I was walking home tonight and listening to Ideas on CBC. It was the 2006 Dalton Camp Lecture in Journalism by Roy McGregor. This gentleman has been a journalist for over thirty years, and has spent much of his work focussing on the different parts and viewpoints of the Canadian macrocosm (it’s too big to be a microcosm).
The first story that he shared had the greatest impact on me. When Pierre Elliot Trudeau died, a number of journalists joined the funeral train, mainly to interview family and friends for their respective newspapers, magazines, and whatnot. The train was travelling from Ottawa to Montreal. It had four passenger cars, and the journalist were kept in a single car, and were periodically visited by people like Mark LaLonde. While this was going on, and the gentlemen of the press were jockeying to get the most insightful and pithy questions into the mix, Roy happened to look out the window into a farmer’s field. The tractor was stopped, the farmer was standing beside it at attention, and he held that pose until the train passed. A bit later he noticed an old couple parked by the side of the tracks, who also held a solemn vigil as the train passed. Then there was a man waving a Canadian Flag, and the flagpole was a hockey stick (how inconic can you get). At a railway stop a little later a group of children waved frantically and happily at the train.
This went on and on. As community after community was passed, local people expressed their feelings about Trudeau. The responses depended on where the train was at the time. In certain communities in Quebec, for example, the onlookers saluted with their middle finger. Later a veteran in full dress uniform saluted the train. A surprising number of people waited on the sidings for the passage of the Great Man and his mourners.
Roy decided that this was a more significant story about Trudeau’s death than what was going on in the press car; what Trudeau meant to Canadians was being told person by person on the sides of the tracks. I was personally struck by the symbolism associated with the funeral train. Canada was made one country by the railways, and people came to know each other by travelling it. Immigrants from around the world would land in Canada by ship, and most would get on the trains and head west to where they and their descendants would make a new life for themselves in the New World.
Trudeau was one of the great federalists of Canadian History, and I think he would have appreciated, with a degree of affection and wry humour, this swiftly passing story of his impact on Canadians. He was also one of the most loved (and hated) Prime Ministers in Canadian history, and I personally believe he tried to bring us all together, without taking away our beliefs and local peculiarities.
I still miss him.