They came to talk about new ideas.
They came, on a bright March day at the dawn of a new century, to the
basement of the Ottawa Congress Centre to discuss and debate and vote on
resolutions so sweeping they encompassed culture, society and the state.
Here, some 300 delegates to the Liberal national convention would choose one
of five compelling initiatives to send forward on "priority" basis.
It was serious work, taken seriously. Not a coffee cup clattered, not a
delegate chattered. They sat, and listened, as the chair worked through the
- A few elected senators to appease the West.
- A strong central government, to appease the worried.
- A new vision for Canada that would come out of a think-session to be held
three years from now.
- A national Web site, modelled on the original CBC, to bring the regions
and people into closer contact.
- A cabinet minister for senior citizens.
- Protection for consumers when it comes to big banks and insurance
And, finally, the lifting of a 1906 order-in-council.
They began the debate, though perhaps "mild discussion" might be a better
description. A non-elected senator, to the great astonishment of the
gathering, thought elected senators a poor idea. A delegate in favour of
more senate representation for British Columbia, which currently has six
senators, compared Prince Edward Island, which has four, to "a suburb of
Vancouver," which caused a mild reaction but no discernible passion. They
turned down the idea flat.
Someone spoke in favour of strong central government. Since no one could
think of anything to say against strong central government, the vote in
favour was a landslide.
They introduced Resolution 32, New Vision for Canada: "Be it resolved that
the Liberal Party of Canada urge the federal government to organize, prior
to the year 2003, a policy conference similar to the Kingston Policy
Conference." They decided not to bother with debate and passed it in an
They agreed a Web site was a good idea; they agreed seniors needed
representation; they agreed that consumers need all the help they can get.
And then they came to the 1906 census -- and suddenly, magnificently, the
great renowned passion of the Liberal Party of Canada burst through a room
that had, up until this moment, been funereal by comparison.
"Be it resolved," Resolution 36 began, that the government act promptly to
fix a 94-year-old order-in-council that guaranteed secrecy to the 1906
western census and could, theoretically, prevent the data gathered then and
in all subsequent censuses from ever falling into the hands of social
researchers, historians, even hobby genealogists.
"An outrage," declared one man.
"This is not a glamour issue," announced another, "but it cuts to the core
of who we are as a people and as a nation. "It should be the priority
Only one in the room had the nerve to argue that Resolution 36 should be
defeated -- privacy guaranteed should be respected eternally, he
suggested -- and, admittedly, there is little to be said against a change
that would merely open up significant information 92 years after it had been
given. "They're all dead, anyway," said one man.
The point here is not to argue the validity of Resolution 36, but to ask how
on earth it could be seen as a "priority" by delegates of the governing
party gathering to discuss "culture, society and the state."
If this cuts "to the core" of who Liberals are as a people, then perhaps it
is time for the Liberal Party of Canada to consider again what it is that
constitutes a political idea. Resolution 36, the Great Issue of the 1906
Census, did not win "priority" support.
That went, perhaps even more embarrassingly, to strong central government,
which to Liberals is about as close to a motherhood statement as 300
delegates in a warm basement room could come.
Where priority should have gone, obviously, is to Resolution 32, the call
for a "New Vision for Canada." As the resolution stated, "as we enter the
21st century, it is time for a bold initiative to set a new direction for
Canada." The call was for a gathering similar to the Liberals' famous 1960
Kingston Policy Conference that, essentially, created the country these
people now live in and which the United Nations likes to call the finest
place on Earth in which to live.
Author-historian Peter C. Newman, who was at that 1960 gathering and is also
at this 2000 gathering, remembers the excitement that came out of Kingston
40 years ago. It was not only the new ideas -- the heart of the safety net
philosophy -- but the new people who came to the Kingston convention, not
all as Liberals, and who went on to form the next generation of politicians
and bureaucrats. It gave the Liberals, under Lester Pearson, new energy and
new purpose, and was fundamental in returning the party to power a couple of
"It was incredible," says Newman. "It was the biggest thing Pearson did. He
was basically saying the Liberal party had run out of ideas and was inviting
people to come to Kingston with new ones.
"It was the rebirth of a movement for the party."
The difference between today and then is, obviously, the difference between
being out of power and in power.
The similarity, however, is far more striking.
The Liberal Party of Canada is in desperate need of new ideas.
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