Toronto Star

November 6, 1999

A nightmare becomes the job of her dreams


Justice Minister Anne McLellan will be a centre of controversy in Parliament this fall. Can she carry the heavy load?

By Judy Steed
Toronto Star Feature Writer

OTTAWA - ANNE McLellan was subject to recurring nightmares during her first months as minister of natural resources, back in 1993.

``I dreamed about being expected to do something important, I'm not sure what, and would find myself in a room full of men, afraid I couldn't meet their expectations. Then I'd wake up with a start, filled with anxiety.''

She got over it.

Today, as minister of justice and attorney-general, McLellan, 49, is one of the most influential women in the federal government.

The mark of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's respect is the responsibility she carries. She is the only minister who sits on the four committees in charge of the government's agenda.

She chairs the social union committee and was the federal negotiator who forged an agreement among the provinces and territories, except Quebec, on a framework for a new federalism.

And she's driving a controversial agenda that includes changes to the Young Offenders' Act, initiatives on crime prevention and victims' rights, the possible extension of legal rights to economically dependent couples, and a proposal to change more than 50 federal statutes to give gays and lesbians equal rights on matters ranging from income tax to pension laws.

`She became justice minister in the summer of '97 and said the Young Offenders Act would be her first priority, and over 30,000 violent crimes have been committed by young people since then and we're still waiting for the legislation'
- Deborah Grey,
Reform party critic

It's an extremely heavy workload - and one that McLellan loves.

And it's a far cry from the quiet days on a family farm in Nova Scotia where she was raised.

``Anne makes very difficult politics look easy,'' says Tim Christian, former dean of the University of Alberta's faculty of law.

Indeed, McLellan has come a long way from the days when she was a university law professor unaccustomed to the macho power dynamics of private clubs and federal politics.

Now, she's perceived as a stern taskmaster, a hard-working Chrétien Liberal, pragmatic, not necessarily charismatic, who gets the job done.

She's had to learn fast - and, it seems, all her hard work is starting to pay off.

McLellan grew up on a family farm at Noel Shore, Nova Scotia (near Truro), surrounded by chickens - 17,000

of them - a herd of dairy cows, and a large extended family of dyed-in-the-wool Liberals.

``In Nova Scotia, politics is bred in the bone,'' says McLellan. ``To say you come from a political family in Nova Scotia is not to distinguish yourself.''

McLellan's father, Gilmore, operated one of the oldest family farms in the province. It's still in the family today, run by her younger brother John, 42.

The eldest of three children, McLellan describes herself as ``a bookworm,'' growing up. She ``was never into a lot of farm work,'' John confirms.

Young Anne was strongly influenced by her mother.

Yorkshire-born Joan McLellan was a municipal councillor and political powerhouse in Hants East, and ``Anne is very much like her,'' says Mary Clancy, a former MP and law school classmate. ``You couldn't be Joan McLellan's daughter and not have self-confidence.'' And not be involved in politics.

At a Dalhousie Law School reunion last month, McLellan recalled in a speech that, ``the period from 1968, when I started my undergraduate studies (in political science), through 1974, when I graduated from law school, was a time of monumental events and profound changes around the globe.''

Her typewritten text listed a few: the use of the War Measures Act, the Vietnam war, the Watergate scandal. ``Almost every day brought to light new injustices and new causes. We were an activist generation that learned to question every orthodoxy, consider every heresy, and confront every indecency.''

In 1975, McLellan and Clancy, now Canada's consul general in Boston, did their master's degrees in law at the University of London, and travelled through Europe and Russia.

Back home, McLellan started teaching law at the University of New Brunswick and - like Louise Arbour, recently elevated to the Supreme Court of Canada - was one of the first women professors to get tenure.

Through it all, the passion for politics did not wane. Clancy moved to Vancouver, and recalls ``coming home . . . to the annual meeting of the Nova Scotia Liberal party and Anne had come from New Brunswick to chair a policy discussion.''

In 1980, McLellan moved to Alberta to accept a teaching job at the University of Alberta and made a big splash in Liberal circles.

``It was hard not to meet Anne,'' says Kevin Feehan, an Edmonton lawyer and Liberal organizer. ``She was very active, very political, from the beginning.''

Thirteen years after arriving in Edmonton - encouraged by Clancy, who was first elected in 1988 from Halifax - she took the next big leap and ran for the Liberals in the heart of Reform country.

Alberta had been without federal Liberal representation since 1974.

The 1993 outcome resulted in a nickname McLellan is still known by in Edmonton: ``One-vote Anne.''

That was her margin of victory. Her Reform party challenger demanded a recount, which extended the lead to 11 votes.

Within 24 hours, the rookie MP was elevated to cabinet.

When Chrétien handed her the natural resources portfolio, Reform critics howled with glee, convinced she would blow it.

``I would not have been the oil and gas industry's first choice,'' McLellan acknowledges, in an interview in her Parliament Hill office.

She wasn't even a real Albertan.

Five years after McLellan's first electoral victory, Chrétien sailed into Alberta for a Liberal fundraiser attended by 900 people - a few hundred more than local Conservatives could muster for former prime minister Brian Mulroney at the height of his reign. At the centre of the throng was McLellan, the most visible Liberal in the province.

Reform MP Deborah Grey, who shares a riding boundary with McLellan, agrees that her Liberal neighbour, ``is very pleasant.'' But in the House of Commons, they are on opposite sides of often fiery debates.

Out of Alberta's 26 MPs, 24 are Reform, with only two Liberals.

The pressure from the right is unrelenting, and McLellan is vulnerable - though her margin of victory in 1997 increased to 1,411 votes.

``She is in a tight political bind,'' says NDP justice critic Peter Mancini. ``On criminal justice issues, she has to deal with the rhetoric of Reform, which just wants to lock people up and throw away the key, and she's trying to find a more progressive balance.''

But she's not complaining. She loves the job.

When she entered the House of Commons, McLellan left behind in Edmonton a private life that she rarely talks about.

Her partner, as she refers to John Law, teaches at the University of Alberta Law School, where she met him in 1984.

They live together with his daughter, Jessie, 18, in Glenora, a Rosedale-type neighbourhood in McLellan's economically mixed riding.

Jessie is studying culinary arts and was not deterred, McLellan says proudly, when a male chef told her not to train to be a chef because it is too hard for a woman.

Law says he is interested in politics, from a historical perspective. He abhors prying journalists and does not pop up at McLellan's side as a smiling spousal unit.

``I don't expect John to participate in my comings and goings,'' McLellan says. ``But no one should think it's easy, trying to balance this life.''

When the House is sitting, she lives in an Ottawa apartment and works 60- to 70-hour weeks, flying every Thursday night to Edmonton, where she spends the weekend working in her constituency.

She returns to the national capital on Sunday night.

Until last year, she shared her Ottawa apartment with Shaughnessy Cohen, a lawyer and Liberal MP from Windsor who chaired the justice committee.

The life of the party - in political and personal terms - Cohen, 50, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm that burst while she was seated in the House of Commons last year.

McLellan was devastated by Cohen's death.

They used to come home at night and watch Question Period re-runs and critique each other. McLellan came under the gun for appearing too serious - or too shrill.

``In Question Period, I try to maintain a dignified persona, but every once in a while, we all lose it. Someone taunts you across the aisle and you hurl back an epithet.''

She is aware that her voice ``goes up, when I get excited. I don't apologize for it. Many women have higher pitched voices than men.'' She has no plans to get voice training.

The focus, in her view, should be on her policies.

One of her toughest assignments right now is pushing through the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

It proposes to lower the age, from 16 to 14, at which teenagers can be bumped up to adult court for violent crimes. A 14-year-old convicted of first-degree murder currently faces a 10-year prison term; under the new regime, that sentence could be life. As well, the names of offenders as young as 14 could be made public. And those who do time would receive mandatory supervision on release.

Insisting on alternatives to jail for non-violent young offenders, McLellan did not give in to the Reform party's demand to bring 10- to 12-year olds under Bill C-3, which she hopes will become law in the new year.

Canada's youth incarceration rate is among the highest in the Western world and costs about $100,000 a year per child, McLellan points out.

She says it's more cost effective to teach troubled youth to develop constructive skills instead of criminal lifestyles.

The Bloc Québécois is pushing her to emphasize prevention and rehabilitation programs - successful on the provincial level in Quebec, which has the lowest rate of juvenile offenders in the country.

McLellan's commitment to innovation has wider expression in the National Crime Prevention Centre, funded by the justice department, with $32 million a year for five years. It is financing more than 500 pilot projects, from Canada's only drug court in Toronto - which requires addicts in trouble with the law to show up once a week and be tested for drug use - to parenting classes with real babies in schools across the country.

On victims' rights, McLellan has moved forward on an all-party justice committee report. ``It was unanimous, which is rare,'' she says, ``and we have enacted most of its recommendations.'' They include victims' right to confront perpetrators in court, victims' safety being considered upon granting bail, and a policy centre to advance victims' concerns. These amendments to the Criminal Code become law on Dec. 1.

The Reform party is not impressed. ``She became justice minister in the summer of '97 and said the Young Offenders Act would be her first priority, and over 30,000 violent crimes have been committed by young people since then and we're still waiting for the legislation,'' says Grey.

McLellan counters that Reform and the Bloc held up the youth justice legislation, opposing it from opposite perspectives.

``In trying to find a balance,'' says the NDP's Mancini, ``McLellan has produced a cumbersome and expensive piece of legislation. In the end result, we may get the tough stuff and lose the progressive, diversionary measures which require money. She allotted $206 million to the provinces (for implementation), and it's not enough.''

Priscilla DeVilliers, head of CAVEAT, a victims' rights group, says McLellan ``has been very supportive'' to her group's concerns, responding to an issue on which Reform took the lead.

McLellan is a strong advocate of gun control. ``This is not an east-west issue, it's a rural-urban split. People in cities believe we have to develop a culture of safety around firearms. Nobody pretends that any law will deal with every criminal situation, but we can create a society in which - as we do with cars - if you're buying a potentially lethal weapon, you have to register it and if it is misused you will be held accountable.''

To hunters, she says: ``I don't want your gun. But it should be registered, so if it's stolen, it can be returned to you.''

Her most successful - and least heralded - venture was her role as federal negotiator in developing the Social Union Framework. The process began in late 1997 at a premiers' conference and within 18 months, ``we had an agreement,'' says her co-chair, Berny Wiens, then Saskatchewan's NDP minister of intergovernmental affairs.

``Anne had a caucus in Ottawa that was divided'' on the structure of a new federalism, he says. ``She brought her side on board. I think we've elevated the relationship between the provinces and the federal government, to make the country work better, in a practical way.''

The framework sets out guidelines ``for how Ottawa should consult provinces before initiating new policies, and for streamlining the rules so that Canadians have greater ease of mobility.''

Given the past complexity of constitutional negotiations, Wiens says, ``it was a significant building block to making democracy work better for our citizens. It took a statesmanlike response from everyone at the table, and Anne was key to it.''

McLellan, with French teachers in Ottawa and Edmonton, is regarded by Alberta Liberals as a possible future leadership candidate.

She is said to be very close to Finance Minister Paul Martin, whom she would support if there were a leadership race in the near future. Other friends in cabinet include John Manley (industry) and Allan Rock (health) - but not Sheila Copps (heritage).

The two are said to ``not get along,'' in the words of one cabinet insider - perhaps because McLellan has usurped Copps' role as the most powerful female member of cabinet.

Not that McLellan makes no mistakes.

``I`ve gone to the boss a few times, when I've screwed up,'' she says. Chrétien reassured her, ``that sometimes we say things we shouldn't.

``He doesn't panic. He doesn't over-react. I derive tremendous comfort and confidence from knowing he's there.''

The Prime Minister's long experience in government is invaluable, she adds. ``There's not an issue I can talk to him about that he hasn't dealt with.''

Chrétien doesn't issue directives. ``He'll say, `You could do this, or that, or speak to so-and-so,' but he's careful not to indicate preferences. `You're the minister of justice,' he says. `You decide.' ''

On Chrétien's future plans, she is succinct: ``He's the boss and will continue to be the boss until he decides otherwise.''

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