Clifford Lincoln, in his the long career as a Quebec politician, strove to work for the common good. Peter Stockland

Clifford Lincoln's life of service

  • March 16, 2023

At age 94, as he reflects on his long decades in public service, former parliamentarian Clifford Lincoln warns of a seismic shift in the Canadian body politic. 

“It is drastic,” Lincoln said. “I believe in the evolution of rights provided it is towards the common good and the reinforcement of rights, but it has been the other way.” 

He experienced that shift personally and particularly during his years as a federal MP when his devout Catholic faith clashed with his progressive convictions and reputation during the contentious debate over same-sex marriage beginning in 2003.

Lincoln drew a distinction between politicians like himself who understood the need to hold their beliefs both “inside and outside Parliament,” and others who felt their job was to represent the majority opinion of their constituents even if it contradicted the tenets of their faith. As a result, he argued strongly for the Church’s definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The firmness of his position caused his colleagues to question his liberal and Liberal bona fides, moving one to remark: “I didn’t know you were one of those Jesus types.” 

In retrospect, without drawing direct cause and effect, Lincoln now questions whether he “would take the same stand,” at least in the matter of same-sex marriage, as he reflects on a Church that is, “evolving at such a rate.” 

Since stepping away from federal politics in 2004, he has held the role of tête grise, elder statesman, amongst anglophone Quebecers. His status is hard earned. Having served as a member of the National Assembly for eight years, and another nine years as MP for the Montreal riding of Lachine-Lac-Saint-Louis, he clearly still relishes the cut and thrust of political life.

Lincoln entered the political fray in 1981 when the Quebec Liberal Party was official opposition to the majority Parti Quebecois. When then party leader Claude Ryan, one of the leading Catholic intellectual forces in the province’s history, asked his ministers what positions they would like to take up, Lincoln asked to be the environment critic.

He soon discovered that being a position critic is both a “wonderful political school” and “a very frustrating business.”

“You’ve got executive power, you’ve got funds, a big staff” and, in the case of the environment, “you’ve got a cause that the public loves.” 

On the other hand, “You are in a cabinet where nobody cares (about your role). The economy rules. Everybody is against you. You are a lone wolf and the only thing that saves you is to be tenacious. You must have a thick skin and fight it out.”

Fighting words, baldly spoken, but Lincoln’s career has been anything but a series of defensive skirmishes to protect personal fortunes. He betrays a disdain for politicians who seek “glory or titles” and is reluctant to speak of personal accomplishments or accolades. Throughout his career, his single-minded focus has been the “common good.”

His speech and writings are shot through iterations of the phrase, “common sense of belonging,” and “common cause and ideas.” In his 2012 memoir, Toward New Horizons, Lincoln wrote, “in politics, one’s motivation should not stray beyond the core notion of the common good.” The “fight” he speaks of is the fight for a Canada, “of equity and fairness where the interdependence of people and societal values form the core of good governance.”

But it was not just in matters of conscience that Lincoln voted against his party. It was, after all, his decision to oppose Bill-178, legislation that employed the notwithstanding clause in the Quebec signage debate, that led to his resignation from cabinet and the end of his career in provincial politics. Lincoln recalled many instances when a vote against the party meant that he was, uncomfortably, “all by himself.” For someone who prizes dialogue and consensus-building, as well as one who understood the dynamics of party politics, those solitary stands were always difficult. 

Lincoln joined the Liberal Party soon after emigrating to Canada from his native Mauritius in 1958, but he says he is “not a party guy in a rigid sense…Being a small-l liberal is far more important than being a big-l Liberal.” 

When asked what that entails, Lincoln responds: “Being a small-l liberal is basically the common good.”

His understanding of that good includes the provision of space, both in caucus and the public square, for the free flow of ideas and beliefs. He is increasingly concerned that both government and media are now restricting that free flow.

Lincoln cites Justin Trudeau’s early decision as newly elected Liberal leader, in advance of the protracted build-up to the 2015 election, to bar potential Liberal candidates who were not “openly pro-choice.” In an opinion piece at the time in the Montreal Gazette, Lincoln wrote that “the edict strikes at the very notion of what it is to be a ‘liberal.’ ”

As with liberalism and concern for the common good, the thread of environmentalism is woven through Lincoln’s career. He understands the three elements to be inextricably bound together.

“For me, the environment has always been a rallying cry. When you think of the environment, it’s got no colour, no political stripe. It’s a wonderful rallying point, and it’s also the common good.”

While serving as Environment minister in Quebec, and later parliamentary secretary to the minister in Ottawa, Lincoln engaged many files: biodiversity, acid rain, sustainability in the Arctic and climate change. 

Since leaving politics, Lincoln has not stopped working. He was a member of the Train de l’Ouest Coalition, a group that lobbied for the construction of a light-railway system for the West Island of Montreal. Just last year, he was calling on the federal government to intervene to protect a parcel of land close to the Montreal airport.

His most long-standing commitment has been to the Algonquins of Barrière Lake. Introduced to the struggles of the community by Liberal colleagues David Nahwegahbow and Russell Diabo in 1993, Lincoln has since acted as the go-between between the Algonquins and the provincial and federal governments. The 30-year fight to negotiate a resource management plan for the protection of the land and culture of the Algonquins has been a frustrating one.

His role as “bridge within two solitudes, two cultures” is a volunteer position but is “like a full-time job.” He laughs as he says: “My wife has got fed up because the phone is constantly ringing.”

Long ago in 1988, Lincoln stood on the floor of the National Assembly and famously declared, “Rights are rights are rights.” The chain of words has echoed back and forth across his career. They have become his trademark, his brand. But Lincoln now questions the solidity of those rights in Canada.

Thirty-five years ago, the Quebec government adopted Bill 178 after the Supreme Court ruled in Ford v. Quebec that mandating unilingual commercial signage was unconstitutional. It was the vote on the bill that was the occasion of Lincoln’s speech, and it was his vote against the bill that necessitated his resignation from cabinet. 

There was, Lincoln recalled, “a never-ending debate” that took place, “day after day in the press,” as the wrangling over Ford v. Quebec made its way through three levels of judicial review.  When Bill 178, a bill that used the notwithstanding clause as a short-term solution, was introduced, the hair-pulling and soul-searching intensified. Lincoln was one of three members of the Liberal cabinet to resign after their “nay” vote.

In contrast, when Bill 96, a 2.0 version of the Charter of the French Language that incorporated the notwithstanding pre-emptively to preclude judicial wrangling, was introduced in 2021, it was met with near universal praise in Quebec and tepid interest beyond. 

“It is really astonishing to me how the great majority of people shrug their shoulders.”

Lincoln is concerned that this indifference in the general public is a mirror to the attitude of the politicians. He fears that they are, “always appeasing the political side at the cost of the loss of rights.”

Canadians are currently watching the messy drama of alleged foreign interference unfold and seem to have grown accustomed to politicians treating their positions as sinecures that no scandal or ethical breach can shake from their grasp. 

 In addition to being a Catholic who stood for his faith amid the clamour of public service, Lincoln stands as a model of a politician who was rigorously committed to the “common good.”

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