09.28.2010 01:44 PM

My Trudeau column

…found by my intrepid colleague Rob (and in the Citizen database, not the Post’s).  Not sure how he found it, but he did.

***

A brush with political greatness: Meeting him was inspiring, recalls Warren Kinsella.
The Ottawa Citizen
Fri Sep 29 2000
Page: A19
Section: News – Argument & Observation
Byline: Warren Kinsella
Source: Citizen Special

In November 1982, a hundred lifetimes ago, I was a student at Carleton University’s School of Journalism, and a member of the editorial staff at The Charlatan, the school paper. I was also a Pierre Trudeau Liberal.

Although journalists, and journalism students, are supposed to be scrupulously neutral, I was then (as now) decidedly partisan. I could not help myself. I had grown up in Calgary, and was drawn to the Liberal party because I believed (as I do now) that only a strong, central government could serve as an effective bulwark against Quebec nationalism.

Back then, only Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal Party possessed the necessary fortitude and conviction to confront Quebecois secessionists, I thought.

The xenophobia manifesting itself in the burgeoning Western separatist movement also nudged me towards the Liberals. At the time, legitimate concerns about the National Energy Program were degenerating into a morass of anti-French, anti-immigrant, anti-Eastern bigotry. Among the nation’s political leaders, only Mr. Trudeau seemed capable of making the case for federalism.

And so, there I was, 22 years old and a card-carrying Liberal, representing The Charlatan at the Liberal party’s biennial convention in Ottawa. On the day set aside for a speech by Mr. Trudeau, a fellow journalism student and I were loitering in a hallway at Hull’s cavernous Palais du Congres. My friend, Michael Galway, was a gregarious Newfoundlander. I think he was probably a Liberal, too. In any event, as we were chatting with a couple of elderly women — also from Newfoundland — a huge commotion could be heard in the vicinity of the escalators. Michael and I spotted a mass of klieg lights, reporters and cameramen (they were all men, in those days) coming our way. At the centre of it all was Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada.

Him. Without warning, Galway and I and the two women were abruptly at the centre of the scrum. And there, standing not very tall at all, was Mr. Trudeau. Grinning at us, as if he were not surrounded by dozens of lights and lenses and lackeys.

“Hello,” he said.

Now, in the intervening years, I have met, and worked for, many political leaders — other prime ministers, cabinet ministers, party bosses, senators, premiers, mayors, city councillors. And in all of that time, I cannot recall anything similar to what happened when I met Pierre Trudeau.

And what happened is this: Everything — and I mean everything — seemed focused, entirely and properly, upon and within a single man. The air, the sounds, the lights — all were right where I was looking. And where I was looking was at Mr. Trudeau.

Like all Newfoundlanders, Galway had a greater facility with language than I. He didn’t miss a beat, and assumed the role of a tour director.

“Mr. Trudeau,” he said in the lilt he had, “here are two nice Liberal women from Newfoundland who wish to meet you.”

Mr. Trudeau laughed (a bit) and graciously shook the hands of the women, both of whom were gushing and blushing.

Then Galway pointed at me.

“And over there is my friend Warren, who is from Calgary, but is a Liberal, too. He worships the ground you walk on!”

I was mortified — horrified — by what Galway had said. While all of what he said to the prime minister was true, I didn’t think an intellectual giant like Pierre Elliott Trudeau would have much use for a political groupie. But he gave me a minute or two, which at the time seemed an eternity.

“So you are a Liberal and Calgarian,” he said to me. “We need more like you.”

I cannot remember what I said, but I know it was not very clever. It was probably some strangled attempt at thanks. He moved on, trailing lights and journalists. I punched a laughing Galway in the shoulder.

Every so often — when something like Meech Lake inflicts itself on the public agenda — I remember that day in November 1982 when Michael Galway and I met Pierre Trudeau. And I marvel that such a giant of a man existed, let alone as Canada’s prime minister.

Just a couple weeks ago at lunch, I tried out my Pierre Trudeau theory on Richard Gwyn, the author of the best biography of the man.

Mr. Trudeau was, I told Mr. Gwyn, someone who we all aspired to be — he was cosmopolitan, bilingual, almost other-worldly. He made us feel we were capable of greatness, notwithstanding our comparative size and meagre global influence. We embraced him, in a way, because he was unlike us. Because he embodied the things we wished to achieve for ourselves, and our children.

“Not a bad theory,” said Mr. Gwyn, who was too polite to remind me that I was not the first to think of it.

Warren Kinsella is a lawyer in Toronto, and a former adviser to Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

11 Comments

  1. Leon says:

    Pierre Elliot Trudeau was an amazing man. He was Canada’s greatest Prime Minister. And for those who disagree, I give you the Trudeau salute. ;

  2. allegra fortissima says:

    It was an amazing scene. One you’d never expect to see in Ottawa.

    There, late on a fall Saturday night, old people and young – elderly moving their walkers, youngsters being guided in their strollers – lined up around the walkways of Parliament Hill. They’d been arriving for hours and were quite happily prepared to wait for hours more for their moment – a moment in front of the casket, lying peacefully at the end of the Centre Block’s Hall of Honour, draped in a Canadian flag and adorned with a single red rose.

    But in those hours of slow movement outside, some remarkable conversations were taking place and, as I walked along the lines, I heard some of them. While the vast majority of the thousands and thousands who’d come to pay their respect were the so-called ordinary Canadians, people witnessing a moment in their country’s history, many were also men and women who were connected to that history. They were partisan admirers of course, who had flown or driven from across the country, but partisan opponents too – the men and women who had spent their political careers trying to break through the mystique that surrounded the most charismatic Canadian politician of our times.

    There they stood, some silently, others exchanging the great stories of political battles past. With grudging admiration they conceded how, deep down, they’d more than just respected their opponent; they’d been honoured to do battle with him. They talked of how his arrival in Ottawa had brought fresh, dynamic energy to a place stodgy with old ideas; and how his (at times) controversial moves had forced them to work harder, and longer, and with more imagination, to counter and then propose bright alternatives.

    … When the casket had been removed from the Hall of Honour, that single rose – the last one he’d wear in the building where he had made rose-wearing his daily ritual – had been left on a nearby chair. As no one else was picking it up, a close colleague of mine did, and he gave one of its petals to me. That single petal is now pressed and framed, and waiting for my son, whose mother had been one of those pushing a stroller for hours along Parliament’s walkways. It’s waiting for him to be old enough to understand and appreciate that unique time in Canadian history, which it will always represent.

    Peter Mansbridge in: PIERRE Colleagues and Friends Talk about the Trudeau They Knew

  3. The Dude says:

    Thanks, Warren.
    I’m surprised at how quiet this anniversary is.

  4. Mulletaur says:

    “He was a man, take him for all in all,
    I shall not look upon his like again.”

  5. Abigail Thomas says:

    He was an amazing man – you’re fortunate to have been able to meet him. He was a politician that inspired, still inspires, people and his legacy is enormous. Maybe current elected officials will take the time to read your column (and others) about our former prime minister and think about how different politics is today. Maybe some of them will be inspired to be better, to do better.

    Thank you for sharing your column and thanks to your colleague for finding it.

  6. Cam says:

    ‘..he was cosmopolitan, bilingual, almost other-worldly. He made us feel we were capable of greatness, notwithstanding our comparative size and meagre global influence. We embraced him, in a way, because he was unlike us. Because he embodied the things we wished to achieve for ourselves, and our children.’

    Yes, and part of what made Trudeau great was that sense of humour.

    He was an amazing leader.

  7. Blair Shumlich says:

    Never had the chance to see him (born in ’87). I’ve read about him a lot in biographies and the such and even for me he possesses that mystique which Warren wrote so eloquently about. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have actually been a political junkie during his era.

  8. Namesake says:

    As if you ever had anything good to say about PET (or for Rossi, for that matter) except to endear yourself to WK so he’d keep posting your barbs. “Trudeau a true Canadian”: won’t that get you burned in effigy by your confreres over at the Flogging Tories?

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