Up for discussion
Peter MacKay reflects on friendship with former U.S. Senator John McCain
Peter MacKay shares his views on recent world matters, including John McCain’s death, Bernier’s exit from the PC Party and NAFTA.
Peter MacKay is back to work in Toronto after a couple weeks in Nova Scotia, but his thoughts are still on events from this past week — and it was a full one.
The Conservatives held their convention in Halifax, Quebec MP Maxime Bernier left the Conservative Party, vowing to start his own, the U.S. said it reached a trade deal with Mexico, and American war veteran and political leader John McCain died.
On Tuesday, MacKay took some time to share with The News his thoughts on these topics.
Passing of John McCain
If Robert Stanfield is the best prime minister Canada never had, John McCain is the best president America never had, says MacKay, Canada’s former foreign affairs and defence minister.
Reflecting on the life of the senator and former presidential candidate, MacKay said he considers knowing McCain one of the greatest honours of his life.
“You get to know certain greatness throughout your life rarely,” MacKay said. “He falls into that category.”
McCain, who famously refused an early release as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War until those who had been captured before him were also released, passed away Aug. 25 at 81. Services will be held in various locations this week, honouring his life.
MacKay said he first met McCain in 2004 and through his time as a cabinet minister, MacKay had ongoing interactions with McCain. They would meet regularly during the Halifax International Security Forum, to which McCain always brought passion and decorum. MacKay saw him last this past spring in Arizona.
“I came to think of him as a mentor. Someone I looked up to and someone I could consider as a friend.”
Through all the fame he would rise to, McCain remained humble and maintained a level of wit.
MacKay recalls one time in recent years visiting McCain at his office in Arizona. McCain showed him some photos that had been released to him from the Vietnam era, including one with a sign showing where McCain’s plane had gone down before he was captured. The translation from Vietnamese to English wasn’t great and proudly boasts the place was where the American pirate John McCain was captured.
McCain couldn’t help but chuckle at it.
MacKay said this year at the International Security Forum in Halifax they’ll mark the 10th anniversary of the event by starting an award honouring international courage and leadership, named in John McCain’s honour. He believes it’s a fitting tribute.
MacKay will remember him as a man who always took the high road and wasn’t afraid to reach across party lines and be bi-partisan when it was appropriate.
“He earned the reputation of being a bit of a maverick by going against his party but he did it for all the right reasons.”
In a time when America is divided on many issues, he said McCain was a moral compass.
“I think John McCain was the greatest president we never had in our lifetime.”
On Maxime Bernier’s departure
MacKay believes Maxime Bernier’s departure from the Conservative Party will only help Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.
“Anytime you see someone leave the party you see a degree of disappointment, but people rallied around the leader,” said MacKay, who was present at the convention. “It created a bit of momentum.”
MacKay believes Bernier’s actions speak to the degree of anger he’s feeling after losing the leadership to Scheer.
“He had to be clearly quite upset to do what he did.”
If Bernier really wanted to discuss the issues he cites as reasons for leaving — such as supply management — MacKay said he should have attended the convention and presented his views.
“To throw a stink bomb was not very classy,” MacKay said.
MacKay doubts Bernier will find enough support to either form a party or hurt the Conservatives in the next election and says the fact that Bernier was standing alone during the press conference he made the announcement at says a lot.
“To date, he’s a party of one.” MacKay recalls living through the times when the Reform Party broke away from the national Progressive Conservative Party and Bloc Quebecois was formed by members of both the Progressive Conservative and Liberal parties. While the party includes a variety of perspectives, he doesn’t believe the elements that existed to create the division in the past now exist.
Unity will be key for the Conservative party as they move forward, he said.
“You’re free to hold alternative views, but you also have to wear the same coloured sweater and skate in the same direction.”
For now, he said it’s important for Scheer to continue to travel the country and visit communities, large and small, and “to be the genuine, relatable and sensible person that he is.”
“I think, frankly, that contrasts quite clearly with the leader of the Liberal party,” he said.
On NAFTA President Donald Trump may not be an easy person to negotiate with, but Canada did itself no favours by leaving discussions of the future of free trade in North America to the U.S. and Mexico, MacKay says.
“I’m quite concerned, frankly. We’ve been on the sidelines for a month.”
He believes the trouble began after the G7 summit when tensions rose between Trudeau and Trump.
“I think we’ve had much of our leverage taken away by the fact Mexico and America have come to an agreement. We simply were not in the room. We’ve been disadvantaged. We have some ground to make up.”
He said the agreement is too important to be playing politics for “domestic political gain.”
Now that Canada is back at the table, he hopes cooler heads will prevail.
“We have to be hopeful that the professional public servants that are doing the heavy lifting in this file will bring this to a better place.”
He believes presenting the U.S. with facts that show positive elements of NAFTA will be key. A maritime saying he personally feels appropriate for the NAFTA agreement is “a rising tide raises all boats.”
“If this deal goes sideways for Canada we could suffer tremendous harm to our economy.”
Peter MacKay with John McCain at his ranch in Arizona.
Peter MacKay presents John McCain with an honourary degree from Canada’s Royal Military college during MacKay’s time as minister of defence in 2012.