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Statement by Rt. Hon. Jean Chretien before the Gomery inquiry

[February 8, 2005]

Former PM Jean Chretien at the Gomery inquiry on Tuesday. 

OTTAWA — Mr. Commissioner, 

I welcome the opportunity to appear before you today. Government is serious business and democracy requires that the trust that citizens confer on those they elect must always be respected.
I have been looking forward to this occasion because it gives me the opportunity to try to put certain things in their proper perspective for you and the Canadian public, and to set out clearly on the basis of 40 years in Parliament, 27 years around the Cabinet table, and 10 years as Prime Minister of Canada my views on how government works in practice.

The sponsorship program was not created in a vacuum and cannot be understood in isolation. Any serious examination of it must take full account of the circumstances in Québec when it was created and the climate of political uncertainty in Québec during the entire time it operated.

When I became Prime Minister, the official opposition in the House of Commons was the Bloc Québecois, a party dedicated not like normal opposition parties to forming the next Government of Canada, but a party dedicated to the separation of Québec from the rest of Canada. Then in September 1994, Jacques Parizeau was elected Premier of Québec. He pledged to hold a referendum within eight to 10 months of taking office and he acted quickly. There was the draft law on Québec independence tabled in the Québec National Assembly on December 6, 1994. Article one said, "Québec is a sovereign country".

The draft bill was sent at public expense to all homes in the province. Then a Committee of the National Assembly crisscrossed the province, at public expense, to promote separation. And there was the constant subliminal advertising of the Québec government and its agencies to promote separation. We learned subsequent to the referendum about Mr. Parizeau's plans if the answer to his ambiguous question on October 30, 1995 had been yes, which only reemphasized the gravity of the issues at hand.

Most of all, you will recall, as we all do, watching your television set on that night of October 30, 1995 where only a few thousand votes separated us from a crisis of incalculable proportions and then, the announcement the next day of Mr. Parizeau's resignation as Premier and his replacement by Lucien Bouchard shortly thereafter.

There was the concern that Monsieur Bouchard would quickly use what seemed to be his immense personal popularity to hold and win another referendum. It is amazing that some say today that the Québec government after 1995 turned its attention away from preparing another referendum. Have they forgotten Monsieur Bouchard's pledge to hold the referendum whenever he determined "winning conditions" were present? My government took that pledge of Monsieur Bouchard very seriously.

I am certain that you recall in the aftermath of the referendum, the criticism, justified or not, of the federal government for having been too complacent, too absent, that I was sleepwalking, that I had almost lost the country. You remember the gloomy period after the referendum, the despair of the federalist forces, the omni presence in Montréal for years of "for sale" and "for rent" signs, all the boarded up windows you saw every morning as you drove through the streets of Montréal from your home to the Court House; you recall the sense among some of the inevitability of another referendum, this time with a different result. 

I can tell you, Mr. Commissioner, that we as a federal government realized that whatever we did before the referendum to promote Canada in Québec was not enough. For the next eight years, the unity of Canada was my number one priority as Prime Minister. It was never an issue of party; it was always an issue of country. I was determined that there would be no winning conditions for the proponents of separation. I had a personal commitment as a Canadian to the country I love and a duty as Prime Minister to keep it united. I was not prepared to be guilty of inaction.

My Cabinet was united in its determination to do what it takes. Canadians expected their government and their Prime Minister to act decisively on a whole range of fronts. Our whole post-referendum strategy in Québec was much more than simply advertising and sponsorship. No one in government believed for a moment that federal sponsorship of community events alone would convince Québecers to remain in Canada, but we were certain that the absence of a visible federal presence hurt the cause of Canada. Federal visibility was merely one element of a very comprehensive approach.

We acted quickly. Before Christmas of 1995, we introduced a resolution in the House of Commons on the distinctiveness of Québec society, and we introduced legislation providing a veto for each region of Canada including Québec on constitutional change. Both were approved by Parliament. I committed to negotiate a delegation of jurisdiction over manpower training to Québec.

Right after the referendum, I asked Marcel Massé, then Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, to chair a Cabinet committee to make recommendations to me on an action plan for national unity. Mr. Massé was well known as a proponent of rigorous expenditure controls in government. 

The Massé Committee made many recommendations which covered a variety of issues that included but went well beyond federal visibility in Québec. His report was discussed in detail in Cabinet on the 1st and 2nd of February 1996, and the recommendations, including increased federal visibility were all approved unanimously. We acted on all of them over the next days, weeks, months and years.

The committee said that "a good government agenda which includes fiscal responsibility is essential to achieving the objective of defeating separation". So our whole economic strategy over the next years to put the books of the nation in order was also an integral element of our national unity agenda.

In January 1996, as part of a national unity strategy, I brought in two new ministers, to strengthen Québec's representation and give new focus to the promotion of federalism in Québec. Mr. Dion played a particularly important role in succeeding years with his famous letters to Premier Bouchard to set the record straight, with his promotion of the need for a secession reference, with his arguments for clarity, and with the introduction of the Clarity Bill. 

So you can see, Mr. Commissioner that the sponsorship program was only one part of a comprehensive strategy. The whole machinery of government did not revolve around all the minute details of that one program, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I expected the senior advisors in my office over the years to focus on all our priorities such as, amongst others, jobs for 

Canadians, budgets, research in universities, Kyoto, Iraq, reform of political party financing. I obviously expected my most senior advisers to be heavily involved in Québec strategy because it was the most important priority. But they focused on all elements of the Québec strategy, not just federal visibility. 
For example, the Prime Minister's Office worked closely with Department of Justice lawyers and outside counsel in preparing and drafting the factum which federal counsel presented to the Supreme Court of Canada in the Secession Reference despite the fact that the Prime Minister's Office did not normally work on Supreme Court cases.

While the Prime Minister's Office was only peripherally involved in the negotiations of manpower delegation to other provinces, my office was directly involved in the negotiations with Québec on the delegation of manpower training.

Because of the absolute need to promote a federalist message in all parts of Québec, my office was fully involved in preparing ministerial tours which crisscrossed Québec. We wanted to show that there was a national government committed to serving the interests of the citizens of Quebec.

Because of its overriding importance to our national unity strategy, the Clarity Act was drafted in conjunction with my office; drafting sessions took place between my staff, Department of Justice lawyers and outside counsel. 
Much of this could be described as unusual, but it was necessary and essential in the circumstances. 

I now turn from the overall context to the purpose of the sponsorship program in Quebec.

The visibility in Québec of the Government of Canada had been significantly reduced from the mid-1980s until I became Prime Minister. The visible face of the Government of Canada had even been removed from post boxes, from the airport in Montréal, even from immigration courts. There was a vacuum and the vacuum was being filled by the Québec government, with constant subliminal messaging. Our approach particularly after the referendum was very clear. We would ensure that the threat of a new referendum was would be removed and that "winning conditions" would never be allowed to develop.

We were going to restore the visibility of the Government of Canada in 
Québec. Whatever Québec's Parti Québecois government was doing, which, in our view, directly or indirectly promoted separation, we, as the Government of Canada would at least match to promote a united Canada. If they were putting up billboards, and they did, the Government of Canada would put up billboards, and we did; if they were advertising on radio and television, and they did, the Government of Canada would advertise on radio and television, and we did; if they were sponsoring community events, and they did, the Government of Canada would sponsor community events, and we did.

Sponsorship is much more than just billboards, flags and word marks. It is involvement with organizers of community events, people who are often opinion leaders in their communities, letting them know that there is also a Government of Canada that relates directly to citizens, that the Government of Canada does more than just collect taxes while the Québec government delivers programs. This type of federal presence amongst community leaders was part and parcel of our overall strategy. That is why we committed to spending a significant amount of money every year to be part of community events. And we did not restrict the program to Québec because the Government of Canada should be present in communities across the country.

I regret any mistakes that might have been made in the course of this program, or any other government program. As Prime Minister, I take ultimate responsibility for everything good and everything bad that happens in the government. Those mistakes that were made in good faith can be excused. Any that were made in bad faith are inexcusable. If some people acted in bad faith for personal gain, they betrayedthe Prime Minister, the government and the country. They should be identified and punished, subject, of course, to due process of law. But there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it would have been a totally unforgivable mistake to leave the field of sponsorship of community events in Québec to the Parti Québecois government alone.

I knew that if we did all of that and, if we governed well, Québecers would take pride in being Canadian. By the end of 2003, support for Canada in Québec had increased substantially from where it was in the immediate aftermath of the referendum.

Mr. Commissioner, I signed a number of Treasury Board submissions when I was Prime Minister, normally for expenditures relating to the Privy Council Office and other organizations for which I was directly responsible. I also signed Treasury Board submissions to fund national unity initiatives, including sponsorship. I wanted to give a clear signal to ministers on the Treasury Board that this element of the national unity strategy, like all of the strategy, was a priority and needed to be funded despite the fact that very few new spending initiatives were being approved in 1996 as a result of our determination as a government to get the finances of the country in order after years of deficit spending, The Treasury Board submission which I signed was clear that all the rules, regulations, and guidelines had to be followed. It said

Public Works and Government Services Canada will ensure that the creative services, media buys, sponsorships, promotions and any other marketing initiatives conform with established Treasury Board policy and guidelines and that they provide added value to the Crown. In addition, they will continue to ensure that all communications services, including advertising and public opinion research, are competitive as required and subsequently that appropriate contracts are issued.

I insisted on that because, regardless of the context or purpose of any government program, there is no excuse and no justification for wasting money or using taxpayers' money for personal or partisan gain. There is no excuse for breaking rules and regulations in a manner that results in the misspending of taxpayers' money. As the Prime Minister whose government balanced the budget for the first time in decades by taking very painful decisions, and then paid down twelve percent of the national debt, I was always particularly preoccupied with controlling spending. I was entitled to presume that the language I put in the Treasury Board submission that contracting be in compliance with all the rules and regulations, and guidelines would be carried out to the letter. I could not have imagined that anyone at any level in a department responsible for contracting could come to the conclusion that he should stay out of the way and not ensure rigorous administration of the sponsorship program simply because I was committed to taking measures to increase federal visibility in Québec. When problems were identified by internal audits, we asked the Auditor General to conduct an investigation, we changed the administration of the program and we referred files to the RCMP. 

Mr. Commissioner, I want to clear up misunderstandings about the source of funding for some sponsorship and other national unity related initiatives. 

There are a number of reserves established every year in the fiscal framework by the Minister of Finance at the time of the budget. They are for expenditures that will likely be made during the course of the year, but which are not necessarily easily identified at the beginning of the year. For example, there is money set aside in a reserve for natural disasters, but no one can predict in advance whether it will be a hurricane in Halifax or a flood on the Red River. There is money set aside in a reserve to pay court judgments against the Crown without knowing in advance what they will be. In the case of national unity, the reserve existed under Prime Ministers Trudeau and Mulroney. During the course of my administration, the Minister of Finance and I always agreed to set aside fifty million dollars a year for expenditures related to national unity that would be decided upon during the course of the year. As Prime Minister, I considered it my duty to determine the priorities to which those funds would be allocated. I was prepared to answer and take full responsibility for those priorities in the House of Commons. Once the priorities were determined, the actual spending of the money by departments, like in the case of all reserves, became the responsibility of the departments and were subject to normal Parliamentary appropriations and Treasury Board procedures. 

The sponsorship program was not partisan. It was not about the Liberal Party. It was about promoting the visibility of Canada in Québec. A conventional wisdom has nonetheless been created about "Liberal friendly" advertising agencies. We have to be very careful about labels. In Québec, there are basically two types of advertising agencies - those who are "separatist friendly" and those who are "federalist friendly". Federalist friendly agencies tended to support the Conservatives when they were in power and the Liberals when they were in power. I do hope the Government of Canada used "federalist friendly" agencies to promote the visibility of Canada in Québec, not because the agencies contributed to the Liberal Party until we abolished corporate contributions, but because the only alternative in practical terms was to use "separatist friendly" agencies. If unscrupulous people used that program or any other program of the Government of Canada to line their own pockets or for inappropriate partisan ends, I repeat what I have always said. They should be found out and punished.

If anyone thinks that we were making decisions based on the financial interests of the Liberal Party, how do they explain our decision to turn down bank mergers or to support the Kyoto Agreement even though we received significant contributions from banks and from the oil and gas sector?

Mr. Commissioner, the question is not whether some action is unusual. The question is whether it is necessary and whether it is right. I am firmly convinced that our national unity strategy was necessary and right. Were some mistakes made in everything we did? I am sure they were. After all, we are all human. Mr. Commissioner, you and I are both trained in the civil law. One of the first things we both learned at law school was the article of the Québec Civil Code that provides a presumption of good faith. I have explained that the sponsorship program was conceived in good faith. Its objectives were noble. When there is a presumption that a program is designed for sinister or corrupt partisan reasons, it is easy to draw all sorts of conclusions about ulterior motives of anyone associated with it particularly when there are hazy recollections of long ago meetings or memos.

A presumption of good faith leads to very different conclusions. For example, there has to be a recognition that people who every day for years dealt with dozens of memos on a whole variety of important issues and who attended sometimes dozens of meetings every day on every conceivable subject may not have total recall about any of them. There is one other important point. As Prime Minister, I received many memos from the Privy Council Office providing advice on every conceivable subject. Most often I accepted the advice. Sometimes I questioned it and my officials convinced me they were right; sometimes I convinced them that my judgment was right. Sometimes, like every prime minister, I did not accept the advice I received. The job of a prime minister, or a minister or a chief executive officer is not to rubberstamp every memo he receives. 

In all my years, I never ceased to marvel at the professionalism of the public service of Canada, at the dedication to country of public servants and those in all political parties who operate at the political level. The public service and those on political staffs who work on government programs do so in good faith and for the best of motives. Like all of us in all sectors of society, they may make mistakes in the course of their work. Their good faith should not be doubted unless there is solid evidence to the contrary. But if you find any wrongdoing, Mr. Commissioner, I hope you allocate individual responsibility and do not tar our entire institutions with the inappropriate actions of the very few.

Mr. Commissioner, you have heard a lot about the role of ministers and prime ministers and political staffs and their relationship with the public service. With respect to some who have testified, some of what you have heard is highly theoretical and impractical andwould make governing impossible in any parliamentary democracy. Governments are elected to govern. Ministers and prime ministers are there to make decisions and set policy directions. Public servants are there to implement policy decisions. But in practice there are no watertight compartments. Elected officials and their staffs work with public servants on a daily basis. They talk to each other. They seek advice from each other. They exchange views and opinions, they debate issues, they transmit representations. Sometimes they do so formally; sometimes, informally.

Unless staff in ministers' offices or the Prime Minister's Office and public servants can walk in and out of each other's offices, call each other on the phone, seek advice and counsel from each other, the job of government simply does not get done. I urge you not to make recommendations that unwittingly will make it difficult for governments to function and to serve Canadians, difficult for ministers to do their jobs, for members of Parliament to pass representations on behalf of constituents onto public servants, for public servants to work seamlessly with elected officials and their staffs.

I would just conclude in saying that a prime minister has heavy responsibilities and must make decisions that no one else can make, not even auditors general. The single most important priority of every prime minister since 1867 has been to preserve the unity of the country. We all may have been criticized at some time or another for our approach to national unity. But in the case of the unity of Canada every prime minister from Sir John A Macdonald to myself has always put country ahead of anything else.

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