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Hill Life & People

St. Germain played a key role behind the scenes in conservative movement

By Kate Malloy      

Vancouver Sun Hill reporter Peter O'Neil talks about his book, I Am Métis: The Story of Gerry St. Germain.

Vancouver Sun Hill reporter Peter O'Neil talks about why he wrote a book about Gerry St. Germain. 'During an hour-long interview just before he retired in 2012, I realized he had a pretty great story to tell.' The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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PARLIAMENT HILL—Vancouver Sun Hill reporter Peter O’Neil is a sharp, unassuming journalist, who has been breaking exclusive news stories since he started on the Hill almost 30 years ago. He likes a good story and found one in former Conservative Senator, MP, and Mulroney-era cabinet minister Gerry St. Germain who he describes as “a kind of Forrest Gump character in Canadian politics,” but once an important backroom political player.

First elected in a byelection in 1983, and re-elected in Brian Mulroney’s massive majority win in 1984, but defeated in 1988, Gerry St. Germain, is a former trapper, construction worker, air force pilot, police officer, union leader, and chicken farmer. Métis and fluently bilingual, Mr. St. Germain is a big man who knew how to charm and how to fight while he was on the Hill, so Mr. Mulroney put him in charge of his massive national Progressive Conservative caucus from 1984 to 1988 and later brought him into cabinet, one of the first aboriginal cabinet ministers. He was also the political minister for British Columbia. Defeated in 1988, he was later elected president of the Progressive Conservative Party and was summoned to the Senate by Mr. Mulroney. In the Senate until 2012, the black Stetson-wearing millionaire played a critical role in Canada’s Conservative movement, was a “crucial behind-the-scenes broker” between the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party, and “was a quiet hero to Canada’s aboriginal community,” writes Mr. O’Neil.

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Gerry St. Germain, centre, pictured in 2004 on the Hill when he was a Senator. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

“During an hour-long interview just before he retired in 2012 I realized he had a pretty great story to tell. Here was a guy who was the son of a Métis trapper, born poor on the outskirts of Winnipeg. He was a fighter pilot, a policeman with some harrowing stories to tell, a union leader, if you can believe that, and a self-made millionaire who, despite being an outspoken fiscal conservative who viewed the NDP as the ‘barbarians at the gates,’ actually got very wealthy as a result of a provincial government policy brought in after Dave Barrett’s historic NDP victory in 1972. He was an important insider in the Mulroney government, played a key role in uniting the Canadian Alliance and PC parties, and in later years this guy, who was once too ashamed to admit he had an aboriginal heritage, got a lifetime achievement award for his work helping First Nations,” said Mr. O’Neil.

Why does Gerry St. Germain’s life story warrant a book? Most Canadians, especially off Parliament Hill and outside B.C., have never heard of him. “I covered Gerry off and on from the day I arrived on Parliament Hill in the spring of 1988, which coincided with his appointment into Brian Mulroney’s cabinet, until his retirement in 2012. And, honestly, it never crossed my mind that there was a book to be written. He was a kind of Forrest Gump character in Canadian politics. He never struck anyone as a high roller kind of politician, he wasn’t at all slick with the media. Most people were aware that he was a key behind-the-scenes figure in the conservative movement during this period, but that in itself doesn’t make someone book-worthy—unless of course they have scandalous secrets to share.

“But during an hour-long interview just before he retired in 2012 I realized he had a pretty great story to tell. Here was a guy who was the son of a Métis trapper, born poor on the outskirts of Winnipeg. He was a fighter pilot, a policeman with some harrowing stories to tell, a union leader, if you can believe that, and a self-made millionaire who, despite being an outspoken fiscal conservative who viewed the NDP as the ‘barbarians at the gates,’ actually got very wealthy as a result of a provincial government policy brought in after Dave Barrett’s historic NDP victory in 1972. He was an important insider in the Mulroney government, played a key role in uniting the Canadian Alliance and PC parties, and in later years this guy, who was once too ashamed to admit he had an aboriginal heritage, got a lifetime achievement award for his work helping First Nations.”

How did that lead to a book deal? “The same B.C. Tory who suggested the 2012 profile pushed me to write a book. I pitched the idea to a B.C. publisher who immediately offered me a contract. However, it took Gerry almost three years to agree to the idea. I went back to that publisher, who was still keen, but then Harbour Publishing/Douglas & McIntyre came in with a better offer so I went with them.”

What kind of conservative is he? “He’s a fiscal conservative in that he was a penny-pinching small businessman and therefore naturally a person suspicious of big government, high taxes, and red tape. He is also a devout Roman Catholic and therefore qualifies as a social conservative. And as an ex-cop he takes a hard line on law and order issues.”

What made him an important insider? “It began after the 1984 landslide Tory win when Mulroney made him chairman of the largest caucus in Canadian history. This was a caucus that included many right-wing conservatives from outside Quebec, the overwhelming majority unilingual anglophones, and then a huge group of Quebec francophones, many of whom were strong nationalists and, in many cases, as centrist as your typical Quebec Liberal. There were lots of strong personalities on both sides. It was a potentially explosive mix, especially with Mulroney trying to amend the Constitution.

“St. Germain, despite his strong small-c conservative credentials, was also a bilingual Métis naturally sensitive to Canada’s linguistic duality. Mulroney, who was obsessed with the need to keep his caucus united, told me that was a huge factor in his decision to name him caucus chair, or as Mulroney put it in my interview with him, his ‘caucus CEO.’ It was a great choice in large part because Gerry is a workaholic and is very personable, yet could be intimidating with his policeman’s build and direct manner. He could cajole MPs with his charm—or send a firm message from ‘The Boss’ when that was necessary.”

What role did his Métis background play in his career? “It played a decisive role in his political success. He arrived in Parliament with Mulroney after their twin byelection wins in 1983 at the height of the Manitoba Language Crisis. That crisis was of course was rooted in Louis Riel’s struggle to defend his people and their language rights when Manitoba became a province. St. Germain, as one of the party’s few bilingual Western MPs, was an important symbol for Mulroney as he tried to convince Quebecers that the PCs were no longer the same party that hung Riel a century earlier.

“But even then, St. Germain didn’t widely advertise his aboriginal background. It wasn’t until after his Senate appointment in 1993 that he began researching his roots and discovered that he was a descendent of Canada’s first Métis leader, Cuthbert Grant. This is where the title came from, because for most of his life he was too ashamed to say, ‘I am a Métis.’ ”

How important was he to the rebuilding of the new Conservative Party of Canada after its collapse? “There were three key moments. He was the party president when the party fell apart in 1993, so it’s fair to say he was instrumental in the early years working with Jean Charest and Elsie Wayne, the only two MPs to survive that devastating election, and a tiny group of party officials, including the late Jim Prentice, to keep the party alive. His second major contribution was in 2000 when he jumped from the PCs to the Canadian Alliance after Stockwell Day became leader. That caused a rupture in his friendship with Mulroney, and it was a huge blow against Joe Clark, the Tory leader who at the time was insisting there would never be unity and that the PCs would eventually return to their former glory. The third contribution came in 2003 when he worked behind the scenes with Harper and a small group of PC and Alliance grandees to negotiate the merger.”

How was he a “quiet hero,” as you put it, in the Senate for Canada’s aboriginal community? “If you wanted to get something done on a First Nations file in Ottawa your first stop was St. Germain’s Senate office. Gerry was a long-time member and later chairman of the Senate Aboriginal Peoples Committee. That committee produced reports on many of the key issues of recent years, from self-government to housing to safe drinking water to economic development. You probably think those reports were released and forgotten. But Jim Prentice, who was Harper’s first Aboriginal Affairs Minister, told me in one of his last interviews before he died that Gerry—by producing these reports in the 2006-08 period—helped Prentice sell to a skeptical caucus some major expenditures in areas such as safe water and economic development.”

What was his role in the Senate scandal? “It is well-known of course that Gerry is one of the more prominent people of the 30 named in the 2015 report by Auditor General Michael Ferguson into alleged inappropriate spending by Senators. As you know, they were all told a few months ago that the RCMP wouldn’t be investigating them. I think those who are interested in that angle need to read the chapter where I go into this period in some detail, as it is tough to summarize in a few sentences. Gerry has always maintained that, except for one relatively small item, he did nothing improper, and has been prepared to fight the allegations in civil court if the Senate files suit.”

Why is this book important and who should read it? “I think it’s a book for anyone remotely interested in the ups and downs of Canada’s conservative movement, because Gerry was like a fly on the wall during some of its great and not-so-great moments over the past few decades. In the epilogue, he offers some advice, as a person who worked closely with the only two Tory leaders who won majority governments since John Diefenbaker, on what party members should look for in a new leader in next May’s leadership vote. And I think it’s just a compelling story of a life well-lived. He wasn’t perfect, and he would be the first to tell you that his family paid a huge price for his frantic workaholic nature. But no one could challenge the notion that he didn’t get the most out of his abilities during his remarkable rise from very humble beginnings. Finally, I should note that Gerry agreed to open his archives and his life to me because he hoped his personal story would be a source of inspiration for aboriginal youths. In fact, he’s trying to convince some of his wealthy friends to buy some of these books in bulk to distribute to First Nations schools. Here’s hoping he succeeds.”

I Am Métis: The Story of Gerry St. Germain, by Peter O’Neil, Harbour Publishing, 235 pp., $32.95.

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