It is being hyped as “Trubama”, the bromance of the decade which actually led to some substantive policy movement in Washington this past week, including in the areas of Arctic development, the reduction of methane gas emissions, and a loosening of the Canada-U.S. border. Not since Bill Clinton hosted Jean Chretien 19 years ago have there been so many Canadian flags on the lawn of the White House, nor so much rhetoric about the deep and abiding friendship between the United States and Canada. The Prime Minister also brought along his family, and by the end of the first day it appeared that Michele Obama had found what she described as her “soul mate” in Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, the two couples sharing numerous special moments in a way that Canadians had not witnessed since Brian and Mila Mulroney sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” with the Reagans. Trudeau’s mother was also on hand and got a standing ovation at the State Dinner, a far more favorable reception that she received when she accompanied her husband Pierre on his second state visit in 1977 and wore an above-the-knee dress which had many tongues wagging about “inappropriateness” and “propriety”. This past week was all about re-establishing the relationship with a friend who had become distant, a friend who we were glad to have back and who appeared to be just delighted that we had made the effort to pay a visit.
While Justin’s father still holds the record for having had the most state dinners thrown for him at the White House, which by its own statistics has averaged only one official Canadian visit per decade, his relationship with President Nixon was as frosty as the relationship between former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Barack Obama. In fact, one of the most famous quotes to come out of the mouth of his father, right up there with “Just watch me!”, “Fuddle Duddle”, and “The State has no place in the bedrooms of the nation”, is what he declared during his first, difficult state visit to the Nixon White House” when he said:” Living with you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant: No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt”. The references to the relationship made last week were infinitely more congenial and were more centered around hockey jokes.
Yet, on a deeper level, the priorities faced by both Pierre Elliott Trudeau four decades ago and his son today are not entirely different, and in some ways, Mr. Trudeau cannot travel to Washington without having the benevolent spirit of his father along for the ride…the presence of his mother on this trip was a reminder of that. There are new foreign policy issues that have come to the fore, to be sure, but as articulated by Prime Minister Trudeau the Elder when he addressed the Empire Club on September 29th, 1972, in a speech entitled “New Directions in Foreign Policy”, some are similar or the same…trade partnerships, security and defense concerns, environmental stewardship, Arctic sovereignty and Canada’s unique place in the world as a wise and trusted counselor, something that the incumbent Prime Minister appears keen on re-establishing after having seen this area in the decline of late. Although the words below were spoken almost four and a half decades ago by his father at the Empire Club, our incumbent Prime Minister could have almost copied them into one of his Washington speeches this past week”
“This is what I see has been happening in Canada since 1968 and Canada’s voice in the world which was long respected, because of its tone of moderation and wise counsel, I hope is now listened to with additional interest. There is no loss of respect, this I know, and there is no departure from moderation. I hope there is also no departure from wisdom. But there is a new ingredient of confidence in the form of Canadian undertakings and of Canadian policies. Our background in this past that I was describing has prepared us to act with self-assurance and to act with the courage of a fully mature actor in the world scene.”
We are seeing a very major change in direction in Canada, and the United States clearly likes what it is seeing. And while the Prime Minister will no doubt enjoy a far more congenial relationship with the White House than his father ever did, their viewpoints are convergent on some very important issues and remind us that family education and values do in fact account for a lot and that Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s spirit has not dissipated into the mists of time. The way Mr. Trudeau Senior was introduced to the Empire Club in 1972, being lauded for his” attractiveness”, “freshness of outlook”, “audacity”, “intellectual honesty” and “capacity to communicate” could well have been descriptors coming from President Obama this past week when he welcomed his Canadian counterpart with open arms and warm embraces.