Canada 1979: The Year Of Joe Clark

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I got familiar with a bluegrass song called “Old Joe Clark” as a seven-year-old in 1979, as a kid-friendly version wound up on an eight-track tape of children’s songs that my folks brought home one day.

But over the course of the next year or two, I noticed that whenever my Dad sang that song, he wasn’t singing the words I knew, about Joe’s eighteen-story-high house and how every story in that house was filled with chicken pie. And instead of singing the chorus “Round and round, Old Joe Clark/Round and round, I say/Round and round, Old Joe Clark/I ain’t got long to stay,” Dad was singing this:

“Fare thee well, Old Joe Clark/Fare thee well, you’re gone/Fare thee well, Old Joe Clark/You’re gonna be movin’ on.”

I also happened to notice that Dad, a longtime Liberal, happened to sing that song with extra gusto whenever my mother’s dyed-in-the-wool Tory in-laws happened to be around, especially my Grandpere. So one day I asked Dad, “Who’s Joe Clark?” My father completely confused me with his answer: “Exactly.”

See, I had no idea that there was an actual Joe Clark, or that he had just become Canada’s youngest Prime Minister. at the age of 39. Or, for that matter, that half the country referred to him as “Joe Who.” (On May 23, 1979, the day after Joe took down the legendary Pierre Trudeau in a federal election, the Toronto Star’s banner headline screamed: “Joe – That’s Who!”)

By the time I finally pieced together Joe Clark’s story, as a high school student in the late ’80s, he wasn’t the Prime Minister any more – he was a cabinet minister in the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney. And despite his steady handling of Canada’s Department of External Affairs, including a strong stand on sanctions against the apartheid-laden regime of South Africa that bucked the position taken by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Clark was mysteriously regarded as some sort of national punchline, an easy mark for Canada’s political cartoonists and the likes of Double Exposure and Royal Canadian Air Farce. 

My first real exposure to “that” Joe Clark came courtesy of Gordon Donaldson’s excellent book about the Canadian Prime Ministers up to (and including) Mulroney, Eighteen Men. As I traced Clark’s error-plagued nine-month run atop a shaky PC minority government in the late ’70s and early ’80s, as well as the misfortune that followed him prior to his unlikely ascension to power and the end of his seven-year run as Tory leader, I found myself feeling oddly sympathetic to this man I had never met and his struggle to be taken seriously as a leader.

For one thing, the people piling on Clark in his early days at 24 Sussex Drive included a former Prime Minister that teenage Joe, fresh out of High River, Alberta, tried to emulate after a chance mid-’50s meeting on Parliament Hill, John Diefenbaker. In 1967, as “The Chief” attempted to hang on to his slim grip on the PC party leadership, he got a stirring introduction at the party’s leadership convention from a twenty-something Clark, who Diefenbaker went on to emotionally describe as “brilliant” moments later.

That assessment from Clark’s idol went out the window less than four months after Clark became Prime Minister. The United Nations had declared 1979 as International Year of the Child; Diefenbaker chortled that Canada had marked the occasion “by electing Joe Clark.” That was just a precursor to the unkindest cut of all, which turned out to be Dief The Chief’s exit line. Spotting two CTV journalists in Ottawa who were sporting the network’s black “Election ’79” T-shirts, Canada’s thirteenth PM took one last swipe at its sixteenth: “Ah, yes. May 22. That was the blackest day in Canada’s history. You’re right to wear them.”

By this time, Clark hadn’t even called Parliament back into session yet, and things wouldn’t get any better when he did. Veering from crisis to crisis and reneging on ill-considered election promises such as a decision to move Canada’s Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Tory minority finally collapsed early in December when it lost a confidence vote on the “short-term pain for long-term gain” budget delivered by Clark’s Finance Minister, John Crosbie. (Fun fact: The confidence vote was launched by an NDP MP named Bob Rae, who would go on to have his own gaffe-plagued five-year run as Ontario’s premier in the first half of the ’90s.)

Two things strike me about this CBC footage of the PC minority’s collapse: the glee of the opposition parties in having plunged Canadians into another election, even tossing papers into the air after the final count was announced, and the terse, businesslike manner in which Clark announced his plans to visit the Governor-General’s Rideau Hall residence and immediately launch the next campaign. I could swear I noticed a slight smile on his face as he sat down after making those remarks, almost as if he was resigned to his fate.

Making the whole she-bang even stranger: Clark was the only party leader to ever defeat Trudeau in a general election, and thought he would face a new Liberal leader whenever the next campaign began, since Trudeau had officially resigned the party leadership on November 21. Less than a month later, shortly after the PC minority’s defeat, Trudeau announced that he had accepted his party’s overtures to return to public life, and vowed that the upcoming election campaign would indeed be his last.

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And so, nine months after it began, Joe Clark’s great rise to power sputtered to an end as Canadians returned Trudeau’s Liberals with a majority government. Over 37 years later, the cartoon posted above, by Montreal Gazette genius Terry Mosher aka. “Aislin,” still seems to sum up the situation perfectly; it was almost as if “Joe Who” had never actually been Prime Minister and the previous year’s events were merely a dream sequence in a weird political soap opera.

In Clark’s concession speech, he humbly declared: “Me, of all people – I forgot about politics.” He would get another dose of political humility in 1983, after receiving the support of 66.9 per cent of delegates at a federal Tory leadership review in Winnipeg. Deciding, perhaps foolishly, that the support of two-thirds of his party wouldn’t do (most of today’s political candidates should be so lucky to get those numbers), Clark called for a leadership convention the following summer and announced that he would take another crack at the post he had held since 1976. He finished second behind Mulroney, who would win a sweeping PC majority just over a year later.

So, by the time I figured out who “Joe Who” was in the late ’80s, he had redefined himself as an international diplomat but still carried the stigma of his previous political stumbles (literally and figuratively – on the night he became Prime Minister, he entered the limo ordered for him and missed the seat, tumbling onto the floor). Cartoonists, particularly the Toronto Sun’s Andy Donato, depicted him with exaggerated jowls, deer-in-the-headlights eyes and mittens tied to his sleeves; Double Exposure’s Bob Robertson had a field day with Clark’s deliberate speech patterns in both sketches and song parodies (forcing the lanky lad from High River to warble everything from Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music to “I’m Too Sexy” and “Hip To Be Square”), while Air Farce founder Don Ferguson thickened his voice and heightened his klutziness in radio sketches like this one. And both impersonators loved his laugh, even having a Clark chuckle-off in the early ’90s Air Farce sketch “Dueling Joes.”

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However, the early ’90s also saw Clark achieve something that even his greatest rival, Trudeau, failed to do – get the signatures of every single provincial and territorial leader on Canada’s Constitution. Trudeau plowed ahead without Quebec when Parliament (including Clark) passed a new constitution in 1982; Mulroney thought he had solved the issue with the 1987 Meech Lake Constitutional Accord, only to have various factors, including his own hubris, sink the deal before its June 1990 approval date. Appointed as Mulroney’s first-ever Minister of Constitutional Affairs in 1991, Clark somehow managed to develop a package that not only received the endorsement of the First Ministers but also the leaders of Canada’s three largest political parties and the Assembly of First Nations. Alas, even this achievement was marred when a majority of Canadians rejected the 1992 Charlottetown Accord in a referendum held during the fall of that year; still, even as Clark announced he would not run again in the subsequent federal election, I still appreciated the effort that he had put into national unity, especially with so many (including, possibly, his longtime Tory leadership rival, Mulroney) regarding him as a mere buffoon.

Fast-forward to the spring of 1997: I was covering the latest federal election for my news reporter job at CIGO-AM Radio in Port Hawkesbury, Cape Breton. The campaign organizers for the Tory candidate in the riding of Bras d’Or, Frank Crowdis, decided to bring in a ringer for a campaign event at the Skye Travelodge in Port Hastings and some hand-shaking at a Tim Horton’s outlet in Port Hawkesbury.

And that’s how I found myself standing face-to-face with Joe Clark on a Sunday morning in May, asking if he’d mind if I interviewed him and Crowdis at the coffee shop. His smiling response: “Well, I suppose that would be all right.” (Pause) “As long as we’re not violating the rules of Tim Horton’s.” “Oh, no,” I replied, quickly reworking their slogan of the day: “They’ve always got time for Joe Clark.”

It was a silly joke, but he still laughed. And I nearly peed my pants. It was THAT LAUGH. The deep, throaty, almost Santa-like chuckle that I had heard coming out of my radio speakers (and at two live Air Farce performances in Halifax) over the previous eleven years. He really, honestly, laughed like that. And I think I liked the idea that, for all the difficulties Clark had encountered over his years in public life, he still knew how to laugh.

So we headed to Tim’s, and I asked some basic questions of Joe and Frank about how the campaign was going and the Tories’ leader of the day, Jean Charest. And then we got into Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s handling of the national unity file, including the precariously close vote in the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum, and somehow it filled me on several levels to be having a serious conversation about constitutional issues with the last man to get all the necessary signatures on the Canadian constitution. (To this day, Clark is still the last man to have achieved this; no other Prime Minister has dipped his toe into the inky sludge of constitutional reform, and I don’t expect it to happen anytime in the next decade, at the rate we’re going.)

We finished things up, and I did something I’ve only done with a handful of other interview subjects, asking Clark if he’d mind if I got a couple of pictures of the two of us together. I make no apologies for the undertone of goofiness in the following photo, as it features two guys who didn’t always fit in but always loved their country.

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Little did I know that this wouldn’t be the last time I would get to interview Joe Clark, nor did I predict that the next time I’d have that opportunity – again in Port Hawkesbury, while he was stumping for provincial PC candidates in the 1999 Nova Scotia election – he’d be back in the saddle of the federal PC party. Following Charest’s decision to leave federal politics to run for the Quebec Liberal leadership in 1998, Clark surprised us all by announcing his candidacy, and surprised even more of us by winning the Tory leadership again.

An even bigger surprise: For his short-lived return to the House of Commons prior to the 2000 federal election, Clark ran in the Nova Scotia riding of Kings-Hants, vacated by MP Scott Brison to allow “Joe Who” to become “Valley Joe.” However, the day after Clark’s by-election victory, three Tory MPs defected to the governing Liberal caucus; The Chronicle-Herald summed up the bizarre turn of events with a front-page photo of a smiling Tory leader under the headline “CLARK CAN’T WIN FOR LOSING.” (I captured the moment in this editorial cartoon for my newspaper employers, The Reporter, which featured Clark and rising Tory star Peter MacKay. Please note the absence of mittens tied to Clark’s wrists, as well as a distinct lack of resemblance between my work and that of any full-time Canadian editorial cartoonists.)

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Joe Clark’s last political battles earned him a few more small victories. He emerged as one of the more dignified personalities in the 2000 election campaign, particularly in comparison to Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day. (During the English-language debate, when Day waved a handmade sign declaring “No 2-tier health care” to clear up misgivings of his party positions, Clark suggested that the head of the Alliance seemed to be campaigning for “some sort of game-show host.”) Clark won the Calgary Centre seat and the Tories elected another 11 MPs, bolstering their ranks somewhat in 2001 when Alliance defectors joined the Tories in the short-lived Progressive Conservative Democratic Representative Coalition. He also kept the heat on Chretien in the House of Commons and took surprisingly progressive positions on such hot-button issues as the legalisation of marijuana.

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Clark’s second stint in the PC leadership ended in 2003; MacKay won the party’s subsequent leadership convention, which turned out to be its last, as MacKay struck a deal with Alliance Leader Stephen Harper to form the new Conservative Party of Canada later that year. Seeing no resemblance between the new party and the political movement to which he had devoted much of his life, Clark’s last few months in Parliament prior to the 2004 election were spent as a “Progressive Conservative” and he has had little to do with the CPC since that time. In fact, he’s even campaigned for a few Liberal candidates, including Brison, who ditched the CPC shortly after its creation and is now the President of the Treasury Board of Canada within Justin Trudeau’s first cabinet.

While Air Farce once predicted that Clark would wind up as a Canada Customs officer (“continuing my long career in External Affairs”), he has instead taken on a variety of roles over the past 13 years. A vice-chair of the Global Leadership Foundation and a member of the international democracy watchdog known as the Jimmy Carter Centre, he has also taught and served on the boards of several universities on either side of the 49th parallel, ranging from Montreal’s McGill University to the Washington, D.C.-based American University. And he still attempts to help the rest of us make sense of Canadian politics in various public forums; here’s a clip of a thoughtful 2013 appearance on George Stroumboulopouolos Tonight.  

Not too shabby for a gangly kid from High River who lost his first election campaign in the ’60s, as a provincial PC candidate whose flyers included the slogan, “What’s a Joe Clark?”

Trust me, I’ll always know what – and who – a Joe Clark is. Especially if I happen to be in a Tim Horton’s.

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