December 10, 2019

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Lessons in power

Barack Obama charms sold-out Bell MTS Place with stories of family, friendships with Canada's prime ministers, and the shadow of Trump's America

The man on the stage is as lanky as he looks in pictures. He is charming, in the effortless way that people secure in their position so often are, all relaxed limbs and a beneficent smile on his face. The man on stage is history, and history yet to be made. This man was president of the United States. 

And there is a gleam that great power bestows on its bearers, even after the office through which they held it has been transferred to the next so anointed. Its energy lingers, burns bright as a flame. People are drawn towards it, yearn to warm themselves by it, to see for themselves that it is real and what it has to say. 

Barack Obama spoke to a sold-out crowd at Bell MTS Place Monday where one fan referred to him as the best orator of our time.

DWAYNE LARSON / TINEPUBLIC INC.

Barack Obama spoke to a sold-out crowd at Bell MTS Place Monday where one fan referred to him as the best orator of our time.

So when tickets to see Barack Obama at Bell MTS Place went on sale in late January — at $100 to $500 a pop — they  sold out within hours. And when the arena doors opened on Monday evening, the place soon filled to the rafters with people. It was a remarkable crowd, 13,500 strong, as diverse along every axis as arena events ever see. 

They came with children, with colleagues, with friends. One woman came with her entire family and a photograph of her deceased father, who was a big fan of the 44th president. To all of them, perhaps, Obama represents something a little different; that was always one of his greatest strengths. It’s what got him elected. 

As the clock ticked towards six, the crowd filed into their seats and waited. The big screens cycled a slide show of photos: Obama with his daughters, with NASA astronauts, with Betty White, with Joe Biden. This was followed by anticipatory introductions and then, with a casual wave as he emerged from backstage, he was there. 

What a moment, to reconcile the contextual gulf between visitor and place. Winnipeg does not often host presidents. We do not often get to hear the man who once held the nuclear codes make breezy jokes about our weather. (As Obama stepped off the plane, he quipped, the wind in his face reminded him of being home in Chicago.) 

The appearance was billed as a "conversation" between the 44th president and emcee Michael Burns; it was not adversarial.

There were no tough questions. Obama did not have to answer for the mottled parts of his complex legacy: the surge in drone strikes, the unprecedented wave of deportations.  

Instead, he was given space to stroll through the lessons of his eight years in power. He started by talking about his family (they’re doing "fabulous"); about how he and his wife, Michelle Obama, are "pretty much the same people" as before they took office; about his interesting start in life, as Burns noted, born in Honolulu...

People line up to attend the Barack Obama speech Monday.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

People line up to attend the Barack Obama speech Monday.

"Allegedly," Obama quipped, a jab at the racist "birther" conspiracy once championed by his successor. 

The crowd roared with laughter, then. They laughed often, for him, and he gave them many chances to do so. For instance, they laughed when he paused for what felt like a pregnant moment, before answering a question about working with prime ministers Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau. 

"That’s just how I talk," Obama protested to the crowd, with a sunny grin. 

But he had more to say about that connection between the U.S. and Canada. Obama had "terrific relationships" with both Harper and Trudeau, he said, although he was more politically aligned with the latter; that comes out of the two nations’ close ties, he continued, describing them as part of a family, like cousins. 

Still, he added as a sly aside, there are some limits to that familial understanding. 

Laurie McDougall and Samantha Martin in line to attend the Barack Obama speech, Monday.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Laurie McDougall and Samantha Martin in line to attend the Barack Obama speech, Monday.

"Frankly, from an American’s perspective, we’re not spending that much time thinking about timber," Obama said, referencing the 37-year-old softwood lumber dispute. "You do have that whole Canadian thing of having something really important to you that nobody really cares about."

WHAT FANS SAID

Why did you want to hear the former president speak?

"I was telling my son on the way here, 'he's the best orator of all time. You will always remember that you had a chance to see and hear Barack Obama.'"

– Joy Loewen

Why did you want to hear the former president speak?

"I was telling my son on the way here, 'he's the best orator of all time. You will always remember that you had a chance to see and hear Barack Obama.'"

– Joy Loewen

"Honestly a big part of coming was because of you (he says to his mother, Joy). You're super happy that I'm here. A part of it was that, but then again, how often can Winnipeggers say that, 'Oh yeah, I've seen Barack Obama...' So I didn't complain or anything."

– Sam Loewen

"I bought a ticket a half an hour ago (she says before the event). I came alone, but that's fine. It's just me and Obama!... I just know he has roots in community activism and community organizing and that's where my roots are. So pretty much anything he says will be inspirational I think."

– Rebecca Trudeau

What are you hoping Obama will say?

"He could stand up there and read the phone book, actually. I really don't care."

– Laurie Waldron

"He's just got an interesting perspective in terms of what's going on in the (United) States today... I think he's going to give people a reminder that what's going on now is temporary. And the world will snap its fingers and everyone's going to come back to reality."

– Phyllis Duha

"I would say, some clarity maybe on what he thinks the condition of the world is in or maybe some reassurance. I think a lot of us in Canada view things through a different lens and are puzzled by what's happening elsewhere. Maybe he'll calm us all down."

– Kevin Donnelly

What did you think of the conversation?

“I liked it. It was fun… I learned a lot of things. I never knew he had two daughters.”

–Emmy Cuma, nine years old


"It was short – too short. But I mean it’s Barack Obama. I’m able to take a lot from what he says. It resonates with me... Something we commented on (was) he’s very much just that guy next door almost. Even (with) the jokes that he was saying, the jabs."

– Chris Scott

“I’ll show you this. I brought this, eh? This is a picture of my dad. My dad just passed away (last year). He was 95. And my dad had a picture of (Obama) when he was first inaugurated on his wall... This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it affects three generations here. It speaks to all of us and it first spoke to my dad. He said, ‘I know that young fella is going to make a change and he’s going to help the people.’”

– Celina Clements, who attended with her niece Christina Delamothe, great-niece Israella Delamothe, great-nephew Elijah Delamothe and friend Paul Parisien-Guerin

 

– Jessica Botelho-Urbanski

Burns, the moderator, waited for the crowd’s guffaws to die down. "You just insulted us and we all laughed," he said. 

"Because you know it’s true," Obama playfully shot back. "I had one foot out the door and Justin was still calling me, ‘Hey, can we give this timber thing another try...’"

But Obama’s time on stage was not all about sunny ways. The spectre of what has come after him haunted the edge of the stage; the former president acknowledged the shadow of Trump and the rise of hard-right, authoritarian governments worldwide by implication, if not explicitly by name. 

A demonstrator, left, hands out brochures as he protests the Barack Obama speech outside Bell MTS Place Monday.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A demonstrator, left, hands out brochures as he protests the Barack Obama speech outside Bell MTS Place Monday.

"In part, what we’re seeing right now is the failures of technocrats," he said. "Inequality was increasing as a consequence, that communities were being dislocated as a consequence of globalization. In that disruptive space, demagogues and tribalism and older stories about us and them could reassert themselves."

But in the wake of those forces, Obama implored the audience to remember that citizens have to push politicians to embrace facts and reason, that it will not spontaneously happen the other way around. And as his 60 minutes on stage ticked to a close, he returned to the feeling that was so long his trademark: hope. 

"If you had to choose any moment in history to be born in, and didn’t know what you were going to be… you’d choose now," he said. "The world is less violent, better educated, healthier, wealthier, more tolerant, more inclusive than any time in human history.

"Now, admittedly that’s a low bar," he added, and grinned. "...But it’s important to keep that trajectory in mind." 

Perhaps that is not quite true for all. Maybe it is not true for Indigenous peoples on pillaged lands, for sweatshop workers in Dhaka, for those suffering under wars made more brutal by technology that can rain death from the sky without warning. Progress has been healthy or wealthy for some, but only at the expense of others. 

Police scan the crowd queued up to attend the Barack Obama speech Monday.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Police scan the crowd queued up to attend the Barack Obama speech Monday.

Yet in calling us back to the idea of the moral universe’s arc, the one that is long but bends toward justice, Obama captured what drew so many out on a Monday night to see him. Whatever his legacy may finally prove to be — and, like all presidents, it will be deeply imperfect — it was invariably steady, consistent, considered. 

So to see him here, in the flesh, was to briefly drift back to that not-so-distant time when the soul tingled with the hope borne on the simplicity of "yes we can." A time before that chant crashed into the cold, hard fact that the machinery of power is larger than the man; a time when all things yet seemed fixable. 

It was to remember a time when those of us lucky enough to live under the protection of the American umbrella could at least feel the world steady underneath our feet, if not always righteous or just. A time when we were confident that, if nothing else, the grown-ups were in charge and the world we knew would be the same when we woke. 

That sense is gone now, or at least badly damaged. Shattered by waves of instability that have crashed over regional and global politics, the rise of extremism on all sides, the increasingly febrile rhetoric. Just two years after Obama left office, it is already hard to remember when every day’s news didn’t shake like an earthquake. 

After Obama left the stage, outside Bell MTS Place, a gaggle of young friends was getting off a downtown bus. They took one look at the crowd spilling out of the arena, flooding the bus stops and sidewalks. The young men paused for a moment to gawk. 

"Holy f—-," one of them exclaimed. "There was a Jets game."  

On Monday night, a president came to Winnipeg, and gave us a flash of time to remember what it was to have hope for the future. Then he was gone, off to his next stop in Calgary, and Winnipeg — comfortingly, even — settled right back into its familiar rhythm, hoping that, for the time being, it is safe from the storm. 

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca 

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Read full biography

History

Updated on Monday, March 4, 2019 at 8:48 PM CST: Fixes photo caption.

8:53 PM: Adds items to sidebar.

9:14 PM: Updates lede.

11:33 PM: Full write through

March 5, 2019 at 6:01 AM: Tweaks headline

11:10 AM: Updates headline.

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