Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Remembrance of things past....

(With apologies to Marcel Proust, because I can never seem to have an original thought!)

In the last federal election held in Canada in 2011, the NDP became the official opposition under the leadership of Jack Layton.  A native Qu├ębecker, he had lived in Toronto for many years, sitting as a city councillor before entering federal politics.

Mr. Layton always spoke of hope - it was central to his message to his party and his country; in his acceptance speech upon becoming the leader of the NDP he said:

"Hope ... is what drives New Democrats."

And it was that message that he left to Canadians in an open letter sent around the world only two days before his death:

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

In the election campaign that my country just went through, it is safe to say that the former ruling Conservative party didn't believe this at all.

But, sadly, Mr. Layton's party also seemed to abandon his ideals and left the hope and optimism to Justin Trudeau.  Whatever it was that Tom Mulcair hoped to accomplish, the message that came through appeared to offer little in the way of traditional NDP values, swerving dangerously far right in a vain attempt to siphon votes away from the Liberals and Conservatives.

Yesterday, my country once again embraced hope and optimism - in the personage of the eldest son of our former Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau.

Justin they called him, over and over again; using his first name alone to belittle him.  "Just not ready," the Conservative attack ads said, over and over, long before the election campaign even started.  The mockery and ridicule were picked up by the NDP in the last weeks, as they saw their support erode, while the Liberals soared.

Mr. Trudeau fils ignored it all and appealed to the better instincts of the Canadian people.

And they responded with hope and optimism.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Taking stock....

It was unseasonably hot in Ottawa in the early fall of 2000. The Sydney Olympics filled the airways as Canadians turned in break-out performances in all kinds of events.

But on the afternoon of September 28, the broadcast was interrupted by the bulletin that our former Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, had died of cancer at the age of 80.

While it was known that Mr. Trudeau had been ill, in some ways it was still a shock. He had been a larger-than-life figure in Canada for decades - how could he be gone?

That weekend, Mr. Trudeau returned to Parliament to lie in state in the Hall of Honour. Members of the public were invited to pay their respects for several hours on each of September 30 and October 1. But the people of Ottawa and many Canadians from all over our country were having none of that.

By the time the doors to Parliament were thrown open, thousands of people had lined up to honour Mr. Trudeau. My sister and I arrived in the middle of the afternoon. It was hot and sunny and the Mounties at the front gate informed us that there was a minimum 3-hour wait to get to the front of the lines that snaked from the front door to the Centennial Flame and along the driveway on both sides. Rather than risk certain sun burn, we decided to come back after sunset.

When we returned that night shortly before 9:00 p.m., the lines were even longer than before.  As we approached the gates leading to the Hill, the staff on duty informed visitors that the doors would remain open all night.  My sister and I walked across the lawn and joined the line in front of the East Block.  Groups of people continued to join the line behind us.

For the first hour or so, people talked amongst themselves.  But as we shuffled along realizing that it would be hours before we could pay our respects, conversation started between couples and families and groups.

"Where are you from?"  "Why did you decide to come here?"  My sister and I had made a short trek our apartment overlooking the city, but many of our companions had driven from other provinces and cities in order to be here.

There was the family from New Brunswick - a young couple with their baby in a carriage.  They were there to represent their parents, who felt that Mr. Trudeau truly made Francophones equal in Canada.  A group of students from the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa who wanted to honour the man who gave us our Charter of Rights.  A young Sikh couple had driven from Brampton that day; when they lived at home in India, they had seen the prime minister on television and admired him and what Canada stood for; they were grateful for the opportunities that this country had given them and wanted to thank the man they believed responsible.  Another couple behind us mirrored our own family - the wife from Portugal, the husband from Scotland.  Had their families not emigrated, they would not have met each other.  Mr. Trudeau had inspired their parents to come to Canada, too.  A family from northern Quebec felt they just "had to be here"; a young man originally from British Columbia now living in New York brought his American girlfriend for the same reason.

The conversation ebbed and flowed, and after a couple of hours, a small group of us made a run to the nearest Tim Horton's before it closed, hoping to keep our compatriots warm with some coffee.  The place was packed with others who had decided to do the same and with those who had made it through the line and needed sustenance to make their trek home.

Upon our return, our group had made it to the area around the Centennial Flame.  It was here that Canadians had placed their floral tributes to Mr. Trudeau; piles of flowers ringed the fountain, with more surrounding the base.  Someone had brought a beautifully carved canoeing paddle as Mr. Trudeau had been a famous outdoorsman who loved travelling Canada's lakes and rivers by canoe.  We grew silent as we read the notes written in English and French, most of which expressed one simple sentiment - Merci!

As the hours stretched on and we inched closer to the bronze doors, the conversations were shorter, quieter and tinged with tiredness.  I remembered the last time I had stood for hours on the lawn in front of Parliament in April of 1982, as I waited for Prime Minister Trudeau and the Queen to sign our new Constitution into law.  He had looked resplendent in his burgundy tuxedo tails, carrying a top hat as he walked beside Her Majesty, only a foot away from where my sister and I were pressed against a fence.  As the crowd shouted their congratulations to him, he said thank you with a smile so bright it broke the grey morning in two.

It was the first time I felt the total joy of what it meant to be Canadian.

Now it was time for me to say goodbye to the man who helped me to understand this.

It was close to 3 in the morning when my sister and I made it to the front of the line.  We were ushered to the cataflaque with a couple from the other line where we had 15 seconds exactly to say our farewell.

The woman next to me was whispering prayers in French, her husband was crying.  I bowed my head and silently thanked Mr. Trudeau for the feeling I had standing outside that building on that April day almost 20 years before.

A white-gloved usher came to move us away through a curtain to our right.  The woman on my left picked up a corner of the flag draping the casket and kissed it, but my sister patted the flag and said out loud "dors bien, monsieur, merci" before we stepped away.

On the other side of the curtain, books of condolence had been set out on tables for people to sign.  Boxes of tissues were helpfully set there, too.  I sat at one, nodding to one of our groups who were leaving the building.  Today, I can't recall what I wrote; I'm sure it was banal and sounded much like the words so many others had written before me.

I like to think that Justin, Sacha, and Sarah Trudeau read these books at some point, and found comfort in the words of thousands of Canadians who loved and admired their father.


This blog post is obviously related to the federal election taking place next Monday, less than a week away.  It seems likely that Justin Trudeau will follow in his father's footsteps and become the Prime Minister of Canada.  I look at the polling numbers on a riding-by-riding basis and don't see how anyone thinks that the Conservative party can hang on to even a minority government.

Though I also realize that polling numbers have been MAJORLY wrong in the last provincial elections in Ontario and Alberta and anything can happen in a week; I do have a degree in political science, folks.  And while I may not have been a GREAT student, some of that stuff still sticks in my brain 30 years later (after all, I did once make it through to Jeopardy's contestant pool).

Earlier in the election, during a debate, the current prime minister, Stephen Harper, divided our country into "old stock" and "new stock" Canadians.

Many people like to defend the man by saying that this wasn't meant to be a racist statement, but I note that they tend to be white men with easy to pronounce surnames.  As a daughter of two immigrant families with a distinctly Slavic last name, that statement got "my Irish up"!

The Prime Minister didn't include me in "old stock" Canadianism, because, despite the fact that I was born here, I could potentially be deported to another country due to dual citizenship.  He obviously didn't mean my parents, or my grandparents, who fled ahead of and after World War II in order to provide better lives for their children.

This man and the government he heads make me ashamed to be Canadian - everything they stand for is so far away from what thousands of people felt standing on the lawn of Parliament on April 17, 1982.  And it is even further away from the sense of unity and community that brought thousands more to Parliament in September and October of 2000 as we mourned and celebrated and gave thanks for the life of a man who's guidance made this country great over two decades in the spotlight.

I am reminded of some words from the "Joe Canadian Rant" used to great effect by the Montreal brewers Molson as advertising 15 years ago:

I believe in peace keeping, not policing, 
diversity, not assimilation,

We've turned away from that in the past decade, since the (non-progressive) Conservative party came to power.  It's time for those of us who believe in a Canada that is truly equal for all to take stock ourselves and vote for those who will give us that.

Canada will be a strong country when Canadians of all provinces feel at home in all parts of the country, and when they feel that all Canada belongs to them.
~ Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Monday, 26 January 2015

What becomes a legend...

There is a stereotype of Canadians that we are born wearing skates.

Obviously, this isn't true; but for those of us from the "real" north of this country, we generally learn to skate as soon as we learn to walk.  It's an important skill when the snow is around for 6 months of the year, sometimes 7 (or more, depending on just how far north you're going).

Today, girls and boys both play hockey - but when I was a child, girls were automatically stuck into figure skating.  It was a sport I participated in until I was almost 30.

The earliest winter Olympics I remember took place in 1968.  Like thousands of other young girls in North America, I idolized the American skater Peggy Fleming, though I, of course, rooted for Karen Magnusson.

It was a year later that Toller Cranston made his appearance on the national stage.

For the better part of the next decade, this one skater changed the face of the sport, bringing dance moves and his own, inimitable style to the ice.  He influenced so many other skaters:  his artistic rival British champion John Curry, Russian ice dancers Moiseeva & Minenkov and Bestemianova & Bukin, American Brian Boitano, and fellow Canadians Kurt Browning and Patrick Chan, plus the Canadian brother and sister duo of Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay who represented France on the world stage.

After his retirement from skating (though he did perform in professional competitions from time to time), Toller retreated to his downtown Toronto home to indulge in his other passion - painting.  His bold and colourful works were fanciful and wonderful and beautiful - much like he was.

It was here that my path crossed his - both literally and figuratively.

I moved to my bachelorette pad in the summer of 1984.  A few months later, a friend from university mentioned to me that there were adult skating lessons at the Moss Park arena a short walk from my home.  She and I had skated together at the University of Toronto.  We signed up and spent two evenings a week on the ice, year round.

It was almost a year later that Toller appeared at the rink on a night when the senior skaters were on the ice.  I knew that he sometimes skated there, the arena manager had a photo of himself and Toller on the wall in his office and he mentioned that this might happen.

As difficult as it was, we tried to be cool, not stare, and concentrate on our own skating.

Not an easy task by any means!  How do you ignore your childhood idol, live and in person, sharing the ice with you????

I am right-handed, but when skating, my spins and jumps skewed left - this piece of data is very important to this narrative.  I was trying to make my creaky 25-year-old knees lift me into double rotations, and my coach thought I would be able to do it.

It might have been the third or fourth time that Toller joined us... I was paying attention to my coach, turn, step, pick, leap - crash; or pop the jump and single out.  Which is what happened next...

I stuck the landing, free leg extended behind me in a perfect arc to hold my balance...

When I crashed into another skater doing the same in the opposite direction!

We each whirled around to grab and steady the other and both of us blurted out "sorry" at the same moment.  And to my utmost horror, I found myself holding on to the six time Canadian men's champion - not one of my friends!

I skated over to my coach, who had her mouth hanging open watching the entire exchange, and sat down on the ice beside her, saying "lesson's over!"  She didn't argue.

I carefully avoided Toller whenever he skated with us from that time on.

A couple of months later, I found myself voted onto the board of directors of the skating club as the Carnival chairperson.  Over the next five months, I planned numbers with the teaching staff, found sponsors, wrote advertising materials, designed costumes and the program, and ran around doing all those little things that need to be done to bring a show of 100 skaters together.

The parents had seen Toller coming and going from the arena and they wanted me to ask him to be the guest artist in the show.  Every week at the progress meeting, the rest of the board would quiz me, "did you ask him yet?"  But I was the world's biggest chicken - replaying the accident over and over again in my head.

Shortly after the new year, the arena manager mentioned to me that Toller had asked him about the Carnival - he had seen some of the information posted around the building.  He had hinted that he would be open to appearing in the show if he was asked - it was time to swallow my pride.

Two days later, I got my chance.  I got to the arena early to watch the children's groups rehearsing their numbers, and Toller was standing there rink side (in a giant fur coat) watching them.

"Um, Mr. Cranston...."

He turned to me with a smile and held out his hand and said, "Toller, please".

As we shook hands, I continued: "Brian mentioned to me that you were asking about the show."

His smile got bigger and he said, "I'd be delighted to do a number in your show.  You shouldn't have been afraid to ask me, accidents always happen when you've got groups of skaters on the ice.  Why don't you write down the details for me and we'll work it out?"

Two months later, I stood on the side of the rink and watched Toller Cranston skate yet another mezmerizing performance for a packed house.  Thanks to him, every ticket was sold and we made a profit on the enterprise - we even got press coverage!

As he took his bows to a standing ovation, one of our little soloists skated out to present him with a bouquet of flowers almost as big as she was.  She gave a little curtsey as she handed them over and he gave her a hug to the awwwws of the crowd in attendance.

After the show, he stayed behind until every child who asked got an autograph and/or a photograph with him.  When he was leaving, I went to thank him, and he kissed my hand and said "good job with the show".

I never did get the nerve to speak to him again over the next couple of years, smiles and nods were as close as I got - and I stopped skating after that to pursue music instead.

Toller Cranston died today, too young, too soon.  I'm sure that he had much art yet to be created.

But the indelible image will be of a man gliding across the ice in a pose of striking grace leading into a spin of such breathless speed and elegance that you wanted it to go on forever.