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An insider’s account of Ottawa: Thomas d’Aquino on balancing business, politics, and other life adventures

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Thomas d’Aquino, a leading Canadian business voice and policy thinker, about his fascinating new memoir, Private Power, Public Purpose: Adventures in Business, Politics, and the Arts.

They discuss the founding of the Business Council on National Issues and his role as president and later CEO, his time in the Pierre Trudeau government, and the lessons he’s learned after many decades as an Ottawa insider.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Thomas d’Aquino, who from 1981 to 2009 served as the CEO of what is today the Business Council of Canada, the country’s most influential business organization. That bio doesn’t quite do him justice, however. From his unique vantage point, Tom shaped and observed the most important economic, political, and social changes over the past 40 years. He’s documented these experiences and insights in a new must-read memoir, Private Power, Public Purpose: Adventures in Business, Politics, and the Arts.

I’m grateful to speak with him about the book, including its window into politics and public policy over such a crucial period in Canadian history. I should say, as an aside, that my graduate research, which seems like a lifetime ago, was dedicated in part to Tom’s efforts to elevate the voice of Canada’s business community on public policy matters, including on the subject of free trade as we’ll discuss shortly. Tom, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

THOMAS D’AQUINO: Sean, it’s my pleasure, particularly given that I’m talking to an individual who wrote his master’s thesis at Carlton University on the very organization that I was privileged to lead for almost 30 years.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with your personal background. You were the son of immigrants who settled in the Kootenays. These are not the typical beginnings of a quintessential insider. How did your experience as a second-generation immigrant and a British Columbian shape the way you came to think about politics in the country?

THOMAS D’AQUINO: Sean, I would say, first of all, many of us in Canada, the vast majority of us who have parents who immigrated or grandparents who immigrated, know that the values that one grows up with obviously have a great deal to do with what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. In my case, my parents drilled into me the importance of hard work, clearly. My father was a very stern disciplinarian.

My mother on the other hand was hugely loving and accommodating in every sense of the word. I really grew up in a, I would say, a privileged childhood. One of the ways that it affected me was that my father, in many respects, was a political refugee. He left Italy just at the time that communists and fascists were battling out in the streets of Italy. Although he had pledged his allegiance to the king, Mussolini was just around the corner and he made a big decision, to leave his family and his career behind and come to Canada, and then proposed to my mother, and she came.

The impact that it had on me was to say you’re privileged in Canada, you’re privileged to grow up here, appreciate what we have in the way of a free and democratic society. That was always drilled into me. My mother taught me the importance of being kind to other people and realizing that the rich—in fact, Sean, I can tell you this, the night before she died, she said to me, “Tom, think about the poor, the rich can look after themselves.” That was very, very much my mother’s message to me, and that really shaped my approach to public policy and what I ended up doing in the Business Council.

SEAN SPEER: How did your tenure in federal politics, including on Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s staff, shape your understanding of the need for a new approach to business policy advocacy? What was the problem with the status quo and why was a new model needed?

THOMAS D’AQUINO: Sean, being able to spend those three and a half years, including the time on Prime Minister Trudeau’s leadership campaign staff, was of seminal importance. That gave me my first window to politics in Canada, as serving with James Richardson for a year as a member of the Cabinet. That was invaluable experience because I was a very keen observer about the machinery of government, the policy issues, the approach to how, whether you’re a cabinet minister or prime minister, you deal with policy challenges and realizing, in the case of the prime minister, that the buck stops at the top.

Those are all important lessons for me. What I did see at that time, was the same situation where business, in the sense of we know it today, did not have a role in the shaping of public policy. When I was on Mr. Trudeau’s staff, I was occasionally summoned, literally summoned, to come to a meeting. There was no advance notice as to what the agenda was going to be and the meetings usually lasted for a very short period of time and then they were over and they did not happen very often.

That said to me that things needed to change but it was also a time, Sean, when there was tremendous change in societal change. We saw it very much at play in the United States during and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. I remember very clearly when I was a young lawyer advising the then-nascent BCNI being to a meeting because I dared to write a memo that said ”Let’s wake up the sleeping leviathan.” The powerful CEOs of the time in Ian Sinclair of Canadian Pacific, Earle McLaughlin of the Royal Bank, Paul Desmarais Sr., whose family is still very much involved, I was summoned to a meeting at the Mount Royal Club in Montreal. They said, ”What is the meaning of this?’ If I, Ian, want to pick up the telephone and call Pierre, I can do that anytime I want. If Earle wants to talk to the governor of the bank, what’s all this business about, the coming changes and the growing demands for accountability?” I thought I was going to be fired on the spot as an advisor but the result was that they hired me.

I tried to take that view from day one that we’ve got to be proactive. We cannot be measured by the fact that we are 150 CEOs and therefore we are powerful by definition, but it was the power of our ideas with which we had to lead. That was the new approach. That at the time, I would argue, Sean, was really quite revolutionary. Can I just add one other thing? It was also at a time when Milton Friedman and the idea of shareholder primacy was dominant.

In those days, if you were a CEO meddling in public policy, you were usually seen as a person who wasn’t taking your job seriously. The idea that we should move from this idea of shareholder primacy to arguing, as I did in my maiden speech to the Council, that the real purpose of capital is social betterment. That was really quite revolutionary at the time and I thought it was going to be a very, very hard sell. In a remarkably short period of time, people came along with that idea and embraced it.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great segue to my next question. You assume the job as the founding president and later CEO of the Business Council on National Issues at essentially the same time as a new policymaking paradigm, call it Thatcherism or Reaganism or whatever, was taking shape around the Western world.

The book outlines various ways in which you professionalized and elevated the internal and external operations of the Council. Do you want to reflect on the changing intellectual and political environment? To what extent was the era a unique period in which the interests of businesses seem to closely align with our broader understanding of the success of individuals and societies as a whole?

THOMAS D’AQUINO: I would say that despite what I said in my maiden speech about the need for business to be more proactive, to engage in a much broader reach towards public policy objectives, that were not just simply the predictable ones, it was a time when Thatcherism and Reaganism were powerful in the world. In the case of Mrs. Thatcher, she had obviously confronted the old order in the United Kingdom. In the United States, we saw the magic that Ronald Reagan was able to wield in his presidential exercise of his presidential power.

In Canada, we had a Trudeau government that was interventionist. It had said that it was not interested in wage and price controls, and then it came in and did it. That degree of interventionism, along with what some people may remember of what was called the National Energy Program, which was deemed to be a massive intervention in the energy industry, not to mention then the growth of interest in regulating foreign investment, all of these things were seen by the business leadership at the time as something that had to be countered.

The traditional way to counter it would have been to just simply criticize it and be done with it. Whereas we took the position that if we are going to criticize it, we have to come up with better solutions. That’s what we concentrated on.

SEAN SPEER: You write in the book that even taking the job in 1981, you were motivated by the goal of trade liberal liberalization, particularly with the United States. What was it in your experience or education that tilted you in that direction so early on?

THOMAS D’AQUINO: The time that I spent in London, in England, working with a private firm and getting myself into the very earliest manifestations of corporate social responsibility studies, showed me that in this environment, which was driven by certain Thatcher, Reagan-style principles—the role of business was business and let’s get out there and do it, let’s maximize profit—that increasingly, as the general public began to react to this, that business in turn needed to realize that, “You know what? We do have a broader set of responsibilities here.” I brought that to the Council at the time.

It was that experience that I had in Europe initially and then coming back to Canada, but building on my experience in the Pierre Trudeau office, that led me to believe that there was a unique opportunity here for business to show its metal. To argue, Sean, that we’re not just doing this in order to win plaudits in the public or to check off some boxes, that you’re doing the right things among your stakeholders, but my argument was that if we are able to do this, it will be good for business in its own regard.

That’s what we ended up doing. Because one could argue, at the end of the day, when people said, “Why are you doing studies on parliamentary reform? Why are you worried about the patriation of the Canadian Constitution? Why are you pushing for free trade?” Ultimately, the argument was that if we have a more politically stable country with a much more adventuresome international policy, we can have greater growth and we can build more jobs for Canadians. The free trade initiative, which I would argue was the most important policy construct of the post-war world.

The reason I say that is because, first of all, selling it was tough. A lot of my own CEO colleagues said, “We can’t do it, we can’t compete with the Americans.” When I finally got them on side, the argument we made was that we are facing a protectionist U.S., the only way that we can secure our future is to get inside that protection, become part of a bigger whole because if we don’t do that, investment is going to leave Canada. We’re just simply not going to grow as we should. That culminated in, as you know, the most intense of, certainly, that period probably of the post-war world where the election in 1988 was fought on one issue, one issue alone, is free trade good or bad for the country?

To those who argued that we were going to lose our health care, that we were going to be taken over in every respect, that corporations would leave Canada en mass, that did not turn out to be as you know. If I can use Turner’s language, that to me was the fight of my life. Of course, Mulroney’s leadership with the FDA was very important to the future of the country.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll come to the ’88 election in a minute, but before we get there, I want to bring up a historical nugget in the book. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about it. Through some connections in the U.S., you arranged for a series of high-profile meetings in February 1985 to discuss continental free trade including with the current president Joe Biden. What was he like? What was his knowledge of Canada? Were we able to get a read of him and his politics at that time?

THOMAS D’AQUINO: It’s interesting because that 1985 meeting, the explanation for it as to why it actually took place is, at the time, I was doing two jobs. I was also acting as counsel to Time Inc. and Time Inc. in those days was a very powerful media universe as you know, both in Canada through Time Inc. and subsequently through its television networks. The good folks at Time arranged for a delegation of our CEOs from Canada to go down to Washington, and at that moment, it was the first time I had met Secretary George Schultz, who was then secretary of state, who became a very close friend and mentor to me, but at the same time, we met all sorts of other individuals.

I mentioned Bob Dole, I mentioned Kent, I mentioned, Joe Biden. I remember the impression that Biden made upon me at the time, is that he was enormously knowledgeable about foreign affairs. I mean, this was his specialty and when we did meet with him, the majority of our discussion was around foreign policy issues of importance to the United States.

I have to tell you that, at that particular time, while he did say some polite things about Canada, the foreign policy priorities in his mind at that time were, of course, the great competitive challenge coming from Japan, how we were to come to terms with Europeans who were also very protectionist and who weren’t seeing trade as they should. Canada was really seen as very much an afterthought. When we started kicking around the idea of free trade, there was always polite acceptance, of course, or some people would say, “Do we really need to do this?” I mean, are we friends, aren’t we trading? What’s the problem? but the idea of a formal trade agreement was very much foreign to them.

As we then got into the lead-up to the free trade election, we ran into all sorts of problems with people like Bob Dole, at a memorable meeting in Washington and saying, “Mr. d’Aquino, I don’t accept your arguments that we should have a dispute settlement mechanism. The United States is not prepared to give up its sovereignty. Dispute settlement means that somebody else has to resolve disputes that we may have between us. We’re not prepared to go that far.”

It was an interesting time, but it was really a fascinating time too because it wasn’t just Secretary Shultz, but we were heavily involved in looking at defence policy. That was a time when I got to know Secretary Weinberger, meetings at the Pentagon. I do a chapter on Canadian defence policy in which we are involved, but that was a critical part, in my view, of how we saw the continent. United States would only be interested in Canada if we could bring something to the table that was important economically and ensure that we are pulling our weight on defence policy and the defence of the continent.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned, in a previous answer, some of the challenges in brokering and consensus within the BCNI membership to champion the case for free trade. Do you want to talk a bit about the decision to participate so actively in the 1988 election campaign? What was the reaction or response from your members on that decision? Then, separate but related, do you want to reflect on some of the opposition, including from your friend John Turner, in that campaign? What was that experience like for you?

THOMAS D’AQUINO: Sean, as I lay out in the book, and incidentally, it’s one of the lessons I give on how public policy and the pursuit of public policy goals require certain strategies, the very first meeting, which I recorded in the book, where we raised the issue of a free trade agreement was a private meeting with Vice President George H. W. Bush, who also became a friend and I had the great privilege of fishing with him in the great rivers of Labrador.

At that meeting attended also by Martin Feldstein, who’s still alive, we put the idea to the vice president, “Why not a free trade agreement?” His response was, politely as he would do, he was a very polite gentleman, “What’s in it for the United States?” I responded, “An economy the size of California.” His response was, “Maybe we should really look at it.” That was the first time that, as I say, a formal proposal, vocal as it was with a bit of writing attached, was put to a senior member of the administration.

Then the process began, but it started with getting all of our people on side, and it took from about 1981 to the end of ’82 to get all of our members on side with the idea that we should pursue this. A lot of them thought it might be a pursuit in vain. Would we really be able to succeed? But people were on side because they realized and finally—this required a lot of homework, a lot of seminars, a lot of briefings—they bought into the idea that either we engage with the Americans and try to achieve a level playing field or, ultimately, we’re going to be big losers.

Then the process of reaching out to Brian Mulroney who initially strongly oppose free trade, to the leaders of the other federal parties who were opposed to free trade. The only person at the time was a man called John Crosbie, which some may remember, who was minister of finance in the Clark government, who supported the idea of free trade, but we were up against the wall. Senior officials, almost to the person, one or two exceptions, said, “You know what? The time is not right. This is not going to work.” It required long and arduous effort, a lot of advocacy that worked up through ’83, the Macdonald Royal Commission, ’84 the arrival of Mulroney, then the Shamrock Summit, and then on right through to ’88.

We were very high profile. It was a difficult campaign. As I mentioned in the book, I was burned in effigy in Ottawa. Truckload of cow dung was dropped on my driveway. Masked banditos invaded my offices. Fortunately, I was in Japan at the time, but my terrorized staff had to put up with these people until they were released. It was a bitter campaign, but our membership was solidly on board. A lot of them would say to this very day, it was probably one of the most exciting times in their lives because they were playing such an important public role.

SEAN SPEER: Let me shift gears a bit. You first visited China in 1985 and outlined in the book your efforts to bolster bilateral economic relations. In hindsight, how has your thinking evolved? How should Canadian policymakers conceptualize our relationship with China?

THOMAS D’AQUINO: Sean, I freely admit to being one of the leading private-sector cheerleaders for China in that period. Keep in mind that I was on Mr. Trudeau’s staff when diplomatic relations were extended to China and we were one of the first countries in the Western world to do so, at the time opposed by the Nixon administration and then quickly followed up by Kissinger, Nixon.

In that early period of the ’80s, I was very taken with Deng Xiaoping who said, “It doesn’t matter what colour the cat is so long as it catches mice.” I thought that this was a genuinely, the great opening, not only of China, but the great opening of the century. What Napoleon referred to as letting the sleeping lion sleep was finally coming, which in my view, I was convinced at the time because remember, I was already an international neoliberal believer in the international liberal order that China was going to dramatically change the face of that order.

I strongly supported it. I took the first Canadian CEO missions to China and to India. It was at a time when Beijing was only mainly bicycles and a few cars across the river in Shanghai. There was nothing like that collection of towers that we see today. My conviction was always based on this belief that a more globalized world, a world in which China can be brought in, be a signatory to the WTO, play by Western rules, that this was not only going to lift hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, but it was going to be good for the world order. I continued in that belief and continued to be a very strong supporter of Chinese engagement through the ’90s and into the beginning of the new century.

Fortunately, for me, I was also sitting on the board of Manulife Financial. Manulife Financial in Canada, one of our largest insurance companies, was also the largest Canadian financial investor in China. That gave me an additional set of lenses on what was happening. It was through Tiananmen, of course, and Jiang Zemin, who I got to know at a personal level, the president of China, it wasn’t until we began to see the arrival of so-called wolf warrior diplomacy, certainly the arrival of Xi Jinping to the leadership, that I began to see China through a very different set of eyes.

I was very concerned about what was going to be happening to Hong Kong. I was very close to Hong Kong. I was there for the handover. As I began to see increasing signs that maybe China was going to march to its own drum, it was not going to play by Western rules, I could see also in my private sector encounters that some of the big state-owned companies in China had global visions that were, what I call, geopolitical and not just geoeconomic visions, that’s when I began to change my mind, became increasingly concerned that not only Canada wasn’t getting it, but that the West was not getting it.

As we walked through 2009 into the 2010, 2011, 2012, my views on China really began to change. Even though I attended the Beijing Olympics and also the great Shanghai world’s fair, which I refer to as the two biggest coming-out parties, that I began to see that China was going to march to its own drum and I thought to myself, “We’ve got to be much more careful of how we deal with China.” That’s when I started calling for Canada to develop a pro-Canada policy. In other words, a strategic policy that would make sense. I know at the time that Mr. Harper was prime minister, I even publicly rebuked him or criticized him for not wishing to engage with China.

In many respects, Mr. Harper and his suspicion of communism at the time, in some respect was vindicated, but I certainly changed my mind, and of course, I have a very different view of China now. Not about the Chinese people, but certainly about the leadership.

SEAN SPEER: One thing that’s striking about the book is how broad and deep your personal relationships are in Ottawa. Let me ask you to respond to possible critics. Is there something wrong or untoward about a leading business voice with such relationships across politics, culture, public policy, and so on, or would you instead argue that it’s healthy to have such cross-pollination of ideas and perspectives?

THOMAS D’AQUINO: Oh, Sean, very much so. I took the attitude way back [chuckles] when I was in the prime minister’s office, observing politics from the so-called apex of power where you could see what was going on around Trudeau. The one observation I made way back then is that one should always treat the opposition with respect. I was never a believer in, what I call, wedge politics or the politics of scorched earth. I’ve never believed in that and feel very strongly about that to this very day, where I think the country is faced with some serious problem.

I would say this, I always used to say, always be kind and respectful to people on your way up because you’re likely going to meet them on the way down. That’s something my father taught me, incidentally. As I reached out, always from an argument of non-partisanship, over and over and over and over again, I would have to say to my members, “We are nonpartisan. We belong to no party.”

Yes, there will be some policies that will be more to your liking than others, probably not many of my members voted NDP, but the fact of the matter is that my arguments are strict on partisanship based on a belief, Sean, that if we put forward arguments, even if they were highly critical, and in many instances, they were and got us into trouble with the governments in power, they would see us as honest critics. That was important.

At the same time, I reached out to opposition, members of the government. Yes, I’ve worked at that very, very hard. If somebody were booted out of office, I didn’t suddenly pick their card out of my Rolodex and say I’m not going to call that person again. I never did that. Never have, never do because of that respect, loyalty to me, regardless of politics, is a pretty important thing.

Yes, I was criticized quite heavily by Mel Hurtigs of the world and the Maude Barlows and the Left, generally, that I was too powerful, too influential. In many instances, it was portrayed as power that comes from money and what money says. My constant response to that was, “You know what? Yes, we may have $800 billion a year in revenues from our companies and trillions of dollars in assets. The fact of the matter is that we would be nothing if we did not have valid, good, well-researched ideas.”

I think, by and large, not free of criticism, but we were respected because of our independence. As I said, it’s certainly got us into trouble. Of the living prime ministers today, Mulroney, Chrétien, and Martin, and Harper, and maybe you could add to that, Justin Trudeau, I had great, great fights with all of them, lesser with Justin Trudeau because I’ve not really been that much engaged with him. Great fights, but I can honestly claim to this day that I believe they’re all friends of mine. Still talk to them, we are in touch. Obviously, I did something right, Sean, but you have to do what you have to do.

If I was close to a lot of individuals, I make no apology for it but I certainly didn’t go around Ottowa beating my chest saying, “I’m a friend of the prime minister, therefore, you should do what I’m asking you to do.”

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask a follow-up question. Do you think that such connections still exist today? If not, why not? Why isn’t there a Tom d’Aquino?

THOMAS D’AQUINO: My successor by two at the Business Council, Goldy Hyder—who I think is a phenomenal leader, I have the highest respect for Goldy, he’s a powerful communicator, he really gets the importance to the policy agenda and has engaged our CEOs and continued to be very active in the organization in an impressive way—he has said, privately, but he’s also said publicly that this government, the current government, is not a great friend of big business. We know that. I think I’m telling you the obvious here.

When you’re not a great friend, it means that sometimes communications are difficult. Yes, you may be heard and that has not stopped Goldy and the members of the Council from submitting excellent briefs on where the next budget should be going, their positions on innovation, their positions on immigration, and so on and so forth. The fact of the matter is that while I would not argue that we were close to the Mulroney government, in the sense that we were great pals, we were close enough that we could always talk to one another.

The same thing applied to Jean Chrétien and the same thing applied to Paul Martin. The relationship with Stephen Harper was more formal and, what I would call, a more correct relationship which I never, never complained about because it was, in many respects, as it should be. We have a respectful mutual relationship, we respect one another and we won’t always agree. That’s all right so long as we’re regarded for what we are and that is truly independent.

The worst thing in the world, and these were difficult times, is when during the Free Trade Agreement our left-wing critics would say, “Ah, no wonder you’re supporting Brian Mulroney, you’re great pals. Jean Chrétien attacked me and the Council over and over again for being a pal for Brian Mulroney. My argument to him was it has nothing to do with being pals, it has to do with policy. We have to support GST, we have to support the Free Trade Agreement. You do not, therefore, we have policy differences, but it has nothing to do with, what I call, being pals. That was not an easy argument to make sometimes when we were supporting policies that governments also supported very strongly.

SEAN SPEER: Permit me one more related follow-up, the book outlines your relationship with Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum. What do you think explains the current animus to the World Economic Forum and the global business community more generally? How much, if any, do you think it is ultimately responsible?

THOMAS D’AQUINO: Sean, I would say this. I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that perhaps I attended the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos more than any other single Canadian because my count I think I went there 19 times. I quite literally laughed at the argument that the World Economic Forum is really a de facto master of the universe. The crowd that’s saying this, and who they are, many of them are populist, some of them are active in politics today, some of them are even leaders of parties, who say with these conspiratorial theory ideas, that these people are way more influential than they should be.

The World Economic Forum, and I can tell you this, the World Economic Forum is a great place for a whole bunch of people to get together and they come from rich countries, from poor countries. They bring enemies together, whether it’s Israel or Palestine, East, West, Southern hemisphere, Northern hemisphere. It’s a great one-stop place for getting together.

What bothers a lot of people is that CEOs and great numbers in the past tended to go there, world leaders go there. Is this just a fest of the powerful? I think that’s vastly overstated.

I refer to these people as the burn-the-book crowd. What is it in Canada today that would suggest to anybody that one should be prohibited by a party fiat, Thou Shalt Not Attend the World Economic Forum? What’s going to be next? Thou Shalt Not Attend the United Nations? It’s silly beyond belief. Now, I’m respectful of the people who have this view.

I was in Vienna last month or month and a half ago and there was this march through the streets of Vienna and the attack was on the World Economic Forum and poor Klaus Schwab. [chuckles] I just think that perhaps Klaus Schwab has a way of speaking that sounds a bit authoritarian, maybe comes across that way. He’s set a few things that have been misinterpreted.

When I ran into the truckers right in front of my office here who railed against the World Economic Forum in their cries for freedom, I tried to explain to them what I really think the World Economic Forum is really all about. I mentioned that in the book. No doubt the critics of the World Economic Forum will criticize me for that. I even went so far as to dare to allow a photograph of me and Mulroney and Schwab together at a meeting of the World Economic Forum that I organized in Ottawa with the prime minister and a number of premiers. Anyway, I think much ado about nothing. However, it’s indicative, Sean, of a much deeper and much more profound problem.

The problem of populism, the problem of distrust of institutions. This is what’s really keeping me awake at night now. A large part of that, I would argue, started with the great financial crisis of 2008.

SEAN SPEER: One interesting insight from the book is that you push back against the rise of historical revisionism about the country. You write, “I’m deeply troubled by the waves of denial and cynicism that I see in our public discourse, especially by those who offer a construct of the Canadian state as a failure, as an affirmation of destructive colonialism.” Tom, how do we balance the goals of truth and reconciliation without abandoning the basic idea that Canada, at least in theory, if not always in practice, is worth celebrating?

THOMAS D’AQUINO: Sean, when I gave Penguin Random House my original proposed title, it was called For Love of Country. They thought, “I think that’s too maudlin, right? Pick another title, Tom.” That’s how I came up with Private Power, Public Purpose. It’s clear in the book that I truly, truly love this country. As I say in the book, my mother and father, God bless them, not only gave me life, but they gave me Canada and I’ve been eternally grateful.

Secondly, and you’ve heard these arguments recently—when I recently, in recent weeks, including supported by a Gallup poll, I believe, that said that Canada is broken. That is palpable nonsense in my view, Canada is not broken. The truckers who were in front of my office were arguing that Canada is broken. I always say to people, ”What is the most desired passport in the world?” Canada, hands down.

Go through any number of, whether it’s the Economic Intelligence Unit or any of the so-called indexes on country performance and you’ll see that Canada always ranks very highly. It’s one of the most open societies on earth. We brought in 500,000 immigrants. To argue that we are not a very successful country I think is nonsense. Of course, health care is struggling very, very badly. Glad to see the premiers and the prime minister try to do something about it this week. We’ve got a level of defence preparedness that I think is a disgrace. We have the longest coastline, among the longest coastlines in the world and are still incapable of mounting any form of defense.

I’ve mentioned health care. I’ve mentioned defense policy. When it comes to getting big things done, we’re no longer thinking big anymore. We’ve been unable to build LNG terminals, even though the Japanese and the Germans are crying for it. When I say the country is not broken, it’s not that the country doesn’t have some major challenges, but this idea, which I’ve now seen not only in the political sphere but also in the cultural sphere: tear down institutions because they are neo-colonial institutions.

I remind people this country was built from its very beginnings by tens of millions of people, hardworking people. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Far from being perfect—of course, we made mistakes in the past because people were operating in a context at that time that is very different than it is today. How can you possibly judge an individual from the 1890s based on criteria that we’re using in 2023? It just doesn’t make sense.

Whether it comes to Sir John A. Macdonald, whose statues are being toppled, my argument is “retain and explain.” I would make that argument all around the world because I’ve seen this phenomenon of decolonization in a number of countries, that you and I know well, and we have to come to terms with that. Because to put the argument in its sharpest focus, to argue that all things of the past have to be either canceled or rethought or reinterpreted is not only an insult to what real history is about, but it takes away from our ability to understand who we really are.

I’m all for truth and reconciliation. I argue in the book that one of my greatest personal failures is that when I was growing up, I had virtually no contact with Indigenous peoples that I came to when I was in Mr. Trudeau’s office, and subsequently, when I talked to other leaders, such as Joe Clark, Jean Chrétien, and Brian Mulroney, that all of us, whether we were political leaders or private leaders, such as myself, we should have been much more aware of what had happened and what we needed to do about it.

This argument that you erase the past in order to reconstruct the future, is a very, very dangerous thing. It’s very much alive and as I said, we’re dealing with it not only in politics, but we’re dealing with it in our cultural institutions as well.

SEAN SPEER: Let me put a penultimate question to you. We’re speaking the day after President Biden’s State of the Union address. If you were king for a day, what would you do to reinvigorate the Canada-U.S. relationship?

THOMAS D’AQUINO: If I were king for the day, I would say forget about this renegotiation clause in 2026. Canada and the U.S. are very much interdependent. We are very important to one another for all of the reasons that you know, and not only the economics but also the security relationship. Therefore, we can’t think in terms of “Oh, yes, we signed an agreement, you call it USMCA, we call it CUSMA. Incidentally, before 2026, we have to sit down and renegotiate it.” That is in my view nonsense. We should be talking about a commitment that is very long term, maybe you say, I don’t know, we review it every 10 years or every 15 years. Whatever the case may be or you have a clause in it that allows anybody at any time to raise any individual matters, which good free trade agreements should really be allowed to do. That’s number one.

Number two, I would argue that it’s important for the United States, which is consumed with many, many, I think, serious issues. I would argue even that some of them are existential. I pray that the great republic, of which I’ve been a great fan all my life, can begin to heal the rifts and come together, but that in the relationship between Canada and the U.S., that more and more Americans, and I know we work hard at this all the time, we have to do better, that the Americans come to understand what a reliable partner we are.

We don’t just have to refer to 9/11, which I wrote about in the book, but we have to refer to the future with critical minerals. We have to refer to a joint defence of the Arctic where we are bordered with a hostile nuclear power. We have to work together in promoting the international liberal order. These are all things that we have to do.

I know there’s probably no time to talk about this, but as you know, I detail in my book, my intimate involvement with Mexico. Mexico is a country that is facing serious challenges at the moment. That original dream that I had, that Canada, Mexico, the United States, working closely together, could develop the most powerful regional bloc in the world by a country mile, we’ve not leveraged that interdependence nearly as much as I’d hoped that we could.

If I were king of North America, I would say let’s have a change of government in Mexico that would help. There we have a left-leaning leader who’s not really interested in North America. Let’s have a change of government there. Let’s bring unity into the great republic and let’s all work closely together and realize that the three countries working together could be the dominant regional power in the world, I would argue for the next 50 years.

SEAN SPEER: Final question, I discovered in the book that you met your wife, Susan, as an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia. It’s clear in the writing how integral she has been to you and your professional accomplishments, and after all these years, just how much you love her. What’s your advice to our younger listeners about finding the right spouse?

THOMAS D’AQUINO: Well, my book is called Adventures in Business, Politics, and the Arts. One could have added “Adventures in Marriage.” Only that I should say, Sean, that whenever two young people meet one another and they clearly are in love with one another, you work very, very hard, obviously, to make the relationship work. You also have a long-term vision. That’s important to all young families. I was blessed in that I had a very smart, young woman as my partner from day one.

The remarkable thing about it, and I do talk about this in the book, is that at the same time that I became leader of the Business Council on National Issues. Susan went to work for the Privy Council Office and had a distinguished career, worked for four prime ministers. All that time, I was not always agreeing with the governments that she served. I had terrible fights with the five finance ministers that she worked under, but that never interrupted our relationship at home.

She was always terribly discreet. Occasionally, when a minister like Martin, who I went to and said, “Mr. Martin, let’s have a $100 billion tax cut. I got a telephone call from the head at about 11 o’clock at night saying, “Tom, what are you smoking?” He said, “If you don’t understand the arithmetic of why I can’t find $100 billion, you better talk to your wife. She’ll explain the arithmetic to you.”

At the time, Susan she was in charge of federal-provincial fiscal relations in the Department of Finance. Only to say very exciting adventures we had together. We love each other as much now as we did then. It’s not that we never had any political arguments, we did, but I’ve been truly blessed. That’s why in the book, Sean, I dedicated it to her, and I refer to her as my North Star.

SEAN SPEER: This has been a fascinating conversation as it’s a fascinating book. Book is Private Power, Public Purpose, as Tom says, subtitled Adventures in Business, Politics, and the Arts. Tom d’Aquino, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

THOMAS D’AQUINO: Sean, thank you. I’m delighted to know that that master’s thesis that you wrote in 2007, is still relevant today about much of what we talked about today. Thank you very much. It’s been a privilege to be on with you. Thank you.