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Election eve reflections on the leaders -- especially Trudeau

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“Let us now praise famous men … renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding … Leaders of the people by their counsels … wise and eloquent are their instructions …”  -- Ecclesiastes 44

I first met Green Party leader Elizabeth May when she was still leading the Canadian Sierra Club.

At the time, leading a national political party seemed far from her preoccupations. She was thinking of a career after the environmental movement, but it was not in politics.

She was studying theology and thought her next job might be as an Anglican priest.

Privately she is the same person she is publicly: candid, thoughtful, knowledgeable, sincere.

For her and her party's sake, we should hope Monday's election produces a result that ultimately yields electoral reform.

A candid young Reform MP

I cannot say I have had much close-up experience with Conservative leader Stephen Harper.

There is one incident that sticks in my mind, though, going back two decades.

During the 1995 Quebec referendum -- which turned into a near-death experience for Canadian federalism -- the Reform party, led by Preston Manning, was the main federal opposition party from non-Quebec Canada.

Because the party had no seats in Quebec -- it had not even run candidates in Quebec -- it kept a low profile during the referendum campaign.

Manning designated one of Reform's few bilingual MPs, Calgary MP Stephen Harper, as his main spokesperson on referendum issues. In that role, Harper appeared occasionally on a radio program this writer produced at the time: The House on CBC.

On one such occasion, the question of partition came up. That is the idea that in the event of Quebec separation predominantly English speaking parts of western Montreal Island and western Quebec could then secede from Quebec.

In his response to that suggestion, Harper did not play politics. He was candid and realistic.

The young, recently elected and little known Reform MP from Alberta said those who advocated for partition should remember that their communities are economically integrated with Quebec. The notion of separating from Quebec had a superficial appeal, he suggested, but was not really practical.

I had not expected such a non-rhetorical answer from a Reform MP, and it is unlikely any other MP from Manning's team would have given such a reasoned response.

As the taping of that segment came to an end, a young woman breezed into the control room.

She looked like a busy, business-like and pre-occupied person.

Her name, she said, was Laureen Teskey.

She then added, almost parenthetically, that she was Stephen Harper's wife. She also shared the unsolicited information that she ran her own business back home, a business that kept her very busy.

Ms Teskey (not Mrs. Harper) wanted us to know she was not merely a political wife, not anyone’s 'little woman'.

A man who danced with his wife

Although I know lots of New Democrats, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that what I have written since 2011 is not sympathetic to their cause, I do not know NDP leader Tom Mulcair particularly well.

As a member of the Ottawa press corps I have seen him in action, as have my colleagues, and noted the tough and legalistic -- sometimes almost Jesuitical -- cast of his formidable intellect.

I met him in a more social circumstance through my very part-time vocation as a jazz piano player.

In that capacity, I got a gig for my band to play for Parliament's all-party party, a non-partisan holiday celebration designed to allow all of those who toil on the Hill, including security guards, translators and journalists, to drop their professional and party affiliations and have some fun, together.

That gig led to a few others, including a couple at Stornaway, the official residence of the leader of the Official Opposition.

On those occasions I got to see the warmer and, dare I say, more soulful side of Mulcair.

There's an old song I sometimes like to play called Chicago. It was one of my late father-in-law's favourites, though far from the greatest hit of all time. Many fine singers performed it, including Judy Garland. The best recorded version, I think, is by the late Jackie Cain, accompanied by her husband Roy Kral.

One verse goes this way:

On State Street, that great street

I just want to say, I just want to say

They do things they don't do on Broadway,

They have the time, the time of their life

I saw a man who danced with his wife …

Tom Mulcair is that man who danced with his wife -- and in very unglamorous Ottawa, à part de ça!

Even with jaded journalists and political operatives all around, when Mulcair felt the music he was impelled to invite his wife Catherine onto the non-existent dance floor.

He did not fear looking vulnerable or foolish to the assembled group of hard-boiled, professional cynics.

It is not the NDP leader’s usual image, but it said a lot about him.

More important, of course, we should not forget Mulcair's tenacity in holding a fiercely partisan and controlling Prime Minister to account, while the leader of the third party spent much of his time taking selfies with his fans.

Nor should we forget Mulcair's courage in opposing that ghastly piece of legislation known as Bill C-51, when all opinion polls showed it was wildly popular, especially in Mulcair's home province.

The leader of the third party scurried for cover before he and his party had even had time to adequately study C-51.

Finally, there is a cruel irony to Mulcair's honourable and principled stand on the niqab controversy.

It cost Mulcair and the NDP support in the heart of francophone Quebec -- which, in turn, may have caused many of their erstwhile spporters in English Canada to switch to Justin Trudeau's party, believing the Liberals had the best chance of unseating Harper.

But Mulcair is also a joyous, dedicated husband, father and grandfather, qualities the rational and determined parliamentary prosecutor sometimes hides. 

Will Trudeau remember those who put him in power or heed lobbyists?

As for Justin Trudeau, by sheer chance I have had the most private time with him of all the leaders.

I met him in 2009, when he was a newly elected MP.

At the time, I was doing policy work for an advocacy organization called Volunteer Canada.

Trudeau had a private member's bill before the House that related to volunteering, and when I heard about it, I called Trudeau's aide, smart and capable Louis Alexandre Lanthier, who had previously worked for Liberal MP Ken Dryden.

Lanthier invited me to lunch in the sixth floor Parliamentary Dining Room, to talk things over and I expected to be talking only to him.

But when the time came, Trudeau himself appeared.

He, like May, was pretty much the same in private as in public: bubbly, enthusiastic, energetic, almost preternaturally cheerful.

I was in the visitors' gallery when Trudeau gave his first speech in the House, in support of his own bill.

It was a sleepy evening in February and the place was largely empty.

One NDP MP did rise to his feet to support the young Liberal MP, and spoke admiringly about Trudeau's late father.

We met a few more times on the volunteering issue, but I was more impressed with Trudeau’s policy acumen when I met him, about a year later, to, in effect, lobby on behalf of beleaguered Roma refugees from Central Europe.

The Harper government had decided to demonize the Roma ( aso known as 'Gypsies')  as "bogus" and "queue jumpers".

I had a different view as a result of a documentary film I was directing on the Canadian Roma, "Never Come Back."

At the time, the cautious and by nature small-c conservative Michael Ignatieff was Liberal leader, and Trudeau was the party's immigration critic.

In that capacity, he knew his stuff. In fact, he educated me about some of the principles of refugee policy.

I asked him how one might counter the Harper government argument that Roma couldn't be refugees because they came from  "safe," liberal-democratic European countries.

Trudeau explained that there is something called the duty to protect.

Even if governments in such countries as Hungary do not actively persecute the Roma themselves, the then Liberal immigration critic said, if those governments do not or cannot protect the Roma from attacks by organized groups of extreme right racist thugs, then Roma could legitimately claim refugee status.

When Trudeau was the only leader to put the Harper government's cancellation of health benefits for refugees on the table, in two of the leaders' debates, I, for one, was heartened.

He had obviously retained the lessons he had learned when he held the opposition's immigration portfolio.

After Trudeau became leader, I was puzzled at the Liberal party's decision to market him as a kind of pure celebrity product, devoid of content.

Back in January of this year, I wrote a piece for rabble entitled: "Trudeau's Liberals are about more than pure celebrity."

In it, I said:

He… was well acquainted with the complex details of both immigration and refugee policy. Many MPs, and even more journalists, have a weak grasp of those issues. A great many are not even clear on the legal difference between immigrants and refugees...

Trudeau also spent a good deal of his time before entering politics working with environmental groups. That background does not show much in current Liberal policy. One suspects the party is spooked by the thrashing the Conservatives gave former leader Stéphane Dion over his 'tax on everything' … But if Trudeau were in government one has the right to hope that a commitment to sound environmental policy and sustainable development would in some way inform Liberal policies…

Justin Trudeau might well become our next prime minister.

Would it be churlish to hope, though, that we will not have another majority government -- to nourish the hope that good NDP MPs from all parts of Canada will be left standing in sufficient number to play a significant role in the next Parliament?

One has the right to fear that a majority would inevitably bring with it its evil cousins: arrogance and a sense of entitlement.

Whatever happens on Monday, this writer earnestly hopes that if Trudeau does win he remembers that it will have been hopeful and self-described progressive voters who put him there -- not old-time lobbyists and power-brokers.

It might be a good sign if a newly elected Prime Minister Trudeau were to tell his troops that they should concentrate on governing, be attentive to facts and evidence and, most importantly, refuse to take any calls from the many well-oiled lobbyists who will be besieging them.

And those who plan to vote for Trudeau's Liberals might want to take note of the many and very significant promises they have made.

None of those promises is more important than Trudeau's unambiguous pledge that "the next election will the last one run on the first-past-the-post" system.

I was there when he made that pledge, but I am not sure the old line Liberal party establishment is sincerely onside.

If he really represents change, Trudeau will stick to his guns, regardless of the many pressures exerted on him, and fulfill that promise -- and his many other promises that seem to have been carefully calibrated to attract erstwhile NDP voters.

We have to, at the very least, wish Justin Trudeau luck -- but maybe not too much. 

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