I was born in the '70s. Well, not really, but that's what it often feels like.
Entering the decade as a young teen made the era a coming of age on all fronts. The awareness delivered me in those years fed into both a nationally consolidating definition of Canada and my own inherent search for self-identity. The kaleidoscopic thoughts and questions of an idealizing high-school mind traced themselves through an awakening to the greater world via the upheavals of the Kennedy and King assassinations, Cold War, Vietnam, Woodstock, moon landings, catastrophic famines, feminism, liberation theory and violent urban revolutions fomented by the IRA, PLO, SLA, and FLQ. It was a heady, fractious time in which it was hard to divine any kind of future. Unless you grew up in the generation governed by Canada's last great visionary and statesman: Pierre Elliot Trudeau.
Intelligent, learned, well-travelled, witty, savvy, stylish, playful, a non-sufferer of fools and unabashedly free-spirited, Trudeau built on the Nobel Prize-winning internationalism of the Pearson Liberals to articulate a national vision that put a "just society" front and centre — adding sexual, gender, native, bilingual, multicultural and individual rights and freedoms to our diverse nation. Conservative elements in Canadian society hated his brash iconoclasm and forward-looking rhetoric. My dad called him a prick. But anyone who could flip the bird at hecklers, pirouette behind the Queen's back and count Fidel Castro among head-of-state BFFs clearly appealed to rebellious youth, inspiring many of us to engage in the ongoing "project" of this country.
It was an entirely new realpolitik for staid, plaid Canada. I remember a Liberal rally at a full Maple Leaf Gardens in 1972 headlined by the rock group Crowbar, and though a long-locked Trudeau took the smoky stage amidst screams and cheers, you could hear a pin drop when he started to speak. The crowd of (somewhat buzzed) students listened rapt as he explained how important the Arctic and the West and the Maritimes and Quebec all were in the Canadian matrix, and how inclusiveness and open minds could create something without the rifts that plagued other societies. Successive Trudeau governments walked the walk on those accounts in Ottawa, entreating us all to understand how overzealous regionalism would undermine strategic federalism (despite acknowledged mistakes like the National Energy Program made in service of the same sentiments) and my generation expended considerable industry pursuing those ends, encouraged to be outward looking and forward thinking. Trudeau, like Pearson, was careful to remind that these were not Liberal ideals, but human ones, in a Canadian context.
Forty years later I found myself in a packed ballroom in Richmond as Trudeau's son Justin similarly quieted a cheering crowd and re-iterated a national vision that 60 per cent of us still cherish large parts of. Despite the best attempts of right-wing media to paint it otherwise, there were no illusions about the past. It was clear that attendees weren't so much expressing hope for Justin to lead an almost-invisible Liberal party from self-created wilderness, as hope for a country that once inspired but now despaired them. A country sadly mired in the ideological quicksand of Neo-conservatism, with its toxic emphasis on the brainwash of message parroting, institutionalized prevaricating, celebration of ignorance, divisiveness, dismantling of democratic dissent, and deregulation of everything — including the use of truth and reason — to create a climate where quickie resource extraction and comprehensive exploitation sound sensible to people who'd know better if presented with real facts and arguments. Those who watched the scion introduced by a scientist friend from UBC and a trilingual 16 year-old who couldn't wait to vote so she could vote for him, were treated to a rare display of Canadian political rationalism when Justin humorously suggested we need a government that's proud of its citizens instead of suspicious of them, that doesn't invent "facts" to fit its policy but creates policy based on facts. Imagine!
He and we all knew that it wasn't about fixing the Liberals, but Canada — a much larger problem. Canada's once important role in the world's geopolitical jigsaw — from official "opposition party" in the de facto North American parliament, willing mostly to work cooperatively for the continent's greater good but willing to call bullshit when necessary (see Vietnam, Iraq etc.), to a leader in international development and mediator, facilitator and promoter of peaceful means to conflict resolution — has fled, and with it our sense of self. Whither the inspiring, globally uplifting Canada? Gone. From us the world now gets cranky, belligerent, stupid, inexplicable.
The '70s aren't coming back, but the excitement around Justin's rechannelling of the Pearson/Trudeau doctrine felt like a first flutter on the long road to wholesale change, and reminded me of the most positive effect of growing up in his father's Canada: Toronto born-and-raised, I never once in my life thought of myself as an Ontarian, only Canadian.
I only hope my teenage daughter can grow up feeling the same way.
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