1968 What a year! So much has been written and said over the intervening almost 50 years about what I call ‘the year of turmoil’ that I am a little hesitant to add my 2cents worth to an already enormous library of commentaries. My focus in this post is not to recount all the events of that year but to use it as the legitimate starting point for the real subject matter of this post.
While campuses in North America and Europe were in a rising state of upheaval with student protests against the Vietnam war, domestic politics, and almost anything else that smacked of the “man”, transformative events took place in a number of jurisdictions around the world.
The real war in Vietnam took an irreversible turn in January when the combined forces of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese People’s army launched the Tet Offensive. While ultimately unsuccessful as a military campaign, it sent shockwaves throughout the American political and military command and added more fuel to a growing anti-war campaign on the home front. America was not winning the war as previously claimed by the leadership and reported in the mass media. Indeed, the ‘most trusted man in America’, Walter Cronkite delivered precisely that message on February 27, 1968. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nn4w-ud-TyE. See the full text here:https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~ebolt/history398/cronkite_1968.html
Reformist changes within the Czechoslovakian Communist party would usher in the Prague Spring which took place from January 5 – August 21 1968. A. Dubcek’s attempts to create ‘socialism with a human face’ was brought to a crashing halt by the invasion of his country by their Soviet masters as the world teetered on the brink of yet another Doomsday moment in the Cold War. Abandoned by the West, the restoration of the hardliner position was secure. The so called Brezhnev doctrine had its very first test and had won.
On the American domestic political front, the year would forever be burnt into the psyche of the people. This was the year in which two ‘giants’ would be felled by assassin’s bullets. In April, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, and even as his passing was still being grieved, the Democratic presidential hopeful candidate [and younger brother of JFK] Robert Kennedy was killed in LA on June 6. The summer would end with the Chicago riots on August 28 around the Democratic National Convention and the large anti-war protest movement which demonstrated that day. The Democratic party would limp into the November presidential election as a party divided, and Richard Nixon would emerge as the 37th President of the United States.
North of the 49th parallel, Canada was still aglow in the warm aftermath of the previous year’s centenary celebrations best epitomized by the hugely successful Expo ’67 exhibition in Montreal. The governing Liberal Party of Canada found itself at the end of 1967 faced with the necessity of holding a leadership convention in early ’68 because of the announced retirement of its leader, and Prime Minister at the time, Lester B. Pearson.
A stellar cast of eight cabinet ministers [and one ‘outsider’] stepped up to the challenge. One of the last entrants was the new Minister of Justice, Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Short on experience at this level of the political pyramid, but brilliant and charismatic, he entered the race a mere six weeks before the convention. By the time the convention opened on April 3, he was clearly amongst the front runners with some significant francophone backers. In what would be called
…the most chaotic, confusing, and emotionally draining convention in Canadian political history [Anthony Westell & Geoffrey Stevens, The Globe and Mail, April 8, 1968, p.A9]
Trudeau would emerge victorious after the fourth ballot of voting! The Liberal Party of Canada had selected as its leader, and by default also the Prime Minister of Canada, the flamboyant bachelor from Montreal. What followed in the next few years would earn the tag, Trudeaumania.
It was during this time that Trudeau first gave public expression to his vision of the just society. Its guiding sentiment would be in many ways the hallmark of his 15 years in the Prime Minister’s office. Check this out: www.edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/cur/socstud/foundation_gr6/blms/6-4-4a.pdf.
This vision to “succeed in creating the most humane and compassionate society possible” did not come with a preset specific list of policies of reforms, but rather, professed a number of sentiments or dispositions to pursue. Acknowledging the gains that capitalism had seemed to bring about in terms of wealth creation, there was a clear recognition that those gains had not been shared in by all. The closing of the gap between rich and poor would demand at a minimum a floor – “the essentials of life are made available to everyone”. Is this not the very foundation of a caring “well-faring” society?! Other examples would be the inference of a participatory democracy [long before the phrase became popular]; personal and political freedoms; the recognition and protection of minority rights; the inclusion of aboriginals into the mainstream of Canadian society; and a united Canada. In the course of the next 15 years during his tenure as Prime Minister, many of these sentiments would find solidity in public policy practices and entrenchment into law.
Fast forward 29 years from the end of PE Trudeau’s last days in office to April 2013. In an overwhelming first ballot victory [almost 80%], the son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin Trudeau, became the new Liberal party leader. At the time of his victory, Justin lead a demoralized party standing in third place in Parliament with a paltry 34 seats. In the course of the next two years, building his brand and gaining almost daily with experience, Justin entered the 2015 federal election campaign with youthful energy and a vision. Against the old Stephen Harper slogan of ‘staying the course’ etc, and the NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s efforts to appear prime ministerial with ‘change that’s ready’, Justin prompted people to consider what kind of Canada they wanted to live in and leave to their children under the banner of ‘real change – now’. This election was not focused on one major issue, like the economy, although Harper would have certainly liked it to be, or even threats to our security or way of life, again a Harper favourite theme, but rather with images and ideals for Canada moving forward into the third decade of the 21st century.
Did we wish to continue in a heightened state of constantly paraded fears, real or imagined, with less tolerance of our diversities and a greater loss of our values and privacy OR did we seek to reassert ourselves as a people and re-kindle those rights and freedoms and economic opportunities and optimism that are the essence of a just society.
During a long election campaign, the pollsters and pundits trying to get a ‘true’ read on the intentions of the electorate come election day had to wait until the very latter stages to discern the separation amongst the leaders in the minds of voters. Most of the way through the campaign the likeliest result would appear to have been a minority government. The closeness of the polled results left the observers scrambling to detect momentum and separation. When it finally came towards the end, it then became a question of whether or not it could lead to the ultimate prize of a majority government. When the tabulations concluded on election night of October 19, Justin Trudeau had delivered a stunning victory and restored what to many seemed the rightful place for the Liberal Party of Canada, namely, as the governing party of Canada. The party which had been in third place with 34 seats at the start of the campaign had emerged victorious with a 184 seats and a clear majority status.
In his election night acceptance speech, Justin’s ‘sunny ways’ allusion to Sir Wilfred Laurier’s attempts to resolve a thorny issue of his times was masterful. It summed up a distinctly different solution to the controversy ignited by Harper during the campaign around the wearing of the niqab [at a citizenship ceremony and in the public service]. Instead of trying to instil fear amongst the populace about different practices and religions, it illuminated one of the hallmarks of Canadian identity for the past half century, namely, multiculturalism, which of course was one of the significant accomplishments of his father in government. It captured for all to see an affirmation of our mutual accommodation value.
Moving forward with governing and delivering on the bulk, if not all, of the many promises contained within the Liberal Party platform document will of course define the first term of the second Trudeau to become Prime Minister of Canada. The oft-cited convention of a post election honeymoon period for a new majority government seems already to be weakening. Judgments abound around early commitments from a government that was only sworn in on Nov 4th and a Throne Speech [that starts the beginning of a session of Parliament] delivered on December 4th.
To take the example of the Syrian refugee crisis, a humanitarian concern of mammoth proportions, and the stated goal of this government to bring 25,000 to Canada before the end of the current year, the reality of the task forced a timeline change with only 10,000 arriving before the new year. Perhaps the exuberance to do the right thing blinded them to the logistics especially around timelines, but there is a herculean effort underway to fulfill the ultimate goal of relocating more refugees in total than the total population of many small cities here in Canada.
When the first group of Syrian refugees arrived on December 10th at Pearson airport in Toronto, the new PM was on hand to greet them. In a brief speech before their arrival, he captured the spirit of the just society values with this comment:
This is something that we are able to do in this country because we define a Canadian not by a skin color or a language or a religion or a background. But by a shared set of values, aspirations, hopes and dreams that not just Canadians but people around the world share. And how you will receive these people tonight will be something they will remember for the rest of their lives, but also I know something that you will remember for the rest of your lives. And I thank you deeply for being a part of this because this matters, tonight matters, not just for Canada but for the world.
Another example of a promise was to make Parliament more effective and democratic by involving the MPs more in the processes of governance. This seems to be experiencing a rocky start as witnessed here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/commons-committees-delays-1.3362114
In the coming weeks and months of this first session of the 43rd Parliament, the Justin Trudeau led government could deliver on a number of platform promises with some ease. For example, restoring the long-term census; making StatsCan fully independent [of government]; repealing parts of Bill C-51. It has already begun the process to launch a commission of inquiry into the MMIW [missing and murdered indigenous women] tragedy. It has supposedly stopped the direct bombing missions against ISIL targets. And it was present and took an active role in the recently concluded climate change accord signed just last week in Paris.
The very high expectations that this Trudeau-led government has engendered will soon meet the crushing weight of fiscal reality [even as I write this blog the price of oil drops into the mid $30 range!] and people’s admiration for their perceived agent of change will be sorely tested and likely questioned before the next election [when more immediately pressing matters on the economy and jobs will most certainly be the major issue] and there will be a record of accomplishments to review and defend.