​January 2004

Paving the Way for an Italian Canadian Prime Minister?

by Domenic Cusmano

Accenti COVER STORY : Paving the Way for an Italian Canadian Prime Minister? by Domenic Cusmano
Paul Martin was elected Liberal Party leader on November 14, 2004.
The atmosphere in the cavernous Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto is electric. Ten thousand federal Liberals are gathered to bid farewell to one leader and celebrate a new one. Thousands of multi-coloured balloons are crowded inside a series of nets anchored to the ceiling of the huge arena, waiting to be unleashed at the appropriate moment.


In the red-hued, dim surroundings people everywhere wave white placards with Paul Martin's name in Liberal red. At ice level, some in the crowd wave at friends in the distance while others try to find a spot where they can get a good view of the stage. A few chants of "Sheila, Sheila" are heard, but they are feeble and short-lived.


This is not a typical leadership convention: months before, a pre-convention delegate selection process essentially confirmed one candidate's insurmountable lead. Some organizers even wondered if holding a leadership convention was worth the trouble. The winner, in addition to becoming party leader, succeeds to the post of prime minister of the country. Only four candidates officially entered the race and two withdrew months before the start of the convention.


Despite the chanting and placard waving which manufacture an air of excitement and drama (perhaps fuelled by the knowledge of how leadership conventions ought to be), a sense of subdued expectation underlies the mood of the people present. The outcome of this leadership race was sealed months, perhaps years, ago.


The master of ceremonies steps up to the microphone to announce the results of the delegates' vote. "Total votes cast, 3455. Votes in favour of Paul Martin, 3242." The emcee doesn't bother to mention the name of the other candidate nor how many delegates voted for her.


The crowd springs to its feet in thunderous applause. Former Finance Minister Paul Martin, now Canada's prime minister-designate, walks onto the stage and waves to the crowd. Though his rise to power was so long and so predictable as to be anticlimactic, he appears genuinely moved to be on stage in his new role; and the partisan crowd revels in his triumph.


It was a badly kept secret that the Paul Martin "camp" had been unofficially planning for this moment for at least the last three years (since the last federal election) and, according to some, from as far back as when Martin lost the leadership race to Jean Chrétien in 1990. Lots of time to raise the millions of dollars needed to take another run at the leadership!


But the issue of leadership is far more complicated than the mere desire to be the boss or the ability to raise money. Individuals who aspire to lead must have the requisite qualities for the job: personality, empathy, intuition, eloquence, persuasiveness, organization, physical stamina, and . . . the right background!


Since its creation almost 150 years ago, the Liberal Party has traditionally alternated leaders on the principle of Canada's "two founding peoples," that is, between English and French. If anything was more certain than Paul Martin's ascension to the prime ministership, it was that Jean Chrétien's successor as Liberal Party leader would be an Anglo-Canadian white male!


The Liberals' first leader, Alexander MacKenzie (prime minister from 1871 to 1875) was succeeded by Wilfrid Laurier who was prime minister from 1896 to 1911. More recently, Lester Pearson, who followed Louis St-Laurent, was succeeded by Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau was, in turn, succeeded by John Turner, who was himself supplanted by Jean Chrétien. In fairness to Paul Martin, he is fully fluent in French and, against the trend of the last 30 years, left his native Windsor, Ontario, to establish himself in Montreal. He has represented the riding of Lasalle-Emard in south-central Montreal since he was first elected to Parliament in 1988.


Unlike other Canadian political parties, the Liberals have traditionally affirmed a tacit if demonstrable acceptance of the country's historical linguistic duality. In modern times, this openness has been apprehended in terms of Canada's multilingual and multicultural evolution.


Successive Liberal governments have demonstrated their willingness (though at times haltingly) to nominate ethnic minority Canadians to high-profile positions. Pietro Rizzuto and Peter Bosa were named to the Senate by Pierre Trudeau. Meanwhile, Charles Caccia, first elected in 1968 and currently Canada's longest serving MP, served as Minister of Health and the Environment in the 1980s.


Until his departure from Cabinet in 2001 amid allegations of wrong-doing, Alfonso Gagliano, as Minister of Public Works, controlled how the government spent a sizable portion of Canadian tax dollars and was Jean Chrétien's top lieutenant in Quebec.


More Canadians of diverse ethnic backgrounds typically vote Liberal than for any other party. "The Liberal Party from the start was much more open to participation from different cultural groups," says Maria Minna, MP for Beaches-East York, who became active in the Party in 1974. More ethnically diverse candidates and members of Parliament are counted among Liberal Party ranks than all other political parties combined.


A refreshed acceptance of Canada's ethnic reality is manifest in the new Martin government. The Liberals under Jean Chrétien never counted more than four ministers at one time of non-English and non-French background. In the newly appointed Cabinet under Paul Martin, eleven of 38 ministers are members of ethnic minorities - six of Italian Canadian heritage. Of these, Joe Volpe heads Human Resources; Tony Valeri, Transport; Judy Sgro, Citizenship and Immigration; Liza Frulla, Social Development; Joe Comuzzi, Federal Economic Development; and Albina Guarnieri is Associate Minister of National Defense.


However, the top job - that of party leader - remains not just elusive for ethnic minority Canadians, but clearly out of sight. Of four federal party leadership conventions held in the past 18 months (Progressive Conservatives, Reform/Alliance, and NDP - besides the Liberals), none featured a candidate whose background was other than English or French Canadian. Even the original four Liberal leadership contenders were hardly representative of Canada's demographic composition. One would think that the ethnically diverse Liberals would have produced a much more ethnically representative crop of leadership candidates than Paul Martin, Sheila Copps, John Manley and Allan Rock!


"No strong ethnically diverse leadership candidate exists within Liberal ranks at this time," opines Massimo Pacetti, the most recent MP of Italian Canadian extraction to join the Liberals in the House of Commons - elected in a by-election in St-Leonard/St-Michel in 2001. "Many ethnic MPs simply decided to back the leadership candidate who had the best chance of becoming the next prime minister in order to better position themselves and their communities in the next government," he adds.


However, as the country's demographics continue to evolve towards the diminution of the proportion of Canadians of English and French stock (confirmed by the 2001 Canadian Census - see Accenti 1.1) and an increase in the proportion of Southern Europeans, South Asians, East Asians, Middle Easterners and South Americans, the political establishment will have to take notice. "Future political leaders will have to be trilingual, even quadrilingual, to reach out to the different communities and be able to present a vision that will attract Canadians to that vision," says Nick Discepola, MP for Vaudreuil-Soulanges.


As distinctive ethnic minority groups begin to assume increased economic power and civic presence throughout the country, it will be more than a matter of social justice - more than just letting a qualified "ethnic" have a turn at bat. It will be a matter of political expediency. People vote for leaders who are a reflection of them. As the ethnic face of Canada changes, the political apparatus will come to recognize that it must make room for prime ministerial candidates who are of neither English nor French descent.


The parties which best reflect the ethnic diversity of the electorate will have the edge over those who don't. The Liberals, first off the mark on this theme, remain way ahead of the pack. The trend suggests that acceptance of ethnic diversity will eventually come to encompass the issue of leadership.


"To become a national leader you need a national organization and national exposure," says Quebec MP Nick Discepola. There are very few ways one can gain the political notoriety it takes to become a national leader. No one in recent memory has become Canadian prime minister (or serious contender) who wasn't first a provincial premier, an opposition leader or a cabinet minister.


Newly installed at 24 Sussex Drive, Paul Martin may have nothing further from his thoughts than who his successor will be. Yet, at 65, Martin is undertaking a new career at a time when most people retire. While he has maintained that it isn't "how old you are but how young you feel," he will retire sooner rather than later. His successor is likely already in his entourage.


Will Canadian society be ready by the time Paul Martin leaves office to elect a prime minister whose cultural heritage is other than English or French? Could that leadership candidate be of Italian Canadian origin? "Such an individual must not see him or herself as ethnic, but as a leader," declares Massimo Pacetti.


"A leader must embody the characteristics of a leader regardless of ethnic background," agrees Vaughan MP Maurizio Bevilacqua, a minister in the former government whose services were not retained by Paul Martin. "A leader is an individual who takes the citizens out of their comfort zone and brings them to places where they have never been before. Canadians from every ethno-cultural background will recognize that person," Bevilacqua concludes.


Charles Caccia concurs, "Canada is not an ethnocentric country. This is a very mobile society; it's an open society, which provides opportunities for everybody so long as one can master the required skills… An individual must have the political skills to win the leadership of the party, then win the election, regardless of his or her ethnicity."


In the end, however, such an individual must be credible as a leadership candidate vis-à-vis the electorate in spite of his or her ethnically diverse origin. (S)he must dispel any notion that (s)he represents the interests of his/her ethnic group more so than those of all Canadians, in the same way that past prime ministers of English or French background have not been seen as mere proxies of their ethnic faction. At some point Canadian society will make the psychological leap and accept that someone whose heritage is neither English nor French can govern the country.


If it follows that prime ministers were cabinet ministers first, then Paul Martin has improved the odds for Italian Canadians by naming six to his Cabinet. Of course, no one knows who among these will remain or what new ones will be added to the list by the time Paul Martin leaves office - and if any have what it takes to lead the Party!


As Maurizio Bevilacqua poignantly remarks, "Those individuals who took a great risk and landed at Pier 21 with a great deal of determination would not want us to stop, and by that I mean that part of their dream is to, in fact, see a person of Italian heritage one day be prime minister."


While it is too early in Paul Martin's political cycle to talk about his legacy, the fact is that through his choices for Cabinet he has opened the door to ethnic Canadians' political aspirations like none of his predecessors. One can be hopeful that the next Liberal leadership convention will be much more interesting, if not more "diverse," than the last one.




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