One of the upsides of living in a free society is the chance to hear and read the opinions of others. Most times those opinions don’t change much in your own thinking or re-enforce it. Depending on the writer, you get exactly what you were thinking you would when you read it, but you read it anyway. But sometimes you read an opinion on something that really forces you to re-think your position, your own thoughts and see things in a different way. That happened to me today, around the topic of this event that took place earlier this week:
Yes, the pause heard around the World. The pause that launched a thousand opinions and millions of Tweets, evenly divided between enraged at and fawning over Justin Trudeau, as is true of most things that involve him. Personally, I hadn’t thought too much of this because the moment wasn’t that striking to me. I didn’t think he was being cagey, or pensive, or evasive. I didn’t think that we he was being brave or a coward as so many have cried from their keyboards.
Honestly, my reaction to it was “meh”. I was more upset about his silence yesterday over the actions of an RCMP officer in Nunavut, who took down an Inuk man with his truck. That felt much more important to me than if JT took 20 seconds to reflect on a question and if that pause was deliberate or a sign of vapidity, again all depending on your perspective. But this morning I finally had the chance to read a piece in the Globe and Mail from Peter Donolo, best known as Director of Communications to former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and it was something to take in:
I have to admit that this piece was something I wasn’t expected and really changed my view on this topic. Donolo makes a great point regarding dealing with situations like these with leaders like Trump while taking Justin Trudeau to the woodshed in a diplomatic way. His big point is that no approach, either speaking out loud or staying meekly quiet, is without risk and that staying quiet brings no assurance of being spared the rather of those who you wish not to offend. He called it the danger of creeping ““Finlandization” of Canada and Canadian politics – the cowering and self-censorship of a smaller nation out of fear of its larger, more powerful neighbour.” The term comes from some peoples’ observations about how Finland dealt with its larger neighbour, the Soviet Union, during the Cold War. As he points out about this approach “it can seem clever and self-serving early on, but before you know it, it can become a fact of life and a source of national self-loathing.”
It was that line that really turned my head on this here. I can see the wisdom in keeping your head down and not wanting to raise the ire of a thin-skinned and easily aggrieved person like Donald Trump in many situations. But what Donolo points to, which I can equally see, is that you cannot live your life based on fear of the potential outbursts and Tweets of such a person. Plus it’s not like during the Trump Presidency we’ve been left untouched. The whole re-negotiation of NAFTA is a great example, then adding the betrayals that came from Trump’s attempts to cut off PPE sales to us during this pandemic is another. Both examples show that no matter how much we try to keep our heads down that we will not be spared if Trump feels it’s in his best interest. That’s the lens that he looks at everything through.
Also, there is much to be said for having the self-respect of standing up for yourself and your own values in the face of someone or something that is antithetical to them. Lester Pearson spoke out against the Vietnam War in a speech in the US, which ticked off Lyndon B. Johnson while opening Canada’s doors to American draft dodgers. Jean Chrétien kept Canada of the second Iraq War, a decision that was right then and looked even better later. And let’s not forget Pierre Trudeau and his relationship with Richard Nixon. The elder Trudeau didn’t make virtue out of silence when it came to that President. He did so to the point where Nixon, who was notorious for his actions towards his “enemies”, real or perceived, was caught on tape showing just how little he thought of him. In all of those cases I would argue those PM’s may have had rougher waters, but in taking the positions that they did they earned the respect of their American counterparts.
And that might be the key thing here when it comes to dealing with Donald Trump, who is a walking, talking stereotype of a basic school yard bully. The best way to deal with them is not to hide in the corner and hope he doesn’t notice us, because at some point, he will and our time in the barrel will come. The best way is to stand up to him, stay firm and go from there. A Canadian Prime Minister can do that, especially when we focus on the things that we have going for us. We may be a middle power in this World, but we are a G7 nation and the biggest trading partner for the United States. They have as much to lose from messing up our relationship as we do, and sometimes they need to be reminded of that. When it came to dealing with trade issues, PMJT did this to good effect by engaging with state governors and leveraging them to help remind the White House, which he deserves credit for.
So that leaves us to ask why not now, especially in the face of actions from this President that are so antithetical to free and democratic expression? The fact is that as a neighbour, supposedly one of the closest allies and maybe more importantly, a friend, we should be able to be more direct and blunter. We all know that sometimes it takes a good friend to talk some sense into us, knowing that it’s good for all involved. And let’s be clear; being silent while the United States devolves, along with its liberal democracy, is not in our best interests at all. Canadians are not served by seeing the “Leaders of the Free World” become a dictatorship. In fact, as history has shown us, Canada and our democracy would be in serious danger if that were to happen. We would truly know what it was like for Finland in the Cold War, because that would become our new reality, being a smaller power bordered by an autocratic regime.
And that’s what I take from Donolo’s comments that turned my head around on this. Sometimes discretion may be the better part of valour, but other times the best way to be a friend and neighbour is to be blunt and uncompromising in your values. That’s the best way to ensure those values win the day and remain strong and, in this moment, with everything that’s going on to our South, that seems warranted. So now is the time for the PM to take a firmer line because just as doing so is in the hope that our American neighbours will take those words to heart and correct course, but because we hope our own government will do the same. I may be of a different political stripe than Justin Trudeau but I’m not rooting for his failure here because to root for that is to root for our failure as a country. I want him to succeed in this moment because it will ensure that we are in a better place as a nation and in this case that means suggesting he follows the words of Jean Chretien’s former Director of Comms. As weird as it feels to write that, I know it’s right because it’s what’s needed. Just another odd moment that 2020 has brought us, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.