A Review of the Play 1979 and Joe Clark’s Legacy

Structure and Overview of 1979

On 28 April 2017, I saw 1979, a play written by the capable Michael Healey about the events leading to the defeat of Joe Clark’s short-lived ministry. The play took place at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, in the heart of the Westboro neighbourhood in Ottawa, a bastion of upper-middle class geriatric Baby Boomers.

The play featured three actors; Sanjay Talwar played Joe Clark in 1979 and again in a 2008 epilogue scene. He neither really looked like Clark nor tried to imitate his croaking, monotonous voice, perhaps because it wouldn’t have engaged the audience effectively and might even have put them to sleep. The other two actors, Marion Day and Kelly Wong, played an assortment of figures, including John Crosbie, Pierre Trudeau, Flora MacDonald, Maureen McTeer, Brian Mulroney, Stephan Harper, and Jenni Byrne. The latter two alternately paraded out in different costumes in order to play the other supporting characters (often of the opposite sex), and complete with humorous entrances and exits on and off the stage.

The play represented important political developments via fictional, but plausible, bilateral conversations between Clark and the aforementioned dramatis personae. They were all also contemporaneously plausible, except – by the play’s own admission – the initial conversation between a young Stephen Harper and Joe Clark. (In reality, Stephen Harper didn’t become a Conservative until after Trudeau I’s disastrous National Energy Program in the early 1980s).[1] This segment more represented the clashes between Red Tories and Blue Tories and styles of governing. In this mock dialogue, Healey also introduced his interpretation of how Harper defended his political project of uniting the two right-wing parties in 2003. Harper explained to Clark the idea of ideological or political “hegemony”: the most historically consequential politicians demonstrate their success through political paradigm shifts, lend their names to political movements or policies, and subsequently frame the debate by forcing their opponents to define themselves on their terms. For instance, in the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher became the most influential and consequential post-War prime minister after Clement Attlee, because she did the most to shape the political landscape in her image. We now speak of “Thatcherism” as an ideology, and Tony Blair created New Labour as means of neutralizing Thatcher’s critiques of Old Labour’s hard socialism and nationalization. (Ironically, as of the British general election of 2017, Old Labourite Jeremy Corbyn has proven the potency of this older brand).

The production projected a PowerPoint presentation onto a screen above the stage in order to set up scenes and provide the audience with background information on the political dynamics of the fall of 1979. The cues also played to comic effect and aided with the transition between scenes and allowed the actors to change in and out of costumes for their various characters. 

The scene opens in Prime Minister Clark’s office in December 1979, a few hours before the crucial vote of confidence that his government lost. The first segment opens with a loquacious and foul-mouthed John Crosbie, played by Kelly Wong, expositing on his budget and its proposed Gas Tax. He quoted his line in the House of Commons at some point, describing the budget as “short-term pain for long-term gain.” Wong adopted a mock Newfoundland accent for Crosbie, though he is far too thin to capture Crosbie’s immense bulk and heft!

Wong also played Pierre Trudeau in a later segment. He captured Trudeau I’s arrogance and haughty demeanour, but he got the voice all wrong. At this stage, Wong looked like Joseph Gordon Levitt and sounded like Brent Spiner as Lore. Wong as Trudeau entered the stage carrying a chainsaw, which the contextual PowerPoint explained had been gifted to him by the Liberal parliamentary party to illustrate his proficiency in cutting down his Conservative opponents. The conversation between Trudeau I and Clark represented Trudeau’s announced retirement from politics and resignation as leader of the Liberal Party and his abrupt un-resignation and willingness to lead the Liberals in the election of 1979-1980. Trudeau started off the discussion extolling the virtues of retirement and expressing thanks that Clark, and not he, had to deal with all of Canada’s problems. Trudeau tells Clark that Rene Levesque, the Parti quebecois Premier of Quebec, wants Canada’s prime minister to be weak in the lead up to the first referendum — and therefore supports Clark. Trudeau also mocks Clark’s naïveté over his handling of the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the fact that Clark had asked government officials to keep him briefed on the Canadian Caper. Trudeau then brags about using his knowledge of the Canadian Caper against the Clark government in Question Period – which did indeed happen.

Trudeau lied by omission to the House – but, by definition, he could suffer no political consequences to doing so because of the very secrecy of the Operation. Trudeau knew this. The electorate did not find about the successful Canadian Caper until 27 January 1980, though it had little effect in the election of 18 February 1980. The conversations between Flora MacDonald and Joe Clark also touched upon the Canadian Caper and how the CIA stamped the wrong dates (the Christian calendar versus the Persian calendar) on the first batch of Canadian passports. The actor playing Flora MacDonald even brought an official-looking diplomatic pouch emblazoned with the eagle crest of the United States of America.

Finally, after berating Clark as feckless, incompetent, and weak-willed, Trudeau determines that he must remain as Liberal leader after all and triumphantly leaves Clark’s office with a renewed commitment to topple his single-party minority government on Bob Rae’s motion of non-confidence. This is another good example where Healey uses fictional conversations to explain the rationale behind real historical events.

Clark’s personal foibles came to the fore in the segments with his wife, Maureen McTeer and External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald. Talwar portrayed Clark as earnest and sincere, but also as hopelessly naïve and too trusting that his opponents, especially Pierre Trudeau, would act in good faith; ultimately, he makes Clark seem ill-suited to the premiership. With MacDonald, he insisted that the Commons would sustain Crosbie’s budget and cited his interpretation of historical precedent that single-party minority governments in Canada last about 18 months. The opposition wouldn’t even want to precipitate an election, Clark insisted! After all, the Liberals are leaderless. Once again, Healey has accurately captured the essence of Clark’s statements. As you can see here on the CBC’s Archives, at 6:20, Clark truly did make a similar statement the day after the general election in May 1979:

Anna Medina: “Finally, he [Clark] was very definite as to how he’ll govern with his minority status.”

Clark: “I’m making very clear now my intention to carry out the program for which we have a mandate, and I would expect, looking back on the history of these things, that the other parties will first of all find it in their interest and secondly find it to be fair to give the new government an opportunity to govern.”[2]

Clark also told MacDonald that he would refuse to rearrange the parliamentary calendar and postpone the vote on the budget until after some Conservative MPs returned to Ottawa. Clark also pointedly refused to remove the contentious 18-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline from the budget as a concession to Fabien Roy and Social Credit, and he refused to accelerate the timeline or increase the value of the rebate to low-income households as a concession to Ed Broadbent and the New Democratic Party.

The epilogue took place in 2008, and Healey’s historical accuracy faded considerably during this portion of the screenplay. The first scene depicted Marion Day dressed as Prime Minister Harper and Kelly Wong dressed as Jenni Byrne – a part which he played a little too well. In this imagined dialogue, Byrne persuades Harper to advise Governor General Jean to dissolve the 39th Parliament early. (This doesn’t really make sense, since Byrne was, at the time, an assistant to the late Doug Finley, who ran the 2008 campaign). Sanjay Talwar then enters the stage as an older Joe Clark — whom he much more closely resembled in this segment. This older Clark had also dispensed with his three-piece tan corduroy suit in favour of a dark two-piece suit with a two-buttoned jacket. Harper informs Clark that he won’t be able to attend the unveiling of his official prime ministerial portrait – or Clark’s hanging, as some might call it. Historical accuracy once again defers to Healey’s caricature of Stephen Harper. Healey’s screenplay implies that Harper vindictively declined to attends Clark’s hanging out of an enmity toward Clark; in fact, Harper did not attend the unveiling in 2008 because he had to attend a European summit and therefore wasn’t even on Canadian soil at the time. As the Toronto Star reported:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, currently on an official visit to Europe, did not attend. Clark dismissed suggestions he’d been snubbed, saying he respects Harper’s decision to tend to international matters.[3]

CPAC’s footage of the event also disproves Healey’s implication. On 27 May 2008, Clark dismissed the press’s view that Harper had deliberately snubbed him. At 25:55, Clark says:

“There seems to be a sense that Prime Minister Harper went to Paris to avoid my hanging. Now, Mr. Harper and I will have our differences, but not about this. No one understands better than I do how international obligations can upset the best laid plans. For the record, the Prime Minister expressed both his congratulations on this honour and his regret at missing it.”[4] 

Furthermore, Healey and Day sought to portray Harper as a bland, soulless, and joyless caricature; when Clark remarks that he used to keep a record player on a table in the office, Day as Harper utters an unintentionally hilarious line professing not to like or know anything about music. This portrayal of Harper directly contradicts historical fact, but it does play into what the bourgeois liberal elderly Boomer audience wanted to hear. In reality, Stephen Harper possesses both musical talent and knowledge and has played the piano and keyboard on numerous public occasions – most famously at the National Arts Centre in 2009. These inaccuracies really took me out of the scene and seemed very jarring because the main act of the play did conform to historical fact.

Apart from the epilogue, the play was historically accurate, especially with the information provided in the PowerPoint presentation. Most of Michael Healey’s imagined conversations between Prime Minister Clark and the coterie of characters seemed plausible. The screenplay mentioned the division on the recorded vote of non-confidence, the dynamic between Fabien Roy’s Social Creditists and Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives – including Roy’s demand that Clark make him Minister of Finance in a proper coalition government – as well as Crosbie’s proposed budget, the tentative Gas Tax, the Canadian Caper and Pierre Trudeau’s mendacious line of questioning to Foreign Minister MacDonald on the subject, the forthcoming Referendum in Quebec, and, finally, Joe Clark’s emphatic insistence on moving the Canadian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (I’ll have more to say on that last point).

I praise the playwright Michael Healey for having produced, overall, such a clever and enjoyable screenplay. Unfortunately, some of the bizarre stage direction detracted from his brilliance, through no fault of his own. The director thought that dropping f-bombs made the characters seem original and edgy; sadly, it did not. There is no longer anything original about constantly resorting to coarse language. I found it offensive on some level – not the sense of moral outrage, but more in the sense of objecting to the insincere and contrived and desperate display of puerile and petulant adolescent definance, like the actors were trying so hard to sound cool. I noticed other strange decisions in the direction of the play. Joe Clark from 1979 often removed his corduroy jacket and turned it into a make-shift handkerchief to wipe his sweaty brow, which presumably represented Clark’s fecklessness, nervosity, indecision, and incompetence. But I didn’t understand why at the close of the events in December 1979 and the main act of the play, Talwar as Clark methodically removed all of his clothes – except, thank God, for his underpants and undershirt – and stuffed the various articles of clothing under the carpet or in the draws of his office. What on earth did that represent? I know not. Maybe I’m simply too uncouth and unsophisticated to appreciate the talents of upper-middle class bourgeois-Bohemian artistes.

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice the sea of grey enveloping me in the theatre: three-quarters of the aging audience were elderly sexagenarian and septuagenarian Boomers, who seemed to bask in the nostalgia of 1979 and 1979 as they reminisced fondly on their 20s and 30s. They seemed to enjoy all the strange and inexplicable decisions about the production far more than I did, too. I guess that the director understood his audience far better than I did after all!

Joe Clark Himself

1979 also raises questions about Joe Clark himself.

Clark somehow combines the inflexibility and self-righteousness of an ideologue with the unprincipled posturing of a centrist and the blundering execution of an ineffectual novice. Despite being one of the least consequential prime ministers in Canadian history – surpassing only Charles Tupper, John Turner, and Kim Campbell – he has managed to cultivate an undeserved, uncritical, and even adulatory reputation which is wholly unsupported by historical evidence. The media have conferred upon him an unearned status of elder statesman and all the unmerited trappings of dignity that go with it.

Prime Minister Clark acknowledges that his government lost on a matter of confidence.

In fact, Clark led a doomed and failed Ministry and served as prime minister for only 9 months and demonstrated appallingly bad political judgement throughout his brief tenure. John Pepall rightly refers to Clark’s “unforgivable stupidity” in 1979[5], where his government lost a vote of confidence on Finance Minister Crosbie’s budget. This, in turn, gave Pierre Trudeau his second wind and his second term as Prime Minister from 1980 to 1984, wherein he enacted some of his worst policies, like a ballooning debt, the National Energy Program, and forced Metrification. Clark could only look on incompetently as Leader of the Opposition from 1980 to 1983. Amidst the growing (and perfectly justified) dissatisfaction with his leadership, Clark won the support of only approximately two-thirds of the Progressive Conservative Party in a leadership review. Infamously declaring that 66% is not enough, Clark attempted to pre-empt an open revolt by the parliamentary party and re-solidify his own position by calling a leadership convention – which he then lost to Brian Mulroney.[6] He served in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet for nine years as a Minister of External Affairs and the Minister Responsible for the Charlottetown Accord – which Canadians rejected in a country-wide referendum in 1992 – but then abruptly retired from politics for the first time in advance of the general federal election of 1993 in order to avoid the indignity of certain defeat to the new Reform Party.[7]

Clark then spent the rest of the 1990s engaged in a bitter dispute with Preston Manning and the Reform Party, especially after re-entering politics and winning the leadership of the moribund Progressive Conservative Party in 1998.[8] Between 1998 and 2003, Clark actively opposed any and all efforts – whether by Preston Manning, Stockwell Day, Stephen Harper, Peter MacKay, or Brian Mulroney – to re-unite the Progressive Conservative and Reform/Canadian Alliance Parties into a viable formation that could compete and win against the Liberals and provide Canadians with a realistic prospect of forming an alternative government.[9] After the merger and the creation of the new Conservative Party of Canada in 2003, Clark spent the next several years denouncing Stephen Harper as an unelectable extremist and aligned himself with the Liberal Party – the party which he had theoretically opposed for his entire political career between 1976 and 2003. Finally, during Harper’s term as prime minister from 2006 to 2015, Clark, by now a spent and irrelevant force, squawked from the sidelines and kept up his unprincipled, embittered critiques of the Conservative Party and Stephen Harper’s style of governing.

This interview between Peter Mansbridge and Joe Clark from 2013 best illustrates the hypocrisy of and unmerited adulation conferred upon Joe Clark.[10] Clark spends the first half of this interview criticizing Harper’s premiership, leadership style, aggression in attacking the Liberals, and accuses him of being unwilling to listen to or work with the opposition.

Mansbridge accepted Clark’s hypocritical narrative without question and didn’t even acknowledge the irony that Clark, who incompetently led a single-party minority government for 9 months, failed to work constructively with the opposition by definition because the House of Commons withdrew its confidence from his ministry after sitting for only two months. Clark could have survived the vote of confidence in December 1979 if he had made concessions to either the Social Creditists or to the New Democrats, but he failed to work constructively with any of the opposition parties in the 31st Parliament.

I did, however, enjoy this little quip that Mansbridge delivers with a wry grin at 8:20: “This [the Senate Expenses Scandal] has been going on for nine months now, which was as long as you were prime minister.” Clark reacted to Mansbridge’s joke like a Noble Gas.

The election campaign of 1979 foreshadowed Clark’s downfall: his refusal to work constructively with the opposition parties. In the televised leaders’ debate for the 1979 election, moderated by current Governor General David Johnston, Clark actually boasted that if the Progressive Conservatives won a plurality, he would still govern as prime minister as if they had won a majority.[11] This statement starts at 32 minutes, 44 seconds into the video:

“If there is a minority government — and I very much hope that there won’t be — I very much hope that we will be given the opportunity to form a majority government. If there is a minority, I intend to govern entirely on the program that the Progressive Conservative Party has put forward, not on somebody else’s program. We will be governing as though we have a majority, although it would be far easier, naturally, far more effective, for the system, I believe, if we had the certainty of there being four years in office for a government in which to plan.”

Clark continued:

“And I must say, in this context, that I think that his whole matter has been put into a new light by the statement of the Prime Minister [Trudeau] not long ago that even if my party came back with more seats than his did, in a minority situation, he would be inclined, under certain circumstances, to cling to office. I think that that makes it imperative that all Canadians who want a change should come to their own judgement as to whether or not it’s Mr. Broadbent’s party or my own that can deliver that majority government that will give Canadians the change they want.” 

Immediately after Clark uttered that fantastically stupid statement, “We will be governing as though we have a majority,” the studio cut to the camera focused on Trudeau, who can be seen looking on knowingly and condescendingly, as if in awe at Clark’s folly. It is as if Clark sealed his fate in December 1979 in that very moment in May 1979.

The sheer stupidity of this statement had long since passed into legend. Before watching the debate, I had always presumed that this statement attributed to Clark must have been apocryphal because no politician could be stupid enough to utter it. But I had given Clark too much credit; he did indeed say it.

Interestingly, Clark also suggested in that exchange that the party which wins the plurality of seats should be given the first opportunity to form a government and that the incumbent government should therefore resign if its party did not win the plurality of seats. Clark also criticized Trudeau for not having resigned in 1972, when the Conservatives under Stanfield won a plurality of seats. Instead, the New Democrats propped up Trudeau’s single-party minority government until 1974. In other words, Joe Clark and Stephen Harper completely agree with one another on this issue. Harper famously said in 2010, “losers don’t get to form coalitions” and that “Winners are the ones who form governments,” by which he meant that the party which wins a plurality should become or remain the government.[12]

And Clark kept his word: he did indeed govern his single-party minority government as if the Progressive Conservatives had won a parliamentary majority, when they were in fact five seats short. The ideologically compatible Social Creditists had won six seats, but Clark refused to form a coalition government with this formation and failed even to secure some kind of supply agreement with the Social Creditists. This failure to work constructively with an ideologically compatible party with representation in Quebec appears all the more baffling because the day after the general election of 1979, Clark lamented the lack of Conservative seats in Quebec, yet he refused to form a coalition or strike a supply agreement with the Social Creditists and their 6 seats in Quebec.[13] The Progressive Conservatives and the Social Creditists needed each other, but Clark lacked the skill to make a mutually beneficial deal with Roy.


John Crosbie in December 1979

Clark has criticized Harper for his handling of the hung 39th and 40th Parliaments. But in 1979, Clark didn’t summon the 31st Parliament, elected in May, until almost 5 months later, in October.[14] Finance Minister John Crosbie tabled a controversial budget bill that included a new federal tax of 18 cents per gallon on gasoline during “stagflation”, a high inflation rate of 9.2% (which seems unthinkable today) combined with general economic stagnation (which, sadly, seems all too familiar).[15] Crosbie dismissed the Liberals’ and New Democrats’ and Social Creditists’ criticisms of this proposed tax and characterized his anti-inflationary policies and the 18-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax as necessary “short-term pain for long-term gain.”[16]

Interestingly, this tax would have come to 4 cents per liter of gasoline, which, irrationally, sounds less frightening to consumers and would have been far less likely to raise their ire. The irony is that if Trudeau had forced Metrification in his first term instead of in his second term, Clark and Crosbie would almost certainly have gotten away with a tax of 4 cents per liter — but Trudeau would never have had the chance to force Metrification in his second term if Crosbie hadn’t attempted to push the tax of 18 cents per gallon of gasoline. In 1972, the Trudeau government had promised in a white paper that it would never introduce a law forcing Metrification; Trudeau broke that promise in his second term.[17] Mandatory Metrification perfectly exemplified Trudeau’s Statist, autocratic, heavy-handed, illiberal approach to government; business owners were either charged under or challenged in the court the new legislation in 1982 and 1983.[18] The Mulroney government then restored optional Metrification and the dual systems in 1985.[19]

Fabien Roy had indicated that Social Credit would support the budget and thereby sustain the government on votes of confidence if Clark and Crosbie dropped the 18-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax. Ed Broadbent, leader of the New Democratic Party, might have supported the budget if the Clark government had extended assistance for low-income households in order to off-set the gas tax. They didn’t. And on 13 December 1979, the Clark government lost the vote of confidence 139 to 133, by 6 votes – the number of Social Credit MPs, who had abstained on that crucial vote.[20] In addition, 3 Progressive Conservative MPs were unavailable, with 2 overseas (including External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald) and 1 in hospital,[21] and Clark refused to postpone the budget by a few days in order to allow them to partake in the crucial confidence votes.

Clark presumes to criticize Harper’s refusal to work constructively with the opposition in two minority parliaments between 2006 and 2011 instead of acknowledging his own failures to negotiate properly with or take seriously the Social Creditists and the New Democrats and imploring Harper not to make the same mistakes that he did. But history speaks for itself: Joe Clark’s minority government lasted only 9 months in total but lost the confidence of the House of Commons after only 2 months of sittings, while Stephen Harper headed a single-party minority government for 5 years across 2 parliaments and worked ad hoc — and usually effectively — with either the Bloc Quebecois, Liberals, or New Democrats in order to pass government bills into law. Who should be giving whom the advice here?

Toward the end of this interview, Clark noted that when he served as Minister of External Affairs under the Mulroney government, the Palestinian Authority initially shut him out and refused to talk to him, presumably at some point in either 1984 or 1985, though the Palestinians eventually relented and Clark formed productive relationships with key officials later on. Clark recounted this little anecdote as a means of showcasing his superiority to Harper personally and to contrast his view of Canada as an “honest broker” in the Israeli-Arab conflict with the Harper government’s overt pro-Israeli stance. But Clark left out some pertinent details and historical facts which call his judgement into question and cast a shadow over his accomplishments – and Peter Mansbridge once again let Clark get away with his myth-making.

First, we must bear in mind that Clark committed a severe diplomatic blunder in 1979 by promising — and then reneging on that promise — to move Canada’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In 2013, Clark framed this anecdote around the importance of non-governmental organizations and how they can build trust and succeed where States themselves fail. At 17:20 in that interview, Clark says:

“They’re [NGOs] are much more imaginative and have much more access than we do. I again ran into that as foreign minister when we were trying to begin the process of recognizing the right of self-determination of the Palestinians. Palestinians would not see me; they were suspicious of a Canadian foreign minister even then.”

“And the only way that we were able to find a way in was that one of our extremely able diplomats, Michel de Salaberry, was a good friend of the Mennonite Central Committee in the Palestinian Territories, who were respected enough to convene a meeting. And the Palestinian Leadership did not come so much to see me as they came for this first discussion to someone they trusted, and their trust was built.”  

Clark here demonstrates a politician’s mendacity and tries to transfer his personal failing in particular for the Embassy Debacle of 1979 to the Government of Canada in general. The Palestinian Authority was not suspicious of “a Canadian foreign minister” in 1984 in a general sense — they were suspicious of External Affairs Minister Joseph P. Clark in particular because of what he himself had done five years earlier.

Clark’s book How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change contains the same hypocrisy as the interview in which he promoted it in 2013. Clark devotes several pages to critiquing the Harper government’s pro-Israeli foreign policy and laments that Harper’s “outspoken [pro-Israeli] positions limit, or eliminate, Canada’s capacity as a mediator, or even as a calming influence, on broader issues in the increasingly volatile Middle East […].”[22]

CBC journalist Brian Stewart reported on “Joe Clark’s Diplomatic Crisis” on 6 June 1979 and the huge controversy which had erupted over Clark’s commitment to move the Canadian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, asking at 4:05:

“Why is Clark risking so much on a move which is not even vital to Israel’s security? The answer seems to be simply that he believes that it’s right, and perhaps is also too committed to that promise now to back down. Arab ambassadors are still trying to convince Clark that he’s wrong, but tonight, they are neither hopeful nor very patient.”[23]

Clark himself never acknowledged these events in his recent book; he catalogued what he regarded as Harper’s foreign policy blunders in the Middle East, offered his own advice, but refused to show any humility by admitting his own errors. Clark could have turned his criticism of Harper into a proper narrative by acknowledging his own previous mistakes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and advising Harper to avoid the same pitfalls. Instead, Clark, a failed former prime minister, chose to condescend sanctimoniously and presumptuous to a successful prime minister.

Joe Clark and Peter Mansbridge

Clark’s hypocrisy and mendacious omission of relevant historical facts becomes all the more glaring in light of another interview between Prime Minister Clark and Peter Mansbridge, which took place on 8 October 1979.[24] Knowlton Nash started off the line of questioning at 11:46 into the interview, and Peter Mansbridge finished it:

Nash: “One of the campaign promises — you were speaking of those a moment ago — was about moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Any second thoughts on the timing, or the tone, or the fundamentals of that?”

Clark nervously shuffles in this chair and lets out an anxious chuckle before replying, “Oh, on the tone, um, you know, the tone — yes, um. I guess that I — I underestimated the degree to which, uh, Canada is exposed, as a relatively small country, to the position of being made an example of when we take a position that is unpopular with certain powerful countries in the world. Mr. Stanfield has undertaken a thorough review of that question and other questions having to do with our relations with the Middle East and with Arab countries. I expect that his report will be helpful on the question of the, uh, the embassy, and helpful with the broader question of our relation with that region.”

David Holton: “So as far as you’re concerned, you remain committed to transferring the embassy.”

Clark looks up at the ceiling, hesitates, and then says, “That’s my view. But my view is naturally going to be subject to the report of Mr. Stanfield. I would not have sent him on the mission if I intended to ignore his report. I intend to take his report very seriously.”

Mansbridge: “So if he [Stanfield] says ‘don’t do it’ or if that’s the tone of his report?”

Clark: “Yeah, if you fellas ask questions with ‘if’ in it, I’m not going to answer them.”

It sounds as if this was the moment, in early October, where Clark finally realized the folly of his foreign policy in the Middle East and the damage that it had wrought, so he pulled a classic Mackenzie King move of quietly reversing decisions under the guise of studying them to death in committees or by Royal Commissions. Clark’s bumbling response to Nash’s simple question reminds me of Chancellor Valorum in Episode I — the part right before the Galactic Senate withdraws its confidence from him. Maybe George Lucas based Chancellor Valorum on Joe Clark!

Only Joe Clark could turn such a hot issue into a bloodless bureaucratic blunder. He couldn’t even summon the moral fibre to defend his position and provide an argument for it; instead, he bumbled his way through this interview through non-committal platitudes and Mackenzie King-style manoeuvring — and all this after he had damaged Canada’s bargaining stance and leverage in the region. Whether one supported or opposed this proposal, all recognized its aim and significance: to lend political credibility to Israel’s sovereignty over and territorial claim in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and to dismiss all contrary Arab claims to the same territory. Keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv tacitly acknowledges that Jerusalem and the West Bank are in dispute between different parties and thereby maintains a certain neutrality. This is also known as standard diplomatic practice. Worse still, Clark later flip-flopped and reneged on this promise on 29 October 1979 (only a few weeks after the aforesaid interview involving Peter Mansbridge) and thereby alienated both Arab and Israeli interests.[25]

Could Prime Minister Clark’s fiasco from 1979 explain why in 1984-85, the Palestinian Authority didn’t want to deal with External Affairs Minister Clark? The viewers would never have known any of these pertinent details because Clark didn’t acknowledge them, and Mansbridge didn’t call Clark out on these omissions – even though Mansbridge had participated in interviewing Clark on this very subject back in 1979! After all this, Clark has the audacity to criticize Prime Minister Harper’s pro-Israeli foreign policy. It’s the most pathetic kind of hypocrisy.

The anecdote which Clark recounted to Mansbridge in 2013 exemplifies what I so loathe about Joe Clark: his measured tone, otherwise moderate or centrist viewpoints, and bumbling humble visage cleverly mask from most observers his myth-making, re-writing of history, grandiosity, mendacity, and self-righteousness. For decades, Clark presented a fundamentally deceptive and false image of himself. And the irony is that Clark would legitimately gain far more personal authority if he were honest. If Clark had acknowledged his own mistakes and missteps and then demonstrated how he later learned from them and overcame them in order to become a better man and more effective leader or Cabinet Minister, he could have told his anecdote as a cautionary tale. In that case, he could even have constructed a far more compelling myth (in the good, literary sense of the word) than the mendacious myth (in the bad, dishonest sense of the word) that he chooses to perpetuate; Clark could still exaggerate his accomplishments to some extent, as most politicians do, as long as he also acknowledged his mistakes and didn’t cover up established historical facts. But that’s not what he did. Instead, Clark refused to acknowledge how his own actions as Prime Minister five years before affected his role as External Affairs Minister and audaciously tried to air-brush these events and his direct involvement in them out of the historical record altogether. The other irony is that even Prime Minister Harper, despite his pro-Israeli policies, never even suggested that he’d like to move Canadian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Even today, Clark clings to the best 9 months of his life; he goes by the accurate but pretentious handle “RtHonJoeClark” on Twitter. And I can tell you from experience that he’s also very self-conscious about his legacy and blocks any Twitter user who points out established historical facts that expose his blunders and mistakes. Perhaps his insecurity in this regard stems from the absence of any discernible policy accomplishment to which he could point in order to counteract his many infamous gaffes. We have to endure the spectacle of the most over-rated politician of the last half-century criticize Stephen Harper, who re-united the right, led the new Conservative Party for 12 years, and governed as Prime Minister for almost a decade. Clark reminds me of one of those irritating characters in a Holiday Inn Express commercial who claims to possess expertise in a random topic because, “I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night!” It’s a presumptuous, annoying non-sequitur.

We can take Flora MacDonald, who served as Minister of External Affairs in Clark’s government and played a key role in the Canadian Caper, as a foil to Clark’s intransigence. In this interview, MacDonald looks back at old footage of Question Period from the 31st Parliament in 1979 and openly and honestly acknowledges her flaws or vulnerabilities at the time, but also explains why they were necessary in order to protect the secrecy of the operation and the lives of those American hostages. It was a classic Cold War tale of intense political intrigue and espionage, like out of a John le Carré novel. She recounted and explained her experience and rationale, which makes the viewer empathize with her and the genuinely difficult decisions that she had to make.

The ability to examine your own legacy and performance critically is a sign of intellectual maturity and demonstrates your capacity to learn from your mistakes and improve yourself.  This is called self-actualization. But Joe Clark seems incapable of self-actualization, and he shows little interest even in a modicum of self-reflection and self-awareness. Consequently, he comes across as a caricature of post-modernism and solipsism, where he presents this personal truth as if it were fact, and as if his mistakes were triumphs and his defeats were victories. Upon Clark’s first retirement from politics in 1993, Progressive Conservative Party operative Dalton Camp referred to Clark as “a noble failure.”[26] I think that Camp gave Clark too much credit.

If Clark showed even the slightest bit of contrition for his baffling incompetence as Prime Minister (and thereafter), I wouldn’t mind him so much. The closest thing to acknowledging fault that I could find from Joe Clark came from a speech that he delivered to the Canadian Bar Association in 2011, published in the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law in August 2012. Coincidentally, one of my articles also appeared in this very same issue.

“In my experience, it certainly was the case that individual ministers often played a decisive role on key issues. I think of Flora MacDonald and Ron Atkey on refugee policy; I think of John Crosbie — although I hasten to add that the decision on our budget vote was my decision.”[27]

But time and again, Clark has demonstrated bewildering stupidity and abominable political judgement and consistently refuses to acknowledge his mistakes, which makes me suspect that he’s never actually learned from them. He has been consistently wrong on several major issues throughout the 1990s and 2000s, but also consistently irrelevant, too; after all, the merger of the Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance and unification of the political right happened despite his strident objections to it. He was powerless either to harness or hold back the political forces acting around him. Instead, Clark seems content to lap up undeserved adulatory applause during his occasional appearances in Official Ottawa and to carry on as if he never made any mistakes during his decades-long political career. This inability to own up to his own mistakes is what makes him so objectionable and hypocritical and a fundamentally over-rated figure. Clark takes himself far too seriously – but I hope that you do not.

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[1] William Johnson, Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada (Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, Ltd., 2005), 19-20.

[2] CBC Archives, “Prime Minister Clark,” CBC Television News Special with Anna Medina, 23 May 1979.

[3] Daina Lawrence, “Joe Clark Immortalized in Official Portrait,” Toronto Star, 27 May 2008.

[4] CPAC, “Unveiling of Joe Clark’s Official Portrait,” Public Record, 27 May 2008.

[5] John Pepall, “1982: Myths and Realities of Patriation’” The Dorchester Review (Autumn-Winter 2013): 21.  

[6] CBC Archives, “Joe Clark’s ‘Gusty Political Move,'” CBC Television News Special, 28 January 1983.

[7] CBC Archives, “Joe Clark Will Be Leaving the House of Commons,” The National, 20 February1993.

[8] CBC Archives, “Joe Clark Runs Again for PC Leader in 1998,” The National, 28 June 1998.

[9] Bob Plamondon, Full Circle: Death and Resurrection in Canadian Conservative Politics (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2006), 23, 219, 225, 328, 342.

[10] Link to the Mansbridge One on One interview itself on YouTube

[11] CBC Archives, “Encounter ’79,” CBC News Special, 13 May 1979.

Apparently, Clark also repeated this sentiment on 22 May 1979 after the Progressive Conservatives won only a plurality of seats. Darling might be reporting on the same statement that we see in the CBC archival footage with Anna Medina. Stan Darling and Beth Slaney, The Darling Diaries: Memoirs of a Political Career (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1995), 179.

[12] David Akin, “Stephen Harper: ‘Losers Don’t Get to Form Coalitions,'” National Post, 4 June 2010.

[13] CBC Archives, “Prime Minister Clark,” CBC Television News Special with Anna Medina, 23 May 1979.

[14] Parliament of Canada, ParlInfo, “31st Parliament,” 4 August 2015.

[15] Canada. House of Commons, Debates, 31st Parliament, 1st Session (13 December 1979) at 2278 (John Crosbie).

[16] Ibid., 2280.

[17] CBC Archives, “Metric Transition Update,” The National, 27 December 1983.

[18] CBC Archives, “Fighting the Metric System in the Meat Market,” The National, 19 January 1983; CBC Archives, “Metric Protest: Man Caught Selling Carpet By the Yard,” The National, 19 April 1982; CBC Archives, “1982: Canadians Rebel Against the Metric System,” The Journal, 16 March 1982.

[19] CBC Archives, “A Canadian Compromise Between Metric and Imperial,” The National, 30 January 1985.

[20] CBC Archives, “1979: Joe Clark’s Government Falls,” The National, 13 December 1979; Canada. House of Commons, Debates, 31st Parliament, 1st Session (13 December 1979) at 2362 (Joseph Clark).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Joe Clark, How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2013), page number not provided in online version.

[23] CBC Archives, “Joe Clark’s Diplomatic Crisis,” The National, 6 June 1979.

[24] CBC Archives, “Joe Clark in the Spotlight,” CBC News Magazine, Interview of Joe Clark by Knolwton Nash, David Holton, and Peter Mansbridge, 8 October 1979.

[25] Henry Ginger, “Canada Abandons Plans to Move Its Israel Embassy to Jerusalem,” The New York Times, 30 October 1979; Charles Flicker, “‘Next Year in Jerusalem’: Joe Clark and the Jerusalem Embassy Affair,” International Journal (Winter 2002-2003): 115-138.

[26] CBC Archives, “Joe Clark Will Be Leaving the House of Commons,” The National, 20 February 1993.

[27] Joe Clark, “Who Really Makes Our Laws? A Prime Ministerial Perspective on the Unwritten Constitution,” Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law 6, no. 2 (August 2012), 290.


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Review of the Play 1979 and Joe Clark’s Legacy

  1. A. L. says:

    Clark’s a decent man, and certainly more honourable a politician than either Mulroney or Harper (or for that matter Chretien), but you are correct that the failure to even entertain a confidence and supply agreement with Social Credit or negotiate with the NDP over the budget, was a fatal mistake. Perhaps had Trudeau not announced his resignation in November, Clark and Crosbie would have attempted to horsetrade over the budget and may have been successful. But I think Trudeau’s announcement gave Clark and his team the false confidence that the Liberals would not try to trigger an election at least until they had a new leader in place in late March 1980, and that therefore they needn’t worry about losing a budget vote since the Liberals would ensure that enough of their caucus stayed away to prevent the budget from being defeated. Clark underestimated both Liberal House Leader Allan MacEachen, who engineered the defeat, and Trudeau himself who agreed to MacEachen’s plan.


  2. PierreB says:

    Thanks! Helps to explain to me why I dislike him so.


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