What’s the worth of Canada’s word nowadays? If you were advising a foreign friend could you tell him to accept the spoken pledge of a Canadian representative?
Or would you have him get everything in writing, and hire a lawyer to read all the fine print, before making or taking any commitment?
This grave question has been raised by two incidents of the past year. One is recent and familiar, the controversy between Ottawa and Newfoundland about RCMP reinforcements (see Backstage, page 2). The other is half forgotten in Canada, though unfortunately remembered abroad — the withdrawal of Canada’s undertaking to buy two acknowledged masterpieces for the National Gallery.
Trustees of the National Gallery negotiated the deal under an authority they got from the cabinet in October 1953. By that cabinet decision, never revoked by the new government, trustees were authorized to buy paintings up to an aggregate value of two million dollars. They had spent nearly $1.6 million during four years, in purchases that raised the National Gallery from a commonplace to a fairly distinguished collection.
This money was not appropriated in advance. Each item had to be approved by parliament before payment could be made. By the strict letter of the law no promise to buy could be binding, because only parliament could make one. Any prior commitment by the cabinet or its officials had no more force than a gentleman’s agreement — no more, but no less.
That’s what was made when the government, a year ago, authorized the director of the National Gallery to spend the remainder of the two million dollars on the two masterpieces. With that specific authority from the cabinet, he gave his word — Canada’s word. One week later the cabinet changed its mind and instructed him to back out of the agreement.
The official explanation, in parliament last February 25, was that the cabinet was misinformed; it had >
authorized the purchase on the wrong assumption that the money had been voted previously. There are some ministers in whom such confusion would be plausible.
But here the minister concerned was Davie Fulton, the ablest man in the cabinet. To believe that Fulton of all people could let work go forward on his departmental estimates from December to May, without knowing that they included an item of $440,000 for paintings that he had discussed repeatedly with his officials — this is a strain on credulity. It is easier, to say the least, to believe that Fulton carried his point with his colleagues on May 2, 1958, but then was overruled a week later.
Skepticism is now reinforced by what happened in Newfoundland. Again there is reason to think Davie Fulton was overruled. Again there was a prior commitment — to reinforce the RCMP at the request of a province. Again the commitment was found to contain some hitherto unsuspected fine print, and some hitherto unsuspected political embarrassments. So, again, the former was used to elude the latter.
It seems to us that in both these cases, Canada’s name for honest dealing has suffered.
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