On Saturday, September 30th, 2000, I paid my respects to the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau. It was the closest I had ever come to meeting the man.
I arrived on Parliament Hill late that evening, around 8:30 PM, and before I could even see the Peace Tower, I saw the people. It was a row of people standing quietly along the front edge of the Parliamentary quadrangle. I approached the Centennial Flame, and was awestruck. The fountain that marked Canada's 100th anniversary was so lined with hundreds of roses that it appeared painfully smothered; there were television cameras filming the large crowd of people as they gazed upon the flowers, the cascading water, and the dancing flame in the middle. And then, there was the line-up.
First, a quick description of Parliament Hill, for those of you who may not be familiar with it. The Centre Block sits facing south. A walkway proceeds directly south and ends at Wellington Street. In the middle of this path near the street is the Centennial Flame. On each side of the path is a large square lawn. A driveway circumscribes the two squares of grass, and separates the surrounding buildings from the quadrangle.
I had imagined there would be enough people to at least form a line all the way down in front of the Centre Block to the Centennial Flame. I did not imagine that there would be two lines that first spread sideways along the walls of the Centre Block; that each line would form a U and turn inward; that the lines would follow the walkway south, and reach the Centennial Flame; that the lines would then turn outwards away from each other, following the outer edge, and touching the two far corners of the Parliamentary square; and finally, that each line would turn yet again, north, following the east and west edges of the square, nearly reaching back to the Centre Block.
I'd been thinking I would have to wait between thirty minutes to an hour. It seems so naive to me now. When I saw the queue, I realized that I would be waiting two hours, at least. For a while, I just gaped, walking back and forth along the line-up, and considering just how important this man really was to me.
I can remember when I heard the news of Mr. Trudeau's passing. It was on the radio, and as it was early morning, I wasn't quite awake. I was dimly aware that they were talking about some man, in the past tense, as though he were dead. I don't recall what was said that triggered my recognition; maybe my brain was simply given enough time to arise from the stupor of slumber. But when I realized who they were talking about, my jaw fell and I stared at the radio for about three minutes as I digested the news.
Over the next day or so, I pondered what Trudeau meant to me, personally. When my feelings crystallized to some extent, I put up a web page in honour of Pierre Trudeau. The text ran as follows:
The right honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau, former prime minister of the Dominion of Canada, died on September 28th, 2000 at the age of 80.
I was alive late in his heyday, but I was much too young to be aware of government, of power and politics. The momentous events in which he played such a crucial role passed beyond my understanding, and the passion with which he led the country was lost on me as I dealt with the matters that were most important to me at that moment in my youth.
Now, I realize that when I see the images of his face before me, I gaze into the eyes of the man who shaped the nation in which I live, and formed within me, the ideas that define my personal identity as a Canadian. And I realize that in my ignorant childhood, even whilst I was unaware of the man, his work, and his vision, Pierre Elliott Trudeau had been teaching me the meaning and value of my birthright, my citizenship in this country.
May he forever rest in peace.
It's rather sappy, and perhaps overstated in some parts, but it accurately reflects my feelings. When I think about what it means to be Canadian, I think first about the fact that I am automatically Canadian by birth. My parents immigrated to Canada just before I came along. I'm not aware whether my father had yet secured his citizenship by the time I was born, but it doesn't matter. I came into being on Canadian soil, and that makes me Canadian. I suspect some people take this for granted, but there are many countries in which this is not the case (Japan, for instance).
Secondly, I think about the circumstances of my parents' arrival in Canada. My father had been on vacation, hitchhiking across Europe. On his way home to Japan, he passed through Canada, and having stayed for a while, he decided that this country was better than any other he had seen, including his native Japan. He made a phone call and invited his then fiancee to live in Canada. She accepted. And they never looked back.
I also think about the fact that I have never been made to feel out of place here. Friends have always treated me as one among them; teachers afforded me the same opportunities (and meted the same punishments) as everyone else; I have never been the target of a malicious racial slur. On one occasion, I was in a lively conversation with a group of people, and someone asked me a question. I can't quite remember what the question was, but it was something that had an implicit assumption that I did not have a Canadian citizenship. A good friend of mine jumped in, exclaiming rather indignantly, "What do you mean? He is Canadian!" This is why I love Canada. I never got a chance to thank him for that.
Would I be Canadian if Trudeau had not pushed the concept of multiculturalism? Would my father have decided to stay here if he had not been made to feel so welcome? I don't know. I'm not sure if I want to know. Somehow, it's more important for me to choose to believe the more romantic story, than to know the truth.
These were not the only thoughts in my head as I pondered whether to join the line-up that evening on Parliament Hill. I also had practical, logistical concerns. I reasoned that there would probably be fewer people, and therefore a shorter wait, if I arrived early the next morning. However, I had made plans, and it would have been a little awkward to back out. I asked a man who appeared to be part of the television crew, what time they plan on opening the doors the next morning. 11AM, he said. Later than I'd thought.
I had also been thinking that two days is not a very long time for the people of an entire country (a country so large) to pay their respects, to a man of such stature. And what of the people who live in, say Whitehorse, for instance? What chance are they being given to visit the former PM before he is returned to the Earth? I considered how fortunate I was to be living in Ottawa at this particular time.
So, I finally decided that if I did not take this opportunity to pay my respects, I would regret it. I joined the line.
I glanced at the clock on the peace tower and took particular note of the time. 8:45. I estimated that the U-shape at the end of the line was approximately the same length as one side of the square, and so basically, I had to traverse the four edges of the square in order to arrive at the entrance. The lying-in-state was to continue until 11PM, so I had just over two hours. I did some simple math and reasoned that if I could reach the next corner of the square in half an hour, I would get to the doors of Centre Block in two hours, and I'd make it in.
Fifteen minutes later, I gauged the distance travelled. I was not quite half way to the corner. I estimated that this edge of the square would take me about forty minutes. I would not get to the doors by 11PM. I began to wonder what they would do. A steady stream of new people had kept the length of the line unchanged behind me. Would they actually turn people away at 11PM? I could imagine few things that would paint the government a worse colour. "Sorry, you can't see Mr. Trudeau, your time's up." How the media would be all over the officials like a horde of vultures on a dismembered animal! And rightly so! I felt sure that the police, ushers and others would get the overtime they deserve, and continue working until the line is gone. Surely, this was really not unexpected. About half an hour later, my guess was confirmed as a police officer proclaimed to the people in the line that everyone who wants to see Mr. Trudeau will get a chance; as long as there is a line-up, the doors would remain open.
The line moved along, slowly but surely. Some people had brought their children with them; the joyful sounds of the kids as they chased each other and played on the lawn of Parliament was in stark contrast to the quiet mood of the adults in line. The adults seemed to form a giant protective fence around the children as they played. It was an interesting sight.
It was cold. I was so grateful to myself for having remembered to dress warmly. A woman just in front of me had obviously not worn enough. She clutched her arms around herself as she shivered in the wind, and she repeatedly sought warm hugs from a tall man whom I assumed was her husband.
French. I was very pleased to hear French being spoken by a couple of old ladies behind me. It gave me just a little hope for the country. However, they were completely outnumbered by anglophones, and when the policeman came around to announce that the doors would remain open past 11PM, he spoke only in English. A third lady had to translate for the other two. I can fully understand the feelings of francophones (Quebecers especially, of course) if they feel just a little insulted at Canada's claim to being a "bilingual" country. If any city in the nation should be completely bilingual, it should be Ottawa.
It was around 10:30PM, and I was finally next to the Centennial Flame again. The crowd had not diminished much, although the television cameras had gone. I glanced around to see how long the line was. It was still long enough to round the far corner of the square.
From far in front, I could hear a man's voice. Someone was adressing the line, but I couldn't hear what he was saying.
My feet hurt something obscene. I crouched down to ease the pain. I'd been hiking in Gatineau Park earlier, so I had literally spent the entire day on my feet, and they weren't letting me forget it.
About half an hour later, I saw the man who was addressing the line. He had about half a dozen people in tow, mostly children, holding a gigantic flag. It was a single flag assembled by sewing together the flags of all the provinces and territories, with a large Canadian flag in the centre. He gave a speech about national unity and the symbolism of the giant flag (in both official languages, good for him), and then motioned his entourage to follow him as he repeated his speech to the people further down in line.
I finally reached the stairs in front of the Centre Block. I wondered briefly if the two elderly ladies behind me would need help with the steps, but the line was moving so slowly that they could take them one at a time, between which they were able to sit down for short rests. There was still over half an hour of waiting to go, because this was where the line formed the big U-shape, but the main doors of parliament were finally in view.
At the top of the stairs, I noticed that there was a francophone news team getting ready for what I assumed would be a live broadcast. Someone charged up the steps and broke through the line behind me to walk up and talk to the reporter. In the scuffle, the two ladies behind me somehow ended up in front of me. To my slight annoyance, they didn't acknowledge the fact at all; they didn't even acknowledge my existence. But I wasn't about to argue with a couple of old women about being delayed for ten or twenty seconds, especially after having waited for two hours up to this point. (Not that I'm an argumentative person under any circumstance.)
Soon after, the news broadcast began. They were interviewing a young boy; with him was the man who was presenting the giant flag to the people in line. The man was, to all appearances, the child's father. I wondered where the reporter was from, and how she felt about Trudeau. Was she honoured or annoyed to cover this story? No doubt, she was simply focused on doing her job.
A man behind me (who used to be two places behind me) noticed me and said, "Where have you been all this time?" With the line scuffle incident gone from my head, I had difficulty understanding him. I thought he was joking, and laughed a little. I mean, give me a break; where have we all been all this time? It quickly dawned on me, however, that it was a serious question, despite his outwardly jovial demeanour. I finally realized what he meant, and tried to explain how the line got mixed up earlier. In retrospect, he must have been wondering whether I had butted in.
Finally, I reached a point where I could touch the walls of the Centre Block. About twenty minutes to go. A woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties appeared and joined the man behind me. Their manner was one of a married couple, but he was much older: early fifties, perhaps. The woman struck up a conversation with me, commenting on how unusual (how "neat") it was to find someone of my relative youth at an occasion like this. She probably thought I was in my early or mid-twenties. We talked (including her husband, of course!) about Trudeau, and multiculturalism, and made some small talk about the Gatineau Hills, and my hike.
At this point, my feet didn't hurt quite as much as they had before. Perhaps the pain nerves had just given up in frustration.
My conversation with my neighbours behind me was interrupted as we finally reached the giant doors of the Parliament Buildings. As we stepped into the main hall, the spectacle of the marble pillars, the vaulted ceilings, and the intricate stonework added to the almost oppressive solemnity of the occasion, and stifled all conversation. Everyone, including the children, was hushed as they slowly took their final steps to approach the casket in which Pierre Trudeau lay.
It was with dismay that I noticed that the casket was closed. I had been hoping, for example, to see an open casket with a sheet of plexiglass protecting the body. I would guess that many others were also hoping to see the man himself, instead of a box. Beautiful though the box was, it was nevertheless just a box. From what I remember, it was all white with gold trim, and of course, it had a Canadian flag draped over it.
Up to this point, I was never certain exactly how I should go about paying my respects. In Japan, there are traditions, when visiting the deceased, of either burning incense or showering the gravestone with rice wine, traditions which, I suspected, would not be appreciated in this context. I noticed that many people were crossing their breasts. However, I don't identify with Christianity any more than Buddhism or Shintoism, so I wasn't clear on what I should do.
My indecision continued almost to the last second. One thing I settled was that I should touch the casket. I decided this especially since it was closed (if that makes any sense). Some people were reaching out and briefly contacting the casket's surface with one finger; it was an action that seemed almost perfunctory to me, and I decided against such a gesture.
I stepped up, set my bag down next to me, folded my hands in front of me, lowered my eyes, and (in my very weary state) did my best to fill my mind with the reasons for my being there.
Mr. Trudeau, thank you for my country. Thank you for that most cherished part of me that I call Canadian. Thank you for the just society that accepts me for who I am.
I reached out with my right hand and deliberately placed it, full palm, on top of the casket. I imagined that my hand was lying on his breast.
Too quickly, it was all over. I picked up my bag and moved on.
In the hall behind the chamber was a long series of desks, upon which were books, in which people were penning their goodbyes. I wrote a short excerpt from my web tribute and signed it. Finally, I exited the building. It was almost midnight.
It is often said that Canada is not really a nation in the sense that the citizens all share a common ancestry, or history, or folklore (and some, not without justification, argue that Quebec is). Some say that Canada is becoming, or has become, a mere appendage of the United States (English Canada anyway). But I believe the Canadian nation is stronger than those people think, because on that night, I - along with thousands of others, I'm certain - felt that I had somehow actualized my Canadian identity, in a way and to a degree that I had never done before.