Monday, June 26, 2017

Memo to Mr. Trudeau: There is an elephant in the room


Justin Trudeau, in reports from the New York Times reporter, Peter Baker, appears to continue his “diplomatic” face whenever he is asked to comment on the president of the United States. Citing trump’s willingness to listen as one of the traits Trudeau admires and repeats for public consumption, Trudeau is determined, it seems, to keep the Canadian stereotype (or is it really an archetype?) of “nice” in front of the turbulent, unpredictable and untrustworthy American president.

Is it Canadian “niceness” that permits Nestle to pay garage sale prices for our water?

Is it Canadian niceness that proposes massive military budgets to comply with the trump edict of having NATO members pay more for their membership?

Is it Canadian niceness that turns a deaf ear and a blind eye for decades, if not centuries, to the plight of indigenous peoples in our country?

Is it Canadian niceness that, for decades, permitted the tsunami of American entertainment culture to flood across the 49th parallel, while holding tight to the mantra that, in order for Canadian artists to be recognized and acclaimed, they had to seek and achieve success in the United States?

Is it Canadian niceness to drink without reservation, the corporate koolaid that strips workers of protections, negotiating processes, and sees the erosion of the labour movement into a mere rump of what it was only a couple of decades ago?

Is it Canadian niceness to support through financing and ticket purchases the work of American theatre as the standard of excellence, when compared with our less flamboyant and more modest productions of equally compelling narratives and themes?

Is it Canadian niceness that rejects the proposition  of mounting information networks like MSNBC, outside of government support, in the misguided practice and perception that such a resource would counter the “objectivity” standard we continue to maintain as our public persona?

Is it Canadian niceness that agreed to keep for-profit pharmaceutical corporations out of our national health care system, along with Canadian dentists, physiotherapists, psychotherapists, massage therapists? (OR, is it a merging of niceness and resistance to scientific evidence?)

Occasionally, a Canadian prime minister will say “No” to an American president, as Jean Chretien did to George W. Bush over the 2003 Iraq war. And such a moment is so rare that it marks a moment of responsible, mature and laudable Canadian authentic leadership. Occasionally too, a Canadian prime minister will be at odds over differences in personality with the American president, as was the celebrated case between Diefenbaker and John F. Kennedy.  Mulroney is remembered as the duet partner with Ronald Reagan on “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”. There are narratives that portray a variety of relationships between the two countries and capitals and leaders.

However, Canadians will have to wonder out loud about whether such a placating political public stance, (while maintaining rhetoric that declares Canadian decisions will be made in Canada) perhaps similar to what a family member would do with a situation in which another family member might demonstrate aberrant behaviour, like the proverbial “elephant in the room,” begs some questions.

First, the elephant in the room has to be identified for what it is. In this case, the president is out of touch with reality, makes statements that merely cater to his own personal power position, without regard to personal, political, diplomatic or even military loyalty, tradition, convention and stability. No matter how kind and smiling Trudeau might present, (and there is no suggestion here that he cannot or will not be steel-rigid behind closed doors) the fact is that the American people need a strong dose of “reality check” medicine on more issues than soft-wood trade, steel imports for infrastructure projects, and supply management on dairy products.

While there are Canadian scholars working in American universities and colleges, and come Canadians volunteer as individuals in U.S. election campaigns, the Canadian perspective finds rare exposure on the American media stages. And while many Americans could care less about their northern neighbour, the case that Canada is a very different country, with very different values, historical foundation, cultural perspectives and national goals from the United States. And Trudeau, while continuing his official posture of speaking “nice” with the U.S. president, could take this opportunity to inject a dose of Canadian history, culture, sociology, daily news, and commentary into the American scene.

Such an idea could take the form of a regular media offering, originating either in Canada or in the U.S., that speaks to an American audience, with Canadian personalities, scholars, historians, and political voices, expressing Canadian issues, including their details, their geography and history, their probability of resolution to the American audience. This project could serve as a voice for all sectors of the Canadian landscape, demonstrating both our strengths and our failures to the American audience.
Neither pandering to the U.S. government as represented by the occupant of the oval office, nor provoking an open fight need to be the available options. There are so many other options between those two extremes.

There is a current Coca-Cola commercial running that makes a salient point, on the eve of Canada’s 150th birthday. It depicts a bottle of the brown fizzy sugar rolling and rolling to the end of a pier, where a male and a female Canadian are standing, where the male picks up the bottle, and then the classic “Canadian conversation” occurs, “You have it!” “No, you have it!”  “No you have it!”….at which point a grey-beard American, peering over the railing on a touring ship, sardonically and derisively quips, “Canadians!” As with all humour, there is a truth at its core. And the truth here is the history and tradition, the locked-in archetype, Canadians are supremely polite, and deeply embedded in never offending ANYONE, ANYWHERE, ANYTIME!

And there is a deep and persistent danger in this archetype. While protecting travelling Canadians from the kind of contempt and scorn directed to the “ugly American” in foreign countries, it does enable a political leader like Trudeau to take a far too wide birth around the current elephant in the Oval Office.

In her new book, No is not Enough, Naomi Klein, portrays trump as a “brand” dedicated to the enhancement, protection and growth of itself exclusively. For her (and for your scribe) saying “no” to this monster (my word not her’s) is simply not going to shrink, savage or trim the brand.

When consumers learn of how a “brand” has failed to protect its consumer confidence and trust, they simply boycott that brand. For example, Takata, the airbag manufacturer in Japan responsible for the deaths and maiming of dozens through shrapnel discharged from their dysfunctional airbags, just yesterday has applied for bankruptcy. Their brand loyalty shattered, they could well disappear into the dusts of history.

A similar fate could befall trump if Ms Klein’s prescription were to be adopted by millions of American, Canadian and global consumers. No more hotel rooms booked in any of the trump-towers, no more meals ordered in those dining rooms, no more conferences booked in their ballrooms, no more memberships in his resorts, no more golf tournaments on courses bearing his name and no new deals for his name to profit financiers including any Russian oligarchs….and the brand simply erodes and finally gives up the ghost.

And Trudeau’s options “not to lecture another country on how to run its affairs” still include a deliberate distancing, and truth-telling both in public and in private conversations, that this elephant in the room will not, must not, cannot manipulate him, nor the people of Canada through his co-dependence and through his adoption of that sabotaging archetype.

Rather than inviting Mulroney to his cabinet discussions about how to negotiate with the trump administration, Trudeau might invite Jean Chretien to address the cabinet on how to tell trump , “no” on each of the many outstanding files. And after trump "huffs and puffs and threatens to blow our house down," Trudeau could then reply, “See you in any court you choose!”


That would no only be a significant enhancement of Canadian foreign policy, but also a transformative moment of leadership in Canadian culture and education. The tribalism represented by trump, including its racism, bigotry, anger and the threat it poses are antithetical to everything humane, irrespective of nationality, language, religion or political ideology. Canadian young people need leadership that tells the ‘whole truth and nothing but the truth” and the world would beat a path to our door. (Or at least the kind of people with whom we can build healthy relationships.) 

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