“Head waiter to the provinces”

The derisive term used by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to describe his opponent, Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark’s1 vision for the role of the prime minister and the federal government.

For the final decades of the Twentieth Century, beginning with the Prime-ministership of Pierre Trudeau, the largest cleavage between the Liberal Party of Canada and the Progressive Conservative Party was over the relative strength of the federal and provincial governments. Liberals were unabashed advocates of a strong federal government. The Progressive Conservatives, on the other hand and under the successive leadership of Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, felt that the pendulum had swung too far in Ottawa’s direction and that it was exacerbating regional tensions in Quebec and Western Canada.

The Progressive Conservatives adoption of a “Deux Nations” Quebec policy under Stanfield and a “Community of Communities” approach to federalism under Clark (parodied by Trudeau as a “Confederation of Shopping Centres”) were in sharp contrast with the Liberals’ “One Canada” (ironically first employed by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker).

The competing visions came to a head during the Meech Lake Accord. While the Liberal Party, under its leader John Turner, officially supported the Brian Mulroney initiative, it was bitterly opposed by many in the party – especially its former leader Trudeau.

Both the demise of the Meech Lake Accord and the demise of the Progressive Conservative Party ended the quarrel. The term resurfaced during the COVID-19 pandemic with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the receiving end of the moniker for bucking his father’s strong centralizing tendencies.

Image Source: Alberta Diary


  1. Joe Clark: The Man from High River. CBC Digital Archives.

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