While rushing through Pearson International Airport in Toronto to catch my connecting flight to Vancouver I somehow managed to spot Canadian journalist Peter C. Newman browsing in one of those tiny bookshops that sprout up in odd corners of airports -- and even odder was the fact that I had a tattered copy of his 1968 book The Distemper Of Our Times in my backpack, which I asked him to sign, and to which he said yes. I told him I was trying to catch up on Canadian political history -- not an easy thing to do while living in the Philippines, which makes visiting small-town Canadian used-book shops that specialize in Canadian history, social and military, a necessity on trips back home. "Well," he said, "this shows how things started to go downhill for the Liberal Party." I shook his hand and walked away, feeling strangely enriched, the way one feels after somebody whose work has affected your trains of thought and avenues of interest has suddenly materializes right before your eyes -- a sensation that is rarely felt, true, but one which I've been lucky to experience after meeting writers like Norman Mailer, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates and Paul Auster in person, only hours after being immersed in their philosophical scribblings.
The weird thing is, encountering Peter C.Newman (probably Canada's most famous political commentator, a dubious distinction at best) at Pearson Airport proved a fitting capstone to my time spent at home. In the past few weeks I read my first book by Newman, The Canadian Revolution (which chronicles the changes Canada experienced from the mid eighties to the mid nineties), in addition to inadvertently buying at a second-hand bookstore two copies of the same book by him: one a paperback, one a hardcover; one the Canadian edition, one the American version, albeit with a different title. I also picked up a couple of books on Pierre Trudeau, and a couple on the rise and resurgence of the Conservative Party in Canada.
Growing up, no two words carried more potential for sheer, unadulterated, pristine boredom than these: 'Canadian politics.' (Unless it was 'Canadian history'.) It was only by living in Asia for so long that I became interested in world history and culture and commentary, and it's only on my (grossly) infrequent trips back home that I can fill in the gaps (even more grossly huge) that exist in my knowledge of the people and players that bend and shift the politcal currents in my own country, Canada.
Yes, Canada. For years I've been fascinated by the characters and conmen to be found stalking the landscape of modern American politics: Kennedy and Johnson, Nixon and Carter, Reagan and Bush (multiplied). Oddly, even Gerald Ford's story is more compelling than one would at first suspect. (I'll leave, um, Dukakis and Quayle out of the picture...)
But Canada, too, has its own abundant share of oddballs and artistocrats, wackos and wunderkinds of the political realm -- not to mention the towering force of our greatest, most humane P.M., Pierre Trudeau, loved and reviled in equal measure. (And who I accidentally met on Bay Street in Toronto about ten years ago while waiting for movie stars outside of the Sutton Place Hotel -- now that's a hell of an autograph for a Canadian to have...)
It is Trudeau -- prime minister for a towering sixteen years -- who best represents the conundrum of modern Canada. A fierce intellectual whose motto was "reason before passion" but dates Margo Kidder, becomes engaged to Barbra Streisand and marries a twenty-two year old flower child while in his early fifties; a proud Quebecker who disdained his province's desire for independence; a romantic wanderer who wilfully endured years and years of mandatory political drudgery. Born of a French-Canadian father and an Anglo mother, it is Trudeau who somehow embodies the essence of the Canadian spirit -- if such an entity, at our country's young age, could be deemed to exist. (And probably the only leader in the history of the modern world who told a fellow MP during question period to go fuck himself. Asked what he said, Trudeau pleaded innocent: "Fuddle-duddle.")
Boring, bland Canada had for a time a leader as shockingly intelligent, profound and charismatic as any world leader currently on the stage. The worst we can say about the current PM, Stephen Harper, aside from the usual reactionary Conservative policies, is that he's, um, well, let me think. Got it. His haircut is kind of lame.
The fact that I've even writing about Canadian politics, for me, is a sign of maturity. A few years ago I wouldn't have known who the hell Peter C.Newman was, let alone had a copy of his book in my bag, and I sure as hell wouldn't have been rushing for his autograph in an airport. (Hmm. That doesn't sound so mature after all...) Keeping current with Canada's leaders (and wannabes) is a way of planting one mental foot on my native soil. It allows me to vicariously examine where I grew up, and where that place is going (with or without me) from a more nuanced perspective.
And it gives me an excuse to chase down seventy-something writers in aiports, which is always a good way to kill time between flights, truth be told.