After an exciting year back in Canada's capital, most of the initial reverse culture shock had been successfully overcome. Dad had returned to that oddly shaped Pearson Building on Sussex Drive, the same headquarters where he began his career in Foreign Affairs many leagues ago. Brian and I were in the Lycée Claudel, enjoying our friends, afterschool activities and occasional outings. Maman was masterfully keeping the peace on the home front and working as a language interpreter for the city of Ottawa, remaining true to her multitasking nature. The toughest hurdle perhaps for all of us was getting reacquainted with Old Man Winter. The cold white tundra was more welcoming when we vacationed in Ontario while on our holiday high through the magic of Christmas. I will always admire my fellow Canadians for their fighting spirit, intestinal fortitude and clinical analysis as they tackle the season and the minus thirties Celsius in top form. Since I left Ottawa with my family back in 1986, something in my genetic code seems to be deleted from the programming as my body has never seemed to find a way to readjust to these extreme temperatures. Every new winter season feels much longer than the last and summers shorter. After this first year, October of 93 came along where I was reunited with one of my old friends from Santiago: Democracy. This was the autumn of Canada's 35th federal election and the stakes were high for the ruling Conservatives.
|View of the Parliament from Gatineau, Quebec|
The historic political rivalry in our Canadian Constitutional Monarchy has seen the Tories (or Progressive Conservatives) and the Liberal Party with a clear advantage over the rest of Canada's political parties. All of our Prime Ministers since Confederation in 1867 have originated from either of the two political parties until the 2004 elections. Prior to 1993, the Tories had enjoyed two back-to-back majority governments with Brian Mulroney - a majority government is when a party controls over 50 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. As a matter of fact, when Mulroney's party won the 1984 elections, it was recorded as the biggest ever majority government in the country's history, winning a majority of seats in every province. His party included socially conservative populists in the West, fiscal conservatives in Atlantic Canada and Ontario and Quebec nationalists, another reason for his moderately successful reelection in 1988. However, the rise to power is as monumental as the party's ensuing fall from grace. As the recession opened the door of Canadians' homes, sat in their living room as the unwelcome guest eating away at families' budgets, voters turned to The Government seeking concrete answers to their overwhelming financial burden. Unemployment increased dramatically and the federal budget went on a journey to the centre of the earth, holding federal debt by its hand toward the darkness below. Among the best contingency plans brought forth Mulroney's government was the Goods and Services Tax (or GST if you prefer, recently becoming HST) which made Canadians extremely overjoyed since its inception. Imagine yourself struggling to make ends meet, and now you have to pay more through an additional tax for anything you buy. Curiously, during this last economic downturn that many economists avoid using that word, "recession" - although it seems more like a new Great Depression - hard working families were slapped across the face and their bank account with a brand new tax. The HST I just mentioned.
From the kick-off of the seven week long political campaigning, my father watched the in-depth CBC news coverage with Peter Mansbridge, keeping track of the groundbreaking news. I joined in with a keen interest after my homework was completed. I had avidly supported the Chilean electoral process back in the day, but this time, the elections were on home turf. I was convinced the democratic carnival and the accompanying euphoria of elections was about to explode throughout Canada from coast to coast. Moreover, it appeared that the Conservatives had imploded in the aftermath of Mulroney's last mandate. The failure of this so-called grand coalition, previously instrumental in their landmark victory back in 84, was crumbling to pieces. The main federal head-to-heads continued to feature the Liberals and the PCs (not to be confused with the President's Choice Brand from the Loblaws supermarkets which do in fact have delicious products for sale. Give them a try if you have not done so yet), yet there were emerging forces working against the conservatives' mojo. The Western social conservatives formed the Reform Party of Canada, with Alberta as their stronghold, and Quebec conservative cabinet minister, Lucien Bouchard severed ties only to conceive his beloved Bloc Québécois, enlisting some Ministers fellow Conservative and sympathetic Liberal from ridings in Quebec. As a proud French-Canadian, Franco-Ontarian, Francophone Citizen of the World, I could not comprehend why this party was necessary and why it did not represent all French-Canadians. I was well aware my main language was under-represented in government agencies, departments and institutions, even in the nation's capital. So many people claimed to be bilingual but in fact could not fully communicate in French. It was unimaginable the fact that anyone was set to abandon their commitment to the Canadian Federation, established between French and English Canadians. I had been raised to respect differences and extend a hand in friendship to good people, regardless of their background. The whole planet was my country. The BQ had never hidden its secessionist agenda and their politicians were quick to demonize English Canada - in my household, representing my father. Last but not least were the New Democrat Party of Canada, lead by Yukon MP Audrey McLaughlin representing a more left-leaning following.
The reality that was that I could not vote or influence decision-making. I did however understand that momentum was swinging in favour of Jean Chrétien and the Liberals, with many voters considering the party as a refreshing change and the only contenders presenting tangible ideas. They had launched their campaign promoting the Red Book, a document detailing exactly what a Liberal government would do in power. Perhaps during their long foray in the land of opposition politics, having won few seats in the house, they had enough time to concentrate on drafting this document meticulously to present it to the public at the right place and time. The Liberals also presented in my mind as a preferred option through their branding, ideal for people with little to no political savvy. The word Liberal, as was presented to the public, written in red with a maple leaf on the logo, made me identify this as patriotic. A similar example, the Mexican Partido Revolucionario Institucional, using the green, white and red on their logo - the Mexican flag. To those uninformed folk, it makes the most sense to cast their vote for something they see as a national symbol, therefore a patriotic duty. Colours are important. This is how MacDonald's manages to attract customers as the colours and the brand are designed to gain people's attention yet make them want to leave once they have eaten. Pretty clever. Anyway, before I deviate further, my political opinion at the time was what my university professor Nacho Lago would have qualified as punishing the ruling party. I considered the conservatives had buried the country into a deep sacrificial pit - whether or not they could have done something to get us out of it is a completely different matter - and someone else should come up to bat. Perhaps most Canadians felt this way too. I remember trying to bounce some ideas I was ruminating about the campaign off my friends in school or over the phone while we chatted, but to my surprise, most of my peers were uninterested. I reminisced about my Chilean people, the kids, teens, adults and seniors all waving flags and vocally supporting their candidates, as if a war was about to break out. In Ottawa, some people, very few, would put up a sign on their lawns showing a quiet support for their local candidate to represent their riding in Parliament.
|Jean Chrétien, the proposed repairman for Canada's economic engine|
The much-anticipated election day finally came along during a weekday, which happened to be a school night as well. I was so excited to witness the process unfold on the special television coverage, once more on CBC's The National with Peter Mansbridge. If you are not Canadian, he was and still is The Newsman here in our primary news network. His main competitor was Lloyd Robertson from CTV news who was not as successful in appealing to the common viewer. I suddenly realized at first glance, I was going to have to learn a lot about this process before the end of the night. This night was also challenging for my dear father and his patience as he tried to listen to the commentary as the results came in. I bombarded him with questions as he himself was trying to understand beyond the basics that were foreign to me. The screen resembled the minesweeper application on the early versions of Windows, as different boxes popped up representing leading candidates in different ridings I had never heard of. The numbers changed often yet the trend was upward but sometimes the snapshots of candidates would be reordered. I eventually connected the dots, noticing that the votes were still being counted meaning that the leads were subject to change, explaining the order of the candidate boxes in front of me. The first box is the one in the lead, followed by the rest in descending order. As the results continued to come in, I wanted to stay up until the very end to see the outcome of the election first hand. This was not to be. I had to wake up early in the morning for school leading my parents to dismiss me to my room. As I lay in my bed in almost complete darkness, my eyes closed but my brain did not want to shut down. I could not help myself from thinking about what world I would wake up to the next day. After a restless night, I rose to a red morning with Jean Chrétien winning a majority government. The magnitude of this win was beyond my understanding as well as what the result meant for the conservatives partially due to the new parties causing vote splitting against them. The results were 177 seats for the Liberals, 54 for the Bloc (the first time a secessionist party was leader of the official opposition), 52 for the Reform, 9 for the NDP and only 2 for the PC. This was the beginning of the end for the Progress Conservatives and their rich palmarès.