Sunday, June 20, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Martin W.G. King

Kim Campbell: A Boost To Canada's Psyche

CANADIANS love their heroes. But, by their own complaint, they've never had enough of them. And, to make matters worse, they are convinced they must have heroes to constitute a "real" nation.

But was that a good enough reason for Canada's ruling Progressive Conservative Party to make smart, perky, and, well, somewhat wacky Vancouver lawyer Kim Campbell their first woman Prime Minister?

Campbell's swift ascent to the peak of Canadian politics followed a campaign the likes of which the country hadn't seen since Pierre Trudeau had teenage girls - and, the truth be known, many other Canadians - swooning back in 1968. They called it Trudeaumania then, Campbellmania this time around, from the moment the radiant, blonde Campbell stepped before the lights in the grand ballroom of the stately old Hotel Vancouver to announce that she was out for the power-grab of the century.

The response was swift - and stunning. After a decade of appalling leadership by Brian Mulroney, the least popular prime minister in Canadian history; after one constitutional crisis after another; after five years of a debilitating recession, massive unemployment and staggering tax hikes; and with an uneasy feeling that Canada had slipped right off the world stage, the pundits and many politicians declared that the country was ripe for change. And only Campbell, an attractive, outspoken political novice, first elected to parliament only five years ago, could provide it, they said. Within days Canada was awash in tidal waves of Campbellmania; none dared challenge her.

And her was the operative word for many. Although Campbell later proved to have little sympathy for those who claimed to be disenfranchised - including women's groups - she was soon championed by reason of her gender - to be a true symbol of change. After all, the Americans had just elected Bill Clinton. With his aging Boomer silver hair, he was the international coverboy of the 1990s. And the Americans had Hillary, too; she was seen as the epitome of the feminist-mother-who-broke-the-glass-ceiling, Big Time.

The idea of outdoing the Americans, an old Canadian game, seemed to take hold. After all, Canada could have North America's first female head of government, not just some unofficial "co-president" like Hillary Rodham Clinton. Certainly, there were many who felt that the transfer of power between generations in Washington had paved the way for a long-overdue change in leadership gender north of the border. And, they said, it could be legitimately defended on the basis of merit. But many detected early warning signs of Canada's chronic insecurity.

Early on, in fact, some saw the invisible hand of the country's insecure psyche pulling the strings throughout the spring's political soap opera. That insecurity is a direct result of Canada's geography and instant mass communication; both put Canada squarely in the shadow of the U.S. - culturally, politically, historically, you name it.

Any Canadian will tell you that they know what they are not - American - but the answers get fuzzy when they try to define what they are. In any case, the constant need to debate the notion of their nationhood frequently has books with awkward titles like "Why We Act Like Canadians: A Personal Exploration of our National Character" hitting the tops of the best-seller lists in no time and staying there, it seems, forever.

You have to understand the Canadian psyche - this need for national self-discovery and self-definition - to understand why Canadians have found Campbell so appealing. Canadians tell visiting American convention-goers that they've never had heroes like Paul Revere or Patrick Henry, forgetting that they never had to fight to get their independence. They envy Washington's great marble monuments, its bronze soldiers on horseback in every traffic circle and square.

Sure, they've produced Wayne Gretzky, who soon fled to Los Angeles, as did Michael J. Fox. And they've offered up k.d. Lang, the Cowboy Junkies, Snow (the white, ex-con rap sensation who's now topping the U.S. charts), Neil Young, David Clayton Thomas, Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and much of the Saturday Night Live crew, including producer Lorne Michaels, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Mike Meyers and Martin Short. But the Canadians executed their greatest hero - Manitoba revolutionary Louis Riel - more than a century ago. Now they make movies about him, heroic ones they show in schools.

Certainly, Canada has other heroes. Vancouver's Terry Fox, for example, a young man with cancer, one leg amputated already and replaced with a prosthetic device, captured the nation's heart as he jogged across much of the country to raise money for cancer research before succumbing to his illness. Now, quite rightly, he is revered for his courage and sacrifice.

Despite such figures as Terry Fox and all of their other cultural icons, many Canadians still feel they have yet to discover just who they are. They sense, however, that having heroes, especially having "stars" who've "made" it in the U.S., is an important part of the equation.

Canadians stare at the U.S. as much as they do at their own navels. They know that Canadians are exceptionally well educated, worldly and brave. (They've been on the ground in Bosnia for months.) They've built beautiful, big livable cities that work and they've had a universal national health plan since the 1960s. But they feel unappreciated. It's the Americans who get the attention that they want and feel that they deserve.

And it's American dominance - cultural and political - that they fear more than anything. In the mid-1970s, the best-seller lists were topped by "Ultimatum: Oil or War?" in which the U.S. went to war with Canada to gain access to Canada's vast oil reserves. The Canadians won that one, shooting down the American attackers (in flames) over Lake Ontario. But Canadians of all political hues still bridle at assertions by American politicians that their huge supplies of water, energy and other natural resources are "continental," meant to be shared with the U.S.

All this fits in with the political melodrama just concluded. As Mulroney's justice minister - a job Campbell landed in no time after, her critics say, first securing her position as Mulroney's pet - Campbell posed for a rather mundane, yet startling photographic portrait. The picture, published in a book about famous Canadians, made it look like she was standing naked behind her judicial robes, held in front of her. She later claimed she was wearing her underwear all the time. What a hoot! What a woman! What a star! What matters is that it got her attention - abroad, and in the U.S.

In the odd turns of Canadian politics, some Canadian observers have pointed to Campbell's quick rise to political stardom as an extension of Canada's preoccupation with self-doubt and rivalry with the U.S. for the world's attention.

The bottom line is that there is a hard core of the Canadian public that always wants to out-do the U.S. Certainly there are many who are confident enough - and sophisticated enough - to ignore this kind of thing. But whether you call it sibling rivalry or perhaps just some innate need to beat the Americans at their own game - in this case, politics - it exists.

But there are dangerous signs already that Campbell's victory may lack the merit that would have made her triumph of gender truly honorable.

Campbell almost blew it, not out of a lack of ambition, but by being reckless and harsh throughout her campaign for the Conservative leadership. She squandered the political capital provided by the tidal surges of "Campbellmania" and was forced to a second ballot in Ottawa. Her challenger, Jean Charest, an improbably young 34 to her still-youthful 46, capitalized on Campbell's loose lips. He mounted such an effective challenge that public opinion polls on the eve of the convention showed that only he could lead the party to victory in the elections expected this fall.

What did Campbell do that was so awful? Plenty. Some excused her for flubbing her lines in live national television debates. But did she have to start rambling on about "the evil demons of the papacy" in a country that is near-majority Roman Catholic? Or calling those who disagreed with her "enemies of Canadians?" She expressed disdain for factory workers and those she considered less than her intellectual equals, all the while claiming she would practice the "politics of inclusion." That was a smart ploy, in a land wracked by ethnic and economic division, but she never defined the term - even when pressed. And she probably gained as many votes as she lost with her candid admission that she had smoked marijuana, inhaled and liked the effects.

What appalled people was her claim, as a former justice minister, that she didn't know it had been illegal to do so.

In the end, the expected cakewalk turned into a horse race, and Campbell barely won - and then perhaps only because of the sometimes suicidal nature of Canadian politics. Many Conservative delegates may have voted for Campbell, not Charest, who could win the next election, for a very bad reason: She was an English-speaker, he a French-Canadian, although both are bilingual. This sort of thing has happened in the past, when, for example, the Liberals chose John Turner instead of the then-popular Chretien to succeed Pierre Trudeau - because one Quebecer shouldn't succeed another - and then opted for the fading Chretien to succeed Turner when it was "time" for another French-Canadian leader. And there was indeed a Conservative "sensibility" last week that even if Campbell looked like a political idiot-savant and a loser, it wasn't time again for one Quebecer, Charest, to succeed another - Mulroney.

Kim Campbell's most eloquent line may, sadly, prove to say as much about her as it did her main adversary seven years ago for the leadership of British Columbia's ultra-right Social Credit Party, the glib, glamorous William Vander Zalm. (Campbell finished dead last in a field of 11, but her gracious, intelligent campaign caught Mulroney's eye.) In a biting speech, Campbell warned that "charisma without substance is a dangerous thing." Vander Zalm went on to become premier, served without distinction in a government mired in scandal, and was ousted for using his office for personal gain.

Campbell, who on good days can be evangelically inspirational, has proven she's got charisma. Substance is another matter, despite her service as minister of justice and, most recently, minister of defense. She must dissolve Parliament and call elections by this fall. That campaign may well be the most fractious in Canada's history, as burgeoning, radical populist movements on both the left and right of the three major parties - Progressive Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats threaten to shatter established voting patterns, tearing support away from the Conservatives and the Liberals. With six parties pledged to contest the election, pushing for everything from secession for Quebec to a dismantling of Canada's vast social programs, almost anything could happen.

Some are speculating already that the Tories under Campbell will go down to defeat. But, while they admit it is a distant long shot, they also are willing to speculate that the next prime minister of Canada, after Campbell, may be a woman too: Audrey McLaughlin, the intellectual, strong-willed leader of the socialist New Democrats who, for the first time in Canadian history, may well win enough votes to share power or hold office as a minority government. Then, perhaps, the true test of politics and gender, and substance, not charisma, would be met.

Martin W.G. King, a Canadian and editor of a business magazine published in Washington, D.C., is a native of Victoria, B.C. He frequently writes about Canadian politics.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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