Sunny ways, people!

Stefan Randström

Revolutions suck.

Greatest anomaly in the political kingdom: a beast that eats its children. People suffer, and then they suffer more. And more. Guts and dust and dirt and gulag. No end in sight.

Except when they happen peacefully, in slow motion. Like the Canadian one Justin Trudeau pulled off the other day.

Sunny ways, people!

Sometimes when I look back, I get the feeling nothing big ever happened in my life time. I mean BIG, as in world wars, or class wars, or religious wars – events propelled by human passions, global fires out of control. Thank god.

But it hasn’t been completely uneventful. During the half century it’s taken me to travel from the fall of 1963 to the spring of 2016, I’ve had the privilege to witness a surprising number of massive political upheavals. The Berlin Wall came crashing down. Mandela got out. Pinochet was busted. The people of The United States of America elected a black man as their leader. The Arab Spring bloomed.

And: Justin Trudeau won the Canadian election.

Well, you think, what’s that to write home about? A nation at the end of earth sitting on a very unfortunate gigantic patch of the world’s dirtiest oil, with people and culture as exciting as porridge.

You’re right about the oil, but wrong otherwise, on both counts.

One: Canada’s recent election could turn out to be one of the most important milestones in the journey towards the survival of our species, and the planet as we know it.

Two: Canada and Canadians have figured out what Europe is badly failing at: integration.

Any reasonable political observer would agree that the world today faces two major challenges: energy and the mass movement of large numbers of humans. If we cannot find a clean energy solution to an ever hungrier planet, we’ll all go down. And if we and our cultures cannot open our arms to the world’s needy, those on foot because of war or poverty, we’ll all doomed.

Justin Trudeau’s Canada can show the way.

Before I go on, it is perhaps pertinent to admit the obvious: I like Justin Trudeau and I am very impressed by his first months as Canada’s prime minister.

He has assembled a government where half the minister’s are female, because it is 2016. The minister of justice is a female Native Canadian lawyer. The minister of defence is a sikh war veteran who fought in Afghanistan. The minister of science is a climatologist.

A scientist specialized in climate change! And this after ten horrible years in a political wilderness where the conservative prime minister Stephen Harper denied that global warming even existed.

Please allow me to tell you that seeing the new government, and hearing about its goals, was like pulling the curtains open to sunshine after a very very long time of mind-numbing darkness. There were actually people out there who were thinking and feeling all along, like the hobbits and the elves in The Lord of The Rings.

This doesn’t mean that I am a political virgin or blind to the fact that power always corrupts. Like all leaders, Justin Trudeau will make mistakes, and one fine day it will be time for a new election. But right now it feels like I have woken up from a ten year long conservative nightmare.

Time for some background and facts. Canada is still part of the Commonwealth, meaning Queen Elizabeth is the boss. That’s absurd of course, but mainly ceremonial. The real power lies with the prime minister and the government, which resides in the Parliament building in the world’s coldest capital, Ottawa.

Historically, Canada has been governed by a succession of Liberal and Conservative governments, the Liberals having been in power so often and so long that they are sometimes referred to as “The Natural Governing Party”. The left has never governed.

Justin Trudeau’s father Pierre Trudeau was the Olof Palme of Canada. He transformed the country from a boring backwater into a modern progressive nation during two stints as prime minister in the 1970’s and 80’s. Just as Palme, he was a very divisive character: Canadians from coast to coast either loved or loathed him, and both camps with equal passion.

Canada went through a bout of Trudeaumania, where young voters, mostly female, treated Pierre as a fifth member of the Beatles. Justin’s mom Margareth added to the lore when she took off to New York and hung out with Mick Jagger at Studio 54. A young Justin met Richard Nixon in Ottawa, and Nixon toasted his hosts saying that the plucky boy might become the future prime minister of Canada.

But that was far from evident.

First of all, the pop culture aspect of the Trudeaus worked against any political aspirations that Justin Trudeau might have had as a young man. Instead, he studied to become a teacher, got married and had three kids. His coming out as a possible political character did not happen until his father’s funeral, where Justin gave a widely noted and moving eulogy. He then became involved in Liberal party politics just as the party fell apart big time and got elected as a Liberal member of parliament from his home town Montreal.

Secondly, it was clear right off the bat that Justin Trudeau would be treated as a political lightweight. An airhead, really. It didn’t help that he was really good looking, had long curly hair, and that his wife was a former TV star in Quebec. The Conservatives took cheap shots at him, right up until the last election, where the tagline in the attack ads was “Justin, just not ready”.

Giving ammunition to his critics, Justin Trudeau made a bigger impression in a fundraising boxing match against a conservative senator than he ever made during his early years in parliament. If the Conservatives ever worried about Justin as a possible heir to the Liberal throne, they were confident enough to laugh openly after his bout in the boxing ring.

What happened then is a thing of beauty. Even though it seems inevitable now, no one at the time could have dreamed it up.

Crushed by catastrophic leaders and elections, the Liberals languished at the bottom of the political hierarchy in Canada as the country’s second opposition party, an unenviable position with no real power to talk of. Justin was chosen to lead the party, a move that the detractors saw as a final nail in the Liberal coffin.

And then came the election, with Trudeau and the Liberals as a very distant third behind the governing Conservatives and the social democratic New Democrats. Next thing me and all Canadians are watching election night coverage and not believing our eyes: a red wave from coast to coast to coast. (Little clarification: red in Canada is the colour of the Liberals, not the left.)

The airhead Justin Trudeau had just pulled off the biggest political comeback in the history of Canada: from third party status on the verge of extinction to majority government. Harper resigned the next day, and the rest is history.

What happened? A lot of things.

The Liberals ran on a platform of ending the austerity and looking out for the middle class, and that was huge after ten years of painful budget cuts and stagnating incomes. Trudeau’s promises of renewed spending offered the voters a fresh alternative to Harper’s grim cutting, and in combination with lower taxes for the middle class the newly elected liberal leader had pulled off a classic one-two punch.

However, the Liberals also promised a number of other things, none of them puny. Take your pick:

1. Canada is joining the global fight against climate change.

2. Canada is going to take a hard look at the the list of missing and murdered indigenous women.

3. Canada is going to have as many women as men in the new government.

On top of that, the Liberals promised to legalize marijuana, to work on legislation for assisted suicide and to abolish conservative tough-on-crime laws. And to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees within a couple of months of coming to power. All of which, if you ask me, helps pull Canada from a sad state of affairs into a global force of change.

A few months in anyone can see that Trudeau means business.

One: the turmoil in the international oil business turned Alberta’s dirty oil taps off before Trudeau got to it, but government money is now being directed towards research in renewable sources of energy. It’s a long journey, tangled up in difficult questions of employment and provincial jurisdiction, but there’s no doubt that Trudeau means business: we have to find an alternative to oil.

Two: Trudeau has met with Aboriginal leaders from all over the country and solemnly promised to work to improve the living conditions of Native Canadians. From the outside, it is hard to appreciate the depth of this challenge. Trudeau and his ministers have to find a way to deal with not only the missing and murdered Aboriginal women, but also to deal with decades of physical and sexual abuse of Aboriginal children in state sanctioned Catholic schools. This is an open bleeding wound, and to heal, it needs not only legal expertise but also empathy on the part of the whole nation.

Three: a no-brainer. Fifty-fifty men and women in power. Done. Makes me so proud to have the prime minister announce that he is a feminist at the UN head quarters in New York.

Finally, a word about integration.

What’s so special about Canada taking in 25,000 Syrians? Europe is taking millions, and Turkey even more. Isn’t it a bit rich of the leader of a wealthy and geographically fortunate nation to be hectoring the international community about moral obligations?

Maybe. But there are a number of Canadian solutions Europe would do well in studying.

When the first Syrians came, Justin Trudeau met them at the airport. He gave a family winter clothes and wished them welcome – not to Canada, but home. You are home now, the prime minister said to the refugees, and not an eye was dry.

Financially, Canada has come up with a novel solution: private sponsorship of refugees. For instance, Canadians reached out and helped settle tens of thousands of the Vietnamese boat people, taking the newcomers under their wing for one year and helping them with everything from money to language to employment. Groups of these Vietnamese Canadians are now returning the favour by sponsoring Syrians.

Canada is a nation of immigrants. Everyone, except the Aboriginal Canadians, came to these shores very recently. Justin’s father Pierre realized that diversity could be a positive force, and he promoted the concept of a multicultural nation. Justin grew up with that understanding. Today, Toronto is (according to UN) the world’s ethnically and culturally most diverse city, full of deep, good life.

I’ve lived here for 20 years, and there is nowhere else I’d rather be. I am proud to be a Finnish Canadian, proud and happy to be a tiny sliver in the massive cultural mosaic that makes up this truly modern nation.

The lesson to the rest of the world? Diversity is strength.

And so, here we are. Canada, very recently an international pariah because of it’s climate change denial and other troglodyte policies, has become an international darling. Google Justin Trudeau and you’ll get a very long list of links to selfies of the prime minister in various world saving efforts.

Of course Canadians are a little weary, like Finns with regards to Alexander Stubb. But I dare venture that most Canadians are still pretty pumped. If you want to be involved in the political game in 2016, you better know your way around Facebook, and Instagram, and Snapchat.

But more than that, you need to deliver. And the feeling in the country is still very much that Justin Trudeau delivers.

Canada is finally part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Sadly, we all know how history goes. New walls are built. Crazy rich white men snatch the crown back. And spring turn to winter.

But that’s not the end of it. Things swing back and forth, and on the whole, maybe it’s more than a zero-sum game.

Stupid? Short-sighted? No, on the contrary. It’s the long view. Good old boring old democracy. The will of the people.

I’m filled with hope right now now, just having seen the Canadian version in action. It’s a force as inevitable as thaw after a long winter, and as unpredictable as the river when dams burst.

Keep your eyes on Canada.


Julkaistu lyhennettynä suomennoksena Ytimessä 2/2016.