Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Electoral reform could use a little Spicer

It seems only appropriate that he would be on the line from Paris, where election reform took one of history's most important steps.

Keith Spicer, 81 and still the mischief maker, cannot stifle himself.

"When France called its constituent assembly in 1789," he chuckles, "people were literally losing their heads. In Canada, we seem to be capable of losing our heads without the chop."

Story continues below advertisement

Certainly, it sometimes feels that way with all the current commotion over electoral reform among the talking and typing heads.

But this is nothing new. It is 25 years since Mr. Spicer set out on the most curious road trip in Canadian history. As chair of the Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future, he and his travelling circus moved across the country and back again, asking about 400,000 Canadians what they thought of their country, their politicians and their prospects.

It was, he would later report, "a pessimist's nightmare of hell."

Canadians were furious. They had lived through the doomed Meech Lake Accord, the Oka crisis, a resurgence of separatism, the stacking of the Senate and a raucous debate over a goods-and-services tax that included kazoo-blowing and, rumour had it, senators outfitted with catheters so they could filibuster forever.

The Spicer Commission, as it became known, was ridiculed all through the winter as it met with the now infamous "Ordinary Canadian" in church basements and community centres.

"I thought I was singing This Land Is Your Land," Mr. Spicer later wrote, but "media and public heard the theme from Looney Tunes."

But no one laughed when Leo Cannon stood up in the "Cradle of Confederation" in Charlottetown and spoke for that ordinary Canadian. The farmer and father of 12 slowly explained how his garden worked, how he would plant a carrot seed in spring and, over time, with care and faith, he would end up with a beautiful carrot.

Story continues below advertisement

"The problem with this country is that we have lost our faith," Mr. Cannon said. "This country is morally bankrupt … and unless we are willing to change, there's not a hope in hell."

Mr. Spicer initially had turned down the approach from then prime minister Brian Mulroney to take on the task. He saw it, and still sees it, as a way of getting him out of the way.

As chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, he was annoying the big cable companies by favouring consumers and pushing for investment in the arts.

When the Prime Minister's Office called again a few weeks later, Mr. Spicer's children implored him to take the post as a service to his country. Reluctantly, he agreed.

"A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum," he says from Paris. "I ended up believing in it."

When Mr. Spicer headed across the Ottawa River that late June day in 1991 to deliver his final report, he carried two speeches in his jacket pocket. One would say what he believed the government wanted to hear – essentially an endorsement of all the matters that had so upset Canadians – and the other would reflect, accurately, what he had heard.

Story continues below advertisement

Fortunately, he went with the latter when he reached the Great Hall of the Museum of Civilization, as the Museum of History was then known. He pulled no punches, saying that Mr. Mulroney had become a "lightning rod" for all the fury being directed toward the Canadian political system.

"I became Mulroney's flak jacket," Mr. Spicer says. "People were sickened and scared by what they had gone through."

In a moment of outrageous irony, Mr. Spicer's emotional speech had barely begun when, suddenly, the power went out and a dark, deep rumble thundered across the water from Parliament Hill.

Mr. Spicer argued that political reform – the very thing so obsessing Ottawa today, 25 winters later – was desperately needed.

He believed, as so many had come to believe, that the anachronistic non-elected Senate had to go. Personally, he favoured an elected Assembly of the Provinces, and if that proved impossible, then the Senate should be killed off.

A good start, he thought, might be just what had set France and the United States on their way to more-democratic rule: a constituent assembly. Such an assembly had been suggested before, but nixed by the government. Canadians, on the other hand, told the forum this was exactly what they wanted.

Mr. Spicer then thought that the Meech mess had left the country in a federal-provincial gridlock with no plan on how the established political forces might deal with the legitimate complaints of the native population. Believing that one should "never waste the opportunity of a good crisis," he was very much in favour of such an assembly.

The buzz-phrase back then, just as it is today, was "proportional representation." The question, of course, was what form it might take, just as today Canadians who believe in electoral reform are debating ranked ballots, mixed member proportional or any number of convoluted hybrids.

A quarter century on, Mr. Spicer – living in Paris since 1996 but still actively writing, whether it be a mystery novel in French or a periodic column in English for the Ottawa Citizen – says he has come to "waffle" a bit on what is the best route to go.

There is today no crisis similar to that Canadians felt 25 years ago. Besides, he says, a Canadian constituent assembly "would be extremely complicated to organize."

How, for example, would those who make up the assembly be chosen? Appointed? Elected? Would that not entail a debate on elections before the debate on elections?

There is also the problem with time. The Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is keen to move quickly on its election promise of reform, but a long assembly would be subject to the twists and turns of events, some of which could conceivably be as provocative as the wild happenings of 1990.

"It could all be derailed so easily," says Mr. Spicer, who nevertheless still believes an elected "House of Provinces" would lessen the regional alienation that occurs regularly in this sprawling country.

The Spicer Commission, he freely admits, led to no "specific, institutional changes." But, he quickly adds, "it changed the 'spirit' of the country – it provided some breathing space."

And a little such space today might not be a bad thing, either.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨