Former Prime Minister Joe Clark weighs in on new job

Former Prime Minister Joe Clark started his political career as editor of his student newspaper and after a successful career in politics, he's returned to the campus. We sat down with the former Prime Minister to talk about his latest initiative.

McGill Tribune (MT): Drawing from your federal experience, can you tell us what are some of the major themes that you learned throughout your time in and out of political office?

Joe Clark (JC): Well, a couple I think. I'm sorry if it sounds like one of my speeches, but Canadians have always had to make Canada work. The way I put it is: we followed the natural forces of geography or even economics, there would not have been a country. But there was a deliberate act to create one at confederation. Most of the actions that have been taken by Canadians since that time that have added to the definition of who we are have been a result of an act of will. Medicare was an act of will. The Pension Plan was an act of will. Free trade was an act of will. The Charter was an act of will. Other countries have an easier time of it, in a sense. They have either a powerful national myth, as is the case in the United States, for better or for worse. Or countries have a geographic similarity. We don't have many of those things and that obligation to build the country is essential to an understanding to how we've been able to survive.Secondly, we're an extremely diverse country. You have to be very adaptive to make it work and you have to understand and respect the differences of the country. They are much more than simple French-English differences. One of the things I greatly regret is that we've lost the asset of genuinely national parties. Because both the former Liberal Party and former Progressive Conservative party were parties that won support at their best from across the country. And they brought people who might not have otherwise talked to each other or understood each other together. We don't have that now. So I think we underestimate the degree to which those national parties helped create a national identity.

MT: Upon your retirement from the House of Commons you vigorously opposed the merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Alliance parties. Since then, have your views changed at all?

JC: No they haven't. What happened with the broad national parties, and mine was one, was that they became an instrument of understanding the whole country. In international affairs it became an instrument of seeking to understand differences and play a valuable Canadian role in reconciling those differences. Political parties play an essential role in bringing and keeping the country together. If your aspiring model is something less than whole you're not going to be able to do that as well as it's required. But I'm also aware I've had my go. There are some observations I can make that might be helpful to others. You didn't ask if I second-guessed. You asked if the position I took at the time of the merger is one to which I adhere, and it is.

MT: You once referred to Paul Martin as the devil you know and Stephen Harper as the devil you don't. How would you rate Harper's performance to date?

JC: Well, we know him better. He has been very focused. He has run a highly disciplined government to accomplish some very specific goals. He has also imposed his will on the caucus and the parliament on issues where I think there should have been a much larger debate, or areas where there's been no debate at all.An instance of that is the way they've treated the debate on Afghanistan in parliament. That was not a real debate. It was a brief. There was no time for preparation. There was no expert testimony. I can speak with some experience on this because I was the minister during the Gulf war. Among other things, we have a series of virtually permanent meetings with the standing committee on international affairs. Day after day I answered questions from Lloyd Axworthy and other political parties. If there was a military question we had leaders from the armed forces there to say what's going on.

MT: What influenced you to join the faculty at McGill?

JC: I should start by saying I'm retired from the House of Commons and I remain very interested in international issues. There are some international issues where I can draw people together and get discussions started where others can't, just because sometimes the former foreign minister or Prime Minister can do things that the incumbent government can't. My problem was that I had no way to follow up on these issues. It turns out that as we began to speak with developing areas studies at McGill, they were very interested in some of the issues I've got started. There are two or three examples. There was a very specific thing we were able to do in terms of bringing the private sector into the formation of the new government in Haiti. There are issues in Africa where I got discussions started but need some help in following through.Secondly I've always been interested in students. I've taught a long time ago at the University of Alberta and I've taught a course on the foreign policy of middle powers at a university in Washington about a year and a half ago. What we've been able to do at McGill is work out an agreement where we've identified areas of large common interest. In addition to that I'll be dropping into classes. I won't be teaching any formal classes, but I'll drop in where my experience or perspective might be helpful. We intend to convene some readings or special discussions at McGill over the course of the next 12 months. For example, one of the things I want to do is have some of the really excellent people who carried out foreign policy as foreign service officers when I was the minister and we want to set up a couple circumstances where it would be possible for graduate students or some honours students to trace through exactly how decisions are put into place. That kind of practical experience can be quite useful and I can draw them to the discussion.

MT: Of the discussions that you've started, which of these are you most focussed on today?

JC: If there's an issue that most concerns me it is the gap between what Canada can be doing in Africa and what Canada is doing in Canada. I think that's important from a Canadian point of view because we have unusual influence in Africa. We haven't earned it recently, but it is substantial. I do a lot of work in Africa now. If you take a look at poverty levels or levels of personal income, on a continent to continent basis, the African continent is well below any other continent. That is dangerous from a security point of view; it's unfair from a human justice point of view. Africa has an immense resource base. There are parts of Africa where there is a fairly high level of sophisticated education. That is to say it extends into society. It's a place that needs more attention. We're not doing as much as we can. There are a couple of things we're talking about that we hope will make a small difference on that front.

MT: Can you tell us about your first visit to Africa and how that has affected you?

JC: I was the first Canadian Prime Minister who went to Africa in office. We went to Cameroon, first of all. Partly because Cameroon, like Canada, is a French and English country. We had some very strong relations there. Then I went to a head of government meeting of the Commonwealth and came back through Kenya and Tanzania. The fact that the Prime Minister was there focused Canadian attention on things and we had a sense that things might be done and I learned a lot about the continent quickly. So it was a very interesting introduction. They had planned on Mr. Trudeau coming but something happened to Mr. Trudeau on the way to Africa. I defeated him in an election. So I made that first visit.


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