When Pierre Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada in the winter of 1968, Rick Kelsey and I were at Ann Arbor, Michigan, at a Canadian-American Conference, representing the Illinois Wesleyan political science department. I had never taken a poli-sci course at IWU, but Rick was the star student, my friend, and he persuaded Dr. Brown to take me along. Trudeau’s election electrified the conference. The status of Quebec and the possibility of its independence was one of the issues tackled by the conference, against the background of increasing division over the war in Vietnam in the USA. Trudeau was a French Canadian and an intellectual, committed to a united Canada as fully as he was to a multilingual nation. Quebec’s separatists were seeking a vote and sure to get one. Trudeau would seek to bridge the gap and keep Canada whole (which he did when four years later the vote for separation was defeated).
Canadian and US academics, students, and politicians joined in presentations and debates about the future, made murky by the hostility and polarization disturbing each of the neighbor countries. We might not be able to help each other find solutions, but at least we could commiserate and share our concerns.
A philosophical voice belonged to the leading American politician present there, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine. He was both realistic about the severity of the problems and optimistic about the likelihood of resolving them, uniting Canada with the new leadership provided by Trudeau, and finding a way out of quagmire war in Vietnam, with the growing awareness that US efforts could not accomplish what the Vietnamese people themselves did not support. During that year he would become the Democratic Party vice-presidential candidate, and, as doubtful as I was about Humphrey, I felt hopeful about the man Muskie I met in a small group that evening. The Labatt ale tasted good, too.
The confidence in Trudeau was well-placed, as his leadership became an inspiration to many people around the world, providing major improvements in Canada’s welfare and economy. The political divisions continued in both countries, but persistence did resolve the issues that seemed intractable for the next generation at least.
I learned that a young man of my age, with my same name, would soon be residing in Toronto, seeking Canadian citizenship and avoiding the draft. I was in no danger from the draft, but his actions would place my name on a suspicious list for a few years. Other US citizens would trade their citizenship for the that status in Canada, and somewhat more rarely some would come south.
Fifty years can give some perspective, and make us pause and ponder. Justin Trudeau now serves in his father’s office, and Canadian separatism appears quiet for the time being. Partisan division in the US has returned with a vengeance as war and fear again provoke American reactions, and the newly elected US President brings baggage in corruption and questionable motives that remind us of the President elected in 1968. The University of Michigan still sponsors forums for commiserating with each other’s problems, and Labatt ale is still good.