In Donald Brittain’s powerful 1978 television documentary The Champions, about the lifelong battle between Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque for Canada’s destiny, there is a shot of Trudeau being interviewed in the midst of the 1968 Liberal leadership convention.
Trudeau, days away from becoming prime minister, is seated in a glass-walled TV studio in the midst of the convention. The camera pans around delegates and members of the media pressed against the glass for a look at this emerging phenomenon.
The panning camera comes to a stop and briefly focuses on a skinny young man in a trench coat fumbling with a camera.
That skinny guy is me. In grainy black and white. That’s what I was doing forty-five years ago–trying to take Pierre Trudeau’s picture. I must say, I am no better with a camera today than I was way back then.
To my amazement, I found Brittain’s documentary online (at the National Film Board’s web site). I sat watching it on my computer screen, fascinated all over again, not only by my (very) brief appearance but overwhelmed by the realization this marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the convention that forever enshrined Pierre Elliott Trudeau into the lives of Canadians.
Was it really that long ago? Couldn’t be? Could it? The anniversary is also filled with irony, of course, given that the Liberals are about to elect Trudeau’s son Justin as their leader. Once again there is excitement surrounding the promise of someone new and charismatic.
To view scenes from that convention all these years later is to realize with a start how much we have changed in this country and how it all seems so long ago in a barely recognizable black and white galaxy called Canada.
Today, I’m on the verge of becoming an old man, contemplating the end of things, not their beginnings. Back then I was just starting out, everything in front of me, a not-very-enthusiastic student at Ottawa’s Algonquin College journalism school. Somehow, our teacher, a quiet, patient man named Merv Kelly, had scored accreditation for our class at the convention.
I can’t imagine the press today having the kind of unfettered access that we had that weekend at the Ottawa Civic Center. It seems to me we could wander just about anywhere, and rub shoulders with all the candidates, although, in truth, the only one that interested me was Trudeau. I trailed him around everywhere–and he seemed to show up everywhere.
I remember Friday night crowding into the lobby of the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa where the folk duo of Ian and Sylvia–very popular at the time–was performing live. Suddenly, there was a stirring at the back of the lobby, followed by a wave of excitement as Trudeau appeared unexpectedly and was hoisted through the cheering crowd. If there was security, it wasn’t evident. There seemed to be only Trudeau up on a makeshift podium with Ian and Sylvia, making an impromptu speech, the crowd going crazy.
None of the other leadership candidates caused anything approaching this kind of excitement. They all seemed old and worn out. Trudeau, on the other hand, was new and exciting. No one had seen anything quite like him; he was a breath of fresh air in what was then such a staid and conservative country.
Anyone who looks back on those times as the good old days probably didn’t have to live through them. It was a mostly all-white society, in many ways still under the colonial shadow of Britain (Canada had achieved its own flag amid much rancor only a couple of years before). The white men who ran the country closed everything up tight on Sundays. You could not even go to a movie.There were still separate tavern entrances for men and women.
If you wanted to buy a bottle of liquor, you went to the government-operated liquor store, filled out a form, signed your name and then took it to the counter and handed it to a clerk who then disappeared behind a partition to reemerge minutes later with your purchase in hand.
Everything was overcooked and bland. There were only a few decent restaurants around and eating out was still considered a special event. In retrospect, Trudeau’s major achievement other than repatriating the constitution from Britain, may have been opening the flood gates to immigration, thereby making it possible to get a good meal in this country.
Books such as Peyton Place, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer were banned outright in many quarters. In Toronto, people went to jail, literally, for displaying art that was considered pornographic.
The first time I encountered Trudeau, I was still in high school. As just about everyone did in those days, our Brockville Collegiate Institute class came to Ottawa to tour the Parliament buildings–you could just walk in the place back then.
We were supposed to meet with John Matheson, our very popular Liberal member of parliament (probably the last time Brockville ever elected a Liberal). However, Matheson, whom I admired tremendously, was ill that day. He did speak to us over the phone, though, and said he was sending a close friend to substitute for him.
In walked Pierre Trudeau, who was, at the time, Minister of Justice. What did I think of him that day? Was I mesmerized by the man who was soon to lead the country? Not at all. I thought he was boring.
But not at the convention a couple of years later. By then, Trudeau was electrifying the country. Those of us who were part of that time never quite lost our affection for him or forgot the sense of excitement he brought to dull Canadian life. As most Canadian politicians do, he over stayed his welcome, and, as has been very much the case with Barack Obama in the U.S., the reality of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau never quite lived up to the promise of the sports car-driving, movie star-dating young maverick (not so young after all; it turned out Trudeau was forty-eight when he was elected leader of the party).
I won’t be so melodramatic as to say that weekend in Ottawa forty-five years ago changed my life. But certainly my life changed forever that year. A couple of months later, school was behind me, and I was a reporter working for a daily newspaper, The Oshawa Times, while Pierre Trudeau crisscrossed the country in his first election campaign as prime minister, mauled by huge crowds everywhere he went. Trudeaumania was in full flower.
My first day at work I was preparing to cross the street to the Times when I glanced around and saw a lanky, bald-headed man standing on the corner. I realized with a start that this was Robert Stanfield, the leader of what was then called the Progressive Conservative Party, the guy running against Trudeau to be prime minister. I couldn’t believe it. He was all alone, not a soul around him. I went over and shook his hand, understanding at that moment Stanfield didn’t stand a chance in the election. And, of course, he didn’t.
Much has happened since Pierre Trudeau stepped onto the stage that Ottawa weekend, both to me and to the country. Now, as Justin Trudeau is about to become the Liberal leader, I suppose there is a certain closing of the circle.
I wonder if Justin would like his picture taken.