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.