Rock Fights for Gun Control | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Rock Fights for Gun Control

In many ways, that story sums up the elements that both friends and foes cite when they talk about Allan Rock. To friends, it is proof of his drive, vision, perseverance and persuasion.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 5, 1995

Rock, Allan
With John Lennon (left) at a University of Ottawa peace conference in 1969 (courtesy Maclean's).

Among longtime friends of Justice Minister Allan Rock, it is known simply as the John Lennon Story - burnished by more than a quarter century of retelling. The year was 1969, and Rock, then a law student at the University of Ottawa and president of the student council, learned that the former Beatle was visiting Montreal for what was to become his famous weeklong bed-in at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Without further ado, Rock hopped into his yellow Volkswagen Beetle, drove to Montreal, made his way into Lennon's hotel room - and invited him to the student council's peace conference. "I told him," recalls Rock, "that we had also invited Pierre Trudeau." Rock did not mention that there was probably even less chance of the prime minister attending the relatively minor student gathering than there was of the Beatles reuniting. Even at 21, Rock's now-famous powers of persuasion were enough. Lennon agreed, and several days later Rock, and student vice-president Hugh Segal - who later became chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney - met Lennon as he arrived by train. When Rock drove his guest back to the station later that day, several Beatles songs played on the radio, and Lennon sang along. Recalls Rock: "It was a magic moment." "It was a great coup," says Segal. "Allan was a shrewd so-and-so even then."

In many ways, that story sums up the elements that both friends and foes cite when they talk about Allan Rock. To friends, it is proof of his drive, vision, perseverance and persuasion. To foes, such as the growing number of opponents to Rock's gun-control legislation, it reveals the suspect soul of the left-leaning, rock-music loving peacenik activist they love to despise. And if not all of that is true - Rock says he was unaffected by 1960s hippiedom other than he acquired "a really hideous set of sideburns" - Rock proudly and unrepentantly describes himself still as "not just a Liberal, but a small-l liberal who believes that there are things that government can do for people."

That message is not necessarily a popular one in an era when increasingly cynical voters tend to believe that the best government is the one that does the least. For gun owners, who suspect that Rock's ultimate goal is to rid Canada of all firearms, it is further evidence of their worst fears. And it is fuel for the people who call Rock, among other things, "Rockmeister," "Rockfuehrer," "Stalinrock" and "Dictator Rock."

For Rock, the present clash provides several other messages in his continuing political education. One is that today's political friends are tomorrow's potential foes: witness the growing number of Liberal backbenchers who now criticize his gun-control bill, along with some members of the Bloc Québécois who first publicly supported the legislation. Another lesson for Rock, famed in legal circles for his ability to build consensus, is that in politics it is not possible to win over all of the people all of the time. A third lesson is that even the best-prepared people can be caught ill-prepared: Rock was embarrassed recently by suggestions from legal experts that his bill would allow unacceptable and probably unconstitutional powers of search and seizure to police officers. He was forced to change the provision.

But perhaps the key political lesson for Rock may be a version of an old Chinese saying: he should think carefully about what he aims for because he just may achieve it. Rock seems likely to push his gun-control legislation through as he wishes. The price may be his credibility in certain segments of the Liberal party, his popularity in much of rural Canada and, in the long term, an otherwise golden political future.

In the 26 years since meeting Lennon, Allan Rock's life has often seemed charmed beyond any reasonable measure. Bright, hardworking, charming, self-effacing, surprisingly shy, a devout family man, and lawyer of rare ability, he is known among friends and colleagues as someone who almost always gets what he wants. And that, most agree, is nothing less than he deserves. "There are two kinds of people in this world," says Eleanor Cronk, a partner at Rock's former law firm, Fasken Campbell Godfrey. "There are those who revere Allan Rock, and those who haven't yet met him. He is a truth-teller." That is high praise, but typical of the reaction Rock evokes. Even the notoriously glib Segal, a devout Progressive Conservative who has seldom met a Liberal that he did not want to mock, calls Rock "that rarest of creatures: someone from that party who really and truly is a person of principle."

So far, what Rock has wanted - and achieved - has included a marriage and family life that others cite as idyllic, a $320,000-a-year law practice that he walked away from two years ago to enter politics, and, since then, a reputation as arguably the most active and impressive member of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's cabinet. Now, that last quality is being put to the test with an intensity that few Liberals anticipated when Rock first announced the outlines of his legislation last November. The Liberals knew they would face a storm of protest from gun owners and rural ridings, where hunting and target shooting are part of the fabric of everyday life. But they did not expect that aspects of the bill would be denounced by mainstream groups including the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Bar Association, which questioned its constitutionality. Nor did they anticipate the depth of anger it would arouse among their own backbenchers, 29 of whom criticized aspects of the bill during parliamentary committee hearings last month.

Almost inevitably, as the debate has polarized the two sides, some of the comments have become personal. According to some dissident backbench MPs, Rock made a great show of seeking different views - but only paid attention to those that suited him. His legislation, they suggest, shows him for what he is: a big-city lawyer who has spent all his life around either Ottawa or Toronto, and has no understanding of rural traditions and values. Liberal MP John O'Reilly, from the Ontario riding of Victoria/Haliburton, says that he discussed his concerns with Rock over at least half a dozen dinners. Now, says O'Reilly, with a trace of bitterness, "people say he didn't consult. Well, he consulted, but he didn't pay any attention. To not pay attention to rural Canada is a dangerous situation for any party." And O'Reilly goes further. Asked about frequent speculation in Ottawa that Rock will eventually be a leading candidate to replace Chrétien as leader, O'Reilly says: "I don't think he'd get a vote in rural Canada."

Told later about O'Reilly's comments, Rock sighs. "I understand the way that John feels," says Rock, "but he has to understand that I am not going to change the way that I feel. We cannot stop governing just because it makes some people angry."

There have been easier times to be Allan Rock - including almost all of his life up to the moment he introduced gun-control legislation. Born and raised in the downtown Ottawa area of Sandy Hill, his father, Thomas, was a career military officer. The family, including his three sisters, is very close-knit: Rock usually sleeps over on visits to Toronto at his father's downtown condominium. (His mother died last year.) As a student, he was above average, although he mocks his own lack of ability in mathematics and sciences. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be a lawyer: one reason, he says smiling, was that "there was no science, or math, or heavy lifting involved." Other, more serious reasons included what he calls "the verbal aspect, the litigating: I like sitting down with the client and learning about their perspective, going into court and arguing with the other side."

Above all, the quality that has helped Rock is a single-mindedness that borders on obsession. Since coming to Ottawa, he has become famous - or notorious - among staff members and justice department employees for his round-the-clock calls. As a jogger, he can hold an eight-minute mile - considered the standard among serious runners - for up to 20 miles. And after Rock announced plans to bring in gun-control legislation, he immersed himself so thoroughly in the subject that one justice department official who has spent more than 15 years studying the issue remarked: "After a month of study, the guy was telling me things I didn't know."

But despite his obvious gifts as a litigator, and his involvement in the university student council, Rock insists he had relatively little interest in politics until recently. His only participation in politics while in university, he recalls, was "working the phones for [Liberal leadership candidate] Eric Kierans for a couple of nights" in 1968 as a favor to a friend. He did not become a card-carrying Liberal until 1990, although he says he always identified with the party ideologically.

Instead, Rock devoted himself single-mindedly to his law practice, and his rise in Ontario legal circles was steady, and seemed effortless. "Allan prepares so well in advance that he makes it all look easy," says his closest friend, Toronto lawyer David Roebuck. "It isn't." Rock became a partner at his firm in 1979, the same year he met his wife, Debbie Hanscom, who was articling at Faskin Campbell. The two were married in 1983, and have a 10-year-old daughter, Lauren, twin seven-year-olds, Stephen and Andrew, as well as Jason, 21, a son by Debbie's first marriage. In 1993, Rock was elected treasurer and chief executive officer of the Upper Canada Law Society, the top position in Ontario's legal community.

Still, if it was not for his late-blooming interest in politics, it is unlikely that many Canadians outside legal circles would have heard of Allan Rock - and he might be happiest that way. "He had reached the pinnacle of his profession, and he thought there had to be some new challenges out there," says Roebuck. "But I don't think he is all that thrilled with the demands it makes on his personal life, or the spotlight it puts on him." Rock's own explanation for his decision is that he and his wife were becoming increasingly frustrated with politics in general in Canada, but decided that "we did not have the right to complain if we were not prepared to do something."

Now, the circumstances of his arrival in politics seem the stuff of legend. He and Debbie joined the local Etobicoke Centre Liberal riding association in 1990. When he ran for the nomination in 1993, the riding was held by Finance Minister Michael Wilson at a point when the collapse of the Tories was far from certain. "People were just devastated when Allan announced his decision," says Paul Monahan, a lawyer at the firm who spent the past year as Rock's executive assistant. "He was a role model to so many of us, and frankly, lots of people thought it was a crazy thing to do."

Then, Rock declined an offer from Chrétien to designate him as a "star" candidate, which would have allowed him to bypass the nomination process. Instead, he went head-to-head against a candidate who was an anti-abortion activist supported by the entire riding executive. Rock won the nomination, said Joe Cruden, a former riding president who helped him and ran his subsequent election campaign, "the same way he wins at everything: by working harder, longer and better than everyone else." The marathon jogger literally ran from door to door to meet as many constituents as possible. "The rest of us were huffing and puffing, and the guy didn't even break a sweat," says Cruden. Rock won the riding by more than 15,000 votes over the second-place finisher.

Almost from the day he arrived in Ottawa in October, 1993, as a bilingual MP, he has been cited as a potential successor to Chrétien. And despite the uproar about gun legislation, all that remains true. But any speculation about the future includes two caveats: Rock and the Liberals must overcome the split his legislation has created both across the country and within the party, and he must decide whether his own political intentions extend beyond the next election.

Neither outcome is clear. Rock's bill will go to third and final reading in the House of Commons in the near future - likely by mid-June. Even if reluctant backbench MPs opposed to the bill are brought back onside, ill-feeling towards him will remain. That will be added to the resentment already felt towards Rock by other Liberal MPs who think he has risen too far, too fast, without paying sufficient attention to traditional political niceties. Around the cabinet table, several ministers say that Rock has faced aggressive criticism on several occasions from Sheila Copps, the deputy prime minister and environment minister. Although the two should be ideological allies, they are also two of the most often-discussed candidates to eventually lead the party. And, vows one fellow Toronto area MP, "Rock has risen as far within this party as he is ever going to get."

That may become true by Rock's own choice. Even before he was elected, he talked of serving a "tour of duty" in Ottawa. His conversation has often been peppered with references to "the very short time there is to do things here" and "my awareness that I am not here for long." Although close friends expect he will run again, none of them is certain. Rock feeds that uncertainty, answering questions about his future by saying only: "I have not made a decision, and when I do so, it will be after discussing it with my wife and children."

That reluctance to speculate on his future has been typical of Rock through high times and recent pressures. Shortly after becoming justice minister, he talked about how surprised he was by the "volume, intensity and constancy of change" in his portfolio. He was visibly uncomfortable at the partisan rhetoric and cut-and-thrust in the House of Commons. And he chafed at the lengthy separations from his family, who stayed behind in Toronto for the first six months. Now, the family has rented a house in Ottawa's Glebe district, and Hanscom has a part-time job in the Ottawa Crown attorney's office. Since their arrival, friends say that Rock is notably happier. In fact, the only obvious loser is Finance Minister Paul Martin Jr., Rock's closest friend in cabinet, who says he is in mourning for "the regular dinner companionship of the one man in Ottawa who likes greasy spoon diners even more than I do."

Rock, says one of his staff members, "is intensely devoted to his family, and equally intensely private about them." In fact, Rock seldom brings his children to public events, and does not want other family members either photographed or interviewed. When he brought his wife to the Ottawa Press Gallery annual dinner last month, it marked the first public function she has attended with him since his election.

But not all of Rock's reservations about political life have vanished, and the gun debate has strengthened his resolve in some ways, and added to his frustration in others. In an interview last November, on the day he had outlined his gun-control plans to the House of Commons, he acknowledged that he had "deliberately backed myself into a corner" by insisting that no major changes would be considered. "We have talked enough about the essentials, and now it is time to act," he said. In fact, Rock is particularly sensitive to charges that he spends too much time consulting. He was especially stung when Bloc Québécois MP and legal critic Pierrette Venne described him in the House of Commons last year as "the minister of consultation." "What hurt," says Rock, "is that I know that description has some merit."

During the gun-control debate, he spent far more time with opponents of his plans than with advocates. "People talk as though Allan Rock and I are best buddies," says Wendy Cukier, the president of one of the most effective lobby groups, the Coalition for Gun Control. "The reality is that it was almost impossible to see him for the first six months because he was so busy seeing people from the other side." In fact, Rock went several times to a firing range because, he said, "I knew that if people were going to take me seriously, they would want to know that I actually had picked up a firearm, knew the heft of a Magnum, knew the recoil of a shotgun, so I went out and blasted away."

And now, Rock intends to do the equivalent to the gun lobby. Despite the size of his opposition, he will almost certainly succeed because he has one hugely important ally: Chrétien. "The Prime Minister," said one senior adviser last week, "feels very strongly about both this issue and the importance of supporting his minister." Rock will need that help, now and in the future. Within the Liberal caucus, some backbench members dismiss the present controversy as a mere brushfire compared with the storm they say will erupt when Rock introduces legislation, at an unspecified time later this year, that will provide special punishment for individuals convicted of "crimes of hate."

In the meantime, Rock remains relentlessly upbeat, about both the gun-control legislation and politics in general. "I love what I do," he says. "The level of energy is incredible." So are the demands: Roebuck, who used to see Rock several times a week, says that his friend called him recently to suggest that they meet in either Egypt or Ireland, where Rock has conferences. "This is my sacrifice for Canada," Roebuck jokes. "To see my best friend, I have to leave the continent." More to the point, Roebuck says: "This is aging Allan before his time. You look at him now and you see traces of his father (age 79): that was not the case two years ago."

Not that Rock asks for much support in facing up to either the demands of the job, or his critics. Perhaps his defining moment came last September, when he spontaneously grabbed a microphone on Parliament Hill and made a speech defending his plans to more than 10,000 furious gun owners. Similarly, when he took a taxi last January to a Liberal meeting in Winnipeg, he arrived to discover several hundred anti-gun-legislation protesters gathered outside the hotel. Rock got out of his taxi a half block from the door, walked up to the group, and said: "Hi, who are you waiting for?" The group stood, stunned into silence, long enough for Rock to approach one member carrying a bullhorn. "May I ?" he asked. Then, he gave a five-minute speech explaining his position, answered several questions, and went into the meeting. "I don't think I won a single convert," he said. "But I could not forgive myself on an issue I feel so strongly about if I did not try."

Allan Rock will not have to forgive himself on that issue, and he can and will forgive those who disagree with him, even within the Liberal party. "We have to move beyond this," he says. But the key questions, for a man with a sense of mission and an otherwise gilt-edged political future, are how much Rock likes the taste of political victory, and how his opponents respond to their defeat.

Maclean's June 5, 1995