The PCP/CPC Caucus under Clark and O’Toole

The Progressive Conservative Party, now Conservative Party of Canada, with its history of mainly being in opposition, has been plagued with caucus fractiousness. In the current session of Parliament, the Conservatives have been able to speak with one voice about ending conversion therapy, but are divided about many other issues, most notably vaccine mandates.

Reviewing my experience as an informal adviser to Joe Clark brings me to the issue of bilingual air traffic control, in which the fractiousness of the caucus was also a theme.

Just the Facts

Prior to the Seventies, air traffic controllers and pilots in Quebec communicated only in English. Applying la revolution tranquille to their own experience, a growing number of francophone pilots and controllers wanted to use French. This offended English-speaking pilots, who felt that safety was compromised if they could not understand conversations between francophone pilots and controllers that they were overhearing, and unilingual anglophone controllers based in Quebec who would have to learn French if they wanted to keep their jobs. But much of the anglophone public saw it as an example of the (Pierre) Trudeau Government’s bilingualism policy carried to a dangerous extreme.

The issue became a crisis when English-speaking controllers and pilots launched wildcat strikes in June 1976, two weeks before the Montreal Olympics. To end the walkouts, the Government agreed to appoint a Commission of Inquiry to study the issue, promised not to implement bilingual air traffic control unless the Commission unanimously agreed it was safe, and promised to submit the Commission’s recommendations to a free vote in the House of Commons.

Quebecois resentment at this agreement was a key factor leading to the election of the Parti Quebecois Government in November 1976.

Though the Commission had conducted simulation studies of a bilingual air traffic system and held hearings, it had not completed its report when Joe Clark took office as Prime Minister in June 1979. All this is discussed in my 1983 book The Language of the Skies, regarded as the definitive history of this issue.

Joe Clark’s Approach

Members of the Conservative caucus had been among the anglophone pilots’ and controllers’ strongest supporters when in Opposition. The stakes were much higher for a Conservative government, especially given the presence of a PQ Government in Quebec planning to hold a referendum on sovereignty-association.

As one small part of his approach to the problem, having heard that I was working on a book about the issue, he consulted me in his third week in office. Quoting from his letter: “I would appreciate your suggestions as to how we might respond to a Royal Commission recommendation favouring bilingual communication, if such a recommendation is forthcoming. In particular, I would appreciate advice as to any preparatory work we might do, of an educational or ‘background’ nature among our Parliamentary Caucus.” This letter shows two of Clark’s strengths, his willingness to consult people with expertise, and his concern about maintaining the Caucus’s support for the Government and curbing its often embarrassing partisanship.

In my response, I drew on my interviews, which made it clear that the simulation studies showed that a bilingual air traffic control system in Quebec would be safe and efficient, and predicted that the commissioners would likely be unanimous in recommending its implementation. I suggested Clark direct Don Mazankowski, his Minister of Transport, to approach the pilots’ and controllers’ associations about foregoing the free vote in the House of Commons. I also suggested briefings for the caucus by the Minister and his senior public servants. I am sure Clark received lots of other advice.

A Safe Pair of Hands

Don Mazankowski, an MP from Alberta, had been among those supporting the English-speaking pilots and controllers. But, as Minister of Transport, he recognized that the issue had changed between 1976 and 1979. The Royal Commission unanimously concluded that a bilingual air traffic control system should be implemented and gave its report to Mazankowski and Clark a few days before making it public. Mazankowski immediately informed the anglophone leadership of the pilots’ and controllers’ associations of the Royal Commission’s conclusion and told them he would hold the free vote if they demanded it but hoped it could be avoided. In return for foregoing the free vote he offered to make the public announcement of the Royal Commission’s conclusion low-key and to ensure that they were involved in the implementation process. And that is indeed what happened. And not a word of disagreement or protest was heard from the Conservative caucus.

How do I know about what happened out of public view? It is in The Language of the Skies, the definitive history, on pages 212-214. But I wrote that book. My research methodology (discussed on pages 5 and 6) involved “off-the-record” interviews for which I did not provide footnotes. I regret that some years after the book was published, I threw out my interview notes, which would have provided the evidence. I remember that I did numerous interviews with the leaders of the controllers’ and pilots’ associations, and they likely gave me an account of their dealings with Mazankowski. I don’t recall interviewing Mazankowski, but maybe I did after the Clark Government was defeated.

This account of Mazankowski’s handling of the issue is very much in keeping with what other politicians said about him after he passed away in October 2020. He served Brian Mulroney as Deputy Prime Minister from 1986 to 1993 and Mulroney eulogized him in the following words: “I realized what an effective leader he was. And he did so without creating enemies anywhere he went. He was never viewed as a miserable partisan by the other side … Even in tough debates, he never burned bridges.”

One could say that Clark’s best decision in terms of calmly resolving the bilingual air traffic control conflict was appointing Don Mazankowski Minister of Transport. If Erin O’Toole, or more likely his successor, is to form a government, they will need several Don Mazankowskis.

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