Ray Hnatyshyn (Obituary)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on December 30, 2002. Partner content is not updated.

EVERY SO OFTEN Canadian politics tosses up someone who is neither fish nor fowl. A partisan, sure, but one who knows the limits. Someone who doesn't take himself too seriously in a world where image and pretension are the currency of survival.
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on December 30, 2002. Partner content is not updated. EVERY SO OFTEN Canadian politics tosses up someone who is neither fish nor fowl. A partisan, sure, but one who knows the limits. Someone who doesn't take himself too seriously in a world where image and pretension are the currency of survival.


Hnatyshyn, Ray (Obituary)

EVERY SO OFTEN Canadian politics tosses up someone who is neither fish nor fowl. A partisan, sure, but one who knows the limits. Someone who doesn't take himself too seriously in a world where image and pretension are the currency of survival. Ray HNATYSHYN, the former Conservative cabinet minister and governor general who died last week at 68, was just such a creature.

Politics was in his blood, or at least imbibed at the dinner table. His father John, later Canada's first senator of Ukrainian extraction, was a Saskatoon chum of John Diefenbaker. And young Ray, in awe of the old chief, was drawn to the flame. First elected in 1974, he came to revel in the House of Commons. In fact, he was one of its premier hecklers - fast with a quip - though his jabs were invariably followed by a grin or look of mock horror to dull the thrust. But he was never entirely comfortable with power. You could tell by the clothes he wore.

When he was energy minister in Joe CLARK's brief government in 1979, he'd almost always show up in one of two suede sports coats that stood out among the sea of blue pinstripes on the Tory front benches. A style statement? He was also Mr. Fidget. He'd wring his hands when he rose to speak. He blushed and perspired easily. He never mastered that politician's ability to puff himself up.

I pointed this out once in a feature article in the Globe and Mail. In a way it was both our debuts. I was a young reporter, newly posted to Ottawa. He was the energy minister, at a time of increasing oil prices, who had gone to ground for five months to learn his new portfolio before granting an interview. My first draft was rejected by the powers that be as too nice. (What's not to like about Ray Hnatyshyn?) The second version had more opposition quotes, including a searing one from Liberal critic Marc Lalonde; insider speculation about a policy fight; and a headline that any cabinet minister has to dread. It was something like: Hnatyshyn denies he is overwhelmed on energy issues.

I remember looking down from the press gallery when the article appeared and feeling a little guilty. But Hnatyshyn never missed a beat. He looked up, wiped some imaginary sweat from his brow and fingered his lapels. The story became a standing joke between us. He also told me later the jackets were something called Ultrasuede - which, he quipped, was "an edible oil product." He was someone who simply refused to suffer life's arrows, including, I'm sure, the cancer that crept up just a few months ago. It was a quality that made him the quintessential caucus smoother and, later, allowed him to transform the viceregal office in a modest but far-reaching way.

People forget now, but he became governor general in 1990 amid a storm of criticism. It was said he was a political crony of Brian MULRONEY, an only-recently defeated politician (in the 1988 free trade election), and could barely speak French. Some editorialists wrote that he lacked the ability to inspire, to be "the personification of Canada." That would not prove true.

One of Hnatyshyn's first initiatives was to invite 400 neighbours of Rideau Hall around for a coffee klatch. Then he opened the gates of the GG's expansive estate, closed by a predecessor, to dog walkers and bicycle riders like himself. Then he launched himself on a tour of the country, hamlet by hamlet, that was as audacious as it was unassuming. The current incumbent, the peripatetic Adrienne Clarkson, may well exceed Hnatyshyn's perambulations. But in terms of getting around the country, and off the viceregal stage to where people actually lived, he started that ball rolling.

Forget the high office and Hnatyshyn's career was still a potent symbol of immigrant arrival. His father came from a farm in Ukraine to become a lawyer, as did Ray and his two brothers. But for him the grander achievement had to be more than just surviving Ottawa politics in a particularly bitter period, but taking some of the mickey out of it with wit, whimsy, and a touch of prairie friendliness. It's an inspiring Canadian story.

Maclean's December 30, 2002