This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 23, 1997
McLellan New Justice Minister
Long ago, Anne McLellan learned to accept a daunting task with enthusiasm and a sense of duty. Growing up on her parents' dairy and chicken farm in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley, she helped gather the eggs produced by the family's flock of hens. All 17,000 of them. McLellan accepted her responsibility with the kind of zeal still evident in her personality today. "We're all a product of our upbringing and I didn't see it as work," she says. "It was fun, something you did to help out." Similar dedication will again come in handy for the 46-year-old McLellan, who emerged last week as a major figure in Jean Chrétien's cabinet. As the new justice minister, and a member of all four cabinet committees, McLellan finds herself not only the most powerful woman in the cabinet, but also charged with the job of rebuilding Liberal fortunes in Alberta. At the same time, she must stickhandle her way around two of the government's most divisive and emotional issues: national unity and gun control.
In political terms, McLellan's rise in the cabinet hierarchy is designed to send a message that the Liberals intend to fight Reform in its Alberta stronghold. The unanswered question is whether McLellan, a former law professor who arrived as a political neophyte in 1993 after winning her Edmonton riding by only 12 votes, is up to the challenge. Those who know her say she is. "She gets things done, she's a problem solver and she's tenacious," says Calgary lawyer Marsha Erb, a party activist. "Let's face it, the party has to do some serious rebuilding out here and McLellan's the person to do it," she says. Already, a handful of Alberta Liberals are talking about forming a "mini think-tank" that could use McLellan as a sounding board and a means to push western concerns onto the government agenda.
In her first term, when she was natural resources minister, McLellan's political role was limited. Alberta's political minister was longtime party operative Senator Joyce Fairbairn of Lethbridge, who sat in the cabinet as the government House leader in the Senate. The belief in those days was that McLellan lacked the political instincts that come with years of experience. "She was seen as politically naïve," says one Ottawa Liberal insider. "But in the last 18 months, that feeling has subsided and the sense is McLellan has what it takes politically to do the job." With Fairbairn no longer in the cabinet, McLellan has assumed control over patronage appointments and the spoils of power, making her a kind of political matriarch for Alberta.
But McLellan's profile and status is certain to grow far beyond her home province. This fall, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the federal government's reference challenging Quebec's constitutional right to secede unilaterally. Thus, the unilingual McLellan will be front and centre in advocating the federal position - the so-called Plan B - that sovereigntists denounce as an attempt to deny the democratic rights of Quebecers. Liberal strategists hope westerners will see McLellan's role as a signal they are being heard in Ottawa on the unity issue. To make sure the message does not elude people, McLellan makes the point herself. "I hope people understand how significant it is that the Prime Minister has a westerner in this role," McLellan told Maclean's. "It speaks to my belief that national unity is a concern of all Canadians."
Others, however, warn that McLellan's position as justice minister can also present problems for the Liberals in the West. University of Lethbridge political scientist Peter McCormick says giving a westerner control of Plan B can be interpreted two ways. It might reassure the West, or it could be seen as an indication that Plan B has been marginalized. "I think Chrétien can go either way on this issue, but McLellan could be used as a kind of sacrificial lamb who goes down if the reaction is too strong," he says.
Perhaps more problematic, McLellan is seen as a progressive on social policy and her academic career includes writing from a distinctly feminist perspective, not the sort of opinions that will endear her to many socially conservative westerners who have given Reform a political stranglehold on the region. Which leads directly to the other delicate issue McLellan inherits: gun control. Initially, replacing former justice minister Allan Rock - the architect and leading advocate of gun control - with a westerner has done little to alter the hard feelings gun owners have towards the Liberals. "There is nothing about Anne McLellan's appointment that makes us feel any different," growls David Tomlinson, president of the Edmonton-based National Firearms Association. "The Liberals are the sworn enemy of the gun community." But McLellan argues that the government's re-election validates its gun-control law and she intends to push ahead, albeit with a willingness to consider other opinions. "I want to respect the legitimate views of all the stakeholders, especially the gun owners. I say the legitimate gun owners have nothing to fear," she says.
McLellan's greatest strength could be her pan-Canadian background. She got her law degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax, and taught at the University of New Brunswick before joining the University of Alberta law faculty in 1980. As such, McLellan believes she appreciates regional alienation. "Obviously, some western Canadians feel a high degree of exclusion. I will heed that and carry the message to my colleagues," she says. Typically, McLellan looks forward to a difficult job with enthusiasm, even though many believe it could be an impossible mission.
Maclean's June 23, 1997