The finance minister’s new shoes: a purely Canadian, though mysterious, tradition
WATCH: Minister of Finance Joe Oliver kept with tradition Monday by embracing a new pair of sneakers ahead of the federal budget announcement. The move was in tribute to his predecessor, the late Jim Flaherty.
OTTAWA —It’s tradition as old as … well, we’re not sure actually.
Almost every year, some time before delivering his budget speech to the House of Commons, the finance minister buys new shoes. It’s a thing. Joe Oliver just bought his first pair Monday morning — a pair of New Balance (get it?) sneakers with blue (get it?) laces.
Unlike many parliamentary traditions, though, this one doesn’t seem to come from the British, where the tradition is refreshment-based rather than fashion-based.
Westminster tradition calls for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to bring in a box carrying any liquid refreshment of his choosing to imbibe while delivering the budget speech, according to the Library of Parliament. (The Brits also have a much fancier title for the head of the office, but I digress.)
Hitting a wall in Britain, the brilliant and tireless Library researchers on this side of the pond dug and dug to figure out how and when exactly the shoe tradition started in Canada.
Unfortunately, they came up empty handed, despite speaking with every finance minister/their office from Douglas C. Abbott, who was finance minister from 1946 to 1954 to Michael Wilson, who was finance minister under Brian Mulroney beginning in 1984.
Though many of the ministers the researchers interviewed took part, none was aware of the origins of the “tradition,” the Library found.
“Our research shows that only eight finance ministers wore new shoes on budget day, and even here there is some variation. Donald Fleming was the first for whom we found a record, followed by ministers [Mitchell] Sharp, [Jean] Chrétien, [Marc] Lalonde, Wilson, [Paul] Martin (who wore new boots as a gift from Jean Chrétien), [Ralph] Goodale and [Jim] Flaherty,” the researchers wrote.
So those spread from the late 1950s, beginning with Fleming, through to present day.
The earliest mention of new shoes for budget day researchers found was in a March 1960 newspaper article. Though the report alluded to the “tradition,” it failed to offer any insight to its origin.
All told, there’s no denying the purchase has become a tried and true Canadian tradition in which even provinces take part.
Ministers have, however, decided to forego new shoes in some years, usually during a recession or economic downturn, according to data collected by Parliament.
Martin, for example, wore the work boots for his first budget in 1994, but that was it. For each of his budgets from 1995 to 2001, he wore a pair from his closet.
Flaherty, who passed away last year shortly after leaving public office, also took the economical route more than once, wearing either an old pair or re-soled shoes.
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