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An interview with Joe Clark

The former Prime Minister and current McGill professor discusses the Harper government, the NDP, and the years’ events at McGill

The Right Honourable Joe Clark was once Prime Minister and leader of the now-dissolved Progressive Conservative Party. He now volunteers as a professor of practice for public-private sector partnerships at McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development.

In Montreal for a conference hosted by the Institute two weeks ago, Clark sat down with The Daily to discuss what has been an eventful year at McGill and in the national political scene.


The McGill Daily: What’s your job at McGill?

Joe Clark: What I am right now at McGill is a member of the advisory board of the Institute for the Study of International Development. I also hold an appointment as a professor of practice at that Institute, but I have not been active in that role for the last two or three years.


MD: What are your thoughts on everything that has happened at McGill this year?

JC: I can’t really comment on that. I was not here for any of that. I’ve seen news reports, but I’m no more informed than any other sort of casual observer of the news.


MD: As someone affiliated with the University, how did you see these events?

JC: Certainly nothing has come to my attention over the last year that would suggest that [the University’s] reputation ha[s] been damaged, but that is more a commentary on the attention I’ve been paying than it is on the actual events. Although I do think – because people know I’m associated with McGill internationally – that if there were some unusual problem it would be drawn to my attention, but none has been.

But this is the time of institutional challenge everywhere, so I don’t think – I’m not trying to be evasive – I don’t think I have anything useful to say about that.


MD: What do you mean when you say this is a time of institutional challenge everywhere?

JC: One instance is the Occupy movement, which was wholly new in the Western world experience. There have also been some quite dramatic events…in unlikely places: Philadelphia; Delhi was shut down for several weeks [over] concern about corruption in the government; in London some of the violence in the streets was in areas that had not been violent before, [with] images of buses being overturned and burned; and indeed the sense of the determination to change that one finds in many objectively [oppressed] parts of the world. Whether it’s the Arab Spring or Iran or elsewhere, this is a time of ferment – and I don’t mean to draw parallels with McGill, or to suggest that there aren’t particular causes here; I’m simply saying that this is a time in which protest is being expressed.


MD: The Quebec student movement has been around for decades though.

JC: I’m familiar with it in the past, yeah. I first learned about…the Quebec student movement when I went to a Canadian University Press (CUP) conference in Quebec City fifty years ago. So I know its strength.


MD: What are your thoughts on what the Conservative Party has done since the election last May?

JC: Well, I didn’t support the merger of my Progressive Conservative Party with the Reform Alliance because I thought the result would not be balanced. I thought that the very strong and positive traditions of my party would tend to be moved aside, and I’m afraid [that I’ve been proven] right… I think that this has been in effect a Reform Alliance government much more than a Progressive Conservative government. What does that mean? It’s certainly clear in international affairs, where its focus has been very narrow on the military and on trade. Much of the emphasis upon CIDA, which had been upon actual development dealing with poverty, has been replaced now by a supportive role [in] trade arrangements, not necessarily in the poorest countries. Our relations with many parts of the world where we had historically strong partnerships have deteriorated. There is an avowed interest in Latin America as a priority, but it’s primarily a trade interest rather than a political interest, and I think that is wasting a Canadian advantage. I’m sorry that’s happened.

I also think there has been an hostility towards some of the Canadian institutions – the CBC’s the most recent – and none of these are fault-free, but I think that they were given a benefit-of-the-doubt under former Progressive Conservative governments, and they’re not now. I’m astounded, frankly astounded, by the degree to which Parliament and Cabinet acquiesce in following, without any apparent questioning, the Prime Minister’s lead. Prime Ministers have always been strong in our system, but almost all others have respected their parties and their parliaments more than Prime Minister Harper does.


MD: What are your thoughts on the NDP?

JC: I find it very fascinating. A lot of people dismiss the number of members elected in Quebec as people who had no interest and no credential[s]. I think that’s a shortsighted view. At various times in my life as a national party leader, I had to find candidates to run in ridings that were not likely ridings for us to win, and it was often hard to find somebody who had actual deep roots there, but my practice was to find somebody who had an interest in politics there, and I think that’s what the NDP did with Jack Layton… The McGill Three [sic], very explicitly, were interested in politics, they had an understanding of it, and so I think two things flow from that: one is that they are likely to be much more able to participate in constructive debate; but secondly, the likelihood is that because they are politically inclined they will make use of the power of governance. So I think the likelihood of their getting re-elected is higher than a lot of other people.

And I don’t know [NDP leader Thomas] Mulcair, except to watch him, and I’ve been very impressed. I think, if he is a difficult personality, as some people say, this gruelling leadership campaign was very good for him, because it forced him to come to terms with his critics and his challenges. I was elected leader of my party in 1976 because people thought, correctly, that I could take on Pierre Trudeau in the House of Commons, whereas not many other people could. And he’s clearly able to take on a strong parliamentarian. I’m interested in his potential, and we’ll just see what happens.