Canadian history is full of what historians like to call “defining moments” – events or decisions that put their stamp on the country and help to secure the legacy, for better or worse, of the government of the day.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his minority Liberal government face one of those defining moments as they, along with their provincial partners, struggle to keep Canadians safe from the COVID-19 pandemic. The outcome of the struggle, which no one can yet predict, will inevitably colour history’s verdict on this Trudeau government.
History has been kind to the earlier Trudeau government – the one headed by Justin’s father Pierre. It seems destined to be remembered by the 1982 entrenchment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in a made-in Canada Constitution. The adoption of the Charter was certainly a defining moment, although to my mind it ranks second to an event that happened 12 years earlier.
I’m thinking of the FLQ crisis of October 1970 and that dramatic moment when Pierre Trudeau was being questioned on Parliament Hill by Tim Ralfe of the CBC. How far would the prime minister go to crush what the government was treating as an “apprehended insurrection?” Trudeau’s reply, “Just watch me,” said volumes about his steel will and his government’s determination to employ whatever measures it took – some of them excessive, as it turned out – to put down the FLQ.
If a defining moment took three words in 1970, it took only one word in 2003. The word was “no,” given by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to President George W. Bush’s request that Canada join the United States and Britain in the invasion of Iraq. Bush did not have the support of the United Nations, and he wasn’t going to get Canada’s.
“I believe that Canada’s decision not to go to war in Iraq was one of the most important moments in our history,” Chrétien wrote in his memoirs. “It proved to us and to the world that we are a proud, independent nation. Could we as a government and as a people stand up to the strong pressures coming at us from the United States, the corporate interests, and the ideological press for the sake of our traditions and principles?”
A similar claim could be made for the decision of the Mackenzie King government not to join Britain, Australia and New Zealand in declaring war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939. King waited for seven days – not because he was dithering, but because he needed to make the point that Canada was an independent country, no longer tied to mommy’s apron strings, and would make its own decisions about war and peace.
The defining moment for Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government was probably Oct. 3, 1987, when he announced the successful conclusion of the exceptionally difficult free trade negotiations with the United States. As he told reporters at 1:30 a.m. that day, “A hundred years from now what will be remembered is that it was done. The naysayers will be forgotten.”
Let’s go back a few years, to the days of Lester Pearson. Historians can debate whether the defining moment for his two minority Liberal governments was the adoption of the Canadian flag, raised on Parliament Hill on February 15, 1965, or passage of the National Medical Care Insurance Act (medicare, as we know it today) by the Commons on Dec. 8, 1966. Neither moment was won easily. Both Medicare and the maple leaf flag have both become enduring symbols of Canadian nationhood.
But back to Justin Trudeau and the pandemic. Justin is a nicer, gentler person than his father – his personality more like his mother’s than his dad’s. He has managed to display both his mother’s empathy and his father’s steel in his daily live-streamed status reports and announcements of unprecedented measures to be taken to contain the spread of COVID-19. He has been prepared to resist pressure from Donald Trump on border issues. And his willingness to empty Ottawa’s coffers in the battle against the virus would shock, and probably appall, politicians of his father’s era.
His legacy, however, will inevitably be tied to the outcome of the global war on the pandemic. Steel will and mountains of cash doled out from the steps of Rideau Cottage will help, but only to a point.