Thursday, March 31, 2011

Like Father Like Son

I remember the strange euphoria of June, 1968. Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated only days before, and two months before, Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. There were riots in major cities, the Vietnam War was on the news every night, the body count growing, with no end in sight. And then something magical happened toward the end of the month. A man from Montréal—a man whose actions defied definition—appeared on the scene. Though he was balding, everything about him breathed youth and energy and ability. Politicians were not supposed to slide down bannisters or jump fully-clothed into swimming pools just for the fun of it. But here was this gleeful, attractive man who was suddenly Prime Minister of Canada. I was an early admirer of Pierre Elliott Trudeau; I have remained a constant admirer all my life. Four biographies of PET and several volumes of his writings occupy a central position on the bookshelf in my living room.

But what to make of my favourite Prime Minister’s son, Justin? Widely respected in Papineau, he garnered enough support to represent the small but important Québec riding in Parliament. He has gathered something of a following on the internet, and I follow his announcements and activities with interest. He has a fresh style in both oral presentations and written materials.

Others are not so sure about this young Trudeau. “A lightweight,” they say. “Lacks his father’s persona.” With little in the way of academic credentials, and lacking his father’s broad interests in culture, history, and political theory, does young Mr. Trudeau offer Canada anything more than an apparent long-term interest in occupying the Prime Minister’s Office?

I will not presume to say anything about Mr. Trudeau’s political aspirations. But I will say this: I knew Pierre Trudeau, if only from television appearances. I agree with the detractors: Justin Trudeau is no Pierre Trudeau. But as a staunch fan of the man I believe to have been Canada’s greatest Prime Minister, I need to say this: Justin Trudeau is his own man. That he is not his father—and very much unlike his father in so many ways—I believe to be a good thing, and not at all an indication of weakness or inability. On the contrary, Justin Trudeau is the kind of political representative I think most people wish they could offer their votes.

Pierre Trudeau knew he was widely travelled and wise in some ways that most of us ordinary mortals never will be. You just kind of had to accept that about Pierre Trudeau. I admired him not only because he exuded energy but because he was so obviously more capable and devoted to the cause of people than any other political leader of his time. The problem with Pierre was that he knew all of this, too. He knew he was smarter, and he made no bones about it. You might call it arrogance—or at least the insensitivity of a philosopher king. But this was the reality of Pierre Trudeau. He was one of the elite group of great leaders of the 20th century, and he knew it. The essence of this arrogant strength is captured perfectly in his response to CBC reporter Tim Ralfe’s question on October 13, 1970. “How far will you go?” Ralfe asked. How far would Pierre Trudeau be willing to go in putting down the FLQ? Trudeau’s legendary response: “Just watch me.”

That’s just not Justin. Justin Trudeau does not think, behave, speak, or write in a manner that even his most vocal critic could twist into some form of arrogance. The six-minute impromptu discussion he had with gun registry opponents on Parliament Hill is indicative of Justin Trudeau’s true mettle. He listened. In fact, he listened attentively and patiently, making sure he understood what his questioners were asking, giving rapid-fire responses in both English and French. There was not a hint of Pierre in this active engagement of those opposed to his views. These were the kinds of scenes that forty years ago resulted in Trudeau Senior yelling “Why don’t you go out and get a job!” as he did when addressing unemployed factory workers. After seeing Justin Trudeau in action, in several venues, I just cannot imagine him acting in a manner as insensitive as his father’s often was.

I have to wonder what might have come of October 1970 if Pierre Trudeau had not been so combative. Perhaps his political tactics were the best response to the unknowable extent of FLQ activity. But I tend to think a less combative, less arrogant posture might have helped his cause. I certainly believe that Justin Trudeau, in his willingness and at times eagerness to listen, is the kind of person I would like to have representing me. He is very different from his father in many respects, but he is exactly the same as his father in the one way that matters most: He loves his country and its people, and he is eager to serve in the best way he can.

The residents of Papineau are fortunate indeed to have such a considerate man representing them in Ottawa. I do not know which party I would support to set up the next government. But I do know this: If I were a resident of Papineau, I would be casting my ballot on May 2nd for no one other than Justin Trudeau.

March 31, 2011

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Fifth Voice for the Fourth Estate

I didn't realise until this morning that my blog was contributing to an incorrect conceit. Yesterday I implicitly attacked the assumption that voices from the four main political parties could suffice to determine the boundaries of the national dialogue for the coming election. I questioned the value of a campaign debate that elevated the tax on home heating fuel to the fore of our common consciousness and decried the short shrift given to weightier matters, among them the future disposition of arctic lands. While the substance of my argument was valid, the argument itself was rendered impotent by omission. I neglected to include in my analysis an essential fifth voice in the discussion: Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

I pointed out yesterday that environmental issues, such as the use of arctic lands, cannot be relegated to the periphery of our thoughts. In the arctic, which has received little attention since Pierre Trudeau's government in the early 1980s, we see stark proof that environmental issues are intimately connected to national security and the health of Canada and the world. We ignore the arctic and allow those rugged individualist cowboys down south to do as they please in Canada's most northern territories at our own peril, and to the likely detriment of everyone on the planet.

I believe I am not overstating the importance of arctic lands. This issue certainly has greater bearing on our future than any tax on home heating fuel. If this is so, my omission of Ms. May from yesterday's blog is a serious oversight. It reveals a conceit that North Americans can no longer afford to cultivate. In my personal bias and in our collective ignorance, we propagate a hubris that is injurious of ourselves and our planet.

We need to listen to Elizabeth May. I am certainly not alone in stating this. A Globe and Mail poll released only hours ago reveals the extent to which G&M readers agree with my assessment.

As of 5:20 EDT this morning, 61% of G&M readers believed Elizabeth May should have been given a slot in the federal election leaders' debates. The poll reveals a popular wisdom that should not be ignored. Elizabeth May represents a crucial fifth voice, and a sensibility that must be given our fullest consideration.

I am under no illusion that the Green Party will be able to assume a leadership role in the governing of Canada, at least not in the foreseeable future. But the Green Party can play a central role in the debate, and can influence staid and jaundiced people (like me!) by reminding us of the importance of issues we need to address. If I could vote, my ballot would be cast for one of the more traditional, progressive parties. But I would feel much better about that vote if the party of the candidate receiving my support acknowledged and asserted its intention to take to heart the environmental issues that are critical to Canada's future.

March 30, 2011

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why Not Passion and Patriotism?

Another election. Ho-hum. While many Canadians consider that elections represent nothing more than an unnecessary drain on budgets, I sense a more deeply-held feeling that recent elections have achieved little for the country. When the biggest item on any party’s agenda is the removal of taxes on home heating fuel, perhaps apathy is justified. Can we admire and feel good about marking the ballot for the candidate in our riding whose party leader says he’s going to put $120 a year back into our pockets? Six Loonies and a couple of Toonies a month. A couple trips to Tim Horton’s, basically. On this basis we are to make a decision about the governance of an entire country?

Why not passionate convictions? Why not grand ideas? Why not great national projects?

Is a pledge to defend the arctic from foreign encroachment an impossibility? Canada has legitimate arctic claims going back to the 16th century; why not assert these historical and legal claims and vigorously defend well-defined national boundaries? This is not simply a matter of pride or patriotism. It is a question of preserving a fragile environment, and one that affects the climate of the entire world. Those who would love to push Canada aside, the capitalist-controlled Americans and Russians, do not have environmental records that could be considered in any way exemplary—unless one wishes to extol the overwhelming virtues of a pure market economy and the wonders of free enterprise. Well, that’s fine. But you may wish to poll the residents of Prince William Sound, Alaska before you shrug your shoulders and allow the Russian Bear and the American Eagle to just come in and take territory rightfully belonging to the industrious Canadian Beaver. Twenty-two years after Exxon Valdez, Prince William Sound is still cleaning up. Imagine, if you will, an Exxon Valdez or a Deepwater Horizon just north of Iqaluit. Asserting Canadian sovereignty over its legally-defined territory is not really a privilege or a right: It is a responsibility.

And what about that $120 in taxes that some of the candidates are making into the biggest economic issue of the campaign? There are much more important interests that could be discussed. The first item on any valid economic platform, it seems to me, must be the decline of the American economy. The Canadian economy is tied so intimately to that of Big Brother downstairs that a 1:10 correlation, based entirely on population, can be seen in virtually all sectors of the Canadian economy. As the American economy goes, so goes Canadian jobs, bank accounts, and quality of life. How many citizens truly feel that such intimate and widespread connection to the economy of what will soon become a second-class world power is a situation best ignored and left to the status quo?

The United States did not go blind into its good night. The decline began in the Reagan years, when capitalists began shipping entire sectors of the economy to Asia. Manufacturing—the creation of something useful—used to be the centre, the very core of the U.S. economy. China has become the sweatshop for a few wealthy brand name owners, whose only role is to create television ads that stoke desire for products made by Mandarin-speaking peasants. U.S. workers who used to earn $25 an hour making computers now get by on $7.00 an hour flipping hamburgers at McDonalds.

Perhaps one of the candidates will discover a backbone. One can hope. The biggest hope, perhaps beyond anything we might legitimately dream of, is a pledge to cancel NAFTA. To place the fate of our continent in the hands of greedy capitalists and entrepreneurs was the biggest mistake of the late 20th century. It’s time to reassert sovereignty. It’s time for passion and patriotism. It’s time for an election we can feel good about. Michael, Stephen, Jack, and Gilles—are you listening?


March 29, 2011

Monday, March 28, 2011

This Day In History

It was on this day, 47 years and nine months ago, that President John F. Kennedy gave his famous "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech in Berlin, West Germany. It marked the beginning of a proud tradition of American foreign policy speeches delivered on German soil.

The first president to follow up on Kennedy's precedent was Ronald Reagan, speaking from Hamburg. Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy had led the nation astray, asserting that government could do good in the world. Reagan knew better. He announced in Hamburg that any country whose citizens averaged less than $40,000 a year in income would no longer receive food and medical supplies, but instead would be sent the beautifully restored and digitalised collection of all his Hollywood films. Poor people didn't need food, Reagan knew. All they needed was a swift kick in the butt, and Reagan's all-American films would teach that ideal to lazy, no-good foreigners. The "Bonzo Speech" is remembered fondly by conservatives for the first four words Reagan uttered on taking the podium at Hamburg City Hall: "Ich bin ein Hamburger."

The Trickle-Down Gipper was followed by George Bush Sr., who visited Frankfurt in March, 1989, to sign the Union Carbide-sponsored Western Trade Frankfurt agreement. The WTF was the first free trade agreement between the United States and Europe. It specified that American and European factories and chemical plants built in developing countries would be barred from installing expensive safety equipment or pollution controls. Any such controls, Bush noted in his eloquent speech, would hamper poor countries' efforts to become competitive in world markets. Cities like Bhopal, India would no longer have to suffer the oppression imposed by government regulations and petty liberal ideas about saving the environment. The WTF agreement was a hallmark of conservative thought, made famous by Bush's opening words at Frankfurt City Hall: "Ich bin ein Frankfurter."

The little-known trip of George Bush Jr. to Vienna in March, 2001, is marked by conservative historians as a milestone in right-thinking diplomacy. Bush is unfairly accused by liberal pundits of having developed an arrogant foreign policy. Conservative historians correctly point out that Bush sought European approval for his "Unredressed Knocks" treaty (using the quaint Texas word "knock" in place of the stuffy term "grievance"). The National Unredressed Knocks Emergency Exemption Mandate (NUKE EM) gave any head of state whose father had been insulted by a dictator full authority to invade the dictator's country, kill hundreds of thousands of his people, and destroy the country's infrastructure. Bush had insisted on signing the treaty in Vienna due to his fondness for the sausage bearing that city's name. He had planned on making this his "Germany" speech, but one of his aides, a left-over civil servant from the Clinton Administration, told him only moments before the speech that Vienna was, in fact, in Austria. The ever-resourceful Bush thought for a moment, then said, "Hell, nobody knows where Australia is, anyway. You say Vienna's in Australia? We'll just pretend it's in Germany. Nobody'll give a hoot." Reminded that Vienna is Wien in German, Bush, with a gravity befitting the occasion, mounted the steps of City Hall and said, "Ich bin ein Wiener."

One has to wonder how our country could possibly have managed to become a world leader, universally revered and adored, without the brave and insightful conservative leadership of visionary presidents like Reagan, Bush, and Bush Junior. Whether you consider yourself a hamburger, a frankfurter, a wiener, or just an ordinary, patriotic ditto-head or tea partier, you ought to feel a special pride this day in the great foreign policy initiatives that are your heritage.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Midnight Snack

This story was my entry in the Sunday Writing Prompt ( It has nothing to do with Canada, but it was an amusing exercise. These were the rules: Use 200 words or less to describe what happened right before this photo was taken off the Africam web cam.

Now, here’s the photo and the story behind the photo. Enjoy!

“Don’t eat that,” my sister said, swishing her tail in my face. “You’ll get indigestion. Have a rabbit, or a goat.”

“What if I don’t like chasing around after rabbits?” I asked. “And how do you know I’d get indigestion, anyway?”

“Because I tried it once, that’s why. It made my breath stink, and my husband wouldn’t come near me for weeks.”

“Such theatrics! Lest you forget, I know your husband. I’ve seen the two of you out there, behind the bushes—and in front of your children, too!”

My sister snorted and looked away. She raised her eyes to the thick, bushy tree on the far side of the watering hole. “Think what you like,sis,” she said. “I was a eucalyptus widow.”

“Hmpff. My cousin loves eucalyptus. ‘Tastes good after eating water buffalo,’ she said. Well I aim to find out. How many lions can say they’ve dined on eucalyptus?”

I finished off the last leaf just as dawn broke. I tried to walk, but my stomach felt so bloated I could barely move. I gazed at the barren tree and started to gag. Just before I vomited, I heard a voice behind me.

“Told you so,” she said.