Life Sentences: Memoirs of an Incorrigible Canadian
At home in Paris, Notre-Dame, Christmas Night, 2002
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Staring into the ship's wake, I recalled a quarter-century-old croquet game. The players: René Lévesque, Robert Bourassa and a young Toronto professor-journalist with the initials K.S. -- a reformed Orangeman ending up as friend of both future separatist and federalist Quebec premiers. That muggy May day of 1969, the three of us were speakers at still another "whither Quebec?" conference near Ontario's Lake Couchiching. After lunch, we wandered out and commandeered the hotel's croquet set. We played a wild and decidedly ungentlemanly game, our chortling self-narration pitting secessionist and federalists against each other. Canada's fate hung metaphorically on a few wooden balls. Lévesque, skilled and crafty, whipped the Bourassa-Spicer team, then we all adjourned for a scotch and/or soda to recap our exploits. A few months later, Pierre Trudeau parachuted me into the job of my life: Canada's first Commissioner of Official Languages. A job more like NHL hockey than croquet, this put me on warm terms with all three key players in the Quebec-Canada drama. It also hurled me, a restless thirty-five-year-old tilter at windmills, into the maelstrom of Canada's national unity debate. French-English reconciliation had long been my passion. Now it became my obsession...


Chapter One: ROOTS

Let's not go back to the Big Bang theory of the Universe. But my first memory of Canada -- well, of life -- was of gazing into an inferno. I was three years old, maybe four. Twice a day I watched my mother, a plump, black-haired, 36-year-old farm-girl, hurl shovelfuls of coal past the gates of hell -- into two ancient, round, asbestos-cloaked furnaces in the basement of our red-brick duplex at 30-32 Lonsdale Road in Toronto. I can still hear the cast-iron furnace-doors creak and scrape as I opened them for her, lifting the latch gingerly not to burn my tiny fingers. Awed by the flickering hues, and daring the flames to sear my face, I would gaze into the glow and dream of magic forces. Inside the mad fire-dance, I imagined mysteries of life and death, and, like every little boy, I pursued reveries of castles, crusades and exploits that people then called 'devilment.' I didn't know my hero's name then, but I later recognized him to be Don Quixote. Or was it the Lone Ranger? That's who I always wanted to be -- and much later wanted Canada to be -- fearless, fired by high ideals, a little outside the system, and if possible on the side of the underdog.

My favourite devilment in those pre-school days was climbing up the mountain of coal onto which grimy-faced men dumped sacks of anthracite through a window into our basement storeroom. A grubby, all-conquering Edmund Hillary in short pants, I would scamper up the shifting coals, scrambling for a foothold to conquer the summit. Then, triggering spine-tingling avalanches, I would slither down to the bottom in a cloud of soot pierced by my mother's outraged howl and my own whoops of triumph. The ensuing slap on the bum was worth it every time.


Chapter Nine: "Commissioner of Cornflakes"

Aptly enough, my new crusade-on-a-tightrope began on April Fool's Day. The sky was grey, I was green, and the country was purple with fury and frustration at this whole explosive, "divisive" business of official languages. On that crisp spring morning of 1970, a faint smell of cordite wafted through the Ottawa air. I sensed I was walking into the job I was born for, well, maybe condemned to. A sublime intersection of passion and opportunity, it was both terrifying and exhilarating. The stakes were enormous. I had an extraordinary chance to advance the great reconcilation at the heart of Canada's nationhood -- just as I had long imagined it, at a time of crisis.

Asked to raise hell for a cause I deeply believed in; paid to take on extremists, and to harry to reform powerful politicians and bureaucrats; handed carte blanche to define and incarnate an unprecedented post as parliamentary ombudsman -- such fun should have been illegal. Before I got far into the job, a few people agreed.

A little over three weeks earlier, on March 4, 1970, two days before I turned 36, Pierre Trudeau had named me Canada's first Commissioner of Official Languages. The risk of being the last one was plain my first morning. I wasn't sure then if I'd leave by reason of scandal, ulcers, impeachment or assassination. The early signs did not, as the Marxists used to say, augur singing tomorrows. Or even, I briefly thought that first morning, hint at any tomorrow at all.

I had just settled into a nondescript office in the Berger Building, a glass-box on the corner of Ottawa's Metcalfe St. and Laurier Avenue. It was a classic orange-crate situation: a desk, a chair, a secretary, and nobody who knew how to order pencils. All I had was a copy of the Official Languages Act, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and, as I strolled into the firestorm, a calm sense of coming home to myself.

Just before lunch, my mint-fresh career looked like it could be brief. A short, shifty-eyed little man about 25 years old burst into my office, swivelled a hunched back away from me, fidgeted in his briefcase, then whirled around to point at my chest a ... writ. He was a bailiff. And I was a man relieved that my assassin's weapon was loaded only with legal clichés, his intent mere constitutional oblivion.

I signed for the paper, thanked him, and read. It alleged that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Secretary of State Gérard Pelletier and your humble servant had conspired to foist an unconstitutional act of legislation upon the Canadian people.


Chapter Sixteen: Back in the Trough

…Eight months later, at the end of what I would call my 'portable Vietnam,' these differences of perception would bring the PM to see me as a turncoat. And me to lose confidence in him. I knew well that he had two goals: to gain time, sending me to the front to face the fire now directed at him; and to get me out of the CRTC to please the "industry." But I didn't care. I saw a rare and timely chance for "ordinary" Canadians to define their country. By now, I had got completely caught up in that silly, old-fashioned nonsense called a sense of patriotic duty. I had to do this. Whatever the risks, it would simply be cowardly not to take them.

I had forty-eight hours to disengage from the CRTC and leap into the unknown. Ill-prepared, wild, chaotic, often mean-spirited -- but also beautiful and inspiring -- the adventure would begin. And with the title I gave it. It would not be the PCO's "consultative task force." It would be the Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future. I didn't know yet how quickly I would get trapped by new games from on high, or how ferocious would prove the volleys from threatened elites and Mulroney-demonizers. To do the job with integrity, I would have to dodge and weave around them, and some of my own 'advisers,' right to the end.

On launch morning, November 1, 1990, I said good-bye to my secretaries and a few commissioners. Then I assembled about two hundred CRTC staff in the downstairs hall and told them that… well, a funny thing had happened to me on the way to the Forum. I kept a longstanding lunch appointment with governor of the Bank of Canada John Crow and the former Japanese ambassador and emperor Hirohito interpreter, my friend Yoshio Okawa. I made a quick tour home before heading out to the opening press conference with my assistant Barbara Ursel, a bright young lawyer I kidnapped from the CRTC. On leaving, I reached into the closet to get my (aptly termed!) trenchcoat. I looked up and saw a wide-brimmed black German fedora I had bought in Freiburg-im-Breisgau, but never worn. I tried it on, and straightened it in the mirror until I saw 1939 and something like Casablanca. I decided then and there that this would become my Forum signature - a simple, reassuring symbol for an Inspector Maigret "not," as I would insist, "looking for all the usual suspects."


Chapter Twenty-Two: We'll Always Have Paris

…Before shutting down my peanut-stand, I did have one delightful Internet experience. Her name was Édith Cresson, former prime minister of France. A svelte woman with mischievous eyes, and dans la fine fleur de l'âge, Mme Cresson got into trouble over the years for her fire-away bluntness. Too many British men, she noted, were gay, and the Japanese "lived like ants." I met Madame Cresson when she was a member of the European Commission in Brussels. Inviting the Canadian ambassador along, I tried to persuade Mme Cresson that France, with its Minitel advance and links with Canada, should lead Europe on the Internet - not drag, as it was doing, behind the Scandinavians, British and Germans. She invited me to give a speech at a fair in her hometown of Châtellerault, south of Paris. I did so, meeting there a future rightwing prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin (2002-04). This affable, down-to-earth man (a former rock musician and fan of back-from-the-crypt strummer-singer Johnny Hallyday) was a sturdy country-squire-type with a boxer's broken nose. He was then a regional council president. I spoke for half an hour to a crowd of some two hundred notables, and spoke briefly with Raffarin about his region.

Before we adjourned to a commendable meal with fine Loire-Valley wines, Mme Cresson took me to meet my co-guest of honour: the Vietnamese chargé d'affaires (I'm not making this up!). Together we were to cut the ribbon inaugurating the fair. He and I each had a pair of scissors with which we tried not to shake hands. On the other side of the ribbon was a ragtag band of seven or eight amateur musicians, including the deputy mayor with his tricolore republican sash. Solemnly, and sometimes even together, they played a rousing Marseillaise as we all stood to attention. The Vietnamese chargé, stirred to duty, leapt forward and cut the ribbon alone. Aghast, a red-faced chairman rushed to rejoin the ribbon's two ends so I could cut it again. Tears of laughter and affection filled my eyes. We were, to my enchantment, reliving Clochemerle - the fictitious France éternelle Beaujolais village of Gabriel Chevallier's 1934 novel -- in which the mayor, with civic gravitas, inaugurates a municipal urinal. I say that with sincerest respect for both the deputy mayor of Châtellerault and for Roman emperor Vespasian, father of all municipal urinals…


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Life Sentences: Memoirs of an Incorrigible Canadian
Keith Spicer.

0-7710-8222-3 October 2004, 376 pages. $27.95 U.S. / $36.99 Can.