October 21, 2020

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From Dief the Chief to Trudeau II

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/4/2013 (2748 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


The time comes to us all when we come to understand today's events in the wider context of the times through which we ourselves have lived. On the verge of the Liberal leadership decision, I find myself reflecting on an earlier chain of events which, for me, mark the trail to present ones.

In December 1956, I was a delegate to the PC leadership convention in Ottawa which chose John Diefenbaker leader of the Progressive Conservative party. My family had recently moved to Edmonton, and by some alchemy I was chosen as an alternate delegate for the riding of Edmonton East. In those days, the PCs in Alberta were so thin on the ground, with so little money in the bank, that there was no expectation that lowly alternate delegates would actually make it to Ottawa.

John Diefenbaker watches PierreT rudeau in the federal leaders' debate May 22, 1979.


John Diefenbaker watches PierreT rudeau in the federal leaders' debate May 22, 1979.

However, the nearby rural riding of Vegreville was even worse off: It had so few members that it had been unable to name any alternates. When one of the voting delegates was unable to go, an alternate in a nearby riding, with credentials already issued, was a natural and obvious replacement: That would be me.

I proved to be the youngest delegate at the convention. Nowadays, 16-year-old aspiring politicians are not uncommon, but in 1956 it was sufficiently unusual to provide me with 20 minutes of fame.

The point is that an interest in politics -- first developed in Ottawa in the mid-'50s -- was aborning. From the gallery I heard and observed some of the great parliamentary debates of 1955 and 1956, which provided fodder for John Diefenbaker's campaign of 1957 in which he argued that 22 years in power had, indeed, corrupted the Liberal party.

These were the first in a series of largely fortuitous events that engaged my imagination and identified and informed my later interests and activities.

In 1968, when Pierre Trudeau transformed the Liberals' race to succeed Lester Pearson, I was effectively sidelined. The year before, Robert Stanfield had replaced John Diefenbaker as leader of the Progressive Conservative party and shortly thereafter I had been recruited as a somewhat junior member of Stanfield's policy advisory committee. Circumstances inoculated me against Trudeaumania, but it soon became clear that, love him or hate him, he would dominate the era.

It is conventional wisdom that Justin Trudeau lacks the skill and panache that his father possessed. That may be true, but in assessing and judging Pierre, we possess the enormous insight of hindsight. Though perceived initially as intellectually quick and brilliant, he was also perceived as a political lightweight, a dilettante and a snob. Yet in his time, as Shakespeare might have put it, Pierre bestrode our political world like a colossus.

And now his son seeks to tread the path his father trod. Justin has yet to demonstrate the intellectual acuity of his father and may not possess it. That needn't be an altogether bad thing: Pierre's intellectual brilliance easily became arrogance and not to everyone's taste. Justin's father knew himself to be above the common herd, and showed it. Trudeau II is not Trudeau I, but neither is the current electorate that of 1968. For many electors, Pierre is a historical figure, remembered now as tough, classy and capable of being an SOB.

Those regions where he may be remembered least positively probably start off as the least promising for the Liberals in any case. But for voters younger than 50, Justin is their first Trudeau, a new face much distanced from the ideological warfare largely introduced to the country by Harper & Co. Pierre made a dent in PC support on the Prairies but it did not endure.

Those who loved the father will be predisposed to look kindly on the son; those who did not, will not. The unfolding of the son's career and reputation, however, will rest with a large part of the electorate which, like Justin himself, are of different generations altogether, and on Stephen Harper, who, though not that much older than Justin, is now an old face. Among his most loyal supporters, he commands respect (and not a little fear), but he is not a likable man, and when the public wearies of his smug superiority and iron hand -- as some of his backbenchers seem to be doing already -- few will shed tears for him.

William Neville is a Winnipeg writer.


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