It was extremely moving this afternoon to stand and watch this vast crowd, the biggest I have ever seen in my long life, young people for the most part, but young and old joined in a single cause, file by in an eloquent, peaceful act of civil protest against the inaction that has marked the political response to the gathering emergency of the human-induced warming of the climate.
The moving aspect of this experience was somehow heightened when one considered that it was all stimulated by this tiny slip of a girl, Greta Thunberg, who emerged as a 15-year-old from her shaky status as a sufferer from a combination of Asperger syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism, to stand each day with a sign before the Swedish Riksdag or Parliament, carrying a sign saying School Strike for Climate.
Organizers estimated today’s crowd in Montreal at 500,000 --- far outstripping the 60,000 people I remember gathering in Trafalgar Square, London, in the 1960s in favour of another great cause, their Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Although that campaign had gathered huge public support, had even won to its side the British Labour Party after an intense and astonishing debate, all that meant nothing to the politicians, who blissfully ignored the democratic decision, with the result that the major powers still are brandishing nuclear weapons at each other, and one could not help but wonder today if a similar fate may not befall this impressive display of public uneasiness about climate warming.
Ms. Thunberg, perhaps because her physical disabilities require that she speak only when she has something to say, is an extremely impressive speaker, riveting as she delivers her forceful message with her blunt, powerful delivery, a message that is simple in the extreme: listen to the science, she tells the politicians, act on the science.
She seems to be too serious a young woman to peddle in ironies, but if she were, she might have jibbed at the presence in this great protest march against the inactivity of political leaders, of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who she had, politely, in a brief interview before the march, told in her blunt fashion, that he was not doing enough. Trudeau, being a man whose brand is to be always on both sides at once, told her that he agreed with her.
It happens that I have just read a new book on Trudeau, which, if it gets to be read by enough people, might well finish him off as our Prime Minister. It is called The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent, by Martin Lukacs, published by Black Rose Books of Montreal, 295 pps, $24.50.
Lukacs is a capable writer and researcher who approaches his subject from a frankly socialist perspective, from which viewpoint --- this is nothing new!--- all political parties fall far short of what one might hope. For those of us --- I number myself among this coterie of malcontents --- who have always remained resistant to the siren song of the Liberal party of Canada, Lukacs’ recital of its strengths and weaknesses will come as well-trodden ground. He establishes Trudeau as the not altogether gifted son of a Liberal Prime Minister, good-looking, fairly eloquent on his feet, with an almost pathetic wish to please, infinitely pliable about what to believe in, but underneath the glossy-exterior that has been so skilfully sold to the world, he is a tough operator who does not react well to opposition, especially from within his own party, and whose links with the makers and shakers of the Canadian economy --- in other words, as we call them nowadays, the one percenters---are well established, and virtually unshakeable. The author must have had in mind to write this book for several years, for he recounts many occasions on which he has sneaked into events that were essentially closed to all but adherents to the status quo that the Liberal party has always been so skilful at protecting. Events like weapons fairs, or private party shindigs bringing together the top men from the Party with the leaders of the corporations from which the Liberals essentially get their orders on how to run Canada.
The picture thus presented of the Liberal Party is fascinating, paying, as it does, obeisance to their skill at maintaining themselves on top of the Canadian political heap through the shrewd manipulation of their intense contacts with the lords of Big Business.
But the picture of Trudeau himself is nothing like so pleasing: he seems to be a man skilled at saying one thing, and doing another. The most obvious examples of this are in his climate and environmental policies in which he brazenly pretends to be following contradictory policies that have so far proven to be irreconcilable, to such an extent that among some of North America’s leading environmentalists Trudeau is regarded as the King of Hypocrites.
His management of his subordinates, as illustrated by his ruthless --- but fruitless --- hounding of his former Justice Minister to vary a scheduled prosecution for bribery against the Quebec engineering giant SNC Lavalin, reveals a different face from that of the smiling optimist. Some other stories I had not heard before indicate that this willingness to accommodate Big Business was shared by those who became closest to him when he became the top gun. For example, there is a very revealing tale about his friend and mentor, Gerry Butts, when, as head of the World Wildlife Fund Canada, he presided over a determined effort to reveal the unsuitability of the Alberta Tar Sands as a source of future oil supplies. One of his subordinates realized that everything pertaining to this campaign had suddenly been expunged from their WWF web site, without explanation, except that eventually he discovered that the future mover and shaker in the future Prime Minister’s office had succumbed to determined lobbying by the oil interests to stop their accursed campaigning, so that they could get busy developing the Tar Sands. No sooner said than done, old boy.
A good deal of space is given to the close relationship of the Liberal government with the Business Council of Canada, or whatever it is now called --- they keep changing its name, but its function remains the same ---the lobbying arm for all the country’s top CEOs. For years this was headed by a man called Thomas d’Aquino; now it is headed by former Liberal minister John Manley. It is one of the most influential groups in the country, regularly consulted by government about all matters of interest to business, and usually given the task of re-writing, whenever necessary, the rules for competition in Canada. Labour interests, who could be said to have at least an equal, if not perhaps a greater interest, in the rules of business, are never consulted. ( I remember an occasion when a film I made about the aluminum multinational, Alcan, was screened on TVO, the Ontario government's outlet, that in a panel discussion following the film D’Aquino, one of the guests, was almost frothing at the mouth in rage when I said we had not asked for the company’s permission to make the film: how disgusting to spend public money from the NFB budget, on such an enterprise!)
I remember years ago on my blog I would drop in a paragraph occasionally to the effect that neither the minister of natural resources, Anne McLellan, nor John Manley was fit to be a minister, because they were, respectively in the pockets of the oil industry and the business interests, and were both tame ministers. Both of these turn up in Lukacs book as prominent advisers to the current government.
Lukacs recounts occasionally heart-rending stories, as for instance when our Foreign Minister, Christia Freeland -- another I classify as not fit to be a minister --- had to fight back tears when the Prime Minister of Walloon in Belgium refused to endorse Canada’s trade treaty with the European Union. This was one of the many treaties the Liberals had signed, including the infamous NAFTA, that extended to all multinational corporations the right to sue Canada if any legislation --- for example an environmental regulation --- might be considered likely to affect the bottom line profits of the company. This rank betrayal of the national interest is the sort of management of the economy that for years has made Canadians with a slightly nationalist bent tear out their hair. But to ministers like Freeland, such betrayals are regarded as triumphs of diplomacy.
The book is made up of many such horror-stories. It ends with Mr. Lukacs expressing his disappointment that the NDP, his favored party, should have proven such a pushover for the values of neoliberalism, that when they eventually get into power, or close to it, their policies are virtually indistinguishable from those of the Liberals.
It strikes me that this is likely to be a more or less permanent condition, since Canadians, although more progressive in their politics than our neighbours to the south, are still, at their centre, a relatively conservative people, unwilling, it seems, to embark on any course that might be described as too radical.
The Trudeau Formula, from this perspective, is an essential, but not a comforting, read. It convinces me that I don’t like Trudeau, but leaves me confronted with the dilemma: his likely replacement as Prime Minister, should he lose the current election, seems to be fifty times worse.
Woe is me! Woe is us! And my mantra --- wot the hell, wot the hell? --- is no comfort.