Confidential American reports prove prescient; Embassy dispatches obtained through Freedom of Information Act reveal consulate officials' reports on Canadian politics and politicians

By Stanley Tromp, Vancouver Sun, 11 Oct. 2008



American diplomats stationed in Canada concluded in 2006 that Stephen Harper wasn't as "scary" as the Liberals claimed.

They also wrote in 2004 that Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe "overcame his reputation for charmlessness." That Jean Chretien "blundered" by calling an election during the Manitoba flooding disaster of 1997, and Kim Campbell was surging to victory in the summer of 1993.

These assessments are contained in several hundred pages of electoral predictions by the U.S. State Department, stamped "Confidential," and obtained by The Vancouver Sun under the American Freedom of Information Act, after a two-year delay.

Besides dispatches from the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, there were also regional reports on the past five Canadian elections from American consulates in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City and Halifax.

Many of these musing and predictions proved prescient when the results were tallied on voting day.

During the last federal election in 2006, the U.S. consulate in Toronto noted that Conservative leader Stephen Harper had done "an excellent job of maintaining a mainstream profile" by not talking about western alienation or two-tier health care, not "being insensitive about Quebec" and by avoiding the social conservative agenda.

The final TV debates may have been a turning point: "Stephen Harper did not score major victories, but he kept his cool, stayed on message and looked credible as a prime ministerial candidate. He wasn't 'scary.' " The Halifax consulate officials wrote that, both in 2004 and 2006, "when voters here actually meet the Conservative leader or hear him speak in person, their fear of him and his policies seem to diminish."

And yet, they added in 2006, "as with the 2004 campaign, voters are still wary of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, viewing them as too closed-minded and too focused on Western Canada, both perceived being to the detriment of the Atlantic region."

National unity has also been mentioned by some of our contacts as a potential issue, since the prospect of the Bloc Quebecois taking even more seats tends to reinforce Atlantic Canadian feelings of isolation."

Votes for the separatist Bloc Quebecois party in previous national elections should not be seen as support for sovereignty, the diplomats said repeatedly. In the 2004 election, for example, officials at the U.S. Montreal consulate wrote:

"While separatist militants are buoyed by the election results, many Quebecers cast a protest vote for the Bloc, because they wanted to punish the Liberals and couldn't stomach the Conservatives."

They added that "The corporate sponsorship scandals figured hugely in the election results."

Some called the Bloc's performance a resurrection, noted the consulate, since only a year previously, the party's imminent demise had been predicated by many pundits. "However, handed the gift of the corporate sponsorship scandals -- and Liberal stumbling in its Quebec strategy -- Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe adroitly managed an almost mistake-free campaign, shrewdly depicting himself and his party as trustworthy and competent Quebec-firsters, while downplaying his party's sovereigntist goals in order to make in-roads among non-separatist Quebec voters."

In the 1997 election, they wondered about the impact of Reform party leader Preston Manning's anti-centralist rhetoric on national unity, writing that if Manning headed the opposition in the next Parliament, "Chretien may have a tougher job selling reconciliation with Quebec. Manning's anti-Quebec rhetoric has not sold well among most Ontarians who do not react well to his divisive message."

In 2000 as well, the Toronto consulate noted Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day seemed to misunderstand Ontarians' concerns: "For example, the Alliance mistakenly focused on issues like provincial rights in a province where voters view themselves as the bulwark of national unity."

Regarding the NDP, the Ottawa embassy noted in 2006:

"The NDP entered the campaign with some traction as its leader Jack Layton has honed his style as a federal politician and because the party had real success in promoting social policies during the previous minority Parliament."

Yet by 1997, the same embassy said, the NDP had been mainly abandoned by rank-and-file union voters, "and labour leaders are divided over the question of whether the NDP can be replied upon to advance labour's agenda."

Former Liberal prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau died Sept. 28, 2000 and Chretien called an election for Nov. 27, a timing that the U.S. embassy in Ottawa said might be important: "Even members of the opposition privately acknowledge that much of this election will be spent fighting Trudeau's ghost."

"The Liberal party's initial fears that calling a fall election would dishonour Trudeau's memory have been replaced with the desire to defend his legacy. Trudeau's death and the overwhelming national mourning has rekindled Canadians' identification with traditional Liberal values. . . . The Liberals however will have to walk a fine line between Trudeau's values and his policies, which many believe left Canada more divided and its citizens worse off economically."

On the free trade issue, American diplomats reported that the Conservatives would privately admit that they had "oversold" the benefits of the U.S. - Canada Free Trade Agreement in the mid-1980s, and were "very eager" to get the NAFTA negotiations out of the way before the 1997 campaign, "in which the FTA experience would be on trial."

The officials also regretted the lack of Canadian interest in foreign affairs: "It is an exaggeration to call Canada a surrogate for the U.S., but frequently the Canadians are able to do things internationally that we cannot because of our superpower status. Thus, a less active Canadian foreign policy is not in the best interests of the U.S. However, there is nothing the U.S. can do to reverse the trend, especially in an election year."

At several points, the diplomats lamented anti-American political rhetoric, yet seemed politely resigned to it. In the 2006 election, for instance, they opined, "All sides will need to keep a healthy distance from the United States. . . . Other than routine shots about the rise of 'American-style' anything -- campaigns, health care, you name it -- we do not at this point see the U.S. or bilateral issues as major factors in races."

The fall 1993 election brought a landslide majority victory for the Liberals, while the Tories plummeted to two seats. Yet this was not foreseen by the Quebec City consulate in the summer, as Tory leader Kim Campbell toured the nation:

"Liberals have writhed in frustration while Campbell and the Tories have risen in the polls. The initiative lies with PM Campbell. For over two months, she has criss-crossed Canada, riding the subways, dancing the twist, eating corn on the cob and in every possible visible way not being Brian Mulroney. The strategy has been highly successful."

Later in the campaign, the Americans noted a rise in Liberal fortunes, yet suggested this result occurred more in spite of the Liberal leader than because of him.

"If you are a dedicated son or daughter of Quebec, you have to hate the available choices in this election," wrote one U.S. official. "While Quebec has traditionally favoured the Liberal party in federal elections, that will probably change this year, despite their lead in the national polls, as Jean Chretien remains perhaps the most despised man in Quebec."

In all their discussions, they found nary a soul with a kind word for Chretien.

"The feeling seems to be visceral. Voters here still harbour deep resentment for his role as Trudeau's hatchet man when the constitution was patriated in 1982 over Quebec's objections, and for his well-known opposition to Meech Lake.

"Moreover, Chretien is seen as an ignorant, poorly educated old-style politician with a lower-class accent and an oafish manner."

With the publication of a survey by Ekos, the officials wrote, the people of Quebec began to realize that the Bloc could indeed form the official opposition in Ottawa.

An American diplomat in Quebec City recalled that Parti Quebecois officials he talked to at a consulate reception during the 1993 campaign "could barely contain their glee, although they also seemed worried about the dangers of premature triumphalism. As one of them commented, this would clarify matters enormously: the official opposition to the Chretien government would be 'Quebec.'"

The Americans predicated that the English Canadian reaction to this elevation of the Bloc would likely be "volcanic." They also later opined that the massive Liberal majority of 1993 "led to a situation in which parliamentary democracy was no longer working."

The Americans' information came from a wide variety of political, governmental, media and academic sources. For example, one 1997 report "is based on the observations of [the] Ottawa embassy and Toronto offices during a series of 'tag alongs' with Liberal candidates in Ontario, conversations with polling experts and political insiders in the Liberal, Progressive Conservative, NDP and Reform parties."

Although the final summaries are penned by Americans, because the authors' and sources' names are blanked out, it can be, at times, hard to distinguish between views of U.S. officials and those by others. Differences of opinions may be explained by the fact that reports came in from different offices.

For example, the Ottawa embassy found in June 2004 that, moving into the final three days of the campaign, "the Liberal party appears to have gotten some boost from a series of Conservative party missteps and strongly worded TV 'scare' ads aimed at tilting some wavering voters back into its arms." Yet in the same month, the Toronto consulate reported in peripheral Ontario: "Several [Liberal] campaign directors openly questioned PM Martin's 'negative attack ad' style, claiming it only served to bolster Conservative support."

Summing up their prognostic challenges in 1997, one U.S. official wrote:

"Our observers cautioned that Canadian elections are very difficult to predict and within the pressure cooker of an intense five-week campaign can be very volatile."

Yet the Americans followed Canadian elections with the keenest attention, riding by riding, and most of their analysis proved to be intelligent and accurate.

On the Conservatives

"Voters are Still Wary of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, Viewing Them as Too Closed-Minded and Too Focused on Western Canada."

On the Bloc Quebecois

"Many Quebeckers cast a protest vote for the Bloc, because they wanted to punish the Liberals, and couldn't stomach the Conservatives."

On the Liberals

"Much of this election will be spent fighting Trudeau's ghost. The Liberal party's initial fears that calling a fall election would dishonour Trudeau's memory have been replaced with the desire to defend his legacy."

On the NDP

"Labour leaders are divided over the question of whether the NDP can be relied upon to advance labour's agenda."