Team Canada Returns Home

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 29, 1996

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 29, 1996

Team Canada Returns Home

Say, heard the one about the punny first ministers and their trade mission to Asia? It began early last week in Islamabad, Pakistan, where New Brunswick's Frank McKenna signed a $200-million memorandum of understanding with the host government to upgrade that country's dairy industry through the sale of cows, bull semen and technology over the next 10 years. McKenna was so delighted that he talked about the deal at every opportunity, including the regular morning meetings involving the seven participating premiers, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and other federal officials. First, McKenna boasted that "we're really bullish about this." That prompted Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon to say: "That's really a lot of bull, Frank." Chimed in Nova Scotia's John Savage: "You're really milking this deal, aren't you?" It was all too much for Chrétien's puckish communications director, Peter Donolo, who demanded: "Let's moooo-ve on." So they did, until a day later, when McKenna again made a reference to his bovine agreement. Again, he was pounced on by Manitoba's Filmon, who told him: "Frank, we already know you're the biggest bullshipper of all."

So, depending on one's fondness for bad puns, some arguably funny things happened on the way to India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia. But, as the cow-struck premiers might say, that's an udder story. The real tale, by the time their government charter aircraft touched down back in Ottawa on Saturday after a 19-hour flight, was $8.7 billion in firm and prospective new trade deals involving Canadian companies and their partners in the four countries.

That almost equalled the total value of deals signed during Team Canada's initial venture abroad to China in November, 1994: $9 billion. It was also far above the $2 billion in deals that federal officials had originally forecast - although there were always suspicions that they lowballed that estimate in order to look better by exceeding it. More to the point, $2.6 billion was in binding contracts, while the rest was in less-concrete memoranda of understanding and letters of intent. Said Chrétien during the last stop of the trip in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where firms signed $445 million in deals: "If anything, this trip exceeded our expectations."

That was not all in the list of achievements for which the Prime Minister and premiers were quick to take credit. Unlike the first Team Canada trip to China, where Chrétien regarded talk of the host country's human rights abuses with a marked lack of enthusiasm, the issue occupied a prominent place in discussions throughout the latest voyage. And on the domestic political front, spending close to two weeks at close quarters gave Chrétien and the premiers ample opportunity to discuss the things that both unite and divide them. "It's amazing," said Savage, "how well you get to know each other when you are crammed together in a series of tiny rooms thousands of miles from home."

At various times, the premiers, either individually or as a group, broached subjects with the Prime Minister that included:

1) How to harmonize the federal Goods and Services tax (GST) with their own provincial sales taxes;

2) Their opposition to federal plans to cut the size of transfer payments in the next budget, due in early March;

3) The "rules of engagement" that should govern the manner by which the rest of the country responds to the prospect of another Quebec sovereignty referendum.

Although all the premiers were careful to underline that no formal conclusions were reached, the areas to be considered, said McKenna, include what percentage of the vote would be necessary for a province to secede, whether there should be a constitutional amendment to allow for secession, and what provision should be made for individual citizens in a separate Quebec who wish to remain Canadian;

» Redistribution of powers between Ottawa and the provinces. Surprisingly, most premiers admitted that when the federal government carries through with plans to realign some powers, they might actually be prepared to turn over certain matters exclusively to the federal government. Among the potential areas cited were responsibility over environmental controls and regulatory securities commissions.

All that seems enough to guarantee that at some time in the not-too-distant future, in another, as-yet-undecided part of the world, Team Canada will ride again - as Chrétien himself declared in Indonesia. And, in separate interviews with Maclean's, all the premiers indicated that they support the idea. "This is an absolutely tremendous under-taking," enthused Ontario's Mike Harris, the only premier not present on the Team Canada venture to China. "There is every reason I can think of for doing this again, and none that I can think of against it."

That enthusiasm was conspicuously lacking at the start of the trip. The absence of three premiers (Quebec's Jacques Parizeau, Saskatchewan's Roy Romanow and Alberta's Ralph Klein) and two territorial leaders, as well as the strained relations between Chrétien and some of the participating premiers, appeared to indicate that first ministers' trade missions might be an idea whose time had come - and gone. As well, the fact that two of the premiers in attendance - British Columbia's Michael Harcourt and Newfoundland's Clyde Wells - are lame ducks about to leave office left many premiers second-guessing the wisdom of their own attendance. "The atmosphere was pretty stiff the first few days," conceded Filmon. "I think we were all really feeling the change in chemistry that results from having a couple missing, and the fact of Mike and Clyde leaving." But, he added: "After a couple of days together, the old magic was back."

Which is not to say that the trip was either glitch-free - or lacking in controversy. As was the case on the 1994 trade mission to China, Chrétien won unanimous praise from the premiers for the manner in which he dealt with them. But the Prime Minister, who turned 62 during the trip, often appeared tired by the gruelling pace of 15-hour days and a time difference with Ottawa that ranged between 10½ and 13 hours. As a result, some of his speeches were sometimes delivered in a wooden, stumbling manner.

There were other, more serious problems. In Indonesia, Chrétien raised Canadian concerns about East Timor, the disputed former Portuguese colony that Indonesia claimed and seized by force in the 1970s. Although Chrétien said he reflected Canada's concerns in a "direct and forthright manner" during a meeting with Indonesian President Haji Mohamed Suharto, that was not enough for one of his own members of Parliament. In Ottawa, Montreal Liberal MP Warren Allmand led a group of prominent protesters who criticized the Team Canada trip at a media conference, saying Canada should not promote investment in Indonesia until it ceases its "genocide" in East Timor. But Chrétien and his advisers remained unfazed: in a briefing on domestic matters given to the premiers, a Chrétien adviser described Allmand and the other protesters as "the usual suspects."

In Pakistan, Chrétien was confronted with the case of Ahmed Said Khadr, a Canadian citizen who is being held - and allegedly mistreated - by Pakistani authorities on charges of "aiding and abetting terrorists". While there, he also met with Craig Kielburger, the 13-year-old from Thornhill, Ont., who won nationwide attention for his campaign to stamp out child labor abuses in the Third World. But Kielburger, who conducts media interviews with the poised assurance of a veteran performer, gave Chrétien only passing marks for his commitment to the issue, describing him as "vague" during their meeting.

But the Prime Minister performed more forcefully several days later when he conducted a question-and-answer forum attended by most of the 300 Canadian business-people on the trip. During the meeting, one of them publicly criticized Chrétien for raising human rights issues such as child labor during the trade mission, saying it was "not an appropriate time on a business trip." But Chrétien responded that "on issues like these, any time is appropriate" - and received a standing ovation.

Another problem was that Chrétien, in travelling directly from India to Pakistan, found himself hosted by two countries both eager to draw him into the long-standing disputes that divide them. While in India, he made remarks in support of free elections in the disputed Kashmir region, held by India. That was counter to traditional Canadian policy, which has been resolutely neutral, and ran the risk of annoying Pakistan's prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. Although Bhutto did not comment on Chrétien's statement, she did make a speech at a state dinner that amounted to an impassioned attempt to draw him into a declaration of condemnation of India's control of the region. "Mr. Prime Minister, please help us," she implored, suggesting that Canada might volunteer to send peacekeepers into the region. But Chrétien, who sat impassively through her remarks, did not address the request in his speech.

That was not the only issue on which the strong-willed Bhutto spoke her mind directly. After asking several questions about Quebec's sovereignty movement during a meeting with Chrétien and the premiers, she expressed amazement that other Canadians are so "tolerant." According to several of the premiers, she said: "In my country, two things would happen if a region wanted to secede. The first is that I would just say no, and the second is that I would send in the army." The somewhat startled Canadian contingent did not respond directly.

But there was no such reticence from any of the parties involving the principal goal of the trip: to increase Canadian trade. Both political leaders and the business executives accompanying them were generally buoyant - and, for once, the businesspeople applauded the role of government rather than calling for it to get out of their way. "When you bring a political delegation of this kind of stature into this part of the world, it makes everybody sit up and take notice," said Guy St. Pierre, CEO of Quebec's huge SNC-Lavalin engineering conglomerate. Although his firm has been active in Asia for several decades, St. Pierre said: "This kind of trip still makes it possible for us to conclude deals that might otherwise not have been possible."

The sudden enthusiasm of business leaders towards their political counterparts was equally apparent in private situations. When Ontario's Harris visited the Canadian Club in Islamabad - a beer-and-burgers bar with the earthy appeal of a small-town Legion hall, run by the Canadian high commission for its employees - he was greeted with a standing ovation from a table filled with members of the business side of the delegation. While Harris sat smiling, they repeatedly toasted him and celebrated "the return of capitalism" to Ontario. Similarly, the kind of media coverage accorded the trip in all four countries was the stuff of which dreams are made for any Canadian politician. After the first day of meetings in Pakistan, the country's largest English-language daily, the Pakistan Times, ran four favorable stories and two photographs of Chrétien on the front page alone - along with four more photographs and three other news stories in the rest of the 12-page newspaper. Overall, the tone of the coverage in each country was so welcoming that a slyly smiling McKenna suggested to Canadian journalists that "you fellows might like to take a few lessons here."

How long can all the goodwill last? By the end of the trip, among other things, Harcourt and Filmon had played tennis, Chrétien had met individually with each of the premiers, Filmon, Wells and their wives met for drinks, and most of the wives on the tour joined together in a quest to buy the perfect rug in Islamabad. But back in the real-world chill of a Canadian winter this week, Chrétien faces the likelihood of a cabinet shuffle, Wells and Harcourt prepare to leave office, Harris prepares to take on Ontario's grumbling labor unions, and all the premiers prepare to complain about the next federal budget. In short, it is back to remembering the things that divide, rather than unite them.

Maclean's January 29, 1996