Inventing Home

Where are you from? Where do you live? They are the two most popular questions to ask travellers, party guests, and game show contestants. The answer allows a stereotyped categorization. It can spur a conversation or, perhaps, the decision to not bother starting one. It’s odd though, because while often seen as the same question they are two totally different inquiries. Ask yourself the two questions. Do you get two answers?

I am from Hamilton. It is known as Canada’s steel town although with the slow death of the industrial revolution the nickname means less all the time. Home to Huron, then French, and then British settlers, it is named for Robert Hamilton, a War of 1812 veteran, who built his estate at the west end of Lake Ontario. The place grew quickly as railways passed through on their way from the American border to Toronto. The pig iron plant arrived first. Then came the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) and then, the smaller Dominion Foundry and Steel Company (Dofasco).

Dofasco Dofasco

My great grandfather was among Dofasco’s first employees. He got my grandfather into the foundry and he worked there for over 40 years. He never said a bad word about Dofasco. He always spoke of the bosses as Mr. This and Mr. That. My father worked there too. He tells stories of playing in the Dofasco baseball league and bowling league and hockey league. I recall as a child going to the Dofasco Christmas party. It was a massive affair where an entire building was emptied and then opened for the thousands of employee families. There were treats and games and Santa Claus and a wrapped present for every kid.

Stelco is gone now. Dofasco is all but gone too. Their shadows remain but they were bought and sold a couple of times and are now just cogs in transnational corporations with no ties to Canada let alone the city. Corporations may be constitutionally people but they neither have a home nor care much about those who do. With the steel plants went the others. Hamilton is not the same.

Go to any city. Go downtown near the river or the harbour at the lake. You know the places I mean in whatever city has entered your mind. The big old buildings are nearly all empty. Or they have been turned into fancy boutiques, offices, or condominiums. The places to shop and eat are elsewhere and everywhere the same as everywhere else. You can picture that street too can’t you? Walmart, Costco, McDonalds, and the Tims have taken care of it. Online shopping took care of what remained.

So that is where I am from – a ghost. I still have family there, I’m a proud McMaster University alum, and a great deal remains that I find invigorating and beautiful. But it’s a city re-inventing itself as surely as when Robert Hamilton created it in the first place. It will succeed. There are too many good people for it to fail. No one is sure how just yet, but a consensus will grow. It will enable enough people to recognize that a city, like a well-lived life, is not about money and stuff.

A community rests on shared values and the places where people from up and down and across town meet to enjoy the same things at the same time. Hamilton, and for that matter every city that is going through the same period of existential angst, will come out the other side when enough people say enough to driving out of town to have fun and to driving past boarded up shops once owned by folks they knew to stores the size of football fields to save fifty cents on toilet paper. The city will begin to move when people move by getting out of their cars and walking. When people start to walk they will need some place close to walk to and some version of Walmart won’t put a store there, or a book shop, or a pub – but a neighbour might, in an actual neighbourhood. In walking, neighbours will start talking and the rest will take care of itself. It won’t be easy, but then Robert Hamilton didn’t have it easy either.

Where I live is different. I live in a village of 2500 people called Lakefield. Lakefield was created on Ojibwa land just a few years later than Hamilton. It became known not for stinky steel but silent canoes. It was home to several canoe manufacturers including Walter Walker who made canoes and paddles for ordinary folks and royalty with the same dedication to excellence. It has always been an artistic place. Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie lived and wrote in Lakefield as did Margaret Laurence. The Leahy band lives nearby as does Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins. First-rate painters, children’s book authors and illustrators, and sculptors call Lakefield home as do highly respected architects and film makers. The Lakefield Literary Festival and world-renowned Lakefield College School are here.

A river runs through the centre of my Village and it is only right that it does. It is a metaphor that speaks of perpetual movement and things that never change. Margaret Laurence wrote The Diviners here and, if you recall, the novel begins by speaking of a river that runs both ways. It does you know. It really does.

Canoe-and-Paddle-e1413940425220

Last week a new pub opened in Lakefield called the Canoe and Paddle. It is fashioned to reflect the look and feel of a pub one might wander into on an English afternoon or Halifax night. It is owned and run by folks from the village. Last Thursday my little rock band played the pub’s first night of music. It was music for neighbours by neighbours. Last night I walked across the bridge to stand with a pint and enjoy a Celtic band play one lively reel after another. The place was packed. As I looked around the room I realized that I knew nearly every face. Everyone glowed with the happiness of a Saturday night among friends, with neighbours, and in a community that understands the meaning of the word. The pub will do well. The Canoe and Paddle has reminded us that we understand what doing well means.

Hamilton is where I am from. Lakefield is where I live. It’s good to be home.

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John Lennon Was Right

Reduce the Bible to its essence. Consider the messages of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, the Dali Lama, and Mahatma Ghandi. What is the plea of a baby’s cry or a wounded soldier’s moan? What explains both the sad old man feeding pigeons on a Sunday morning and the smiley young pup at the bar the night before? John Lennon knew – all we need is love.

For a long time I thought I understood. It began on the first day of my last year of high school. I took my assigned seat in Biology class. Decked out in my purple corduroy bell bottoms and high collared green silk shirt and with my curly brown hair falling to my shoulders, I slid into my desk with the practiced sneer of teenage sullenness. Then it happened. To my left sat the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I was gobsmacked. The poor teacher rattled on but I heard nothing. I just had to speak with her. I finally asked to borrow her ruler. There it was. Neatly printed on the back was her name. Nirvana! I drew a few quick lines and returned it, swooning at the thought that my hand had brushed hers.

The tall blond girl and I have been married now for decades. As teenagers we thought we knew everything. We quickly learned that we knew nothing. And now what we know for sure is that everyone makes it up as they go along and do the best they can. After all these years, no one can make me laugh as she does. No one can put me right like she does. She has saved me, made me, remade me, and inspired me to become the best I can be. Without her I would now be dead, in jail, or sleeping under a bridge.

John Lennon John Lennon

Our child arrived when we were little more than children ourselves. Due to the necessity of finding work, we were living hours from home and family. We relied on logic, instinct, each other, and the long-distance wisdom of moms and grand-moms to figure it all out. We did the best we could and we did OK. As the years of teenage angst rendered our lives more interesting we kept pledging that we would not let her moods dictate ours – we never managed it. As all young people do, she circled the dark side of the moon where communications are temporarily lost and then returned as we knew she would to the safe orbit of family and home. We were only ever as happy as her. We are still only as happy as her. We could not be more proud of her.

This morning, like always, our granddaughter arrived at our door. She bounced in with the sunshine of a six year old; always in the moment, default position stuck on happy, and with the assumption that all is well and always will be. We and her parents are not helicopters hovering to mandate her every move or snowplows eliminating every obstacle. We’re more like bowling alley bumper pads. We ensure that she tacks her way forward in her own way and at her own speed with scraped knees and magic band aids while never knowing the gutter.

I watch her climb trees and play hockey. We’ve dressed up as princesses. We bounce on the trampoline and enjoy picnics in our secret spot. We walk downtown for the best hot dog in the world. We throw stones in the river and hang upside down at the playground. We read and walk and laugh and talk and scheme and joke and tease and cuddle. She always runs faster than me, wins every Trouble game, and patiently explains kids shows that I can never manage to understand. And, regrettably, I rub her arm so the insulin needle won’t hurt quite so much.

Without a clue as to her power, my grand-daughter has reshaped me as first my wife and then my daughter did before. She has taught me what I presumed to already know; what I thought I learned way back in Biology class and on those three-in-the-morning nights when the baby just wouldn’t go back to sleep. She taught me how to love all over again and, this time, more profoundly than I ever imagined possible.

I consider people begging for change on the sidewalk the same as those filling their lives with stuff and screens. I see people defined by their job and whose minds are at work even when their bodies are home the same as those stuck in perpetual adolescence whose buddies are the centres of their circles. I understand the holes in their hearts. It’s sad. I know they will never be filled by the next coin, thing or app, or by the next promotion or beer. Everyone, of course, is free to make their own way. But during the journey, words, gifts, and promises ring hollow and echo silence. Time and attention, on the other hand, skywrite what matters.

I have done a lot, travelled a lot, and accomplished a lot in my life, and have a lot more left to do. But I am convinced that the only reason I am here is to love the three women in my life and to be loved by them. All the rest is background music. Next January I will meet a new teacher who, now that I think I understand, will begin the instruction all over again. I can’t wait. But for now, tomorrow morning, when my grand-daughter arrives for school and what she calls second breakfast, she will remind me once again, as she always does – John Lennon was right.

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Sherlock and Murdoch and Me

Why do we do what we do? Many people struggle with the answer but I know. I think I’m a detective and I think what I do matters. Take a second and name a detective from literature or television. It’s easy because we know a lot of them. They entertain, inform, and leave us with a warm assurance that, in their hands at least, the good guys always win.

murdoch and sherlock

Every detective begins already knowing what happened. The detective’s job is to find out why it happened, who was involved, name the guilty, and exonerate the innocent. While many others may have already combed the scene, his job is to see it differently. The detective gathers clues that others may have missed or dismissed. The detective reads and then reads some more to become expert on whatever and whoever the case involves. The detective sifts evidence through the sieve of his reading and experience. He then writes up his conclusions which are based on his use the past to explain the present and will hopefully help people to avoid similar bad stuff and people in the future. But he’s not done. The court brings together other experts; some perhaps embarrassed by having missed what the detective found and eager to punch holes in his conclusions. Members of the public arrive who are fascinated with the event and eager to learn more. The detective’s work and conclusion are put to the test and the media weighs in with its opinion. Meanwhile, the detective has already moved on. The detective will happily discuss the case now holding the public and court’s interest but his mind is already on the next case.

Now here is the challenge. Please go back and re-read the last paragraph but substitute the word historian for detective. Don’t cheat – do it. Go ahead, I’ll wait for you ………………………………………………………………………………………………..done?  Interesting isn’t it? That’s what I do.

I am working on a case right now. Everyone knows what happened but I arrived on the scene about a year ago. I have read everything I can find about the people and events of the era that I am investigating. I always know I’m done that stage when the books and articles start overlapping and repeating themselves. It’s then time to do the real work, the archival work; to stop going wide and go deep. Last month I did research at the archives in Ottawa. I then moved on to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.

If a museum is a country’s front parlour then an archives is its attic. Its job is to hold and protect every document, book, record, and piece of music, foot of film, picture, painting, and photograph that tells our stories about ourselves. Like museums, libraries, monuments, and architecture, an archive represents, reflects, and explains us. Archives are a historian’s playground and workplace. Without archives historians are unable to solve cases, unable to write history.

So what, you may say. Well, history is never settled because the story is never completely told. History is the stories and myths that hold us together as a people. Without at least a cursory knowledge of history we are like Forrest Gump’s feather floating without purpose, understanding, or intention. Without history we are like amnesiacs; constantly surprised and confused and vulnerable to the next politician or pundit arguing without context and hoping you won’t ask the next question. But the historian is there, like the nosy detective who pokes around and sees things that may have been missed and urges a new look at things considered settled.

Journalism is history in a hurry and TV punditry is history on crack. Real history is a wise detective asking new questions and offering a new perspective. History is not nostalgia, that warm-bath sensation of gazing longingly back on misty memories of times gone by. No, history is a cold shower. It is not a balm but a challenge. It insists that we not be like those who after the tragedy of 9-11 asked like dewy-eyed school girls why they hate us. It will not allow us to grow angry at Native people’s anger. History is neither a weapon to attack another’s ideas or shield to protect one’s own. It is a spy glass, a detective’s spy glass, there to examine people, events, and ideas to determine the past to explain the present.

A good history book is a grand detective story. It is a mystery solved that you didn’t even think was a mystery in the first place. So I guess, sitting there alone, so far from home and opening another archival file I was Sherlock or maybe Murdoch. But I felt more like Columbo. I was a little dishevelled and ragged around the edges but doing my best to ask the right questions so that the story I will tell will be worth the telling.

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Why We Should Not Go To Iraq

Every American president in the last twenty-five years has appeared on television to announce he was bombing Iraq. It was recently President Obama’s turn. It was immediately clear that he needed foreign flags in the air more than foreign soldiers on the line and Canada obliged. Prime Minister Harper signed on and sent 69 advisors. Two weeks ago in New York, according to Mr. Harper, the United States asked Canada for more help. He should have said no.

There are Canadian bones in war cemeteries around the world. Canada also played major roles in creating and sustaining the United Nations and NATO; both designed to prevent the digging of more graves. We should be proud that Canada has done its bit. However, we should be equally proud that Canada has often said yes to its national self-interest by saying no.

In 1775, Boston’s rebellion was morphing into a larger revolution. The rebel Continental Congress dispatched Benjamin Franklin to Montreal to woo Quebecers to its cause. Rebels had convinced thirteen British colonies to join and wanted another. They failed. Quebec’s leaders said no.

The Québécois had little interest in joining a rag-tag group of rebellious fellow colonies, only two of which allowed the practice of their religion, and whose army mistreated civilians, stole property, and spread a worthless currency. The Canadians – and they were already called that – would not fight. In saying no they stayed Canadians.

This year we are commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the First World War. Canadians were changed by the sacrifices of too many young men in Flanders’s mud and on Vimy’s ridge. Before the war we were British. Afterwards we were Canadian. At the conclusion of the peace negotiations, Britain insisted that it would sign the Versailles Treaty on behalf of its dominions. At that point Canada’s economy was dependent on Britain and for all intents and purposes its foreign and defense policies were one. And yet, Canada’s Prime Minister Borden said no. He insisted that Canada sign as an independent country.

Shortly afterwards, in 1922, bungled communications led Turkey to threaten war with Britain at Chanak. Britain had committed itself to protecting access to the Black Sea and asked Canada and others to send soldiers to help. Prime Minister Mackenzie King said no. The Chanak crisis, after all, was as removed from Canada as was its outcome from Canada’s interests. As befits a sovereign country, we refused to respond as we had in 1914 – with a hearty, “Ready, Aye, Ready”.

In May 1961, President Kennedy met with Prime Minister Diefenbaker in Ottawa. Kennedy said he wanted Canada to join the Organization of American States, stop trading with Cuba and China, become more involved in Vietnam, and to station American nuclear weapons in Canada and with its NATO troops in Europe. Diefenbaker was committed to fighting the Cold War but he was also a nationalist who believed that Canada’s contributions to that struggle had to be consistent with its values and interests. Diefenbaker told Kennedy no, no, no, and no. It was perhaps the first time in Kennedy’s life that anyone had told him no.

kennedy and diefenbaker

Kennedy and Diefenbaker

In 2003, President Bush sold his country and much of the world on the necessity to attack Iraq and asked Canada to join his coalition of the willing. Prime Minister Chrétien said no. He did not accept Mr. Bush’s evidence regarding weapons of mass destruction. Parliament had already approved sending Canadian troops to Afghanistan but Chrétien would not commit more to Iraq without solid evidence, a UN Security Council resolution, or clear links to Canadian interests. He later explained, “We’re an independent country, and in fact it was a very good occasion to show our independence.”

Chretien says no to Iraq

Mr. Harper looks on as PM Chrétien says no to sending troops to Iraq.

Now, Prime Minister Harper has stated his belief that young Canadians should offer themselves to slay and be slayed in Iraq because it is in Canada’s best interests to fight one of many terrorist organizations at work in the Middle East. More tellingly, he said in the House on October 3, “If Canada wants to keep its voice in the world, and we should since so many of our challenges are global, being a free rider means one is not taken seriously…When our allies recognize and respond to a threat that would also harm us, we Canadians do not stand on the sidelines. We do our part.” His words did not have the same ring as “Ready, Aye, Ready” – but the point was the same.

We owe it to ourselves to participate in our national conversation and to carefully consider the prime minister’s argument. In doing so we should consider Canada’s history of responding to allied invitations to send our young people into harm’s way – to send our children to kill theirs. Perhaps in our contemplation we will recall that the word that, more than any other, that has always indicated Canada’s taking of another step toward sovereignty has been no.

An edited version of this column appeared last week in the Ottawa Citizen. If you like this column, please consider sharing it with others using the buttons below and following this blog where I post new thoughts every Monday morning. I enjoy comments too, even from those who disagree – respectful debate is good.

Robert Kennedy and Mỹ Lai; A Coincidence That Matters

Talented Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette enjoyed a hit song a few years ago listing a number of things she found ironic. Actually, the things about which she sang were not ironic at all but merely unfortunate or at best coincidences. Coincidences are fun. Sometimes they matter. Let’s consider one that resonates today.

The Coincidence of March 16, 1968.

The Americanized portion of the Vietnam War had been grinding on for nearly four years. Despite President Johnson’s repeated assurances, there was no end in sight. The people trying to carry on with their lives in tiny, rural villages were regularly terrorized by men fighting for one or the other of the war’s many sides. The horrors felt by the men doing the terrorizing were overwhelming. By the spring of 1968 it was clear to everyone but the willfully blind that the war would have victims but no victors.

One afternoon a group of Americans walked into two small hamlets and went insane. They ceased to be soldiers. They ceased to be human. They murdered between 350 and 500 unarmed men, women, and children. It took a long time. Many were shot and some were hacked the death; many were tortured. Children watched their mothers being gang-raped. A few soldiers laughed as one of their comrades took three shots to kill a baby who was lying on the ground. It became known as the Mỹ Lai Massacre.

On that same day, Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Everyone knew him because he had been his brother’s attorney general and in many ways the co-president. While John Kennedy was a realist disguised as a dreamer, Robert was a true romantic with a realist’s understanding of how to get things done. After the assassination in Dallas, he became a New York senator. He led a number of initiatives including the reconstruction of Brooklyn’s tough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood through partnerships with three levels of government, banks, corporations, and community organizers. He got things done.

As he stood before a bank of microphones that March afternoon he didn’t know about the massacre. But he knew that Vietnam was among many things that were wrong as he announced that he would run to be president in an effort to end the war and make some of those other things right. He said, “I run to seek new policies – policies to end the bloodshed in Vietnam and in our cities, policies to close the gaps that now exist between black and white, between rich and poor, between young and old, in this country and around the rest of the world.  I run for the presidency because I want the Democratic Party and the United States of America to stand for hope instead of despair, for reconciliation of men instead of the growing risk of world war. I run because it is now unmistakably clear that we can change these disastrous, divisive policies only by changing the men who are now making them.”

RFK

As he campaigned he spoke to Black audiences about taking more responsibility for their families. He spoke to university students about the unfairness of their draft deferments. He spoke to business leaders about being responsible to more than just their bottom lines. He made people mad. He made people think.

Consider his beliefs regarding how we measure wealth: “Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that…counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

On the same day that some men were visiting unspeakable horror on people they did not know, another man was pledging himself to help people he would never meet. It was not ironic. It was a coincidence. It is a coincidence that matters because it enabled Americans then and us today to consider the dark side that lurks within us all and right alongside it our yearning to do better; to be better, to do good.

The March 16, 1968 coincidence challenges us to ask whether we can accept horrors that make us cringe without losing faith. Can we remain idealistic without being naïve? Can we remain realistic without being cynical? Today we are inundated by images of hatred and despair and there are plenty that match Mỹ Lai’s power. Can we reject those who use the images to sell themselves and their divisive views and instead remain convinced that our public discourse is a place for respect, for alternate opinions, the telling of hard truths, calm determination, and for hope and even for love?

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John F. Kennedy and My Mother’s Tears

I recall the first time I saw my mother cry. You need to understand that my mom was a tough woman, as tough as burnished leather, at least on the outside, the side she allowed most folks to see. But on this day she was sobbing. It was the afternoon of November 22, 1963. I was a middle-class Canadian kid in a brush cut just rolled home from the rigours of grade one but now standing in my living room, still and stunned at the sight of my mother, slumped into the couch, red-eyed and weeping before the flickering television.

She explained that a man had died, a good man, and that he had been shot by a crazy man. I remember that I cried too. It was not for him – I had no idea who the good man was – but for her, for her grief, and for my addled efforts to understand. Today, for the same three reasons, I cried again.

You see, the little boy grew up to be an author and this week I’m doing research at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Boston is a terrific city. On my first morning I jumped the red line to Pawk Street, that’s right, that’s what the man said. Within 200 steps of the subway stop I glommed on to a walking tour of the Freedom Trail led by a gentleman in period costume who was among the best guides I have ever experienced. It was marvelous; there were great sites and greater stories. I then watched a legalize marijuana rally in the Commons and laughed out loud when at the count of three the thousand or so folks splayed on blankets on the grass lit up their grass. I told a yellow T-shirted volunteer about Justin Trudeau’s pledge up in Canada but she didn’t care.

The dawn brought work. The Kennedy Library’s enormous, white, flat tower soars like a sail into the sky and overlooks the bay that reminds visitors of Kennedy’s love of the sea. The commissionaire found my name on the list, led me to an elevator in the back and with the turn his special key I was lifted to the fourth floor archives. For the rest of the day and the next two I time travelled to the 1960s. Tapping away on my laptop I recorded notes from box after box and file after file.

Kennedy library archives

My spot on the 4th floor.

On the afternoon of the third day I declared a break to finally see the museum. I stood with a group of women enchanted by home movie clips showing the Kennedys at play in Hyannisport. Kennedy smiled as he swung a golf club, sailed, swam, and at one point drove a gaggle of laughing, bare-chested, sun-tanned children far too fast on a bouncing golf cart. They were pictures of a family and life about which only the stone-hearted could not feel warmth. It was then on to politics. Films and artifacts depicted the nomination and then the election. No wonder people watching the debate thought he wiped the floor with Nixon. No kidding, did people really wear those goofy buttons and hats?

It was all good. I wandered with the gentle acceptance that like most museums its analysis was skimming as a stone over very deep ponds with its focus on entertainment more than education. But then I arrived at the gallery dedicated to the inauguration. The large screen with seating before it invited you to suspend belief and imagine you were there. About fifteen people were doing just that. There was a clutch of teenage boys with their big caps and big feet, three or four couples about my age, and a young man and woman whose eyes and hands betrayed either a honeymoon trip or one in the offing. I stood at the side not expecting to stay for the whole thing but I became entranced. There was Kennedy, tanned on that freezing January afternoon so long ago and speaking in that Boston twang. And here were these people, generations later sitting silent, eyes wide, many mouths agape, drinking in the idealism of his message as if cool water in a steaming desert oasis. I listened to him but watched them.

Kennedy inauguration

It was then it happened; a tear found my eye. I smiled and my lip quivered. I let it hang there and then run down my cheek, closed my eyes, and nodded. My mother has been gone for years now and I had not felt so close to her in a long while. The tear was not mine – it was hers. After all this time I think I finally understood that November afternoon.

The day Kennedy was murdered tore time. For millions of people the irreparable rending forever split the before and after. The violence in Dallas was visited not just upon the man but also on the very idea that everything was possible and all problems solvable. As I watched the people watching him and smudged my cheek I realized that in the final analysis, Kennedy’s gift was not his programs and polices but himself. His contribution, and the one that brought my mother to him then and the people to his museum now, was the courageous determination that idealism is not naive, hope is not silly, that acting collectively is not surrendering liberty, and that community can extend beyond one’s family, or city, or even country.

Of course Kennedy was a flawed man. The museum is silent about his hiding crippling health issues and the cocktail of drugs with which he was injected each day to carry on. It did not mention the women. He was a flawed leader. The museum ignored his ballooning the deficit to build a mammoth military and glanced over his being late in joining the march to civil rights and his having started the march to Vietnam. But that’s okay. There is no such thing as a perfect man or leader.

Now I’m back in my hotel scrunching notes into prose. When this book is published I hope that readers will understand Kennedy’s time a little better and consider the effects that his policies and personality had on Canada. What they will not know is our secret; that in the book’s writing I came to an understanding far more profound. In a city far from home, and for just a moment, I was once again my mother’s little boy.

Who Are We and Who Do We Aspire to Be?

The bread and circuses of patriotism thrives on songs and slogans. It swaps history’s complexity for misty-eyed nostalgia. Defining, unifying, inspiring state nationalism, on the other hand, is harder. Patriotism is about celebration but nationalism is about identity. While patriotism loves songs, nationalism demands sovereignty. After all, if your identity is up for sale to the highest bidder then you have no identity at all and might as well grab a funny hat and enjoy patriotism’s parade.

Two Canadian leaders whose parties and personalities were miles apart were quite similar in asking Canadians to look beyond the balm of patriotism to the challenge of nationalism. They asked Canadians to consider who they were and who they aspired to be: John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau.

The Trudeau campaign in 1968 was reminiscent of John Diefenbaker’s in 1958. Both raised a number of concerns and ideas but quickly became less about issues than a vague vision and more about charisma than anything. In 1958, reporters did not know what to make of Diefenbaker’s evangelical appeal. Ten years later, with the Beatles craze fresh in their minds, they wrote of Trudeaumania.

Once in office Trudeau channelled many of the old Chief’s strategic goals. Trudeau was inspired to enter public life by a desire to fight Quebec’s ethnic nationalism that he saw as dangerous to the country and an insult to Quebecers. Diefenbaker’s 1960 Bill of Rights had similarly sought to combat Canada’s ethnic and racial divisions by protecting the rights of all as individuals – as citizens. Trudeau took that vision a step further with the creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its insertion in the constitution. Trudeau’s Canada was Diefenbaker’s “One Canada”. Both reflected a belief in a vibrant pan-Canadian identity.

Trudeua and Diefenbaker

Trudeau, Pearson and Diefenbaker

Diefenbaker and Trudeau’s state nationalism also reflected their understanding that Canada needed to be constantly vigilant in guarding against a chipping away at the frail and fragile walls protecting its sovereignty. This involved standing up to the United States. Trudeau spoke before the Washington Press Club in 1969 and famously quipped: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No mattered how friendly and even tempered the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

It was an apt metaphor describing the asymmetrical nature of the Canadian-American relationship that Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson accepted and upon which President Kennedy had based his bullying ways. At that point and for years, after all, Canada had a tenth of the American population, its economy was about was a tenth as large and a comparison of military clout was not worth making.            

Trudeau’s Foreign Investment Review Agency and the crown corporation Petro-Canada were not attempts to reduce Canadian-American trade and investment but rather to manage it while diversifying Canadian markets. They and other initiatives sought to render Canada less dependent upon the United States by increasing Canada’s economic autonomy. The old adage is that when the American economy gets a cold, Canada gets pneumonia. Diefenbaker and Trudeau both sought to strengthen Canada’s immune system. Part of that infusion of antibodies involved taking steps that Kennedy had warned Diefenbaker not to dare but he did anyway; he continued Canada’s trade with Cuba and China. Trudeau went a step further. He created even more trade links with both and even visited Castro and Mao.

After a long and complex review, Trudeau’s government published six booklets entitled Foreign Policy for Canadians. They presented recommendations that Diefenbaker’s government would have championed and a rejection of nearly everything to which Pearson had dedicated his diplomatic and political career. It insisted that foreign and defence policies should narrow its focus to reflect and advance Canada’s national interests. It should not, Trudeau said in an obvious slight to Pearson, involve Canada’s acting as a “helpful fixer” to the world.

It took a few years but by 1984 Trudeau had returned all the American nuclear weapons that Diefenbaker had said he did not want but that Pearson had welcomed into Canada. As Diefenbaker had during his tenure, Trudeau advocated and supported a number of initiatives to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world and to halt nuclear proliferation.

When an American oil company’s ice breaker called the Manhattan planned to move through Canada’s arctic waters, Diefenbaker rose in the House to demand Trudeau protect Canada’s sovereignty. Trudeau shared Dief’s hopes for the North’s potential and knew that potential would be dashed if Canada did not demonstrate its ownership of all its land and waters. Consequently, Trudeau managed the issue carefully and ensured that a Canadian ice breaker – the Sir John A. Macdonald, no lessescorted the American vessel. He also had Canadians put on the Manhattan’s bridge. Diefenbaker had promised to open the North by building roads to resources. Trudeau recognized that another of those roads was the North West passage.

As had happened with Diefenbaker, Trudeau’s standing up to the Americans and pushing where he could to promote and protect Canadian sovereignty was not well received by America. Echoing President Kennedy’s thoughts on Diefenbaker, President Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted, “It cannot be said that Nixon and Trudeau were ideally suited for each other…he tended to consider him soft on defence and in his general attitude toward the east.” In fact, in private Kennedy often called Diefenbaker a host of derogatory names and the Watergate tapes revealed Nixon calling Trudeau a ‘son of a bitch’ and an ‘asshole’. When told of the slurs, Trudeau responded that he’d been called worse things by better people.

Despite these personality problems, when in 1971 Nixon implemented a tax policy that threatened to damage all of its trading partners, Trudeau was able to sit in the Oval Office and negotiate a Canadian exemption. Once again, just as Diefenbaker had proven when there was a run on the Canadian dollar and Kennedy had helped; personal differences do not have to stand in the way of policy solutions.

Trudeau’s actions and intentions garnered criticism from the same groups of Canadians that had turned on Diefenbaker. Provincial premiers, business people and political elites who stood to lose profits, power and tax revenue objected to attempts to increase Canada’s autonomy.  A politician without enemies is a politician doing nothing and worthless. 

In 1965 George Grant published an important book entitled Lament for a Nation. It lamented the end of Canadian nationalism and the surrendering of Canada’s sovereignty to the United States. He wrote that Diefenbaker represented the last gasp of Canadian nationalism. He was wrong.  Pearson gave Canada its flag and Expo ’67 but they represented merely shallow, transitory patriotism. Diefenbaker had gone further by challenging Canadians to think not as patriots but as nationalists. Three years after Grant bemoaned nationalism’s death, a new political leader took up Diefenbaker’s legacy and challenged Canadians all over again.

Like all political leaders, Diefenbaker and Trudeau sometimes lost their way and traded strategic goals for tactical victories; but both did the best they could. While addressing the myriad decisions and crises that came their way they asked Canadians to raise themselves from the muck of the everyday. Diefenbaker and Trudeau challenged Canadians to consider, if even for a moment, if Canada is a country worth fighting for.