“Just Watch Me”

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 with horror.

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 charge.

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.