The International Writers Magazine: On Latin American and Canada
Empire of Fascination
I can’t help being transfixed by the politics of North and South America. Did you know that former Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, in addition to being a major league-quality baseball player, was also a talented salsa dancer and all-around bon vivant with the ladies?
Salsa music is so imprinted in the DNA of Venezuelan culture that the recent inauguration of Chavez’ successor Nicolas Maduro featured one of that country’s top salsa orchestras.If you’re a Latin music aficionado like me, anybody who loves salsa can’t be all bad. Venezuelans are cool people. The men are very gallant and masculine and the women are beautiful and sexy. Now that Venezuela is credited with having the world’s largest oil reserves, it has the potential to knock Saudi Arabia out of the box. What sane American would not rejoice to have this vast energy supply so close to our shores, and controlled by people whose tastes correspond so closely to ours, instead of Saudis, who are so foreign and peculiar that they might as well be from the moon or Mars?
Yet, America is vastly more friendly toward the Saudis, who are a feudal oligarchy, than they are to the Venezuelans, whose stated goal is for its population to live under bearable human conditions. What sane person could see things any differently than Chavez, who grew up seeing all the oil profits sent to Wall Street and into the bank accounts of the mostly European oligarchy while the vast majority of the population was forced to endure corrugated tin-can habitations and open sewers, and not be moved to alleviate their misery? Venezuela has struck it rich with oil like the Beverly Hillbillies. Basically, they are entitled to be living high, like the Sultan of Brunei, who also had the good sense to be born on an oil patch. Nobody begrudges him the right to own 86 gold-plated Rolls Royce limousine cars, so why do Americans go into a tailspin at the prospect of a poor family in Caracas being awarded a modern apartment with an air conditioner and appliances? Chavez figured, “these people need help now, not in 20 years’ time. Even if I break the bank, all this oil’s not going to go away”.
The spicy style of the Latin people delights me, and no country is jazzier than Mexico. I am always speaking or watching Spanish, and when I vacation in Mexico, I use it as a Spanish immersion course. You can have conversations there that you can’t have in New York, where, let’s face it, the agenda is English. A lot of the Mexicans here speak better English than I do, so what’s the point?
Just to give an example. On our last taxi ride back to Cancún Airport, a conversation with the driver got around to the recent Mexican elections and I ended up composing a very neat little Mexican political joke based on the names of the three presidential contenders. Peña Nieto became “No vale la Pena Nieto” (not worth the trouble). Obrador, which means “workshop” in Spanish, became “Obrador que no obra” (workshop that doesn’t work). But the punchline was “yo voto por la Mota”, a reference to the third candidate, Josefina Mota, whose name also happens to be the Mexican slang word for marijuana ha-ha! “Asi no pasa nada” (that way nothing is going to happen).
OK, you had to be there. But my interest also extends to the northern extremity of our fascinating hemisphere, namely Canada, which is so vast and rich that it is an Empire of Fascination all to itself. I have been following Canadian history and politics for my entire life. How could it be otherwise, since it is all interwoven with the history of the U.S.? Basically, when the French ruled Canada, their rule extended all the way from Quebec to Texas, where the explorer René-Robert Chevlier de la Salle was assassinated by mutineers from his own expedition, who ran off and joined the Indians. His name now graces Chicago’s financial district, Lasalle Street. The American cities of Louisville and St. Louis, as well as the state of Louisiana, are named for seventeenth century French king Louis XIV, probably the most celebrated monarch of all time, who financed the exploratory expeditions. If the French army had not been defeated by English General Wolfe on Quebec’s Plains of Abraham in 1759, I might well be writing this essay today in the French language!
Canadian history, and its tandem development with that of the U.S., is an ongoing evolution. During the American Revolution a sizable exodus of expatriate American royalists, the United Empire Loyalists, settled in Canada’s Maritime provinces, as did numerous African slaves fleeing slavery, who settled around Halifax, Nova Scotia. They found statutory freedom but still faced crushing oppression and exploitation that exists right up to modern times. Oh, I can recite you Canadian history chapter-and-verse: the Metís rebellion led by French-Native Canadian half-breed Louis Riel, who found asylum in the U.S. but, not finding it to his liking, preferred to return to Canada and be hung by the Crown; the red-coated Mounted Police, who put down Indian rebellions by sending in a single Mountie; the massacre of Canadian troops at the beaches of Dieppe and the Quebec conscription crisis of World War II, when the mayor of Montreal, Camilien Houde, continued to govern the city despite being imprisoned by the federal government on an island in the St. Lawrence River for advocating resistance to the military draft. Why should the French of Quebec fight for the British Empire, he reasoned, when they felt more affinity with the Vichy French government of Pétain and Laval, who were aligned with Hitler? Whatever you think about Canadian history, it is always a compelling narrative!
Canada’s economy is one of development of resource extraction. “Hewers of wood and carriers of water”, they derided themselves. In recent years it has evolved into an energy powerhouse, with vast deposits of petroleum, hydroelectric power and uranium, which are all marketed for foreign export. Back in the twentieth century, the Canadian ethos used to be that if that century belonged to the Americans, the natural logic of material wealth would shift leadership to Canada in the twenty-first, which they hoped would become the “Canadian Century”.
It’s not an unreasonable expectation. If Canada would have the equivalent of Brazil’s population to develop and process its natural resources into salable products for world markets, it could indeed become an industrial juggernaut. The sticking point, of course, is its problematic climate, which is that of an enormous walk-in freezer. They could probably lure more immigrants, but Canadians’ insistent adherence to laissez-faire capitalism (with a few reforms) prevents them from addressing substantial resources to a support infrastructure that would ease the shock of immigrating to an immense icebox. Look, it’s six of one and half a dozen of another. Working Canadians are already over-taxed to a degree that would send Americans into the streets with machine guns, and not inclined to see their money go to provide a cushy, welcoming climate for (largely non-white) immigrants that their own ancestors never enjoyed, but they need the extra hands to accelerate development. Basically, they need to be presented with a coherent program for growth that they can relate to.
Right now it’s a static situation. The current Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who is not presenting any innovative programs for future development except for the construction of new oil pipelines, has an absolute majority in parliament. He is a conventional politician whose program is that of incremental improvement of the status quo. The Liberal Party of Canada, which was the dominant force for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has crashed down to the number three position and is suffering the lack of a dynamic and an inspirational program for the future. They recently fished up Justin Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Eliott Trudeau, who ruled for sixteen years and who, in my judgment, elevated Canadian prestige and importance from its previous doldrums to a world-class level of international recognition. Under Trudeau, Canada initiated the development of the Alberta tar sands and built the enormous James Bay hydroelectric complex, with the goal of supplying electric power of the U.S. eastern seaboard. More importantly, being half-English and half-French, Trudeau devised a process for managing incipient tendencies that could have led to Quebec separatism.
Not that French-speaking Quebeckers didn’t have reasonable expectations that divorcing the English couldn’t make things any worse for them. The deal reached between the English conquerors and the Quebec Catholic bishops in the wake of the Plains of Abraham allowed the French to conserve their language and religion but nothing else. The English retained feudal dominance over them similar to a Latin American banana republic. They weren't the only enemy. For for a considerable length of time the Roman Catholic Church forbade French Canadians to even play the violin which, they felt, encouraged anti-colonialist tendencies. The Frenchmen responded by writing in lyrics of “deedle-deedle-dum” to their songs, to imitate the refrain of the fiddle as an impotent expression of contained rebellion, the same as Brazilian slaves developed the dance-like moves of the fighting sport “capoeira”, to deceive their slavemasters.
The repression of the French Canadians was pathetic and heart-rending. Every American is aware of the poem “Evangeline”, which details the banishment of thousands of French Nova Scotians to the wilds of Louisiana in order to make place for English colonists. In the 1960’s, a Quebec nationalist, Pierre Vallières, imprisoned for separatist activities, wrote an explosive memoire entitled “White [Nxxxxxs] of America” detailing the plight of French Quebeckers. I read that book, which stands out in my mind as a striking example of anti-colonialist literature on a level of Frantz Fanon’s classic anti-imperialist tract, “The Wretched of the Earth”.
This Quebec liberationist tendency was already in full force before Trudeau ever emerged in the public consciousness. In 1967, French president Charles de Gaulle made a state visit to Canada as part of Montreal’s Expo 67 world fair. He made a speech from the balcony of Montreal’s city hall wherein he invoked the subversive slogan “Vive le Québec Libre!”, which sent the assembled audience into a riot mode. De Gaulle was declared persona non grata and ordered to leave the country. A visit by British Queen Elizabeth was met by rioting and insurrection (the Queen has never been popular in Montreal).
In addition, the Front pour la Libération du Québec, as it was called, was responsible for multiple bombings, bank robberies and mayhem. I was young at the time, so I was not able to analyze or process these events. My reasoning was more along the lines of: Social Repression+Insurrection=Social Justice. I just didn’t have the brains to imagine a moderate solution to Quebec.
Fortunately, smarter minds than mine were also contemplating the problem, one of which was that of the Canadian Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson. He realized that the old modes of Canadian society were wearing thin. In 1964, he inaugurated the Canadian maple leaf flag to replace the shopworn British nautical that had always defined the country, the “Red Ensign”, as it was called. Nevertheless, a new flag would hardly be enough to assuage Quebec nationalist tendencies. The country was requiring a complete refitting. In early 1968, Pearson resigned and named as his handpicked successor, Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau, who was half-English and half-French, spoke perfect French (a total anomaly for Canadian politicians at the federal level at that time, a law professor and a highly regarded intellectual. Since Pearson’s Liberal Party held a majority in parliament at that time, Trudeau instantly became prime minister without having to immediately submit to an election.
|| From one day to the next, he became prime minister. I remember talking to these progressive Canadian guys and they were dumbfounded. After a lifetime of stultifying politics, including an old goofball prime minister named John Diefenbaker, who resembled nothing so much as a freakin Muppet (remember, the U.S. at least had Kennedy for a while, who defined the image of a modern leader, while Canadians were forced to relate to these antiques),
Canada all of a sudden had this dashing, swinging, sophisticated, continental dude, a kind of James Bond figure. It inflated them with national pride.
Who could blame them? Look what we had in this country – insanity! Rioting, assassinations, Vietnam, Humphrey vs. Nixon! Nevertheless, Canada had its own version of the sixties. I feel bad about the recent Boston bombings, but during that period in Montreal, bombings, bank robberies and nationalist riots were going on on a continuous basis. Trudeau’s job was to contain it. In 1970, the FLQ launched a wave of kidnappings. They captured Quebec labor minister Pierre Laporte and British trade commissioner James Cross and threatened to execute them if the government refused to release imprisoned Quebec nationalists.
After a certain period of reflection, Trudeau imposed martial law, declaring a state of “apprehended insurrection”, and imprisoned anybody with even a tenuous connection with Quebec militancy. A lot of totally innocent writers and artists cooled their heels in jail for a considerable amount of time (but not tortured like Latin America), along with some really bad guys. The cops were too late to save Laporte, who was strangled with his own gold chain, but they saved Cross and returned him to his mansion in Westmount (he departed for the UK soon after). Trudeau performed a lot of good acts for Canada, but his just and judicious handling of the 1970 Quebec crisis, and the resulting demolition of the FLQ threw the separatist issue into the political arena, where it has been skillfully managed ever since.
As a long time New Yorker, I find myself in the thankless position of trying to express an opinion of Canadian affairs. I really don’t have a right to an opinion, except to say that Canada used to have really good hashish, any more than I would respect the opinion of a Canadian about U.S. (funny, though, everybody in the world feels entitled to blow off on the U.S., but resents Americans interfering in their business). But now that NAFTA is in force, even if Quebec were to achieve political independence from Canada, it would not alter the free trade arrangements already set in place. Shipments of goods between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico are already duty-free. Quebec could guarantee its French language and culture without economic privation. Just saying…
How great was Trudeau? He was so great that Nixon is captured in the Watergate transcripts as saying, “I have to go talk to that asshole Trudeau”. If you know anything about Americans, it is always the lowest class of people who go around using that opprobrium to qualify each other. And they pronounce it with a particularly offensive nasal Long Island twang that is in no way stentorian. “Nyasssshole, he’s a nyasssshole!” Ugh! I got a criminal record for assault for punching the lights out on a creepy dude who called me that name after I complained about him stinking up a whole New York Subway car when he decided to eat a greasy, garlicky pizza on the hottest day of summer, 1995. If that class of American hated Trudeau, it caused me to love him even more!
If Nixon was resentful of Kennedy, he must have gone ballistic over Trudeau, with his carnation boutonnière and his young wife. Nixon, who was so jealous of Kennedy, had to be chewing the carpet with the rage of, instead of having a compliant Canadian to kick around, had to deal with a cool customer (and a Frenchman to boot) who just shined him along with a smile.
French leaders have always presented a particularly irresistible target for Republican Americans, particularly when they don’t cooperate with U.S. foreign policy objectives, which is always. Anybody can be seduced by charm and reason, but those qualities are historically in short supply here. Americans love to play little hierarchical pecking order games, with the French at the bottom, and they are flabbergasted when the French refuse to cooperate. During World War II, Pres. Roosevelt was furious at the French General Charles de Gaulle’s insistence at being treated as an equal head of state instead of as a mendicant rom a conquered minor duchy. The French never got over the insult, and are still breaking American balls today. Trudeau welcomed U.S. military deserters into Canada, brushed off Nixon’s complaints and was impervious to criticism by defenders of the “middle class”.
Anybody wishing for a reprise of Trudeamania, as the popular elation over his ascendancy was called, will be disappointed at the absence of a key element that enhanced his magic, his marriage to Margaret Sinclair, daughter of a Liberal cabinet minister from British Columbia. He was, like, 50 at the time and she was 22, and it goes to prove an old blues dictum about messing around with young girls: you can’t win. Trudeau, with his family money, dashing good looks, elite education and playboy accoutrements, sadly seems to have been lacking in any experience in dating women. He would have been a lot better off had he chosen a stunning professional woman in her 30’s or 40’s, whom the Canadian public would have adored, but I guess he decided he wanted to have children. Margaret soon grew weary of her official duties as the lady of the manor, and she was soon making featured celebrity appearances all over the map and hanging out with the Rolling Stones, among others (I bet she would have a lot of reminiscences to share with former French first lady Carla Bruni, another of Jagger’s dalliances). She added a definitely wacky counterpart to Canadian affairs of state.
Margaret was the queen of Montreal nightlife, but my circle of friends -outlaw bikers, punk rockers and strippers - did not include any members of her social set. That was a long time ago. Since that time, Margaret Trudeau has emerged as an intellectual and cultural voice for a whole generation of Canadian women, who ardently admire her. A few years ago, I was drinking in a Mexican beach bar with a Canadian couple, and I started to make some Margaret Trudeau jokes. The woman turned on me viciously, spitting “You haven’t been in Canada for years. You don’t know anything!”
I couldn’t dispute that. Who cared about the past anyway? Nevertheless, the emergence of her son, Justin, as Liberal Party leaders going into the next election has given me the occasion to disinter my ancient reminiscences of that time, like an ancient sappy substance that has hardened into a fossil of amber, to be polished and displayed as a reliquary of prehistoric times. Look, I’m shocked I lived this long! I’m shocked that there is a reprise of Trudeaumania in Canada and I hope it takes place. Heck, they’re also bringing back punk rock. But I can’t believe that it’s really going to happen.
A very stupid man wrote a narrative entitled “In Praise of Nepotism”, assuredly to justify his qualification as the son of a celebrated writer. The book sank like an anchor, and he ended up being the book editor for Sarah Palin. What a bore! The progeny of great men almost always end as dilutions of the original genius. The prime example off the top of my head has got to be the Kennedy family, which has sunk into ignominy in no time at all.
Trudeau père was handpicked by Lester Pearson to succeed him as a kind of triage application because Pearson calculated that, being half-French half-English, Trudeau was the only man capable of preventing Canada from splitting apart along linguistic and cultural fault lines. He had the added advantage of becoming Prime Minister overnight without having to immediately fight an election. He was a law professor and a social philosopher with his own literary journal, “Parti Pris”, which permitted him to disseminate his dissertations at a time when only a few persons had the means to publish. His opposition was divided into the hapless Conservative Party and two western rump factions.
His son, Justin, knows French but is not pedagogic. He has to fight the next election leading the third-place Liberals in an uphill fight against a solidly-entrenched Conservative majority led by the capable, if unimaginative Stephen Harper. Basically, if the Conservatives had to choose a straw man to knock down and kick the shit out of, they could not wish for a more likely defenseless sucker than Justin Trudeau. He is like a gift from Heaven to Conservatives.
The day after winning the Liberal nomination, Trudeau was asked for his commentary about the Boston bombings. He had a striking opportunity to invoke his father’s resolute handling of the Quebec Crisis. All he would have had to say was, “I intend to continue my father’s example of dealing with terrorists with a firm hand”, and he would have risen 10 points in the polls. Instead, and without any reflection whatsoever, he offered a wishy-washy opinion about how the causes of dissatisfaction among young people need to be better understood.
|Wrong answer! The Conservatives jumped all over him with glee, and they haven’t stopped ever since. Their unrelenting assault on Trudeau’s vacuity and total lack of formation have reached such a fever pitch that Canadian schoolchildren are complaining that he is being targeted for online bullying.
© Dean Borok June 2013
*Editor's Note: J Trudeau has a Bachelor of Arts degree in literature from McGill University and a Bachelor of Education degree from the University of British Columbia. After graduation, he worked as a social studies and French teacher at West Point Grey Academy and Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School in Vancouver, British Columbia. From 2002 to 2004, he studied engineering at the Université de Montréal. He also started a Master of Arts degree in Environmental Geography at McGill University before suspending his program to seek public office. In 2007, Trudeau starred in the two-part CBC miniseries The Great War, which give an account of Canada's participation in the First World War. He portrayed Talbot Mercer Papineau, who was killed on October 30, 1917, during the Battle of Passchendaele. Source Wikipedia
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