Three Canadian Elections That Matter

Today is the 44th time we have gone to the polls to create a new parliament. Today, power shifts from them to us. Candidates preen and promise; glad-hand and grandstand, while the media shines its light on orchestrated pictures and silly distractions. But it’s our moment. In the end, when it counts, what counts is us. We decide.

            Today’s election matters because all elections matter. All campaigns reveal and some change who we are. Where we place our X later this month will determine a host of issues that will shape our future including how we emerge from a pandemic still wracking the world and the climate crisis that may wreck it. But this election could do even more than that.

            Let’s pause to ponder our moment by considering Canada’s three most important elections and the lessons they offer.

1926: Canadians or Colonials

Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was an odd duck, notoriously bereft of charisma. Conservative leader Arthur Meighen was a brilliant debater but a sour puss who made clear that be believed himself to be the smartest person in any room he occupied. In the 1925 election, King lost his seat and the popular vote. He won only 116 seats to Meighen’s 131 – but he refused to resign. With Governor General Byng’s grudging assent, King continued as prime minister.

Parliament resumed in January 1926. King remained in power through keeping the support of the Progressive Party, comprised mostly of disaffected Liberals. In February, he won a by election in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and so he was back in the House in time to be attacked as corrupt due to customs department shenanigans. By the end of June, it appeared that his government would lose a censure vote; in effect, a vote of non-confidence. King sought to dodge the loss by asking the governor general to dissolve parliament and call an election.

Eton-educated Viscount Byng of Vimy had led British troops in South Africa and Canadians at the fabled battle at Vimy Ridge. His family had been Lords, Viscounts, Earls, and such for generations. He was not about to be pushed around again by this pugnacious colonial. He said no. King resigned the next day. Byng summoned Meighen, appointed him prime minister, and ordered him to form a government.

Now opposition leader, King asked if parliamentary procedures had been followed and all newly appointed cabinet ministers had taken their oaths of office. They had not. They had slyly shifted portfolios to avoid resigning and running for office again as ministers had to do in those days. King had them on a technicality. He moved a motion declaring that Meighen’s government was not legally in power. For the first time in Canadian history, a vote of non-confidence defeated a government. An election was set for September 23, 1926.

The campaign began like most with a scattergun of issues and concerns but it quickly coalesced to just one. Who governs Canada? Is it the British appointed governor general or the democratically elected Canadian prime minister? King said, “a constitutional issue greater than any has been raised in Canada since the founding of this Dominion.” Ironically, just as Canadian nationalism had been stirred by the glorious victory at Vimy Ridge, Byng was again at the centre of it all when a new, indignant nationalist pride swelled Canadian chests. After all, there is no deeper existential question than who are we? Are we Canadians or colonials?

King took the message to the country. Meighen began the campaign by speaking of tariffs and corruption but soon he too addressed little more than what had been dubbed the King-Byng Thing.

Voter turnout was high, demonstrating the importance Canadians placed in the election’s fundamental question. King and his Liberals were returned to power with 128 seats and a solid majority. Its support grew from 40% to 46%. Meighen’s Conservatives won only 91 seats.

Weeks later, the Canadian election was the talk of a previously scheduled imperial conference that adopted the Balfour Declaration. It led to the 1931 Statute of Westminster declaring that Canada and the other Dominions were independent and that Britain could no longer pass laws that applied to them. Governor Generals became subordinate to prime ministers and Britain’s power merely ceremonial nostalgia. Canadians already knew; they had already made that decision.

1988: Bridges or Walls

Brian Mulroney had been ambitiously exploiting his thick rolodex, rich baritone, and Irish charm on the road to political leadership since he was a skinny teenager. In 1984, he led his Progressive Conservatives to an astounding 211 seats and a commanding majority. But his government was quickly mired in a succession of scandals. He needed a hail Mary pass to change the narrative.

In September 1985, a Royal Commission begun by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau issued its long- awaited report. Its analysis of economic problems and opportunities concluded that Canada should seek a comprehensive free trade agreement with the Americans.Despite having previously spoken against free trade, Mulroney became a convert. Canadian and American trade negotiators threw away all tariffs and trade barriers then fought over a litany of exceptions. They initialled the 194-page deal in October 1987.

The House of Commons ratification debate was raucous. Silver-haired Liberal leader John Turner had recently been prime minister for ten weeks and wanted the big chair back. He attacked not free trade but the agreement saying, “This is not a trade deal with merely lower tariffs. It goes beyond that. It’s the Sale of Canada Act.” Just before the summer break, the Conservative majority saw the agreement’s easy passage. But Turner had a trick left up his pinstriped sleeve. He ordered the Liberal-dominated Senate to block the free trade bill. He argued that because it would fundamentally change Canada, an election should be called to allow Canadians to have their say. Mulroney acquiesced and voting day was set for November 21, 1988.

Mulroney tried to make the seven-week campaign about his leadership but Turner said it was about Canada’s sovereignty; it was about Canada’s survival. The campaign came down to two key moments. First, a Liberal television ad showed imaginary American free trade negotiators standing over a map of Canada with one saying there was a line he would like to change. An eraser then began removing the 49th parallel. It ended with the Liberal slogan: “This Is More Than an Election. This Is Your Future.” It was devastating in its simplicity.

The second crucial moment was a two-and-a-half-minute exchange near the end of the second televised debate. Turner stepped from the podium, his steely blue eyes widened, and he boomed: “I happen to believe that you have sold us out.” Mulroney was taken aback, said he was a patriot, and with Turner shouting over him claimed that the agreement was but a commercial contract, cancellable in six months. Turner pounced again, saying that the agreement was much more than that because it related to every facet of all peoples’ lives.

The campaign became a free trade referendum. Many Canadians expressed worry that free trade would steal their healthcare and all that was unique about the country while many business leaders spoke of the economic bonanza free trade would bring. Polls later showed that many people changed their voting intentions two or three times.

An impressive 76% of eligible voters went to the polls. Mulroney’s Conservatives won a majority with 169 seats. The Liberals took 83 and the NDP, which had consistently opposed free trade, won 43.

The Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement came into force on January 1, 1989. Just five years later, it was folded into a broader Canada-U.S. free trade agreement involving Mexico (NAFTA). With the 1988 election, Sir John A. Macdonald’s high tariff National Policy, through which much of the country had developed, was gone. The 1911 election that had rejected free trade with the United States was reversed. Free trade had finally won. We reoriented ourselves to think north-south as the rules shaping Canada’s future were forever changed.

2015: Sir John or Stephen?

Sir John A. Macdonald and Canada’s other founders met in 1864 when the United States was butchering itself in a bloody Civil War. They believed the war’s root cause was the American constitution having placed too much power with the states. They would right that error by creating a country where a dominant federal government had sufficient power to speak and act for all Canadians and the fiscal capacity to respond to emergencies. As Canada evolved, this orientation was woven into its political culture. The federal government organized the creation of railways, canals, and highways that built us; the fighting of wars and a Depression that saved us; and the institution of social programs that strengthened us. Inevitable right – left ideological arguments merely banged at the extremities of our general consensus.

Then came the letter. In January 2001, former Reform Party MP Stephen Harper, and five friends, published an open letter asking Alberta premier Ralph Klein to, “build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.”

The letter clearly articulated Harper’s mission: to turn the Canadian consensus on its head. A new Conservative party emerged after years of double dealing. In 2006, the introverted policy wonk with the cold eyes was prime minister. Harper’s objective remained the same. Journalist Paul Wells wrote, “His goal is to hobble not just his own government, but any federal government of any party stripe that will come after it.”

Harper cancelled the national day care program negotiated by the previous government and in its place offered families a monthly $100 stipend. He told provinces he would maintain healthcare transfers but surrendered federal influence on how the money was spent. He cut the Goods and Services Tax by 2%. Harper eliminated the long form census. He cut grants to government scientists while banning them from speaking about their work. These actions, and others, were consistent with a leader who saw the federal government as a beast to be emasculated, starved, and lobotomized.

Harper was re-elected in 2008 and 2011. In the 2015 election, however, he faced the strong opposition leader Thomas Mulcair, leading the NDP, and newly installed Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, whom polls said was in third place. Mulcair and Trudeau led an uncoordinated two-pronged attack on Harper’s vision. They spoke of the federal government undertaking national programs to fight climate change and provide day care. Harper promised boutique tax cuts. He dog whistled to his base about the wearing of the niqab, barbaric religious practices, and “old stock Canadians.” Crude attacks on Trudeau’s movie star looks and apparent inexperience gained no traction.

On October 19, voters created a Liberal majority government. Sixty percent of Canadians had rejected Harper and his decentralized conception of the country by voting for the NDP or Liberals. The firewall fell. The country’s founding and guiding consensus was back. Every time Trudeau put conditions on federal transfers, rallied national support in reaction to natural disasters and the welcoming of refugees, and spoke of new national policies on day care, climate change, and vaccination acquisition, one could almost hear the soft Scottish burr of Sir John’s echo.

We don’t know why individuals vote as they do and our antiquated electoral system often divorces voter intentions from seat counts and power. That’s alright because the reasons that determine a particular election’s outcome are not the same as why it’s important. It’s a safe bet that our most significant elections – 1926, 1988, and 2015 – changed Canada in ways that most voters at the time did not factor when marking their X.

That notion leaves us with a sobering thought. When considering our vote later today, let’s think not just about who we want to win, but more importantly, why that win will matter.

(A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Globe and Mail on September 4, 2021. If you liked it, you should consider checking my books, my most recent is The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)

Elections Matter

Whether we like it or not, after being confined to our homes for a year and a half we are all now off on a haphazard journey. Canada’s 44th federal election has begun. We will now be coaxed, bribed, and flattered. There will be appeals to the logic of our minds and yearnings of our hearts.

            This election matters because all elections matter. Ask Americans if it mattered that Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton. While all elections are important, some are more important than others. Over the next few weeks I will consider Canadian elections that were more significant than others because of the changes they wrought.

The Canadians or Colonials Election – 1926

Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was an odd duck loner with notoriously bad breath and totally bereft of charisma. Conservative leader Arthur Meighen was a brilliant debater but a sour puss who made clear that be believed himself to be the smartest man in any room he occupied. In the 1925 election, King lost his seat and the popular vote. He won only 116 seats to Meighen’s 131. But King refused to resign. He met with Governor General Lord Byng and said he would try to continue as prime minister with the support of the Progressives, a fringe party comprised mostly of disaffected Liberals. It worked, for a bit.

Arthur Meighen

            Parliament resumed in January 1926. Still unable to sit in the House, King had his able Quebec lieutenant Ernest Lapointe audaciously move a government confidence motion on itself! He was interrupted by Meighen who leapt up to move one of his own. The speaker allowed debate on Meighen’s motion. The Progressives supported the Liberals which allowed King to maintain his tenuous hold on power.

            In February, King won a hastily-called by election in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He was back in the House in time to have his government attacked as corrupt regarding a customs department issue. By the end of June, it appeared that the government would lose a censure vote; in effect, a vote of non-confidence. King dodged by going to see Byng. He asked the governor general to dissolve parliament and call a new election.

            Eton-educated Viscount Byng of Vimy had led British troops in South Africa and Canadians at the fabled Vimy Ridge. His family had been Lords, Viscounts, Earls, and such for generations. He was not about to be pushed around by this pudgy little colonial. He said no. The Canadian prime minister could not have the election he wanted. King’s only option was to resign the next day. Byng summoned Meighen, appointed him prime minister, and ordered him to form a government.

Viscount Byng of Vimy

            Now opposition leader, King rose to ask if parliamentary procedures had been followed and all newly appointed cabinet ministers had taken their oaths of office. They had not. They had done a political two-step to avoid resigning and running for office again as all cabinet ministers had to do in those days. King had them on a technicality. King moved a motion declaring that Meighen’s government was not legally in power. Then, for the first time in Canadian history, a government was defeated with a vote of non-confidence. Now an election had to happen. It was set for September 23, 1926.

            The campaign had only one issue. Who governs Canada? Is it the British-appointed governor general or the prime minister who had been elected by the Canadian people? King said, “a constitutional issue greater than any has been raised in Canada since the founding of this Dominion.” Ironically, just as Canadian nationalism had been stirred by the glorious victory at Vimy Ridge, Byng was at the centre of it all again when a new nationalist pride was felt in the breasts of many Canadians. After all, there is no deeper existential question than who are we?  The 1926 election was posing that fundamental question and demanding an answer. Are we Canadians or colonials?

            King took the message across the country. For two weeks, Meighen spoke of tariffs and King’s corruption and political trickery but then he too addressed little more than what had been dubbed the King-Byng Thing.

William Lyon Mackenzie King

            Voter turnout was high, demonstrating the importance Canadians placed in the election’s question. King and his Liberals were returned to power with 128 seats and a solid majority. Its support grew from 40% to 46%. Meighen’s Conservatives won only 91 seats. In an uncomfortable meeting, Byng asked King to again become prime minister and form a government.

Legacy

Weeks later, the Canadian election was the talk of a previously scheduled imperial conference. Inspired by Canada’s temerity, the other British dominions demanded all that the Balfour Declaration had suggested and insisted that they and Britain be deemed equal. Britain agreed. Negotiations continued until in December 1931 the Statute of Westminster declared that Canada and the other Dominions were independent and that Britain could no longer pass laws that applied to them. Governor Generals became subordinate to prime ministers.

            Elections matter. The 1926 election determined that Canada would be an independent state.

(If you enjoyed this article, please check my other work at johnboyko.com or my books – my latest is The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)

Canada and Two Wars: Vietnam and Yemen

We Canadians try to be on the right side of history but too often we fail. We fail largely because morality and money are seldom on speaking terms. Consider our role in two immoral wars.

            Canada was officially neutral in the slow-motion tragedy that was the Vietnam War. But we were not. Canadian soldiers and diplomats were in Vietnam throughout the war as part of the International Control Commission charged with observing a non-existent ceasefire. Canadian doctors and nurses ran Canadian-built hospitals in Vietnam and over 20,000 Canadians joined the American military to fight in hamlets and jungles. Over 30,000 young Americans evaded military service by coming north. They were joined by thousands of refugees who fled the post war madness. But there was more.

            Throughout the Vietnam War, Canadian companies, and American subsidiaries operating in Canada, produced and sold to the United States a wide range of goods that included ammunition, air craft engines, grenades, gun sites, TNT, generators, military vehicles, spare parts, and more. Over the course of the war, Canadian steel and iron exports to the U.S. rose by 54%. The majority of the nickel used by American plants building war planes, missiles, and armoured vehicles came from Canada.

            Canada also played a role in the chemical warfare in Vietnam. The Dow Chemical Company’s Sarnia plant manufactured napalm. It was a blend of gasoline, benzene, and polystyrene that, when dropped from helicopter gunships or fixed-wing aircraft, burned the flesh of those it touched, destroyed fat tissues, and left victims writhing in insufferable agony.

            The Uniroyal Chemical Company produced Agent Orange at its plant in Elmira, Ontario, about 80 miles north west of Toronto. The herbicide defoliant burned the leaves from trees and robbed the Viet Cong of jungle cover. Scientists determined that Agent Orange was carcinogenic and that those who ate contaminated food, drank contaminated water, or were exposed to the spray suffered dramatically increased incidents of cancer. Exposure also caused genetic damage resulting in the birth of terribly ill or disfigured children.

            The people of Elmira were exposed to Agent Orange for years and their fight for restitution continues. In 1966 and 1967, American Army helicopters tested Agent Orange in New Brunswick at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown. Hundreds of people there and nearby suffered long term consequences but it took a generation for the Canadian government to admit what it had allowed to happen and to offer compensation.

            Canada’s profiting from the immoral war was simple to explain. Canadian Defence Production Minister Charles “Bud” Drury said in 1966 that arms sales to the United States were responsible for 13,000 to 15,000 Canadian jobs with spin-off jobs probably totalling 110,000. In 1968, Treasury Board President Edgar Benson stated, “Unemployment would rise if arms shipments to the U. S. were stopped. It is to our benefit to continue the program.” Vietnam era diplomat John Holmes observed that with respect to Vietnam, “You hang on to your principles but find a way around it.”      

            It would be nice to think that we learned from our Vietnam War experience. We have not. In 2017, we exported $1.03 billion in arms, with the United States our best customer. Second was Saudi Arabia, which had just been tagged by Amnesty International for violating human rights at home and in its dirty war in Yemen. Canada’s sales to Saudi Arabia primarily involve military vehicles made by General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ontario. The multi-year deal was signed by the Harper government then later renegotiated by the Trudeau government.

             In November 2017, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development was considering changes to laws regulating arms production and sales to foreign customers. Christyn Cianfarani, President and CEO of the Canadian Defence and Security Industries, appeared before the committee and stated that she represented 800 Canadian defence and security companies that generated $10 billion in annual revenues and employed 63,000 Canadians who earned wages 60% higher than average manufacturing wages. The committee ended up recommending no changes that would threaten Cianfarani’s impressive numbers. Human Rights Watch reported last year that the Saudi-led war in Yemen has resulted in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Yemen has seen 233,000 deaths. Over 25% of those killed in air raids are women and children. More than 20 million people in Yemen are now experiencing food insecurity.

(Photo: Atlantic Magazine)

            Yet, in 2019, Canada sold $3.7 billion of military goods and technology. Saudi Arabia continued to be our second-best customer accounting for $2.9 billion or 76% of non-U.S. military export sales. According to the government’s Exports of Military Goods report, “The Government of Canada strives to ensure that…Canadian goods and technology are not used in a manner that is prejudicial to human rights, peace, security or stability.” Please.

            Brock University assistant professorSimon Black has led protests against continuing our involvement in the Yemen war through continuing our arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He has said, “Most Canadians don’t realize that weapons manufactured here continue to fuel a war that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.” He’s wrong. We know. We knew in the 1960s when we were profiting from the immoral war in Vietnam. And we know now.

            A voice in the wilderness is Spadina—Fort York, Liberal MP Adam Vaughan. He has said, “I believe the humanitarian crisis in Yemen requires us to suspend military shipments to the region and provide more in the areas of food and medicine.” We won’t do it.

            We won’t because the lessons taught in Vietnamese jungles are the same as those being taught again in Yemeni streets. But lessons taught are not lessons learned because, in the end, money doesn’t talk – it swears.

(This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday April 10, 2021. If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others and consider picking up The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War which will be published this week in Canada and the United States by Knopf Penguin Random House.)

The One-Woman Army

Admirers called Claire Culhane the One-Woman Army. In May 1967, the 48-year-old hospital administrator read an article about a tuberculosis hospital being built by Canadians in the South Vietnamese coastal city of Quảng Ngãi. She was so moved that she signed on with external affairs and within weeks she was there, right in the middle of the Vietnam War.

            The small Canadian hospital, run by Canadians, saw 150 patients a day. Those suffering from the area’s TB epidemic were treated along with victims of the war, many wounded by American bombers. Most were women and children, weak with malnutrition and ghastly wounds. Culhane and the Canadians worked tortuous hours with their lives always at risk. They were evacuated during 1968’s Tet Offensive but were soon back; the hospital now a fortress.

            Culhane respected the hospital’s first director but his replacement was officious and cleared the hospital of all non-TB patients. She was angered upon discovering that he regularly gave copies of her meticulous patient records to the CIA. Its agents used them as part of its counterinsurgency program that saw teams descend on villages to interrogate male adults and kidnap, torture, or kill those suspected of hiding information or being Viet Cong.

            It was the last straw for Culhane. Six months into her one-year assignment, she left. Upon her arrival back in Canada she met with external affairs officials and wrote a detailed report of all she had seen and learned. She was ignored. But she persisted.

(Photo by Mike Slaughter/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

            With help from Canada’s only national anti-war organization, the Voice of Women, she trained a searchlight on Canada’s secret involvement in the Vietnam War. In newspaper editorials, magazine articles, letters to politicians, and speeches delivered across the country she addressed the twisted irony of the Quảng Ngãi hospital helping a few while Canada was complicit in the death of thousands.

            Culhane explained that Canadian companies, and American subsidiaries operating in Canada, were producing and selling to the United States a wide range of goods that included ammunition, air craft engines, grenades, gun sites, TNT, generators, military vehicles, spare parts, and more. The war boosted by 54%, Canadian exports to the USA of oil, aluminum, and ores. For example, the majority of the nickel used by American plants building war planes, missiles, and armoured vehicles came from Canada.

            In September 1968, Culhane drew international media attention with a ten-day hunger strike on Parliament Hill. Among the politicians who stopped by to chat was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s powerful minister of citizenship and immigration Jean Marchand. They were soon in a heated debate. Marchand snapped: “Do you want to be the one to tell 150,000 workers that they’re out of work if we discontinue producing war material for the U.S.A. under the defence contracts we hold with them?” Marchand had expressed the essence of the national conversation.

            On the fast’s last day, Trudeau invited Culhane to his office. As the prime minister left their brief meeting he whispered, “You have no idea the pressure I am under.” Culhane replied: “Why do you think I spent ten days out there, if not trying to bring on another set of pressures?”

            Culhane represented Canada’s anti-war efforts at a conference in Stockholm. In France, she met two North Vietnamese delegates to the Paris Peace Talks. In Britain, she was feted by the London press. Back home, she earned national attention by chaining herself to a House of Commons gallery chair and tossing leaflets on the unsuspecting parliamentarians below.

            On Christmas Eve 1969, Culhane established a camp at a church near Parliament Hill and told reporters that she would endure the sub-zero temperatures to bring attention to Canada’s complicity in the war. Trudeau came by in his limo and cracked the window a little but they only spoke past each other for a moment.

            Culhane refocussed her efforts on Canada’s involvement in the research, development, and sale of chemical weapons used in Vietnam. She spoke of helping to treat napalm victims at the Quảng Ngãi hospital who were wrapped so tightly in Vaseline and gauze that she could not tell if they were men or women, alive or dead. She spoke of napalm-doused children dying slow and agonizing deaths. Culhane explained that napalm was among the chemical agents manufactured in Canada and sold to the Pentagon for use in Vietnam.

            Another was Agent Orange. It was a defoliant sprayed by planes to clear jungle to better attack the enemy. The problem was that exposure caused cancers and genetic damage resulting in terribly ill or disfigured children. Agent Orange was manufactured in Elmira, Ontario and shipped to Vietnam.

            Culhane did not stop until the war stopped. She forced Canadians to admit their involvement in the Vietnam War. She forced a reckoning by asking the difficult question of whether it is immoral to profit from an immoral war.

(Culhane’s story is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It will be published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, but can be pre-ordered now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)

Could a “Trump” Insurrection Happen in Canada?

Last week, enough Republican Senators feared their base to acquit an obviously guilty Donald Trump. The January 6 horror and impeachment debacle invite two questions. For Americans: Was this the end of something or the beginning of something? For Canadians: Could a Trump-like insurrection happen here? We’ll see what happens south of the border but the short answer for Canadians is no; for three reasons.

(Photo: Seattle Times)

First, our political structure is different. In the United States, a federal election is run by each state and territory according to unique rules and with many blatantly partisan state officials brazenly supressing the other party’s vote. Elections Canada, on the other hand, is an independent, non-partisan agency that runs our federal elections. It ensures free and fair elections through many means, among the most important of which is enforcing campaign spending limits. Further, we don’t vote directly for our head of government. The only people who voted for Justin Trudeau were the good people of Papineau in Montreal. It is, therefore, a lot tougher to initiate a Trump-like big lie about a stolen election because it is a lot tougher to question Canadian election results.

Further, Canada’s executive is not separate from but a part of our legislature. As a result, if a prime minister began exhibiting corrupt or wonky behaviour he would be eviscerated in the House day after day. Dwindling support would leave a minority government leader on his ear. Even in a majority situation, a prime minister’s party would eventually turn against him. Ask Sir John. In both cases, a prime minister would be gone long before he became Trumpian – or Nixonian for that matter.

Second, Canada’s political culture is different. Canada is founded upon what political philosopher Gad Horowitz called a Tory Touch. That is, while the United States celebrates the rugged individual and a visceral distrust in government, since before Confederation, Canadians have been guided by an embrace of community, trust in government, and respect for authority. While Horowitz’s 1965 idea has been challenged, the stubborn persistence of its validity can be seen in the national consensus and all-party support for our social welfare state. That endorsement is reflected most clearly in our acceptance of the social contract that has us paying taxes to allow universal health care. The Tory Touch can also be seen in the vast majority of Canadians grudgingly accepting the measures taken to combat COVID-19. We wince as Americans, absent the Tory Touch, rip themselves up over health care and masks.

Finally, Canada’s media is different. Robert Murdoch has thankfully ignored us while his Fox News created an alternate universe for too many Americans. His viewers/adherents truly believe the big lie whether it’s that Obama is Kenyan, Clinton ran a child-porn ring from a pizzeria, or Trump won last November. The closest Canada came to slipping into the swamp of alternate facts was with the 2011 launch of the Sun News Network. Its hard-right editorial stance aped Fox in that ideology trumped truth and nuance was attacked as elitism. Perhaps because of the Tory Touch, Sun News failed to find an audience and died in 2015. Rebel News rose from Sun’s corpse but its coverage of American racist violence and then the Quebec City mosque shooting led sponsors to flee and all but its most fervent followers to leave the echo chamber.

Canada’s structure, culture, and media render a Donald Trump and so a Trump insurrection less likely in Canada – but not impossible. Those who can be convinced of horrible things can be led to do horrible acts and so Canadians must be vigilante. We must insulate ourselves from social media conspiracy theories and anti-intellectualism. We must reject rampant partisanship and politicians who ignore or deny complexity while appealing to our base instincts. We must refuse to fear “the other” whether that be someone of a different race, religion, or political point of view. We must continually strive to be what we like to say we are.

(If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others and consider checking my other work at johnboyko.com)

The Pandemic Has Changed Nothing

Time walks but change leaps. The current pandemic is not changing anything as much as it’s accelerating changes that were already in motion.

            Consider the primary engine of our capitalist society: our buying stuff. In 2010 we purchased 5% of our consumer goods online. Ten years later, just before the first big shut down, we were buying just 16% of consumer goods online. Then, in only two months, that figure leapt to 27%. By October, despite stores having been reopened since the summer, 70% of Canadians reported that they would be buying Christmas gifts online. When stores reopen after the final wave’s lockdown they had better have shifted to online sales because the slow creep toward shopping through our laptops rather than their front doors will have leapt forward to such a degree that it will not slip completely back.

            Companies that enjoyed a decade of change in just a few weeks had been around for a long while and growing slowly. Apple, for instance, had taken over 40 years to reach a valuation of one billion dollars. When the world locked up in March, Apple leapt to 2 billion in the next five months.

            Meanwhile, as American federal reserve chair Alan Greenspan once famously observed, “You can only see who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out.”  Lots of companies had been bare and barely hanging on with massive debt and failing business models. The virus accelerated their demise. Companies that have declared bankruptcy since the pandemic arrived include J. Crew, JC Penney, Cirque du Soleil, Brooks Brothers, Hertz, Gold’s Gym, Briggs & Stratton, Reitmans, and that company that stole an afternoon of my life that I will never get back – Chuck E. Cheese. The world’s oldest multinational corporation, the Hudson’s Bay Company, is teetering. They all could have survived longer, dog paddling away in their birthday suits, but the pandemic accelerated their drowning.

            The most consequential change that COVID accelerated has been our conception of the role of government. The one-two punch of the Depression and Second World War fundamentally altered how we perceived government’s role. The twin crises led the overwhelming majority of us to support the idea that government’s job was to balance the playing field to give us all a shot at fulfilling our potential. Its new mandate included keeping us all healthy, helping us when we became college and university students, new parents, unemployed, sick, or old. We believed we were all of the same community and that paying taxes was our shared responsibility.

            By the late 1970s, the Vietnam War, OPEC Oil crisis, and runaway inflation seemed to show that government was unable to fix all problems and was causing others. That notion, coupled with the fading memory of the Depression and WWII, led to a new concept of government. In 1981, president Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Britain’s Thatcher and Canada’s Mulroney rode the wave of anti-government sentiment. A generation saw governments’ reach shrink, publicly-owned assets sold, and programs dismantled. Taxes, we were now told, were not a way to take collective action and the price for living in a civilized society but robbery. They were cut because individual action was touted as more efficient that collective action and because less government revenue would “starve the beast” and force a further retrenchment of its power.

            But then the pandemic happened. All governments made mistakes as they learned more about the virus but all at least tried to do something. The shameful incompetence of the American government demonstrated the valiant, science-based efforts of others and the need for calm, experienced, honest and able leadership.

            Political leaders who maintained self-serving partisanship were laughed at, scorned, and when the people had a chance – most notably in the United States – sent packing.  Politicians who insisted on continuing to divide us through dangerous rhetoric appealing to the basest among us were rejected such as Mr. Sloan who was thrown from the Conservative Party and Alberta’s Mr. Kenney who has seen support plummet.

            September 11 and the 2008 Great Recession had been slowly swinging the pendulum back toward a belief in the positive power of government. The pandemic has accelerated that change so that we find ourselves today where we may have been a decade from now. Pity the politician who now fails to see that there is a new appetite for tackling big problems through bold government action. We all saw the world quickly clean itself from the skies of Mumbai to the canals of Venice and we are now ready to tackle the existential crisis of our generation and fight climate change. We are also now ready to fight the long festering embarrassments of income inequality and racial injustice. We are ready to debate, compromise, and move in collective action with our votes and tax dollars.

            The pandemic has put us into an age akin to the post-Depression, post-WWII era when we fought and survived together and due to the fight became steeled to fight together some more for what was right. Faith in government always swings to and fro and the change back toward a faith in government was coming. It’s now here. Let’s see if, together, we can do some good.

(If you enjoyed this article, please send it to others through your social media of choice.)

Trudeau, Trump and the UN: Two Views for One World

CTV News called to ask my view on various leaders and their thoughts on the United Nations. As we are dealing with so many issues that transcend national boundaries, it is an interesting time to pause to consider the internationalist viewpoint that led to the creation of bodies such as the UN in the first place.

Here is the September 20 interview:

https://www.facebook.com/CTVNewsChannel/videos/1549973815063944/

How to Steal Power from the Dark Side of the Moon

Only 15 human beings, American astronauts all, have ever seen the dark side of the moon. For the rest of us, we see only the moon’s bright face as reflected by the sun’s light but the dark side is hidden; its fascination is in its mystery. It’s the same with celebrity icons. We are the sun, throwing forth our needs and dreams and marveling in all that is reflected back as talent, charisma, and inspiration. But what of the dark side? When mysteries are revealed, does brightness become garish and accomplishments tainted?

Consider John Lennon. He is the cultural icon who, as a member of the Beatles, wrote alone or with Paul McCartney the sound track of a generation that sincerely believed love could conquer all. As a solo artist, he wrote of peace with songs such as Imagine, and Give Peace a Chance. And yet, he was candid in admitting that as a young man he was engaged in numerous fights and physically assaulted women, including his first wife, Cynthia. He was an absentee father who all but ignored his son, Julian. His remarks to friends often crossed the line between witty and cruel. In an interview near the end of his life, he said that violent people are often those who most eagerly seek love and peace.

Do Lennon’s character flaws mean that we should dismiss his artistry and social activism? Can we appreciate the genius of his songs and respect his personal growth while knowing the dark side or can we never again really enjoy All You Need Is Love?

Martin Luther King was only 26 years old when he became the pastor of a Montgomery church. Within months he was the leader of a bus boycott that riveted the world in its brilliant use of non-violence to bring attention and change to the racial segregation that was unjust, illegal, and in violation of the ideals for which his country stood. King’s inspiring words and action led countless courageous people to risk physical beatings and arrest to stand for what was right in terms of racial equality, social justice, and the end of the war in Vietnam. But it was discovered that he had plagiarized his Ph.D. thesis. FBI wiretaps indicated that he associated with communists and that he regularly cheated on his wife.

Do King’s character flaws mean that we should dismiss his courage, goals, achievements, and the manner in which he inspired millions then and continues to inspire today?

And what of today’s celebrity icons? Do we need to know, or should we care, about Brad Pitt’s marriage or his relationship with his children or should we only concern ourselves with his acting talent and movies? Is the professional slice of Mr. Pitt’s life the only part about which we have a right to stand in judgment or, really, should know anything about? Should we care that Beyoncé recently had twins and displayed them in a tasteless photograph or do we only have a right to express an opinion about her music?

Those who fight for years to become famous are often blind to the irony of their wearing sunglasses in public while dodging photographers in a struggle for privacy. That, as John Lennon once said, seems as silly as trying to get famous in the first place. At the same time, the media, politicians, celebrities, and their handlers all profit from our voyeurism in our rampant violation of the privacy of people we only pretend to know. This is a carefully calculated, sad, and sordid game.

Perhaps we should refuse to play. We could steal the power of show business celebrities and the show business from politics by judging politicians only by their policies and artists only by their art. We could grow up a little. We could use our critical thinking to assess art we like and policies we support without poisoning our opinions with factors about which we have neither a right to know nor capacity to properly judge. We could stop seeking the dark side of the moon.

Take the one-month challenge. Shut off shows and ignore clicks and posts offering nothing but gossip. Ignore the show business of politicians and consider, for example, what policies President Trump or Prime Minister Trudeau have enacted or propose and whether they will make lives better or worse. Re-listen to Lennon and Beyoncé and like or don’t like them for the songs alone. Re-watch a Brad Pitt movie and listen to an old King speech on YouTube and then judge them by the performance and message alone.

The media and publicists will hate it. They lose money and influence when we refuse to play. The politicians will hate it. They lose the power to sway and distract when we concentrate only on legislative action. Some of us may hate it. We may cringe when recalling that the same morality that keeps us from sneaking a peek into our neighbour’s bedroom window at night should keep us from electronically peeking into the private lives of others. That’s okay. Sometimes what we hate at first is what makes us better.

Let’s surrender our desire to be the 16th astronaut. See you on the bright side. 

If you enjoyed this column, please send it along to others and consider checking my other work at http://www.johnboyko.com.  I will be taking a break from blogging for a spell in order to concentrate more fully on the writing of my next book. See you here again in the fall.

Power Where it Belongs

Canada is a conversation. When confronting troubles visited upon us, or of our own making, Canadians reach not for a gun but a gavel. We talk it out. Every leadership race and election, every new bill, public initiative or staggering crisis, and every table pounding in the House of Commons or at the local Tim Hortons is another element of that conversation. And when we’re talking, we’re always talking about power. So, let’s talk.

Political power touches us all. Positively expressed, it offers a vehicle through which we are collectively encouraged and enabled to act for the common good. Power matters, and so it matters who has it.

Our founders understood. In 1864, they met in Charlottetown and Quebec City and talked their way into the creation of a country. From Britain came the concepts of a limited monarchy and parliamentary democracy. From the United States, they took the ideas of a written constitution and a federal state, in Canada’s case one composed of a central government and provinces. This is where the real talking about power began.

Power and Sir John's Echo

Sir John A. Macdonald led the way in arguing that while the American Constitution was brilliant in its conception, the fact that the United States was, at that moment, butchering itself in the Civil War demonstrated its appalling failure in practice. Seeing this, the Canadian Confederation delegates decided to stand the American system on its head. Macdonald explained that Canada would reverse the “primary error” of the United States “by strengthening the general government and conferring on the provincial bodies only such powers as may be required for local purposes.”

The provinces were given only municipal-like areas of responsibility and a limited ability to raise revenue. The federal government, on the other hand, was afforded the major powers relating to sovereignty, including trade, the military, the post office, criminal law, currency and banking. Unlike in the United States, where, until 1913, the states appointed senators, in Canada the prime minister was given the power to populate the country’s Senate. The prime minister would also appoint the lieutenant-governors, who approved provincial bills while sending questionable ones to the federal cabinet, which could disallow them. It was decided that responsibility for anything the Constitution left out or that came up later, such as airports, would go automatically to the federal government.

Throughout Canada’s 150-year conversation, provinces have worked to overturn our founders’ vision and shift power to themselves. An example is the decades-long provincial demand for greater power that sabotaged repeated federal efforts to earn greater independence for the country by gaining control of our Constitution. In standing up for what they believed was best for their province, too many premiers betrayed and undermined the very concept of Canada while dividing Canadians against themselves.

This is not to say that premiers are not patriots and provinces don’t matter. Of course they are and of course they do. But it was successive federal governments that fought to maintain our founders’ vision. Provinces were cajoled and dragged along as the federal government led the building of Canada through projects such as the transcontinental railway, St. Lawrence Seaway and the Trans-Canada Highway. The federal government needled, nudged and negotiated for Canadians in creating national policies such as pensions and health care. Federal governments rallied our response to emergencies such as global wars, the Great Depression and the FLQ crisis. The federal government spoke for Canadian values whether reflected as peacekeepers or climate-change leaders.

Some federal leaders have made boneheaded mistakes and some perpetrated tragic policies. Macdonald himself can never be forgiven for the crimes he committed with respect to indigenous people. Those actions condemn the men not the structure from which they worked.

Let us move to the present. Ignore whether you like or dislike our current Prime Minister or his policies, but grant that his Canadian tour last spring indicated his understanding that this country is indeed a conversation. He is also demonstrating that he is the personification of Sir John’s vision. He gathered the premiers and then led the revamping of pensions, unemployment insurance and health care. He told the provinces that we will combat climate change as a country and that they will step in line. His government organized a national emergency response to the Fort McMurray wildfires.

We have been at our best when the power that our founders afforded the federal government was effectively employed. We have gone off the rails when firewall letters, referendums and power squabbles have attempted to distort that vision. We are better when we consider ourselves not as of a particular province but, more broadly, as Canadians first, stronger in the complexity of our citizenship.

Every time you hear our Prime Minister speak, listen carefully for a hint of a Scottish burr, for you’re hearing Sir John’s echo.

If you liked this column or disagree with it, please send it to others and consider leaving a comment. You see, the Globe and Mail posted it last week as an opinion piece and it sparked debate then. It is a summary of my latest book, Sir John’s Echo, which Dundurn Press asked me to write, urging me to stir debate as part of Canada 150. It has been doing so. The book is available at book stores or online through Chapters, Amazon, and elsewhere. Polite, informed debate is good, it’s our conversaion.

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/sir-johns-echo-speaking-for/9781459738157-item.html

 

 

Trudeau, Power, & Sir John’s Echo

Canada is a conversation. When confronting troubles visited upon us, or of our own making, Canadians reach not for a gun but a gavel. We talk it out. Every leadership race and election, every new bill, public initiative, or staggering crisis, and every table pounding in the House of Commons or at the local Tim’s is another element of that conversation. And when we’re talking, we’re always talking about power. So, let’s talk.

Political power touches us all. Positively expressed, it offers a vehicle through which we are collectively encouraged and enabled to act for the common good. Power matters and so, it matters who has it.

Our founders understood. In 1864, they met in Charlottetown and Quebec City and talked their way into a country. From Britain, came the ideas of a limited monarchy and parliamentary democracy. From the United States, they took a written constitution and a federal state, one comprised of a central government and provinces. This is where the real talking about power began.

John A. Macdonald led the way in arguing that while the American Constitution was brilliant in its conception, the fact that the United States was, at that moment, butchering itself in Civil War, demonstrated its appalling failure in practice. The Confederation delegates stood the American system on its head. Macdonald explained that Canada would reverse the “primary error” of the United States, “by strengthening the general government and conferring on the provincial bodies only such powers as may be required for local purposes.”

Power and Sir John's Echo

(Photo: Canadian Colour)

The provinces were given only municipal-like areas of responsibility and limited ability to raise revenue. The federal government, on the other hand, was afforded the major powers relating to sovereignty including trade, the military, post office, criminal law, currency, and banking. Unlike the United States where, until 1913, the states appointed Senators, the prime minister would populate our upper chamber. The prime minister would also appoint Lieutenant Governors who approved provincial bills while sending questionable ones to the federal cabinet, which could disallow them. Anything the constitution left out or that came up later, like airports, would go automatically to the federal government.

Throughout Canada’s 150-year conversation, provinces have worked to overturn our founders’ vision and shift power to themselves. An example is the decades-long provincial demand for greater power that sabotaged repeated federal efforts to earn greater independence by gaining control of our constitution. In standing up for what they believed was best for their province, too many premiers betrayed and undermined the very concept of Canada while dividing Canadians against themselves.

This is not to say that premiers are not patriots and provinces don’t matter. Of course they are and of course they do. But it was successive federal governments that fought to maintain our founders’ vision. Provinces were cajoled and dragged along as the federal government led the building of Canada through projects like the trans-continental railway, St. Lawrence Seaway, and the TransCanada Highway. The federal government needled, nudged, and negotiated for Canadians in creating national policies such as pensions and health care. Federal governments rallied our response to emergencies such as global wars, the Great Depression, and the FLQ Crisis. The federal government spoke for Canadian values whether reflected as peacekeepers or climate change leaders.

Ignore whether you like or dislike our current prime minister, or his policies, but grant that Mr. Trudeau’s  tour a few months ago indicated his understanding that Canada is indeed a conversation. He is also demonstrating that he is the personification of Sir John’s vision. He gathered the premiers and then led the revamping of pensions, unemployment insurance, and health care. He told the provinces that we will combat climate change as a nation and that they will step in line. His government organized a national emergency response to the Fort McMurray wildfires.

Hundred Days and Honeymoons

We have been at our best when the power that our founders afforded the federal government was effectively employed. We have gone off the rails when firewall letters, referendums, and power squabbles have attempted to distort that vision. We are better when we consider ourselves not as of a particular province but more broadly, as Canadians first, stronger in the complexity of our citizenship.

Every time you hear our prime minister speak, listen carefully for a hint of a Scottish burr, for you’re hearing Sir John’s echo.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others and perhaps even explore my full argument which is in my latest book, published just two weeks ago, and called, perhaps unsurprisingly, Sir John’s Echo.  It’s available at bookstores, Amazon, and here through Chapters https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/sir-johns-echo-speaking-for/9781459738157-item.html

The Real Change and Our Real Decision

A fundamental change that is marking our era and determining our future is upon us. We have a decision to make. We need to make it now.

We are living the consequences of two crashes: 9-11 and the Great Recession. The American-led, western world’s response to the 2001 attacks saw troops, including ours, fighting impossible missions and too often in self-defeating ways. The middle east and then the world was destabilized as new terrorist organizations grew and impressionable youth were radicalized. Explosions in Boston, London, Paris, and elsewhere solidified the belief that fear is justified, there’s an enemy among us, and governments are unable to help.

the-real-change

Billions were borrowed and economic fundamentals teetered in the permanent war against a tactic and expensive domestic security measures that protected us from the last but not next attack. The economic and existential strains, along with the greed of a few bankers and financiers whom deregulation had freed to wallow in avarice, contributed to the 2008 economic crash. Governments were seen borrowing more money but giving it to those who had caused the crisis. Governments seemed incapable of or unwilling to provide a playing field sufficiently level to allow the rewarding of obeying the law, paying taxes, and honest, hard work. Corporations valued the loyalty of neither their workers nor customers. The millions of middle and working class people who lost jobs, homes, and dreams, and were still removing shoes in airports and seeing things explode on TV, could be forgiven for seeking someone, anyone, to blame.

In a world where long established rules and assumptions no longer applied, demagogues who would normally have been dismissed found their messages resonating. Those supporting Britain’s leaving the European Union, Brexit, said Britain first. In his inauguration speech, Donald Trump clenched his first and shouted America first – twice. France’s National Front leader and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen watches her popularity rise as she demands white, French, nationals first. They are not the change. They are the symptoms. They are the arbiters.

The two crashes led to the collapse of the western, liberal consensus that has informed progress and policy since the end of the Second World War. After liberalism and communism allied to defeat fascism, it was determined that we are all in this together. Multilateral, cooperative efforts would save us from another Auschwitz, Nanking, and Hiroshima. We would talk things out at the United Nations, have each other’s back through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, keep each other stable through the International Monetary Fund, and buy each other’s stuff through trade agreements. The thought was that we were no longer in separate boats, racing through choppy waters for unique destinations. Rather, we’re in one big boat, squabbling like children, but together. We were united in our efforts to create more peace, equality, wealth, health, and democracy for all.

But now, forget the European Union, denigrate the UN, defund NGOs, end trade treaties, call NATO archaic, withdraw from or ignore global climate change initiatives, stifle immigration, throw up tariffs, and build that wall. Mr. Trump’s wall is not yet a reality but already an apt metaphor for our times. Russia knows it. China knows it. They’re loving it.

Canada punched above its weight in helping to create and maintain the post-war liberal-western consensus. Through his commitment to Syrian refugees, the Paris global climate change initiative, and more, Prime Minister Trudeau has demonstrated that that he still supports it. Some Conservative party leadership candidates, on the other hand, seem eager to join Trump and Le Pen in smashing it. Canada has a decision to make. We must join one side of history or the other. We must fight to protect what has protected us and others for so long or flip to the other side. Our decision will determine our future for generations.

The Chinese have a curse: “May you live in interesting times.” We do. Buckle up.

  If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others and consider checking out my others at http://www.johnboyko.com

Charisma in the Capital: Trudeau or Kennedy?

A charismatic, handsome, photogenic leader gobsmacked a capital, turned the media into cheerleaders, and left the people agog. We saw it last week and we’ve seen it before with its lessons as clear as a radiant smile.

Trudeau in Washington

Trudeau, with Obama, in Washington (Photo: blogs.wsj.com) 

On a slate gray afternoon, in May 1961, Air Force One touched down at Ottawa’s Uplands airport. Two thousand guests rose from their bleacher seats inside the massive hangar as 500 children hooted and waved little American and Canadian flags. Applause erupted as the plane’s big white door yawned open to reveal President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline.

Tanned from a recent Florida vacation, they smiled, waved, and descended the stairs. They moved slowly, shook hands with the governor general, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, and their wives, and then strolled along the red carpet into the building. Coronation trumpets blared a royal welcome. The Honour Guard was inspected, an RCMP band played the American national anthem, and outside, a twenty-one-gun salute pierced the breeze.

In his welcoming speech, Diefenbaker said some nice things then self-deprecatingly apologized before offering a few words of what he called “fractured French.” Kennedy responded by saying of Canadian-American relations: “Together we have worked in peace, together we have worked in war and now in this long twilight era that is neither peace nor war we must stand together even more firmly than before.” All was going well but then, as he had at the White House press conference before Diefenbaker’s February trip to Washington, Kennedy mispronounced the prime minister’s name—“Deefunbawker.” Diefenbaker winced.

Jacqueline Kennedy was fluently bilingual. She had helped her husband memorize a few lines in passable French. Rather than simply say what he had practised, however, Kennedy admitted that he did not speak the language and then said, “I am somewhat encouraged to say a few words in French, having heard your Prime Minister.” The crowd laughed. The thin-skinned Diefenbaker again felt insulted.

As the Kennedys walked toward the waiting motorcade, the clouds parted as if on cue and bathed them in sunshine. Throngs of cheering people waved from the sidewalks as Kennedy approached the city. The cars were forced to slow several times as admirers surged forward with many holding children on their shoulders. Fifty thousand normally staid and steady people of Ottawa welcomed Kennedy to their city like teenage girls might greet Elvis.

The reception was not unexpected. Kennedy’s popularity was soaring as high Canada as it was in the United States. Kennedy knew policy and actions mattered but believed that his personal popularity was an important key to advancing his agenda. He understood his celebrity and took pains to enhance it with films of him playing touch football and photographs of his photogenic family. Every week viewers watched a riveting display of his prodigious memory, impressive intelligence, clear understanding of complex issues, and razor sharp wit in a live, televised news conference. He told speechwriter Ted Sorensen, “We couldn’t survive without TV.”

The next morning, after enjoying a state dinner at the governor general’s mansion the night before, Kennedy was cheered by a large crowd gathered at the Canadian War Memorial. The brief ceremony began with the American national anthem. Kennedy inspected a one-hundred-man Honour Guard, laid a wreath, and then stood for “O Canada” and “God Save the Queen.” With people waving and cheering, he and Diefenbaker walked slowly across Wellington Street toward the Parliament Buildings’ Gothic splendour.

Kennedy in Ottawa..

Kennedy, with Diefenbaker, in Ottawa (Photo: ici.radio-canada.ca)

With a massive crowd impatiently waiting on the Parliament Hill lawn for another glimpse of Kennedy, the president and prime minister repaired inside where they experienced nothing but frustration. Kennedy had arrived with a shopping list of requests for policy changes but Diefenbaker declared each contrary to Canadian interests and, over and over again, said no. They agreed on nothing except their dislike for each other. The people, however, saw none of the private machinations, only the public smiles.

President Kennedy was, and remains, a phenomenon. Born to wealth and privilege and with terrible health, he could have done anything or nothing at all. Instead, he became a war hero, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and then a Congressman, Senator, and President. The blinding light of Kennedy’s celebrity shone so brightly that its 100-watt brilliance overwhelmed Canadians and shaped their perception of their country and its leaders.

Like Macdonald, Lincoln, and Churchill, Kennedy is a standard against which Canadian leaders are measured. When Pierre Trudeau rode to power in 1968, he was complemented for the degree to which his intellectual cool and charisma reminded Canadians of Kennedy. A Trudeau biographer observed: “The mood was conditioned by nearly a decade of jealousy. Canadians had enviously watched the presidency of John Kennedy, and continued to wish for a leader like him.”

Now, Canada seems to have another Kennedy. Last week in Washington, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acted the heir of Kennedy’s charisma and celebrity. When Kennedy arrived in Ottawa and Trudeau visited Washington they had both been in office for about four and a half months. However, Kennedy went on to add gravitas and a legacy of accomplishment to his celebrity. We’ll see if Trudeau can do the same. We’ll also see whether the next president will be to Trudeau as Diefenbaker was to Kennedy; a personal thorn, ideological nemesis, and challenge to every political skill he can muster.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. The full story of JFK’s relations with Canada is told in Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front, available at sensible book stores everywhere and online here:

https://www.amazon.ca/Cold-Fire-Kennedys-Northern-Front/dp/0345808932

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/search/?keywords=john+boyko

 

Five Reasons Why JFK Still Matters

On a bright and frigid afternoon fifty-five years ago, John F. Kennedy became America’s 35th president. It was an exciting day. The unabating flood of articles, books, and movies suggest that his life and leadership continues to enthral. Let’s consider why he still matters by pondering questions he still poses.

5 Reasons Why JFK Still Matters

(Photo: mauialmanac.com)

Leadership and Wealth: The one percent who own and influence so much is under attack. In Canada’s recent election, Justin Trudeau’s opponents argued that his inherited wealth precluded him from understanding and helping working- and middle-class Canadians. Hillary Clinton is taking similar hits.

Kennedy grew up in mansions and was chauffeured to school in his father’s Rolls Royce. He could have done anything or nothing at all. Instead, he worked tirelessly to improve the lot of those toiling in shops, fields, and factories. He implemented a middle class tax cut, a higher minimum wage, and proposed universal health care. Does money kill compassion?

Government Power: Kennedy was more practical than liberal and more pragmatic than conservative. He decried ideological blindness that seeks victory without compromise while trying to tip the balance of power between government and business too far in one direction. He believed government was a positive societal force, essential for the collective good.

Because government cannot and should not do everything, should it do nothing? Does a government’s inability to completely solve a problem invite rejection of first steps?

Celebrity: Kennedy did not invent the celebrity politician but he was the first to exploit looks, charisma, and a photogenic family in the TV age. The 1960 campaign swung when he beat the more experienced but less-media savvy Richard Nixon in TV debates. Kennedy confessed that he would not be an effective president or possibly even have become president without television.

A journalist once wrote of Canada’s 1968 “Trudeaumania” election: “Canadians had enviously watched the presidency of John Kennedy, and continued to wish for a leader like him.” Last year, Canadians watched Trudeau’s son ride a wave of Kennedyesque celebrity while Nixon-like opponents attacked his appearance and gaps in his policies and resume, all the while forgetting Kennedy’s lesson. And now Trudeau commands, Donald Trump confounds and Kevin O’Leary considers. Must our leaders now also be celebrities?

Public Privacy: Kennedy’s legacy was later tarnished by revelations of reckless sexual liaisons. He also hid serious health problems and daily drug injections that managed symptoms. The press was complicit in the secrecy and silence.

The post-Watergate media changed the relationship between public and private. Social media shattered it. Canada’s last election saw candidates humiliated and others withdraw due to social media gaffes and attacks. Many good people now avoid public service, fearing slander and privacy’s surrender. Can a flawed person be a valid candidate or good leader? Are there limits to our right to know?

Aspiration: Many recall lines from Kennedy’s stirring inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you…” or “The torch has been passed to a new generation…” In June 1963, he called for world peace based on our shared humanity. The next day he went on TV and reframed Civil Rights as a moral imperative.

We are well served by neither demagoguery nor technocratic managers masquerading as leaders. Instead, with so much and so many dividing us, Kennedy reminds us that real leaders really lead and that we need words that inspire, dreams that unite, and the positing of challenging questions and grand goals. What’s wrong with shooting for the moon?

Kennedy still matters because, in the final analysis, his enduring gift was not programs or policies but his inspirational leadership. We should consider the questions he still poses and answers he suggests. We owe it to ourselves and our children to consider his audacious exhortation that idealism is not naïve, hope is not foolish, hardship is incentive, and community can extend beyond one’s family, class, race, or even country.

This column originally appeared as an op ed in the Montreal Gazette on January 20, 2016, the 55th anniversary of JFK’s inauguration. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it with others.

Santa, Trudeau, and the Acceptable Lie

We lie to our children. The biggest lie, of course, is that we adults know what we’re doing. Right up there with our major league whoppers is Santa Claus.

We know that Santa began as a 3rd century Turkish monk named St. Nicholas who gave his inherited wealth to the poor. The Dutch perpetuated the legend but called him Sinter Klaas. We also know that in 1823 American Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature Clement Clark Moore wrote a poem for his daughters that invented the notion of a fat man, chimneys, sleighs, and reindeer. Only much later was it entitled “T’was the Night Before Christmas.” In 1881, Harper’s Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast gave pictures to the poem and Santa got his red suit. We also know that in 1931, the Coca Cola Company hired illustrator Haddon Sundblom who, stealing from Moore and Nast, initiated a decades-long ad campaign based on Santa as a jolly, wholesome, kid-loving, and Coke-drinking Christmas mainstay. Cue the malls and parades.

Santa, Trudeau and the Acceptable Lie..

The Nast Santa

We know all that. But we lie anyway. And maybe that’s OK. Santa is the flimsy link between the magic of Christmas and parenthood’s delicate dance. He is among the gifts we offer our children to balance our warnings about holding hands crossing the street, not talking to strangers, secret code words, and practicing fire drills at home and lock downs at school. We scare the hell out of them to keep them safe so maybe it’s alright if we temper fear with fun through a few years of Santa, the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and our invincibility.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now enrapturing the country and many others around the world with his sunny disposition and deft ability to humanize the office that seems designed to suck the humanity from any who enter. Good on him. Canadians have known him from his birth – on Christmas day by the way – because his father was Prime Minister from the late ‘60s to early ‘80s. Canadians were reintroduced to Justin on September 28, 2000, when he delivered a touching eulogy at his father’s funeral. Consider a story he told:

“I was about six years old when I went on my first official trip. I was going with my father and my grandpa Sinclair up to the North Pole. It was a very glamorous destination. But the best thing about it is that I was going to be spending lots of time with my dad because in Ottawa he just worked so hard. One day, we were in Alert, Canada’s northernmost point, a scientific military installation that seemed to consist entirely of low shed-like buildings and warehouses.

Let’s be honest. I was six. There were no brothers around to play with and I was getting a little bored because dad still somehow had a lot of work to do. I remember a frozen, windswept Arctic afternoon when I was bundled up into a Jeep and hustled out on a special top-secret mission. I figured I was finally going to be let in on the reason of this high-security Arctic base. I was exactly right.

We drove slowly through and past the buildings, all of them very grey and windy. We rounded a corner and came upon a red one. We stopped. I got out of the Jeep and started to crunch across towards the front door. I was told, no, to the window.

So I clamboured over the snow bank, was boosted up to the window, rubbed my sleeve against the frosty glass to see inside and as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I saw a figure, hunched over one of many worktables that seemed very cluttered. He was wearing a red suit with furry white trim.

And that’s when I understood just how powerful and wonderful my father was.”

Santa, Trudeau and the Acceptable Lie

Justin and his Dad (Ottawa Citizen Photo)

Let our leader be our guide. While we can, let’s enjoy the lie. This Friday my granddaughter will open presents that came all the way from the North Pole. Her eyes will sparkle. And that’s just fine.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and check more of my Monday blogs at http://www.johnboyko.com but, please, not on Christmas Day. Instead, let’s darken our screens to devote undivided time with those we love.

Hundred Days and Honeymoons

In the fifth century, a northern European marriage tradition encouraged newlyweds to enjoy a daily dose of mead, a fermented liquid honey. It was believed to be an aphrodisiac. Using the only calendar available, the sipping stopped when the moon returned to the wedding day’s phase – about a month. From this custom came the honeymoon.

The concept has grown. We experience honeymoons at work. The new person is allowed silly questions and rookie mistakes. New business leaders are similarly excused if questions reflect a genuine desire to understand and not veiled threats, and mistakes are forgiven if blame is accepted and apologies are quick. Often, however, honeymoons end when a business leader’s personality flair reveals a character flaw; intelligence becomes arrogance, or the pace and nature of change threatens profits or values.

Such is also the case in political leadership. Political honeymoons are Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fault. He became president in March 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. Within 100 days of inauguration he presented, and Congress passed, 15 major bills. He began by closing and stabilizing banks and then quickly touched nearly every sector of America’s sputtering economy. Some New Deal legislation worked and some failed but within those frenetic 100 days confidence and investment were rekindled and lives and capitalism itself were saved. Soon, however, even FDR’s honeymoon ended. Critics appeared from the left and right and the Supreme Court overturned his most ambitious initiatives.

Every leader, whether in business or politics, is warned that a honeymoon is as real as it is transitory and so it must be as productive as possible. Since FDR, every newly elected political leader has also been measured according to his or her First 100 Days.

Few leaders have demonstrated those twin realities as clearly as Barack Obama in 2009 and Pierre Trudeau in 1968. Both were propelled to office by charm, charisma, and positive campaigns. Both undertook ambitious agendas supported by the public and enabled by their party’s legislative majorities. Then, inevitably, both saw popularity plummet as their 100 days involved more talk than achievement and performance that couldn’t match promise. Obama watched Republicans take the House of Representatives. In his next election, Trudeau formed a frail, two-seat minority government.

Justin Trudeau has yet to be sworn in but the clock is already ticking on his honeymoon. Like all honeymoons, it offers novelty and excitement. The United States has seen two father and son presidents – Adams and Bush – but this will be a Canadian first. Never have Canadians welcomed a new leader not through the lens of TV news or at the behest of newspaper endorsements but, rather, primarily through the citizenship levellers and engagement enablers of YouTube videos, tweets, selfies, and blogs. Not since Pierre Trudeau, have Canadians embraced a celebrity politician as they would a movie or rock star.

Hundred Days and Honeymoons

(Photo: beaconnews.ca)

Our prime minister designate followed a masterful campaign with a positive election night speech, a fun meet and greet with surprised Montreal subway commuters, and an articulate, confident press conference. Even those who did not vote Liberal seem invigorated by his promise of change in policy and tone; shown most blatantly in his inviting premiers and opposition leaders to the climate conference in Paris. Much of the country, in fact, much of the world appears giddy with expectation. A Canadian journalist has, only partly in jest, asked the international media to stop ogling our prime minister.

The Liberal parliamentary majority could guarantee a productive 100 Days with actions and bills addressing the environment, murdered and missing indigenous women, tax reform, infrastructure spending, an end to Canadian military action in Syria and Iraq, and more. We should enjoy the ride but remember our history. The 100 Days will end and the honeymoon won’t last. Soon enough, Canadians will stop sipping their honey and Mr. Trudeau may not seem quite so sunny.

If you enjoyed this column please share it with others on Facebook or your social media of choice and consider checking my other columns at http://www.johnboyko.com (This column appeared as an op. ed. in the Ottawa Citizen on October 29, 2015)