Appeared in Business in Vancouver – April 22, 2014
I would have attended Justin Trudeau’s Vancouver Board of Trade speech except for previous engagements with Voltaire, Beaumarchais and Brecht. But it inspired me – to celebrate his father’s role in the Quebec election.
But Pierre Elliott Trudeau is deceased, you will protest – haven’t you caught up with the newspapers? (No, but that’s another story.)
Alert readers will grasp my meaning. Canada and Quebec were both changed and unchanged by Trudeau, our most annoyingly interesting prime minister. (Mackenzie King was Canada’s most annoyingly uninteresting prime minister, until after he died.) The separatists have now taken a third beating since the 1960s Quiet Revolution (wait, they’ll demand a best-of-seven series). Would the recent Quebec election as a province, not a republic, have occurred had it not been for Trudeau? He is indeed with us yet.
He incited bitter quarrels. He made Canadians raise their voices. Acrobatic physically and politically, he airily swung around the extreme poles. As manager of the national economy, he was not so much incompetent as absent, leading some to argue that for all his mostly youthful socialist chin-ups he was so offhandedly confident of capitalism’s strength that he could safely leave its operation to capitalists. (A pretty good insight at that.)
But mostly Trudeau ran Canada as a kind of gigantic, sullen, not very bright political science class. And he was no gentle professor. He was a hard marker. As he proved in the toughest test that the nation faced, and for which he deserves, to coin a cliché, our undying gratitude.
That of course was the October Crisis of 1970 – can it really be pressing toward half a century ago? It is so indescribably important that on the obvious anniversaries it is strangely almost ignored. Or not so strangely. It is still too sensitive. A scab not to be picked.
It began with the emergence of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) in 1963. Hundreds of bombings followed. This long prelude of terror is overshadowed by the kidnappings of British trade commissioner James Cross and Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte, who was murdered and is conveniently forgotten by café intellectuals and others who, the graveyard safely whistled past, tastefully chat about Trudeau’s dreadful assault on civil liberties.
That was his imposition of the War Measures Act. Two or three years ago, in a university history class where only one person, including the professor, was old enough to remember the crisis – and perhaps see it beyond the detachment in which history cloaks flesh and blood – the dramatic CBC television interview was screened.
That was Tim Ralfe’s exchange with Trudeau on Parliament’s steps. Trudeau first toyed – Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn’s accurate word – with Ralfe about soldiers patrolling Montreal streets. How far would he go to crush the FLQ? Trudeau coolly replied: “Just watch me.” The words still clutch the remembering heart.
The revisionist take on the crisis absurdly downplays the threat. The terrorist core was small. But Quebec’s far and not-so-far left were cagily ambiguous, including one nervous René Lévesque – not the only prominent Quebecer unsure which way to jump if the deterioration continued (journalist Claude Ryan mused about forming a “provisional government.”) A young premier Robert Bourassa was a shaking reed. But prominent leftists Frank Scott and Jacques Hébert supported Trudeau’s declaration.
Civil rights zealots – and apologists like Globe and Mail writer Michael Valpy and Brian Moore, who wrote a novel from the FLQ point of view – make much of Trudeau’s supposed overreaction. Too bad. They can bay at the moon. This was Pierre Trudeau’s finest hour. Canada endured. What awaits Justin?
© Trevor Lautens, 2014