In May 2020, a Guardian
journalist, curious to know how folk were keeping strong during the Covid-19
pandemic, asked people to name the world leaders or public figures they found
most reassuring. Oft mentioned was the name of my own emotional anchor:
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. At the start of the crisis I scrolled
through site after site on my phone, looking for meaning to this madness. Then
I found Trudeau’s video messages to the Canadian people. He put on a brave face
as he stood in front of his home in the cold, allaying our anxieties with firm
guidance. As the threat became real and dread’s slow wick burst into giant
anxiety flames, his bid to remain calm grounded us. He didn’t forget the nation’s
children either, mentioning his own little ones’ eagerness to return to their
routine. Don’t worry, he said, all would be normal soon.
I don’t particularly admire
this Prime Minister. His overly liberal, social-justice-warrior guise has
always irked me. But, watching him, I realised that his reassurance had strong
roots in my psyche. Another Trudeau came to mind, another dramatic crisis and
series of events that unfolded during my impressionable adolescent years.
In 1967 Canada celebrated
the 100th anniversary of the confederation of provinces that created our
country. I threw myself into the Centennial Year preparations and events with
all the fervour of a 10-year-old discovering her roots. Historical
re-enactments shone a golden light on the past; I still remember the interior
of the museum train that crossed the country. (To my mortification, my Uncle
Norman took on a personal initiative: dressed in period costume he retraced the
trails of his ancestors at the helm of a cart pulled by his favourite bull.
They blocked highway traffic for miles.) But by far my best patriotic manifestation
was the school’s Centennial Choir. Day after day we practiced “O Canada”, “This
Land is Your Land” (the Canadian version), and that year’s hit, “CA-NA-DA”.
Into the collars of our white blouses we stuck maple leaf pins, representing
our new flag, designed and adopted just two years before. (To this day you show
me the Maple Leaf and my chest still swells with pride.)
In 1968 Canada’s Justice
Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, a French-Canadian intellect and bon vivant,
entered politics with a bang. He had “charisma”. It was the first time I’d
heard the word, and I’ve never wasted it on anyone else since. I, along with
millions of Canadians, was smitten. He was radical, unpredictable, and devoted
to serving our nation. Trudeau-mania crossed the land like rolling thunder. I
was among thousands who thronged into the local arena to see Trudeau’s campaign
rally, awed by his fiery rhetoric and wit. Potent stuff for an eleven-year-old.
His poster went up there on my wall, alongside David Cassidy and the Beatles.
The political rhetoric
fueled by national events became part of my growing vocabulary. I scanned the
newspapers, watched the evening news on TV, was fascinated by his policies and
his shenanigans alike. And I, like most Canadians, had my eye on what was
happening in Quebec. Another dynamic politician, René Lévesque, had founded the
Parti Quebecois and was mining a swell of separatist sentiment within that
province. Threatening to break up our country. How thrilling to see two
brilliant minds—who were once allies—face each other as adversaries, each as
passionate as the other.
By 1970 the Parti Quebecois
had split into opposing factions and a storm cloud was looming. Levesque was
trying to keep the FLQ (a radical separatist group) from turning his peaceful
demands for separatism into a violent revolution. And he was losing. The nation
watched with apprehension as the FLQ took brutal action that developed into the
unprecedented October Crisis of 1970. Every Canadian watched the news, gripped
Trudeau was quick to
respond with a display of force unheard of in recent Canadian history. He
astonished peace-loving Canadians with strong-arm tactics, calling in troops, and
limiting movement, including that of the press. The press, on behalf of the
Canadian people, questioned his strategy. One impromptu interview, now
available in TV news archives, show a tight-lipped, barely courteous Trudeau questioned
on his use of military force—in the space of minutes he appears bemused,
resolved, uneasy and self-assured. But he answers with certainty, honesty and
compassion. Asked if more brutish tactics were likely to come, his answer is
cold: “Just watch me”. Like it or not, we had to agree that someone was in
Trudeau resorted to the
unthinkable when the FLQ kidnapped two prominent English-speaking people in
Montreal, James Cross and Pierre Laporte. He invoked the War Measures Act, a
political weapon invoked on only two previous occasions, during the two World
Wars. (The second invocation of the WMA led to the shameful internment of
ethnic Japanese. Canadian citizens of Japanese descent, many of them born here,
lost all privileges, livelihoods, and belongings. It’s one of the biggest blots
on Canadian history.)
Canadians uphold democracy;
we pride ourselves on our freedom of speech and movement. This was a hard ask: a
nationwide curfew, arrests without warrants, without impunity. Suddenly 100
years of political freedom were being stripped away. But we allowed ourselves
to be led. Most willingly complied with Trudeau’s request: a minor loss of
freedom to beat this threat. I was thrilled and cooperate I did.
And we got through it, but
not without pain. The FLQ murdered Pierre Laporte—and no one can forget the
haunted look on Trudeau’s face as he announced the loss of his friend. But they
apprehended the murderers and freed James Cross. They defused the FLQ threat.
Later, polls revealed that as uncomfortable as Canadians felt with the War
Measures Act, 80% of the nation admired Trudeau’s handling of the situation.
I think of this now, as we
enter the 14th week of the pandemic-induced lockdown. All over the world people
are struggling to make sense of a volatile, ominous threat. 50 years ago, the
tactics used by the FLQ were visible, somewhat predictable, and comprehensible.
If he had serious doubts on how to respond, Trudeau hid them well. He was
swift, brave, and acting upon his own volition.
Where are today’s leaders
of nations? Today the blind lead the blind. Most people in charge have let
political interests, the threat of bad poll readings, looming economic doom,
reign over protecting their people from illness and death. We look at our
leaders and wonder, should we laugh or cry? It’s so reassuring to see the
shadow of Pierre Trudeau in the demeanour of his eldest son. Enough to make me remember,
we got through difficulties 50 years ago, we can do it again.