The King and I
Ten years ago, I stood with my 11-year-old daughter Marissa and watched a hearse pull up on Parliament Hill carrying the body of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. His two children, Justin and Alexandre walked up the steps, supporting their stepsister Alicia, and their mother, Margaret who had not long before buried her third child Michel. Trudeau’s other little daughter Sarah and her mother Deborah Coyne rounded out the group. They were a modern family of steps and full bloods, there to remember a man who seemed crafted in another era, a mashup period of beatniks wearing ascots. He was, after all, old enough to be his own children’s grandfather, even great-grandfather.
It was a strange, but beautiful day, watching the crowd as they filed passed the coffin. People were there for different reasons. Some came for the spectacle. Others came out of respect, some even came for love.
I came to pay tribute to a man who had been a major presence in my life for several decades. Like many Canadians of my generation, I grew up knowing no other prime minister. I first set eyes on Trudeau when I was 12, in my hometown of St. Catharines at a whistle stop during his first election campaign. I thought he was a strange little man, not handsome as many believe, but sort of odd looking, like some kind of underfed poultry; he was little, I couldn’t get over how small he was. But he was also mesmerizing, almost vampiric, reminding me of that line in the song from True Blood: “when he came in the air went out”.
He captured our attention, then sucked us dry.
Years later, I was offered a chance to work in Trudeau’s office as a writer. There was little substance to the job I was given, writing briefing notes for MPs and doing some work on an advertising project. But it was a magical time. I was so proud to go to work, to step up the stairs of the Langevin Block and feel the bounce of the royal blue carpets under my feet. In fact, the Langevin was a bit of a hole, I realize that now. But his presence around these buildings made a person feel like they were in the court of a king. I’ve never forgot that feeling.
I was disappointed when I finally met the great man a few times. In person, he was petty, arrogant and narcissistic — and a little dumb about the real world. He didn’t know anything about pop culture or the latest movies, and seemed ill at ease in social settings. He wasn’t like Iggy or Chretien, or even Martin, politicians who always tried to make people feel at ease. He was other-worldly and odd, with the poor fashion sense that plagues the privileged (Galen Weston, take note). He was too cheap to buy a new suit, and would often be seen wearing decade-old pinstripes with wide 70s lapels in a slim tie and slender lapel 1990s world.
Still, I loved him, for the mythical character he was. Heck, I was a 24 year old kid. What did I know?
Those were exciting years for me, filled with adventures punctuated by bad choices and over-consumption. The place I worked wasn’t real, it was mostly theatre.
More than 25 years have passed. The magpie in me is now suspicious of shiny objects, and the king’s crown is tarnished. There were great moments for sure — the patriation of the Constitution, the Charter of Rights, the just and emanicipated society. But there were just as many bone-headed times — the War Measures Act, the National Energy Program, Six and Five, any budget that Allan J. MacEachen tabled in the House of Commons. There were triumphs and there was corruption. There was Colin Kenny and there was Bryce Mackasey. That clip of John Turner saying he had “no option” still makes me cringe.
And there is bilingualism, a policy that, while nobley unveiled at the time, cost many Canadians their livelihood including me. I have never been able to learn the other official language and I have been punished for it. I have been tried, found guilty and convicted of being a bad Canadian. Bilingualism makes me wish I had been born American or English or Australian.
Bilingualism makes me feel ghetto.
I realize now that Trudeau had no love for me or any ordinary Canadian. Like many kings, he didn’t understand the needs and wants of the poor or the uneducated.
He cared about a country that only existed in his mind, a country that was more like a university made up of like minds rather than a community that embraced difference and diversity. If you couldn’t make the grade, that wasn’t his problem. It wasn’t his job to sell your wheat, or find you a job. If you didn’t like the way he did things, fuddle duddle.
Still, I can’t help admiring the guy. I just don’t like him much anymore.