Blog, Canada, politics, Public Administration, Writing

The Day I Brought Down the Canadian Government

In the late 1970s I had been two years active as the head of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, ( APEC) an independent think-tank focused on the economic development of the four easternmost Provinces in the country, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador. 

We had published a guidebook to the regional economy as well as having a good media presence commenting on government and business issues as they affected the region. As the operating head of this small organization, I worked hard to make APEC a strong voice on economic and business issues.

In November of 1979, I was invited by senior business and government leaders to make a presentation to the relevant Senate committee on the state of the Atlantic economy. It was a part of the job, regardless of party orientation, but I did find out that the APEC board chair and the CEO of Canada’s largest seafood company would be part of our small party. As well, we would be met by the former Premier of Nova Scotia, Robert Stanfield, and taken to lunch in the Parliamentary restaurant. Then we would go over to the House of Commons to watch the debates and then go on to make our presentation to the relevant Senate committee.

From my perspective, things did not start well. Premier Stanfield had arranged for us to use a day-room in the Chateau Laurier Hotel. Arriving there and meeting him, we left our winter coats in the room and the plan was to go over for lunch and then on to the Senate via an underground tunnel, where we could watch the House debate the future of the Government. In this super-charged environment, what we might say was guaranteed to be ignored by the politicians of both Houses and all parties. ‘The game was afoot!’ as Sherlock Holmes would have put it. The Clark Government would be ousted.

Still, being a minor part in this political drama was not to be missed and we all went into the hotel and up to the room. After some social conversation, we got up to leave for lunch. I felt a ‘biological necessity’ and said I would be right along and would catch up with them downstairs. When I shut the bathroom door in the venerable old hotel, the inside brass handle fell off in my hand. Peering through the keyhole, I could see the rod mechanism that was attached to the other part of the old door handle. The others had all left and I was alone. 

In desperation, I tried to catch the rod with the piece of the door handle still in my hand. The other part of the mechanism then just fell on the carpet on the other side of the door. I was a bit panicked then, because there was no way I could be heard at noontime, even if there was someone walking by, as our room entrance was in an alcove built into the hallway. How do I get out, or contact my colleagues? Maybe I should try to break the door open, but this was an old hotel with lots of heavy wood paneling. I decided to  give it a try, took off my coat and hung it on a bathroom telephone!!

These were days long before cell phones existed and, in my nervousness, I never looked for a phone to be inside the bathroom; in most hotel rooms in those days, a phone was always placed by the bed and therefore would have been useless to me in my predicament. But this was the fanciest hotel in Ottawa. I called down, got out and hustled down to the lobby to meet the others and told them what had happened. We had a good laugh and went off to lunch. 

Later, in the government committee room where we were to make our presentation, we found we were scheduled to present to the Senate committee last; and I was to be the last of us three to do so. Then the politicians would gather over in the House to make their final debating points about whether the Clark government, which had only taken over the reins of power about 6 months earlier. should be defeated and new elections called, or not. It was a formality as the Government did not have a majority.

Meanwhile, the various speakers began to present their points to the few Senators in attendance about what to do about regional economic development and, given the prominence of my colleagues on this trip, I clearly would to be the last presenter. With the prospect of an election being called almost momentarily, none of us were expecting to be paid attention to, but it was important that the ‘show’ go on.

My presentation time was brief and made briefer by the gradual loss of the politicians going to where the action was.  When I finished, I was thanked by the chairman, and the few politicians who were left in the room headed to the House of Commons, where the drama was located and the stuff of history made.

Then I was approached by Michael Forrestal, the MP for Dartmouth (NS) East, and invited to have dinner in his office with some others and watch the proceedings. Mike was an affable, pleasant character and we went off to his office to watch the inevitable defeat of the Government on TV. When it happened, Mike exclaimed, ’See what you’ve done, McNiven! ‘See what you’ve done! You’ve defeated the Government! 

A couple of his people were in the room and he pointed at me and said: “He defeated Joe Clark!” As we watched the Government fall over dinner, I was somewhat disconcerted; I knew how Parliament works, having taught Canadian politics for most of a decade, and I had nothing to do with what was happening.

I asked Mike how it could have been my fault. He said, “McNiven, you were the very last presenter down there on the committee room floor and now the government has been defeated. You were also the last speaker today to any Committee hearing to say your stuff, but, right after that, the government was defeated. It’s right there on the TV screen in front of us, so it has to be your fault.” So. For a couple of hours, we watched the goings-on in Parliament, with Mike introducing me to anyone who came into the room as “the guy who defeated the government”.

I saw Mike off and on over the years and he never failed to remind me of that day. When I was working for the Nova Scotia Government later on, we developed some promotional posters for presentation to visitors that featured scenes of the Province painted by Mike’s brother Tom, a famous artist in his own right. 

One copy of the poster hangs on the study wall in our apartment to this day.