Martin's Last Week in Office | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Martin's Last Week in Office

It's 3 o'clock, 45 minutes into Question Period in the House of Commons, and Paul MARTIN leans over to Deputy PM Anne McLellan to say, "I'm going to go." But before he does, they play a couple games of tic-tac-toe - oblivious to the opposition and their own party droning on.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on December 5, 2005

Martin's Last Week in Office

It's 3 o'clock, 45 minutes into Question Period in the House of Commons, and Paul MARTIN leans over to Deputy PM Anne McLellan to say, "I'm going to go." But before he does, they play a couple games of tic-tac-toe - oblivious to the opposition and their own party droning on. Martin is Xs and McLellan is Os, and the game ends with the PM doubling over in laughter. The two have been goofing around all through QP, waving and motioning to friends in the galleries, as if they're a couple of kids in a school play who've just spotted their families in the audience.

It didn't seem to matter that their government was likely in its last days. Last week, Martin was determined to put on a brave face, one that even edged into arrogance on occasion. He walked the halls at a leisurely pace, one hand in his pocket, head held high. He stroked his chin when others spoke, rocked on his heels when being introduced and answered one probing journalist's question with a mildly condescending, "Hello Lena, comment ça va?" At many engagements - including a meeting with the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, an appearance at the annual gathering of the Canadian Arab Federation, and a speech to the Montreal chapter of the Laurier Club (a group of elite Liberal supporters) - he was almost jovial. After all, he was playing Santa Claus, giving billions to various groups and causes. (Things were a bit more sombre at week's end at the first ministers conference on Aboriginal affairs in Kelowna, B.C. - which began with the news of an armoured vehicle accident in Afghanistan that killed a Canadian soldier.)

There were times, though, that Martin's body language and behaviour could not hide his unease. At the meeting of the Arab federation, Jack LAYTON, Stephen HARPER and Gilles DUCEPPE mingled with about 100 guests, waiting for the PM to arrive. At 20 minutes after the appointed starting time, Harper's young aide gave him a one-minute warning. "Oh, we're going to start," said the Tory leader. "I guess the man's here." Just then, Martin came through the door and the two stood face to face. Martin extended his hand, but did everything to avoid eye contact, rotating his gaze in a semicircle above Harper's head. When they took their seats, Harper looked particularly feminine in the way he crossed his legs and his hands, but Martin was somewhat oafish, hiking up his socks for the millionth time that day and leaning back in his chair. Duceppe and Layton appeared natural and poised, attractive even: Duceppe with his perfectly gelled hair and black slip-on shoes, and Layton with his piercing blue eyes and black hipster boots. (To his credit, Martin did sport one trendy item, a grey rubber band bracelet that said BLING, which stands for Bring Love In, Not Guns, a gift from the Black Youth Coalition, a group he'd met earlier.)

With all four leaders in attendance, it was hard to see this event as anything other than an early campaign stop - although that initially seemed lost on Martin. He gave a paternalistic speech, saying "Canada is a friend to the Arab world and Canada is a friend to Israel," reminiscing about a Christmas in Morocco, and dismissing issues the federation wanted addressed so he could talk investment. "We will discuss security and civil rights, we will certainly discuss the Middle East, and we will certainly discuss the rights and wrongs of what happens, but there are 300 million Arabs in the Arab world, they are skilled, they come from a great history, they understand how to make an economy work. But what they need is investment, what they need is trade, surely to heaven as Canadians, all of us, we have the opportunity to bring a different era to the Middle East."

Then it was Harper's turn to appear uncomfortable, with a speech that relied on statements such as, "My brother spent time in Yemen and Dubai and had lots of interesting things to tell me." Duceppe and Layton were the crowd pleasers - their tough talk on how the government must change the anti-terrorism legislation and put an end to racial profiling was met with cheers and applause. "I thought Martin's speech was very patronizing," said Samah Sabawi, who belongs to the Canadian Friends of Sabeel, an ecumenical peace organization. "He said, 'This is what the Arabs should do, you have to go out and get money and we'll help you and we'll fund your projects.' But what he was really saying was, 'Don't ask me to make any decisions, I'm only here because an election is around the corner.' " And yet, Martin was swarmed after the speeches, as he shook hands and posed for photos - staying so long that he upset the host, who was trying to settle the room down for the second portion of the program. "It's the Arab nature to be happy that they just came to your event," said Sabawi.

In this final week before the official campaigning was set to begin, Martin showed one weakness: he's just not as quick-witted as his adversaries. In a bizarre comedy routine at the Arab event, Harper, Duceppe and Layton lightheartedly ganged up on Martin, leaving him at a loss for a snappy comeback. The PM is fond of water, drinking multiple glassfuls during QP; when giving a speech he'll take a sip to punctuate a joke or if he's looking for applause. So it came as no surprise that when he took the podium, where there were only two bottles of water for four speakers, he took one for himself - pouring it into a glass. Next up, Harper saw his opening, and said, "In consideration of the two guys behind me, I won't take the other bottle just for myself." When Layton reached the podium, he held up Martin's glass, saying he couldn't help but wonder if it was half empty or half full. Caught off guard, the PM barked out, "half full" - but not before Duceppe deftly remarked, "That's a question of confidence."

The next night in front of the Laurier Club, Martin was sharper: his dark blue suit seemed less lived-in, and he matched it with a burgundy tie, the same bold colour that had looked good on both Layton and Duceppe the night before. Most importantly, there was no public sock-yanking. The rapt audience embraced his anti-Duceppe message - "The Bloc claims to defend Quebec, but against what?" - allowing him a night of rah-rah-rah campaign prep before heading off to the first ministers meeting in B.C.

Martin kept a low profile at the Grand Okanagan resort in Kelowna, slipping in and out of back doors to avoid press scrums - although he did use a public washroom, meeting a stunned TV cameraman at the urinal. "He spoke first," says the cameraman, who preferred to remain anonymous. "Just a 'Hi, how are you?' But when I left, his security guys gave me a look like, 'What the ... ?' They somehow missed me on their sweep." And yes, Martin washed his hands.

Most of the 24-hour period was spent at the bargaining table, doling out $5.1 billion for Aboriginal housing, education and health. Throughout it all, Martin wore a Metis buckskin jacket with fringed sleeves and decorated with beads and embroidered infinity signs. It was given to him during the opening ceremony by David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation. "That's like a $2,000 jacket," commented Ken Fisher, a Metis from Surrey, B.C. "But in return for $5 billion, they must think it's worth the sacrifice."

The conference ran late the first night, and a reception was kept alive in hopes the PM would drop by. Martin was ready to do so, at around 9 p.m., but his handlers were trying to wrangle more people to walk to the restaurant with him (as if nearly a dozen security guards weren't enough company). He ended up strolling to the event, where he chatted with Chartrand. But the PM's attention kept drifting to the photographer and TV cameraman accompanying him - not just because this was a good photo op, but also because the two were walking backwards in front of him and bumping into things. "Be careful, look out," he warned with genuine concern, before turning to his people to say, "Help them, that shouldn't be happening."

Wearing the buckskin jacket out on the town, Martin had more presence than ever, and his chest seemed puffed up with pride. "I think it's great, I love it," he says. "I don't know how they got it to fit so well." Chartrand explained: "All those hugs we've been giving you over the years, we've actually been measuring you." Now it's Canada's turn to size Martin up - yet again.

Maclean's December 5, 2005