From Trudeau to Trudeau
If my count and my memory is correct, today will be the sixth time that I've attended a gathering for federal Liberals to choose a new leader. That's six leaders since the party said farewell to Pierre Trudeau in June, 1984 -- and that's not counting all the interim or acting party leaders along the way. And if all the speculation is correct, I guess this takes my reporting-on-Liberals career kind of full circle: the first convention I attended was the one to replace Pierre Trudeau, while today's event will likely install his son as leader.
Some random memories:
Ottawa, 1984: I had been only working at The Globe and Mail for a year, as a copy editor, but I'd arrived there with a degree in political science, not in journalism, and I'd been riveted the year before to the Conservative leadership race. (That convention, in which Brian Mulroney emerged as leader, had lots of drama, long-time political junkies may remember.) So I wanted to see this Liberal one in person, and my new friends in the newsroom at 444 Front St. said all I needed were press credentials. I asked and amazingly, my Globe bosses agreed, so off I went to wander around for a few days at Landsdowne Park and watch the Liberals choose John Turner as leader. Things I remember: Seeing a media room at a convention for the first time, and watching reporters work close-up. Standing on the floor and seeing Liberals trying to haggle over ballot choices; seeing grownups all outfitted in political gear, dancing to the too-loud music between ballots. Watching Jean Chrétien talk to his troops and realizing it was probably true (as party president said on stage) that while he was first in Liberals' hearts, the party was headed in a different direction.
Calgary, 1990: In terms of political spectacles, sitting at the front row of history, etc., this remains one of the most tumultuous, vivid events in my long career covering Canadian politics. The Liberals fatefully chose to have their convention on the same day that the Meech Lake constitutional accord faced a deadline for ratification -- June 23, 1990. Much of the Liberal leadership race had been a faceoff between the pro-Meech Paul Martin and the Meech dissenter, Jean Chrétien. Much of June had been consumed in high drama on the national stage with attempts to save Meech, including a marathon, week-long first ministers' meeting in Ottawa.
When Meech died on June 22, the day before Chretien was elected leader, events at the Calgary Saddledome exploded too. (And it's interesting to think of how some of the fallout is still reverberating through Canadian politics today.) As Meech came to a crashing demise in Ottawa and Quebec, the national rifts were making themselves felt in Calgary. Some of Martin's Quebec supporters donned black armbands and one of his leading MP supporters, Jean Lapierre, ended up leaving the party to help form the Bloc Quebécois in subsequent days. Other Liberals were jubilant. I was caught right in the midst of a triumphant embrace between Chretien and Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells (whose then constitutional advisor, Deborah Coyne, is also a candidate in the current leadership race.) Pierre Trudeau, who had articulated/galvanized the early opposition to Meech, wandered the stadium dressed in a saffron-coloured shirt, impossible to miss in that sea of red and white. (Coyne gave birth to Trudeau's daughter 11 months later, but that's another story.) I stood in a room and watch Trudeau thank a First Nations' meeting for all the help that aboriginal people had given in helping to sink Meech. Meanwhile, the then Liberal premiers of Ontario and New Brunswick, David Peterson and Frank McKenna, were also on hand in Calgary, bitter and disappointed that their efforts to save Meech had been squandered. The whole scene in Calgary was a bit surreal, actually. No Liberal convention since, or any convention really, has matched that drama.
Toronto, 2003: Chretien stayed at the helm for 10 years, but the real Liberal leadership drama took place in the three or four years before the convention, as Paul Martin wrestled to become the successor. By the time Liberals arrived at the Toronto Convention Centre to elect Martin as leader in November, 2003, the victory was a mere formality. That's probably why I don't have many memories of this convention, beyond the odd, Cirque de Soleil tribute to Chretien (a performer rolling around inside a transparent ball) and a Paul Anka serenade to the departing leader. Oh of course and who can forget Bono's appearance? "My name is Bono and I'm a rock star." I guess maybe in retrospect that all this attention on celebrities, as opposed to politics, probably said something about where the party was heading.
Montreal, 2006: Nearly exactly three years after the tidy victory of Martin, the party gathered, in the wake of his January 2006 election defeat, to choose his successor. One of the things I remember about this convention: the strange presence of Stephen Harper's PMO staff at the event and even some of them handing out buttons to mock the Liberal leadership candidates. (Yes, this is odd; normally prime minister's offices are busy doing stuff like, oh, running the country, and would send party operatives to do such partisan tasks. Another story, again.) I don't believe I expected Stéphane Dion to win at this convention; that surprise victory would also introduce us to some new rifts within the Liberal ranks in the coming years -- Bob Rae Liberals versus Michael Ignatieff Liberals, etc.
Vancouver, 2009: With Dion defeated in the 2008 election, the Vancouver Liberal convention was another formality -- installing Ignatieff as the unchallenged leader. Vivid memories? The beauty of the new convention centre in Vancouver and the agonizingly long proceedings on the Friday night; hours and hours of speeches -- including an odd, overlong, I-was-right-all-along speech by Dion -- which left only a handful of audience members in the room at the end. (One MP joked how the crowd at the back was using standing ovations to stage their exit strategy.)
And that takes us to today's event, also a formality, but bound to be much much different from any of the previous five I've attended. There's no real drama or excitement here; no huge national turmoil in the background. There's no expectation of immediate or massive victory on the horizon. No rock stars, no speech by the former leader (Ignatieff won't even be there), no Pierre Trudeau.
The guy who's expected to win today, like me, was present at the 1984 convention, I believe. (There for his dad's tribute.) But while I was 23, he was 12, and for the first time, Liberals may be electing a leader who is younger than I am.