Thursday, March 21, 2013

Just watch it

Reputedly, federal Liberal leader shoo-in, Justin Trudeau, received a note on a flight last week asking him if he felt he could beat Prime Minister Harper in an election. His scribbled response was, "Just watch me."

"Just watch me", I think, was cute, clever, and absolutely the wrong thing to say. It's a reference to his father, Pierre, and harkens back to the darkest moment in modern Canadian history, the October Crisis of 1970. British trade representative James Cross and Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte had been kidnapped by cells of the FLQ (Laporte, in fact, would subsequently die at the hands of his captors and suffer the indignity of being discovered in the trunk of a car at a Montreal airport). The army was on the streets of Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City. Prime Minister Trudeau was buttonholed by the press on the steps of Parliament Hill and grilled for most of ten minutes about the suspension of civil liberties and martial law under the War Measures Act. He held his own, and when finally asked how far he would go, he shrugged and issued the most memorable line of the crisis: "Just watch me." It made him a hero in English Canada, and reviled among Quebec nationalists.

It's a charged phrase and I think it was wrong for his son to offer it so flippantly. First of all, it cheapens a moment of real existential drama in our history. Secondly, I think it smacks of vast hyperbole to suggest winning the next federal election can be in any way equated to doing what it takes to quell an armed rebellion in a just society. And finally, I think it's a mistake on a personal level to tie himself too closely to his father's legacy, particularly referencing one of its most divisive aspects. Yes, I agree, those of us who want to see Justin assume the mantle are doing so partly out of hopes the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. But it still needs to be its own tree when it sprouts, and it'll die in the shade. Justin needs to be his own person, and his allusions to his political and genetic heritage need to be more subtle and nuanced, I think. "Just watch me" is about as blatant as it gets without actually changing his name to "Pierre".

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