I have written more than two dozen books on Canada and Canadians, always searching for that magic moment, most aptly immortalized by the American journalist Garry Wills in his description of the audience’s reaction to Abe Lincoln’s epic address at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863: “They walked off, from those curving graves on the hillside,” he wrote, “under a changed sky, into a new America.”
Only once did I play a minor walk-on part in such an event, and that was the evening I impersonated Justin Trudeau. That was something like a decade ago, but never before or since have I been part of an event that emanated as much positive energy. My way. By default. Most of my previous speeches fell like chunks of ice dumped by a glacier into some abandoned Alaskan fjord. This one was different.
It all began with a panicked phone call from Carol Brickenden, a pleasant and efficient woman who was then my agent for booking speeches. “This is an emergency,” she breathlessly informed me. Could I help?
It turned out that Justin Trudeau was booked to speak that very evening to students at Aurora, Ont., but could not keep his date. Since I then lived in the nearest burg, only half an hour away, would I please take on the gig? Same inflated rate, of course.
I hesitated all of 20 seconds, never realizing how awkward such a performance might turn out to be, slipped on a black turtleneck sweater, and took off for my inaugural performance as a pseudo political idol.
My agent, bless her, had not described the venue, except to tell me that I would be speaking to students. In my limited experience, that signified a classroom, and there wouldn’t be anything daunting about that.
When I arrived, the well-briefed greeter visibly blanched but conducted me to my venue, as if in his previous incarnation he had been in charge of leading that evening’s pick to the guillotine during the French Revolution. We passed many empty classrooms and finally stopped at what appeared to be a stadium. As I hove into sight, what seemed like a thousand expectant faces turned to me with a dirty look, as if to say, “And who the hell are you, bald fella?”
“Gee, I didn’t know I was this popular in Aurora,” I began my impromptu remarks, imitating a vintage Trudeau shrug. The giggles were a good sign—not a hangman’s noose in sight. I explained the situation, and told my disappointed listeners that even though I wasn’t the Trudeau they wanted, I could speak about the one I knew—Pierre, his father.
We had been friends before he entered politics and when he was unexpectedly elected in 1965, he and his then girlfriend, the magnificent Madeleine Gobeil, who taught at Carleton University, as well as my then-wife Christina, would spend many a pleasant evening. Since there were just the four of us, Pierre and Madeleine didn’t hesitate to cuddle.
A few years later, after Pierre became prime minister, I published The Distemper of Our Times that in its appendices revealed some top-secret diplomatic documents. The issue came up in cabinet and several of the Liberal ministers whose profiles I had written enthusiastically recommended my prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. Pierre nixed the idea, deciding to prosecute the senior public servants who had given me the documents instead. I certainly supported that decision but I could never decide whether it was prompted by Pierre’s support of freedom of the press—or his memories of cuddling in my living room.
Another story I told had to do with Pierre’s official visit to Israel. His host, prime minister Menachem Begin, had taken up a mountainside to show off the desert country’s most spectacular cemetery, having a premium view of the Mediterranean Sea. Suitably impressed, Pierre asked how much the plots were selling for. His host gave a brief sales pitch, and set the price at a million dollars. “Too much, much too much,” Pierre replied according to this apocryphal tale. “After all, I’ll only be there for three days.”
I went on with many stories and the atmosphere grew a bit warmer. I could feel the audience softening—not forgiving exactly, but no longer hostile. It was a memorable evening and should the young Trudeau decide to go for the crown, I strongly suggest he include Aurora in his itinerary. And it’s okay. He doesn’t have to pretend he’s me.