If you were to track down a copy of my University newspaper back in 1993, you’d find an article by me about a weird afternoon I spent hopping on the Liberal campaign bus. I was a beat reporter for the school paper, and they wanted someone to cover this campaign stop in a small town about a half hour away. It sounded exotic to me, and I would have a chance to meet Liberal Party leader Jean Chretien.
I think I called the article “Liberalmania comes to ______” (the name of the small town it came to) and it was heavily influenced by my love of Hunter S. Thompson at the time. It was my first attempt at “gonzo journalism” and I remember making myself just as big a part of the story as the story itself. (In fact, there wasn’t much of a story. Jean Chretien showed up at this community centre with a bunch of Liberal Candidates and gave a stump speech and then moved through the crowd. I can’t even remember if I got to meet him, as I was promised. If I did, it wasn’t memorable. I think MAYBE I shook his hand? I DO remember spending some time at a weird Liberal Party “club house” in Osborne Village before getting on the bus. It was like some kind of a secret club.)
I think it would be interesting to track down that article and read it again. I should have kept some paper copies, but I didn’t. Just another example of me burning my life down behind me as I go.
I was recently thinking about the similarities of the fall of 1993 and 2015. In both, we were facing a federal election with a hated incumbent conservative government. As then as now, the Blue Jays were battling through the Post Season. In both years, Spielberg had an earnest historical film in theatres. Then: Schindler’s List, now: Bridge of Spies. That turned out to be a crazy election. The Liberals won a majority, and the opposition party was the separatist Bloq Quebecois! The party with the third highest seats were the Reform Party under Preston Manning. ‘member him?
The poor NDP lost official party status with only 9 seats, and the Tories? Oh my goodness. Reduced to 2 seats. It pretty much killed the Progressive Conservative Party, didn’t it? I mean, the Reform kicked around for a few years and then morphed into the Conservative Party, which is just really the Reform Party with support from the East, right?
Is it too much to ask for a repeat performance today? Two seats! Can you even imagine?
So it really didn’t surprise me all that much when my friend K called me up the other day to see if I was free Saturday night and if I wanted to go see Justin Trudeau. He even reminded me about my 1993 article. ‘It’ll be full circle!”. I’m a sucker for full circles, so I was in, even if that meant not seeing the end of game 2 of the ALCS. (and as it turned out, the less said about that game the better).
I called another friend, E, who I hadn’t seen in a while to see if he wanted to check out this rally too. He seemed baffled by why we’d even be attending. He knew I was always left leaning, but I sold it by saying, “you might get to meet the next prime minister of Canada!” and he seemed on board.
Before I knew it, he had called his parents and told them about the rally, and soon it seemed like me and K, E, and E’s parents would all be arriving at this community club rally at different times.
E reminded me that his dad had worked for the original Trudeau in Ottawa back in the late ’60s. E’s Dad is always full wonderfully eccentric stories, and I do recall E telling me years ago that his Dad’s job in the PMO was to open Trudeau’s mail since there was a constant bomb threat from the FLQ. Well, apparently one day the office was in an uproar because a “sensitive communication” between Trudeau and Barbara Streisand went missing, and if it were to fall into the wrong hands, there would be trouble. It was real “Scandal in Bohemia” stuff, people! Well, as you can imagine, E’s Dad was the hero. He located the correspondence in time, and averted an international scandal. (I wouldn’t take the time to fact check this story. I like it just the way it is.)
So, fast-forward to Saturday night. K picked me up and we drove across town. He had pre-voted for the Liberals, so he was just interested in seeing something happen. I was waiting until election day to vote, and was still actually undecided. I wanted Harper gone for sure, but should I vote with my heart and go Orange, or do I vote strategically and vote for the Liberals who in my own head has decided have a better chance at ousting the incumbent Tory in my riding? I didn’t know.
We arrived at the community club, and man oh man, the parking lot was full and there was a line up of people from the front doors all the way down to the street, along the street and down the next one. We both thought that there was no way we’d get inside, but maybe our friend E was already in line somewhere? He supposedly arrived there a half hour before us. K got in the line, and I walked up and down but couldn’t spot him. Volunteers were handing out stickers (our admission tickets) and checking bags, etc. Security was light. I had my iPod with me, but no access to wifi, so I couldn’t really contact him. I decided to go find K, but as I walked back along the line, I couldn’t find him either. I lined up at the end and thought that here are three relatively intelligent men in their 40s and we are probably all standing by ourselves at different points in this damn line.
I suddenly remembered that I had our cell phone in my jacket pocket, but here’s the thing: K just got a new phone, so his number wasn’t updated. I’m pretty proud of this ingenuity: I looked up his new phone number in a cached email in my ipod, and then typed that new number into my phone.
“Where are u? I’m in line. No sign of E.” was my text.
“In line too. At the corner of __ and __”.
Well god damn. I was only about 20 people behind K. How did I miss him? I texted E to see where he was at. At least HIS number was still in my phone.
“I’m way, WAY down at the end. I’m with the whole family.”
How did he get so far behind us if he was here a half hour before us? It made no sense. And even less sense: this follow-up text:
“Is my Dad with you?”
What? Didn’t he just text he was with his whole family? What would his Dad be doing with me?
A couple of texts back and forth. (I am not good with texting). It became clear that E was in line with his wife and kids, but his parents were to come separately and he didn’t know where they were or if they were even there at all. They didn’t have their phone on, and none of us knew what was going on. It wasn’t looking like any of us was going to make it in at this point.
I made my way up to K, and felt a little bad cutting in front of the people immediately behind us, but no one seemed to mind. Everyone seemed in a good mood, excited about the possibility of seeing the leader of one of our political parties in person, and possibly even seeing the next PM of Canada. There were all ages in line around us, and I was immediately struck by the positive energy and optimism of what might happen. I tried to follow the campaign early on, to at least get a sense of the issues, but I found watching the nightly news an exercise in negativity and sadness. After being away from watching regularly for some time, I couldn’t believe how down I was feeling about the world in general after hearing the daily wrap up. I found I was happier being slightly ignorant, as sad as that may sound.
And then all of a sudden, in the midst of all this optimism, Yahya Samatar showed up in a suit.
I’m not going to be able to do Yahya Samatar’s story proper justice here in this goofy blog post, but he made headlines back in August by swimming across the Red River to enter Canada as a refugee. His story is almost unbelievable, and you can listen to a CBC story on him here. All you need to know is that he had to leave Somalia over a year ago because he was under threat of death. He left his wife and three children behind (four, actually, now. One was born after he left). He flew to Brazil, and made his way overland all the way through central America. He made it across the border into the US, where he was held in Texas, then Louisiana. (or was it Louisiana, then Texas? I don’t know. Just listen to the damn podcast.) before having his refugee claim denied. Instead of being shipped home, he was let go and told that he could be deported at any time. Apparently things are so bad in Somalia that they wouldn’t even know how to get him home. He knew someone in Columbus, Ohio, who drove him to a known Somali community in the Twin Cities, and from there he got a ride up to close to the Canadian border where he made he daring crossing. His refugee status was approved a couple of weeks later, and now he’s here, trying to make a life for himself, find work, and wait the year until he can begin the process to bring the rest of his family over to join him.
And here he was, just weeks after arriving, at a political rally, meeting people, learning about our electoral process, and taking the whole thing for the first time. He was even wearing a Liberal button, despite the fact that he can’t vote. It really put things into perspective for me, knowing how incredibly lucky I am to have the dumb luck of being born in Canada. I don’t deserve it, obviously. People like Yahya deserve a great country like this, not me. I’ve taken it all for granted, and it made me even angrier reading about some of the stuff Stephen Harper has done to our country in the last decade. My resolve hardened right there in line. I was going to vote strategically for the Liberals in this election, because I just want that motherfucker gone.
The line began to move suddenly, and I turned to the lady behind us. I told her that I realize I cut in front of her to stand with my friend (and now with a Somali refugee, apparently) and that if it came down to me or her getting in, she should go. It’s only right. She seemed really happy at that, but as it turned out we all got in.
I stopped E’s Dad in the corner. He got in the room somehow already! I was so happy for him that he would be able to see the speech in person. If they got a chance to talk, would he tell JT that he used to work for his father? Hopefully he would have the sense to not mention the whole Barbara Streisand thing. That can’t be true, can it?
Getting inside the hall meant I was in a wifi zone again so I could see messages from E. He was still outside, and it wasn’t looking good for him. Someone said there were 5000 people there, and the room could only hold 500. Can that be right?
Within a very few minutes, cheers erupted and in walked Justin Trudeau, grabbing hands as security made a path for him to take to the podium.
I learned later that he started his day in St. Johns, went to Halifax, then Thunder Bay, now here, then onto Edmonton for the night.
His voice seemed hoarse after a long day and long weeks of campaigning, but he seemed genuinely impressed with the massive crowd. He talked for 10 minutes, maybe 15 tops, hitting all the sound bytes. He must have said “Real Change” a dozen times, he mentioned the ill-defined and nebulous “middle class” a dozen more, and ended with a couple of shots at Stephen Harper before disappearing out a side door.
“Is that it? Does he come out again?” I asked.
“No, I think that’s it. Do you want to go get supper?”
When the crowd started to clear, I managed to tap E’s Dad on the shoulder just to let him know that I saw him, but there wasn’t a chance to chat.
I messaged E one last time, but he had gone home. They never did get inside, but they saw Justin Trudeau arrive and he came over and shook everyone’s hand, so at least they had that moment to remember.
I left with a sense of optimism and pride. Not so much in experiencing Justin Trudeau in person. It was an okay speech, one he’s delivered dozens of times over the last 78 days. Rather, I felt proud and optimistic in seeing the people around me in line, who decided to come out and take part in the political process, one that I know I take for granted way too much. Maybe it took meeting a Somali refugee for it to finally sink in a bit.
I was at the polls right when they opened this morning. They were in my daughter’s school so the two of us went together. As I marked my X on the ballot I was reminded that we, the voters, hold all the power on days like today. We, as a nation, get to decide who will lead us. We get to decide. We do. You. Me. Us.
Let’s not screw it up.