TRUDEAU’S GHOST AND MACDONALD’S REVENGE
by Chris R. Morgan
On July 1 of this year, the members of the sizeable polity directly to the north of ours assembled under their leafy banner to pay homage to a momentous event. 150 years ago, the British North America Act granted the colonial satellites of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick to confederate into a dominion of provinces. The arrangement granted the newly formed nation comparatively greater sovereignty in determining its social destiny, provided, of course, that the monarch may appoint their head of state and that they submit any constitutional amendment they may want to the British Parliament for approval. Such triumphs, however limited, are not won alone or without considerable struggle, but one must wonder how things would have otherwise gone had Canada been bereft of John Alexander Macdonald at that moment a century and a half ago.
John A. Macdonald, born in Scotland, was a British Columbian lawyer of exceptional alcoholism. Also he was a formidable colonial politician, serving as Attorney General of Canada West on an off from 1854 to 1867. After several years of complex coalition juggling, his stewardship of confederation granted him the inaugural position of Prime Minister of Canada for nearly 19 years. The parentage of this success can be derived from Macdonald’s earthbound political pragmatism and his very simple vision. He was able to weather harsh opposition to his designs in part because they always seemed so quaint compared to the conflicts being borne out just below them. He and his allies looked on at the events of the Civil War in utter horror. What was an amusing if brutish sports match to the British was to their moose-cohabitating subjects a cannibalizing failed state. With the Union victory, his fears simply went from chaos to invasion. He looked upon Abraham Lincoln’s genius and said, “No, no we don’t need that. Thank you.” Not that Lincoln would have blamed him.
But out of Macdonald’s triumph came a tragic irony. Maybe not tragic exactly, but at least a nagging condition that formed a symbiotic relationship with its neighbor. One looks upon Canada with a sense of dispirited inevitability in its legacy as a nation of contrast. It is as if a law from the cosmos itself governs that we see Canada and America side by side as we would see mediocrity and genius, caution and risk, near-sightedness and 20/20 clarity, Daedalus and Icarus, and so on. This arrangement seemed more or less amenable to Canadians for much of their history. It took nearly a century to find someone who would try to transgress against the cosmos.
Before Pierre Elliot Trudeau became the 15th Prime Minister of Canada in 1968, his notoriety rested on being an independently wealthy, intermittently employed, unabashedly radical, devoutly Catholic, and singularly Quebecois intellectual. He once showed up to the 1949 Asbestos strike driving a Jaguar and at Murdochville in 1957 wearing shorts and sandals. He wrote an essay defending a people’s right to assassinate their tyrannical sovereign. Maurice Duplessis, authoritarian Premier of Quebec and friend of Trudeau’s father, called him “a subversive.” He would not read anything on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books without a Bishop’s permission. He sat out World War II. His election to parliament, and subsequent appointment as Minister of Justice, in 1965 at age 46 may well have been his first real job. Charles Taylor, his New Democratic opponent, was forced to keep his day job. That such a person could ascend so quickly in Canadian federal politics seems rather fanciful, but like Macdonald his moment was well timed.
The 1968 Liberal leadership convention saw Trudeau compete against eight other parliamentarians, some with many decades of experience on him. One, Paul Martin, had been a member for over 30 years and served in multiple cabinet posts including Minister of National Health and Welfare and Minister of External Affairs. By the fourth ballot, Trudeau had won with 1,203 votes. A few factors contributed to this, one being the spirit of the 1960s, which not even Canada could resist; in fact many seemed quite pleased that they, too, could have a Kennedy. The Liberals were also unable to win majorities in the last two elections. Though more salient was Trudeau’s background. The Liberal Party has a tradition of alternating between French and English leaders. Trudeau was not only French, but also a sharp defender of federalism in a province becoming increasingly antagonistic to it. On the eve of the election separatists stormed the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day parade, pelting him with bottles and rocks as he sat on the grandstand. He refused to budge, however, and the stunt backfired. The Liberals gained 26 seats to win a majority.
The resulting character of Trudeau’s premiership can be summed up by Trudeau’s own guiding principle of governance: “reason over passion.” The slogan’s oddness is twofold. Whether Canada is reason poor, it could hardly be accused of being passion rich. Moreover, Trudeau governed himself almost entirely through passion. In fact “reason over passion” is exactly the principle a passionate person would seek to emulate. “Coldly, let us be intelligent,” he put it more strangely. Sure, he was quite put together in his speech invoking the War Measures Act during the October Crisis of 1970, which gave police power “to search and arrest without warrant, to detain suspected persons without the necessity of laying specific charges immediately, and to detain persons without bail.” “These are strong powers,” he said almost mournfully, “and I find them as distasteful as I am sure do you. They are necessary, however, to permit the police to deal with persons who advocate or promote the violent overthrow of our democratic system.”
But those remarks have been overshadowed by Trudeau’s more defiant, off the cuff statements to a reporter on the street. “Well there’s a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is go on and bleed, but it is more important to keep law and order in the society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of—“ The reporter interrupts: “At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?” “Well, just watch me,” was the Prime Minister’s infamous reply. Outbursts such as these would be increasingly relied on throughout Trudeau’s 15-year tenure. Some, like his pirouette behind Queen Elizabeth, were carefully rehearsed. Others, such as telling a protestor in Saskatchewan that if he didn’t stop throwing wheat at him he’d “kick you right in the ass,” were not.
To be Trudeau in Canada, it seemed, was to be restricted. Perhaps even to be imprisoned. He loathed parliamentary debate and one time became so frustrated that he allegedly told members to “fuck off,” though he denied it. “What I overlooked was the fact that he himself had absolutely no administrative experience whatsoever,” said Trudeau’s Minister of Communications, Eric Kierans who quit the cabinet in 1971 and later joined the New Democrats. Trudeau relied more on civil servants than his party and lost his majority when he opted not to campaign during the 1972 election. His political survival can be in some way attributed to a feckless opposition party that could never conclusively game him in votes. The only rival who truly challenged him was René Lévesque, a broadcaster turned separatist firebrand and Premier of Quebec.
When surveying Trudeau’s achievements, one finds a few home runs rather than many base hits. Though many more factors were in play, Quebec’s first “sovereignty” referendum failed on his watch. He patriated the constitution—and brought a farther reaching Charter of Rights and Freedoms—while derailing Quebec’s derailment attempts in the process. He entrenched multiculturalism as a fact of Canadian life, as well as the metric system. Trudeau was at his most assured when enacting a sweeping gesture or imparting a grand vision of Canada’s place in the world. But assured does not always mean best. Canadians seemed mostly to tolerate his civics lectures, but world leaders were much less impressed. His attempts to mediate in the Cold War during his final term came off as naïve, to say the least.
Canadians were less pleased with Trudeau’s management of what they actually cared about. To have David Frum tell it, he vastly overleveraged government spending amidst inflation and recession. After promising not to impose wage and price controls in 1974, he did exactly that in 1975. More controversial, though, was the National Energy Program:
Most other Western countries redirected themselves toward more fiscal restraint after 1979. Counting on abundant revenues from oil, the Trudeau government kept spending. Other Western governments began to worry more about attracting international investment. Canada repelled investors with arbitrary confiscations. … Under the National Energy Policy [sic], Canada was up-regulating as the US, Britain, and West Germany deregulated. All of these mistakes together contributed to the extreme severity of the 1982 recession. Every one of them was Pierre Trudeau’s fault.
The NEP was also Trudeau’s most damning testament of his federalism-over-provincialism bent. Oil producing provinces, namely Alberta, took the NEP as an imposition by the federal government on provincial control of its resources. Relations between eastern and western Canada chilled markedly, resulting in a regional right wing wave of the Reform Party, the Canadian Alliance, which propelled Stephen Harper, and the provincial Wildrose Party.
Pierre Trudeau considered himself a “citizen of the world” and carried himself as such, with a wanderlust that was unquenchable. (I can’t tell if his 1960 jaunt to Maoist China, at the CPC’s invitation, was utterly clueless or wryly self-aware.) But in truth, Trudeau’s most important constituent was not the Canadian or the Earthling, but his past self.
One of the few reminders of the politician’s humanity is the incessant need to shake off their pre-election civilian identities, if not to conceal a flawed shame then to at least accept that they’ve ascended—or descended—to a new level of being wherein little of what they learned or experienced really applies anymore. Not so Trudeau, who spent his political career more or less confirming his theoretical past. His tenure was successful provided he did not betray himself. “Canada” was a neat idea that didn’t properly exist outside of his own head and so sought to make it. Why it was called “Canada” or why it had oil-soaked prairies on the one end and the French on the other or why it was bound to such shackles as “commerce” were bewitching but trivial mysteries compared to the possibilities of birthing his thought experiment into a higher realm of transcendent genius. Of course one person’s “genius” is another person’s “Americanization.” “The Charter [of Rights and Freedoms],” Seymour Martin Lipset wrote, “makes Canada a more individualistic and litigious culture, one that will place more stress on the enforcement of personal rights through adversary procedures.”
But it does not matter in the end whether Trudeau had discovered the Canadian capacity for genius or merely cribbed it. He tampered in such a way as to undo a regional balance, not altogether intended or easily understood but delicately maintained all the same. The Daedalus state had gone Icarus, and if the damage from the sun could not be reversed then the balance needed to be restored through other means.
To speak of the American genius is not to speak of the United States in rarified terms at the expense of Canada, but only to reconfirm what is factual. Genius is as dangerous as it is rare, but the American social engine can be fueled by nothing less. Indeed, Americans have subjected themselves to something akin to a lottery system combined with a guessing game in teasing out who will be best suited to meet this demand. But the United States is either unwilling or unable to come down to a more modest level for any reason, so then it must be brought down.
In February, Lana Del Rey pledged her support to a national effort to remove Donald Trump from the White House by way of occult ritual. This effort will fail not so much because witchcraft is false but because there are far greater forces at work. Imagine a force hardened, embittered, and restless; a force that has divined its power from being more aware of the faults of its nemesis than the nemesis itself. Such a force will be in search of the most proper vessel to unfurl its designs in restoring the continental balance. It will fortify the vessel with whatever means can be mustered until it has ensured total debasement. The vessel will not be a genius but will possess a certain charisma to carry it over any potential obstruction, preventing the attainment of proper knowledge of its limits. Whether or not such a vessel is presently in the halls of American power is something that, if all goes according to plan, will not be figured out until it is too late. But any such vessel would be instantly recognizable to Canadians to the point of being uncanny, and they will know that the weights are shifting and that for Americans “too late” is still very far off.