About STU

Nashwaak Review - Volume 14-15

Dalton Camp & Frank McKenna: New Brunswick Titans

by Tony Tremblay

“Nothing compared with religion but politics, and nothing compared with politics but religion”

–Sara Jeannette Duncan, The Imperialist (1904)

Who would dispute that these are confused political times? Liberals are no longer spendthrift, Conservatives have become chummy with Republicans (John A. is no doubt turning in his grave), and trade unionists are feeling abandoned by the NDP. In the race to de-polarize, our two founding parties no longer even feel the need to justify poaching each other’s ideas in their attempt to inhabit the ever-diminishing middle ground that defines neither but invites both. Without the colour of their ties, how would we ever tell them apart?

Mergers and hybrids, of course, are nothing new in Canadian politics, especially in constituencies that continue to feel maligned by centrist or anglophone federalism. Quebec has always proven to be a good example. Maurice “le chef” Duplessis secured many years in office, and much chicanery, by bringing disparate conservative elements together under his Union Nationale coalition. René Lévesque, the one-time Minister of Natural Resources in Jean Lesage’s Liberal government, nationalized Hydro Québec before abandoning his fellow Grits to orchestrate the merger of the Mouvement souveraineté-association and the Rassemblement pour l’indépendance national. The result was the Parti-Québécois. (Conservative Cassandra David Orchard might look to RIN defector Hubert Aquin for commiseration in times of party amalgamation.) Both mergers in Quebec were successful for a time, then fizzled, both providing short-term gain to those who gladly accepted compromise for money and power, regardless of principles.

Coalitions of convenience and graft are only the visible surface of what confuses the political landscape in Canada today. More carefully guarded are the expediencies happening within political parties that are altering the definitions of the terms “Liberal” and “Conservative” to the extent that those ideological blocks are becoming unrecognizable. Change, mind you, has always been part of the political process, the result of a healthy dynamism that occurs when ideologues and visionaries meet strategists and pollsters. But the degree of change evident today in rethinking Liberalism and Conservatism is surely unprecedented, a volatile mix of fatigue and opportunism.

Two recent books on political figures in New Brunswick bring this shifting ground into sharp focus. As importantly, Philip Lee’s The Life and Politics of Frank McKenna (2001) and Geoffrey Stevens’ The Life & Times of Dalton Camp (2003) also reveal the sea change in Canadian politics from Camp’s generation to McKenna’s. It is that sea change that interests me here. Cynics who believe that the rush to govern has debased the political coin in the last thirty years will find much in these books that confirms their views.

Both books are sympathetic, even flattering, treatments of two New Brunswickers who were genuinely “self-made.” But there the similarities end and the ironies multiply. McKenna began as a poor Irish-Catholic farm boy from Apohaqui in southern New Brunswick, worked for the Conservatives (and Dalton Camp) at the 1967 convention that elected Robert Stanfield party leader, then, as Liberal Premier of New Brunswick, donned the mask of secular evangelist, becoming an old-styled Presbyterian preacher of self-sufficiency and thrift. As Premier of the province, he got up earlier than his rivals, stayed on the job later, and drove himself mercilessly, stoically denying himself and his young family as if called by special election, which, in his mind, and on the strength of a whopping 1987 election sweep, he was.

His predecessor Richard Hatfield was lavishly Renaissance by contrast, an irreligious man given to distraction, idleness, revelry, and unmentionable indiscretions. With a keen understanding of the opportunities that historical shift presents, McKenna became what Hatfield was not, orchestrating a transformation from Acadian-styled liberalism that his predecessor Joseph Daigle was unable to make (Daigle had been handicapped by his own predecessor’s radical reforms). To counter adversary and pedigree, McKenna became protestation incarnate, denouncing Hatfield’s Renaissance excess for his own Reformation restraint.

The embrace of a Protestant style and narrative was not as foreign to a Catholic as might first appear, convenient as it was. Within his own religious tradition, there was ample precedent for McKenna to perceive himself as monastically Catholic, as busting through the quotidian of compassionate liberalism to the self-abnegation and austerity of monastic asceticism. Accordingly, and with little contradiction, his message and style changed to reflect the old Scots principle of semper reformanda, “always to be reformed.” He was still the man who had attended St. Francis Xavier University to become a priest and who had entered the profession of law to defend the innocent and champion social justice, but as the first post-Hatfield Premier of New Brunswick he was, by historical decree, John Knox-like in his uncompromising zeal for reform. And, like Knox, conversion informed every bit of his personal mythology, from his muscular Christianity, a marker of worth to the rank-and-file New Brunswicker, to his social gospels of hard work, prudence, and temperance. In a province where the balance of power was still in the hands of the Protestant English, where the Catholics were still perceived as being aligned with the French, and where liberalism still had the taint of Louis Robichaud’s Equal Opportunity (an equalization programme that standardized services throughout the province, thus giving towns and villages what only cities in the south had previously enjoyed), McKenna donned his mask with careful forethought.

Camp’s trajectory was exactly the opposite. He was the poor son of an actual Baptist evangelist, a man, writes Stevens, who was “thought of as the Billy Graham of his day” (9). His father had been called to the ministry in the projection booth at the Gaiety Theatre in Woodstock, New Brunswick. Acting on that divine intervention, he became a preacher and travelled throughout North America. Young Dalton toured with his father in the American south, observing labour and ethnic inequities, varying standards of civil liberties, and his father’s growing liberalism, a source of annoyance to those well-tempered Protestants around him. When, on one trip, their train struck and killed a Mexican, the younger Camp was disgusted at others’ relief that a person of more standing had not been injured. Dalton carried his father’s left-leaning pacifism and idealism to England, where he studied under Harold Laski, the intellectual godfather of Labour Party socialism in post-war Britain. Armed with a life-long reader’s intimacy of Laski, Tolstoy, and Thoreau, Camp-the-younger returned to Canada as a socialist disguised as a Liberal who would soon find a home with the Conservatives.

If the fealty appears loose it is only because Camp refused unexamined allegiance to any one party. Ideals were more important to him than blind loyalty, as was the conviction that government should serve the people, not enrich the few. In this regard, he was classically conservative--not a neo-conservative of opportunity, timing, or laissez-faire trade liberalism, but, as Charles Taylor describes in Radical Tories, a conservative of principled intervention in the lives of the less fortunate. He believed that intervention was the business of government, that the parliamentary system should be disposed toward the people, and that, while any imbecile could cut taxes and impoverish an electorate in order to reward business or wage war, only leaders with a people’s agenda could thrive in times of economic adversity. His first public statement after leaving the Liberals to join the Tories was a renunciation of professional liberalism as the careless selling of principle “if the selling will yield . . . increased power” (67). He saw in the hoary old Tories of the 1950s a party within which he could advance his left-leaning people’s agenda, and to do this he embraced as friend and fellow idealist the man McKenna would fashion as his counterpoint: Richard Bennett Hatfield.

Where McKenna chose Liberalism to advance his fiscal conservatism, Camp chose Conservatism to ennoble his progressive liberalism, a set of ironies not uncommon in the rise of the ambitious. History is often effaced for the promise of the moment. The rise to power is thus more often haphazard than ordained, regardless of the myth-making of political biographers.

The most telling difference between the two is what they did, as powerful men, with the suits that they chose. Fierce in their loyalty to New Brunswickers, each embraced in his own way the most important item on the Maritime agenda: the fallout from Macdonald’s National Policy, still smoldering one-hundred years after ratification. If Upper Canadians have tired of hearing this, it is because the kind of disparity that issued from that policy has never been theirs--the protracted leavings, the fragmented families, the tenuous days on the water, in the woods, and underground.

Camp began advancing his own Maritime agenda as a leading strategist within Diefenbaker’s government. By the campaign of 1957, he had drawn up an Atlantic Manifesto designed to repatriate families and slow the Maritime diaspora. Seven years later, he organized the Fredericton Conference as a think-tank to revitalize Tory policy. He invited speakers like Marshall McLuhan and W.L. Morton, both of whom addressed the problems of federation, Quebec’s and Atlantic Canada’s. Camp continued to work on his Maritime agenda until his retirement from politics, securing amidst the “sleaze” (290) of Mulroney’s tenure funding for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. First conceived in Diefenbaker’s time, it was an idea that took him forty years to bring to fruition, the apex of his “red Tory” achievement. It was classical conservatism at its best, a programme made manifest in the lives of a people disadvantaged by the turn of history and socio-economic circumstance. He was devastated, though not surprised, that Mulroney, a different breed of Conservative, turned ACOA into another instrument of self-serving patronage, a slush fund for loyalists and lapdogs who’d been patient during the Trudeau years. It was, for Camp, the final humiliation.

Camp exited politics for the same reasons he parted company with the Liberals forty years earlier: because of what he saw as the debasing of policy for professional gain (in this case, Mulroney’s debasing of Conservatism). “I fear his shallowness,” Camp wrote, “the lack of any sort of reflective nature” (290). The party Camp had chosen in the 1950s to rebuild from the inside out was “sliding downhill . . . into a slough of right-wing rhetoric” (317). “It’s being corrupted,” he said. “It’s been taken over by the money-changers, people who think that conservatism is really an appendage of the business ethic, and its sole purpose is to help people make a profit” (318). Mike Harris and Stockwell Day, he added, were Mulroney’s progeny in unprincipled fiscal conservatism, in the kind of graft, as we know today, that indiscriminately, and without thought of the nation, chooses its bedfellows for economic gain.

If Camp’s solution to the fallout from the National Policy was to legislate ACOA, McKenna’s was to aver equalization for the sweat equity of his people, an approach not entirely surprising, given that, for the stubbornly evangelical, equalization of any sort is tantamount to charity, thus a smudge on independence. Adopting a rhetoric surprisingly close to the one Mulroney had chosen to advance Free Trade--that Canadian workers could compete with the best in the world under any conditions--McKenna undertook to sell his province’s intellectual labour to the rest of the country. As a Catholic of monastic intensity, however, he not only averred equalization as charity, but he clearly equated disparity with sin, desiring to remove the guilt of that sin through renunciation of the federal dependency that sustained it, thus achieving repentance through removal of temptation. As a repentant Catholic, he was classically Liberal, a believer, like Paul Martin, in self-sufficiency, regardless of the historical and material conditions that had pre-determined economic outcomes. To those pre-conditions, he was tragically blind. With a prophet’s heart and a simpleton’s ideology, he convinced all but the majority of New Brunswickers that a critical mass of information technology cottage industries and call centres would reverse the economic fortunes of his people, thus ending their dependency on transfers, thus building business at home, and thus slowing the Maritime diaspora. The existence of a state-of-the-art telecommunications infrastructure made the gambit seem not only sound but workable.

If New Brunswickers were skeptical, Ontario power brokers of both Liberal and Conservative stripe were easily convinced, especially those who wished to divert money from the structurally defeated (Maritimers with their culture of “dependency”) to the money-hungry enterprises of the new world order: to auto pacts, border conduits, defence initiatives, and other ventures meant to smooth the way to doing business with our new largest trading partner, the needy and unruly guest that Mulroney (and Camp) had brought, uninvited, to the table. When New Brunswickers woke up to the disconnect between the hope, the hype, and the reality, McKenna surreptitiously left office, his departure after a promised ten years in power adding to his mythology, at least in the eyes of the Ontario media, of an honest politician who keeps his word. What the headlines didn’t state is that the majority of New Brunswickers were glad to see him go--glad, not because he didn’t have their interests at heart (he was the man who hounded Mulroney for a four-lane highway and increased transfers for health care), but because his formula for economic reversal was so shallow in its certainties. High tech industry was, in fact, less stable than resource-based enterprise, less lucrative for workers, and equally dependent on taxpayer subsidy for start-up. For every ribbon-cutting there was a less-publicized bankruptcy, well-buried in Liberal-friendly pages of the Irving-owned provincial papers. Ironically, the only long-term success story of McKenna’s retrofit has been the development of a massive infrastructure for the delivery of e-services by the government bureaucracy, an infrastructure dependent on a never-diminishing stream of taxpayers’ money.

When McKenna left provincial politics, he went “back to the practice of law,” translated in this context as “wealth creation.” Following the trajectory of Jean Chretien’s hiatus (and the older politician’s advice), he set out to make his million, a prospect achieved by sitting on numerous corporate boards and maintaining contact with those whose interests he had advanced in re-wiring New Brunswick. What did Camp do? He became preoccupied, as older men do, with atonement, revisiting the sins of his own past and re-examining the outcomes of what his work had wrought. He went back to the simple life of an intellectual, crafting an Arnoldian journalism of high-idealism, supporting his old friends Alexa McDonough and Stephen Lewis in their own political battles, and reading books, modelling the belief, first expressed when he co-chaired the Ontario Royal Commission on Book Publishing, that “the importance of publishing in the life of Canada is cultural before it is anything else” (252). Why did Mulroney so admire both men? Because of one’s humanism and the other’s utility. Because, to quote the poet Wallace Stevens, Mulroney, a “nothing himself,” beheld “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

While Stephen Harper, Belinda Stronach, and other descendants of Mulroney remain poised to sell our national trusts, ever ready to chastise Canadian nationalists for threatening what they refer to euphemistically as “our interests,” and while the Paul Martins of our country morph into all manner of persuasion and alliance to secure power, the great hope is that figures like Camp continue to exist somewhere on the fringes, that the political establishment has not devolved to the point of finding their humanisms cumbersome, and that some small part of politics may still be wrested from the hands of lobbyists and traders bent on fulfilling their own interests (and that of their friends) at whatever cost to the exclusion of the people’s agenda.

Why does this matter? Because in a world of globalized capitalism that prices everything with care but knows the value of little, a world grown indifferent to the needs of citizens, save consumers and soldiers, a statesman like Camp is needed and missed. Also, and most importantly, because allegiances that grow from contractual obligations lure Canadians into all manner of quagmire, moral and otherwise, quagmire which needs distance to counter and condemn. The ideological shift of our major trading partner indicates that this view is not exaggerated. When people of good will are silenced in order to do business with those who wage illegal war, revoke civil liberties, and destabilize the world economy and political order to achieve their aims, then fundamental questions about leadership and partisanship must be asked. One such question is what we want in our Premiers and Prime Ministers: do we want leaders who will protect our sovereignty as a nation, understanding that sovereignty includes the full range of cultural, historical, regional, and human resources, or do we want leaders whose primary task is to manage trade and business agreements between domestic and foreign multi-nationals? Camp’s aversion to Mulroney should be a warning to us, as should McKenna’s rush to a premature and ill-conceived self-sufficiency.

To return to the epigram above, McKenna discovered what Liberal MP Lorne Murchison did in Sara Jeannette Duncan’s 1904 idyll of small-town Ontario. He found his broadness of mind stifled by provincialism: “religious fervour was not beautiful, or dramatic, or self-immolating; it was reasonable” (60). So, too, it seems, the policies that evolved from that fervour, policies which must stand as a footnote to McKenna’s time in office in New Brunswick. Unfortunately for us, a man of energy, good will, and an abundance of heart learned the lesson or Realpolitik only too well. Rather than think largely, as Camp did, he thought “reasonably.” Rather than examining the implications of his new policy direction, he rushed to provide concrete solutions, believing that it was better to offer help in the short term than to invest time in thinking about disparity in historical and structural dimensions. His was Realpolitik without the Machiavellian overtones, but the cold logic of its practicality ended up serving the interests of those who did not share his sympathies for New Brunswickers, those for whom a dismantling of the systems of economic redress make good political and business sense. That McKenna is now calling for an end to ACOA seven years after he left office suggests that he has still not thought deeply about his solution or about the country whose concentrations of economic power are still centralized and increasingly reluctant to heed arguments for wealth redistribution.

So how will history compare Frank McKenna to Dalton Camp, two of New Brunswick’s most important titans of the last fifty years? As Irving Layton said of T.S. Eliot, “at best, a single hair / from the beard of Dostoievsky” (73).

Works Cited

Duncan, Sara Jeannette. The Imperialist. 1904. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, NCL, 1990.

Layton, Irving. “T.S. Eliot.” Collected Poems. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1965. 73.

Lee, Philip. Frank: The Life and Politics of Frank McKenna. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2001.

Stevens, Geoffrey. The Player: The Life & Times of Dalton Camp. Toronto: Key Porter, 2003.

Stevens, Wallace. “The Snow Man.” The Harper American Literature. Vol. 2. Donald McQuade, et. al., eds. New York: Harper Collins, 1993. 1.