Vancouver Sun in 1986: “As an intellectually-oriented person, I like to socialize with people who read the same things I do and have a similar level of education, but I generally like ordinary people. I think it’s very important to realize that a lot of people that you’re out there working for are people who may sit in their undershirt and watch the game on Saturday, beer in hand … I suppose these people would find me as boring as I would find them.”

Actually, as I am one of those louts who watches Saturday night hockey on TV, preferably with a Scotch in hand, this pensée gave me pause. Could she, I wondered, be as condescending as she appeared?

KIM WAS BORN Avril Phaedra Douglas Campbell to George Campbell, a lawyer, and Phyllis Cook in March 1947, and changed her name to Kim during adolescence. Her parents’ marriage was not a happy one. As a consequence of a 1957 sleigh accident, Phyllis shattered a hip socket and was, for a time, an invalid. In the most illuminating of a spate of Kim Campbell profiles that began to appear last spring, the Globe and Mail’s Stephen Brunt wrote of that period that Phyllis’s sister “says Mr. Campbell once came home from a night on the town and told his wife that he had spent the evening dancing with a woman. ‘She was not a hopeless cripple like you,’ was the taunt he used.”

In 1959, Phyllis ran off to France with the man who would become her second husband, the two of them buying a yacht and setting up charters for the rich; Kim didn’t see her again until she graduated from high school.

In 1967, Kim, then a student at the University of British Columbia, met the feisty Nathan “Tuzie” Divinsky, a math professor and divorced father of three daughters. He was 42, she was 21. Her mother didn’t care for this working-class Jew, a bona fide chess maven, who claimed to have once played the great Boris Spassky to a draw. “I found him rude and pushy,” said Phyllis.

Phyllis, who safe to say doesn’t know the words to Oy Chanukah, oy Chanukah, a yontiff a shayner, recalled a Christmas visit to the family home when Divinsky refused to join in on Christmas carols. “He sat there like an anthropologist watching the natives at their curious rites. I never warmed to the man at all.”

Nevertheless, Nathan and Kim were soon living together. Then, in 1970, she went to London to study at the London School of Economics, her doctoral supervisor Leonard Schapiro, the renowned Sovietologist, who took his students on a three-month tour of the Soviet Union. Nathan and Kim were married in London in 1972, only to be divorced eleven years later. Kim married again in Vancouver in 1986 and was divorced again five years later.

IN THE OWL’S NEST, the dilapidated country bar that I favor out there in a weedy field on the 243, hard by the Vermont border, only a few miles from my cottage in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, a local wag said, “If she can’t manage two marriages, how in the hell is she gonna manage the country?”

But early in March she seemed unstoppable, everybody scrambling aboard her bandwagon, including a worrying number of Québécois nationalists, Mulroney’s baggage. So later in the month, when the 34-year-old minister of environment Jean Charest, an Eastern Townshipper born and bred, entered the race, the scuttlebutt was that this stripling had obliged, at stage manager Mulroney’s request, to lend at least the semblance of a contest to the Tory convention in June. But, lo and behold, he turned out to be an appealing campaigner, fluently bilingual, while Ms. Campbell was given to stumbling in French considerably less assured than advertised. Charest was pleasingly plump, with a mop of unruly curly hair, cuddly as a muppet, a family man, married to his obviously intelligent and photogenic high school sweetheart, with three adorable children. And oh yes, he too had been known to puff on the occasional toke during university days, and in his crazed teenage years, he confessed that he had once run afoul of the law and lingered for several hours in the slammer … for spray-painting “Bonne Fête Marie” on a street as a birthday greeting to a friend.

Kim Campbell, arguably more representative of our discontented times, survivor of a dysfunctional family and twice-divorced, came charging out of the starting gate armed with quips, but then she was processed by the insufferably slick Tory machine; emerging shrinkwrapped, a front-runner dodging difficult questions lest she offend anybody out there. Ex-con Charest was the clear winner of the first television debate. Then, Ms. Campbell, invited to pronounce on Quebec’s loony-tunes language laws, which, at the time, still banned the use of English on outdoor commercial signs, among other fatuities, would venture no more than, “I think the worst thing I could do is throw myself in the middle of this debate.… It is for Quebecers themselves to decide whether it is good or the best route to take.” But Charest proclaimed that a prime minister must “defend the rights of linguistic minorities everywhere in the country, including Quebec.”

“Campbellmania Fizzles,” ran a May 25 headline in the Globe and Mail, but she had already locked up twice as many delegates as her rival. Then an eve-of-convention poll showed that Charest was now the most popular candidate by far of Canadians in general and Tories in particular. Against all odds, Charest had made it a contest.

PITY THE SIZABLE contingent of rednecks among the 3,400 delegates and 1,500 alternates jammed into Ottawa’s sweltering Civic Centre on Friday, June 11. That fulminating, beer-bellied bunch riding out of the Bible-belt prairies. Small town lawyers and real estate agents, feed merchants and car dealers, all convinced that the True North, Strong and Free was going to hell in a multicultural handbasket. Why, you can now wear a turban in the RCMP or a dagger in your belt to high school if you’re a Sikh. Their own kids were being dealt condoms rather than brownies at recess. The country’s broke, but the National Gallery in Ottawa is paying zillions for umpteen-foot-high color charts called paintings by con men named Newman or Rothko, probably both Jews. This great land that once gave the world Deanna Durbin is now supposed to be proud of k.d. lang, a dyke and a vegetarian, even though she came from cattle country. You know what caused AIDS? God Almighty’s disgust.

The rednecks were to be pitied because on Sunday they would have to choose between a la-di-da divorcée, from Hot Tub City out there in flaky B.C., and a bloody frog still wet behind the ears who had the nerve to speak English better than most of them did, and reminded them somewhat of that bastard Trudeau, who had rammed bilingualism down their throats.

Joy was confined, with a rattled Tory establishment machine going into overdrive, working the floor for Kim. Young Jean, they whispered, might be a fine fellow for next time, but don’t forget that for twenty-six of the last twenty-seven years our prime minister has been a Quebecer, and the rest of Canada has had it up to here. Meanwhile, the outnumbered Charest people were saying that only their man, already the people’s choice in the rest of Canada, could clean the clock of Lucien Bouchard’s Bloc Québécois Party in Quebec.

Bouchard, a small-town Québécois lawyer and one-time separatist, had been lifted out of obscurity by his old college chum, Brian Mulroney. He was appointed ambassador to France and later was parachuted into parliament and the cabinet. Then he split with Mulroney over what he claimed was yet another constitutional betrayal of Quebec, and formed the Bloc Québécois; the first separatist party to sit in our federal parliament. Bouchard had carried only eight malcontent MPs with him, not one of them of any distinction, but, if the polls were right, he was slated to win a majority of Quebec’s seventy-six seats in the coming federal election — unless he was obliged to run against the shining new face of Jean Charest. In his stem-winder of a Saturday night speech at the convention, Charest pleaded with delegates to turn him loose on Lucien Bouchard.

FIRST, HOWEVER, WE had to endure Brian Mulroney’s orchestrated tribute to himself on Friday night. In the months leading up to the convention, he had embarked on a final farewell tour of the United States and Europe, much criticized for being both too costly and unnecessary. But on Friday night we discovered that the junkets had enabled him to solicit film testimonials to his greatness by George Bush, John Major, François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, Bill Clinton, and Boris Yeltsin. These tributes were at the heart of a home movie that was, at best, embarrassing, and, at worst, self-serving and saccharine beyond compare. There was also a stage show. Mulroney had vetted every word in the script, but, a consummate showman, laughed at the jokes he had approved and shed tears on cue.

In Charest’s Saturday night make-or-break speech, he said, “Yes, I am young and vigorous — and so is Canada.” And, sticking it to Kim, he added, “I want to be prime minister of Canada and not prime minister of caution.” Ms. Campbell, the last to speak, chose to be “prime ministerial,” delivering a bomb that sounded to most observers like a printout of clichés from a master Tory computer. But she did begin to distance herself from Mulroney. “We need a different kind of leadership,” she said, “one that responds to the yearning of Canadians for real change in our politics and our politicians.”

She took it on the second ballot, with 1,822 votes to Charest’s 1,630. Anxious federalists in the Tories’ Quebec caucus were not pleased, one of them anticipating that the BQ might now take fifty or even sixty seats in Quebec.

Certainly it would come as no surprise if Bouchard, hearing the results, had cracked open a bottle of champagne, and Liberal leader Jean Chrétien also had to be delighted. He had already adjudged Ms. Campbell “a Mulroney in skirts,” who had won herself no more than a summer job.

AS I WRITE, in August, it is anticipated that the election will come in October, the actual date not to be announced before Labor Day. A reading of the entrails offers contradictory auguries. Gallup has reported that 43 percent of committed voters favor the Liberals, and only 33 percent the Tories. However, asked to pick who would make the best prime minister, the electorate gives Ms. Campbell a 17-point edge. The near demise of the NDP, our social-democratic party, the choice of only 8 percent of voters, is a foregone conclusion. Chrétien, a former cabinet minister in Trudeau’s governments, has to overcome the perception that he is yesterday’s man, as well as a lightweight. But he is a far more experienced campaigner than Ms. Campbell, and he seems likely to carry the Maritime Provinces and Ontario, the biggest prize, but not his home province of Quebec. Francophone Quebecers regard Chrétien as something of an Uncle Tom, his French striking them as inelegant and his English sufficiently shaky to make them cringe.

Should the BQ, impaired by its one-plank independence platform and inability to satisfy Quebec’s voracious appetite for the goodies that come with office, still win a majority of the province’s seats, it would not be the only disruptive regional party in parliament. Yang to its yin is the western-rooted Reform Party, led by the engaging Robert Manning, our Ross Perot sans that tycoon’s millions. The Reform Party stands to win a batch of seats in Alberta. But both the BQ and Reform run the risk of being discredited by the preponderance of nutters in their camps. Bouchard will have to muzzle the most zealous of his candidates, who are bound to alarm essentially conservative Quebecers with their inchoate rage against les autres. And Manning, no bigot himself, will have to cork the incipient racists in his bottle, who would like to legislate an end to immigration, a ban on French outside of Quebec, and, if only to demonstrate their devotion to “family values,” bring back flogging and the noose.

Unless Chrétien or Ms. Campbell is found guilty of an egregious campaign gaffe, it seems likely that the election will yield a minority government, probably Liberal. Ms. Campbell, out to mend her Quebec fences, has appointed Jean Charest deputy prime minister as well as head of the industry department. Even as she continues to distance herself from the sleaze that characterized the Mulroney years, the Liberals will not allow her to forget that she once said of the man, “He is an extraordinary leader … with a great passion for this country, and he inspires great loyalty.” Her first attempt to impress the country with the new frugality backfired. She ordered ministers in her new, pared-down cabinet to take taxis, rather than chauffeured limos, to the swearing-in ceremony at the Governor-General’s residence. But as snide reporters were quick to point out, the taxpayer really ended up forking out twice, because the chauffeurs had to sit and wait, albeit on the public payroll.

The election date yet to be announced, party leaders have already begun to bore us on the photo-op trail, flipping burgers in an endless run of backyard barbecues. Ms. Campbell, pledged to the policies of change and substance, has been photographed dancing the twist in Toronto and simulating pleasure as she accepted an autographed ball from the Expos’ Larry Walker in Montreal. Asked about her sex life on a silly Quebec City talk show, she replied she now had no time for “le hankypanky.” Even if she has found herself no more than a summer job, she is, pace Chrétien, already assured of a place in our history books. Our first female prime minister, the first out of British Columbia, and the first capable of speaking a decent Yiddish.

FINALLY, MY OWN cherished election fantasy result depends on Lucien Bouchard not only taking just about every seat in Quebec, but also fielding candidates in the western boonies. Out there, I’ll wager, many would vote BQ because, rather than wait for Quebec to separate or get off the pot, they would happily kick the province out right now. And so Bouchard, winner of ninety or more seats, would form a coalition with a surging Reform Party and find himself, a sworn separatist, in the nightmare office of prime minister of Canada. The morning after, the premier of Ontario, our richest and most populous province, would inform Bouchard that he intends to sue for sovereignty. Bouchard, sobered by his new responsibilities, would tell him, “I was not elected prime minister to preside over the dismemberment of this great country that is the envy of the world. Va te faire foutre.”

Mordecai Richler is the author of Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country (Alfred A. Knopf) and many novels, including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Joshua Then and Now, and Solomon Gursky Was Here.

(From The American Spectator, October 1993)

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