The best book you’ve never heard of

Paul Wells on the obscure memoir that’s a must-read for any politician
NO" supporters wave Canadian and Quebec flags at "NO" headquarters in Montreal, October 30. The "NO" side won the separation referendum by only 1 percentage point, 50.5% to 49.5 - RTXFNDD

NO" supporters wave Canadian and Quebec flags at "NO" headquarters in Montreal, October 30. The "NO"..

Here’s a story you don’t hear every day.

Months before the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum, Jean Chrétien’s federal government published three million copies of a pamphlet informing Quebecers that if Canada could be divided, so could a seceding Quebec. At the time, when Quebec federalists were mostly preoccupied with not stirring up any emotional debates, the notion that Quebec could be partitioned was seen as so provocative that Daniel Johnson, the Quebec provincial Liberal leader, pleaded with Chrétien not to mail the pamphlet out.

Chrétien relented. But the brochures were already printed. They weighed 260 tonnes and filled 17 trucks. Officials in the Privy Council Office had them stowed in a government warehouse until finally, weeks after the referendum vote, they were destroyed.

Well, almost all. Howard Balloch kept at least one copy. In his fascinating new memoir, he tells the story of the partition pamphlets for the first time.

It is customary to describe political books as “hotly awaited.” Balloch’s isn’t. His long career as a bureaucrat and diplomat concluded with a stint as Canada’s ambassador to China until 2001. He stayed in China for a successful business career, where he remains to this day. I can find nobody who knew he’d self-published a memoir. I discovered several copies at an Ottawa bookstore, bearing the nerdy title, Semi-Nomadic Anecdotes. It details a life that began in Corner Brook, N.L., and has taken the author around the world.

Good for Howard Balloch. But I paid cash on the barrel for the book because it contains 60 pages about the 1995 referendum, during which Balloch, a courtly bow-tied fellow, was deputy secretary to the Cabinet for National Unity. Here is the most detailed account we have of the federal government’s actions in that historic campaign. Balloch describes how a combination of sky-high stakes and clashing personalities led to secrecy, improvisation and, often, near-chaos among the federalists who, in the end, barely managed to win.

Balloch gets the coveted national-unity gig almost by accident. He’s an assistant deputy minister for the Asia-Pacific who briefs Chrétien before the APEC summit in Seattle at the end of 1993. Chrétien notices his elegant French. Three months later, Balloch is called into the Langevin Block office of Chrétien’s formidable chief of staff, Jean Pelletier. Pelletier hands him a job Balloch did not know existed.

Eddie Goldenberg, the guy they sometimes called Chrétien’s brain, joins the meeting. They ask how Ottawa should counter the election of a Parti Québécois government, which ended up happening seven months later—not because they don’t have their own ideas, but to test whether Balloch’s match.

They do, mostly. “I answered that I thought the government should be directly and deeply involved, that it should try to do a much better job selling Canada in Quebec, that it should leave no separatist lie unchallenged . . . and if the opportunity arose, it should try to seek a constitutional change that would bring Quebec permanently into the constitutional family,” Balloch writes now. “Pelletier and Goldenberg said they agreed with all but my last point, which they thought would be suicidal.”

The unapologetic federal role Balloch wanted is closer to the way Chrétien behaved after he nearly blew the referendum. Before the vote, Chrétien was more aloof, too confident victory would be easy, too willing to let Daniel Johnson, the risk-averse leader of Quebec’s federalists, win arguments.

For Balloch, it was a frustrating state of affairs. He writes that internal polling showed that support for the Yes side would drop “by eight or nine per cent . . . if we encouraged a public airing of the divisibility of Quebec.” But Johnson and the Quebec Liberals will have none of it.

Meanwhile, Balloch is slowed down by sticks in the mud in Ottawa, including Jocelyne Bourgon, the clerk of the Privy Council. But it becomes clear Balloch was building a more-or-less independent operation, with PMO blessing, at the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets. He hides a major hiring spree from public scrutiny by “burying some of our expenditures in other budgets, asking departments and agencies to release personnel to us while continuing to keep them on their own books, and not even publishing the address of our principal offices.”

Balloch’s unity shop is everywhere. When Jacques Parizeau tells European diplomats a referendum is like a lobster trap, Balloch leaks word of the private conversation to reporters. When a firmly federalist young business consultant named Pierre Pettigrew quits his job because the boss wanted everyone to clam up about the referendum, Balloch gives Pettigrew “a couple of federal contracts” so he can pay the rent while speaking up for Canada. As for the reports Pettigrew wrote, “I am not sure that anyone paid much attention to them.”

With the benefit of hindsight, you can see the seeds of the late-’90s sponsorship scandal in this noble fight, as rules get bent for expediency’s sake. Balloch held the line, but there are omens of nasty business to come. Both André Ouellet and Alfonso Gagliano, two Quebec ministers, “asked me to try to find jobs for their friends” at the Council for Canadian Unity. Balloch didn’t deliver. “I did, however, agree to meet with various people, who sometimes seemed to be shady characters in fedoras and large Cadillacs with no discernible positive contribution to make.” They would, it seems, be back later.