We begin the Second Age of Trudeau with a lie:
After a stunning election night victory, Justin Trudeau said his majority Liberal government is proof that “positive, optimistic” politics are not just a “naive dream.”
Trudeau said Canadians chose “real change” when they elected Liberal MPs across the nation, pushing out the Conservative government after nearly 10 years and forcing Stephen Harper to resign as party leader.
“Sunny ways my friends, sunny ways,” Trudeau told a jubilant crowd in his Montreal riding of Papineau, invoking the philosophy of former prime minister Wilfrid Laurier.
I choked a bit when he invoked Laurier. Like a much beloved aunt being called a whore. Justin Trudeau isn't an actual liberal. The original and proper meaning of liberal is a defender of individual liberty, a fierce opponent to big and intrusive government. That was the liberalism of George Brown, Alexander Mackenzie, Edward Blake and Sir Wilfrid Laurier. It is not the liberalism of the Trudeau Family or their cronies. Very much the opposite.
Yet modern pseudo-liberals love to invoke the name of Laurier. It links them with one of the country's nation builders. A century later they're borrowing the glory of his accomplishments to hide their own shabby schemes for power. Pierre Trudeau even hung a picture of Laurier in his office, as if the man who spoke of "freedom is our nationality" was looking down and endorsing the most anti-freedom administration in Canadian history.
The theme of Trudeau Junior's victory oration was toleration and "sunny ways." Yet the origin of Laurier's famous phrase is quite specific and grounded in a vital moment in Canadian history. Trudeau uses Laurier's catch phrase as an expression of vapid optimism. By contrast Laurier originated the phrase when advocating a specific political strategy to resolve a national crisis.
We need to roll back the chronometer a bit to explain. Way back in 1870 the newly founded Parliament of Canada created the province of Manitoba. As a concession to the Metis who dominated the Red River region at the time, and had rebelled just the previous year, the Manitoba Act specifically included provisions for publicly funded French Catholic schools. Since similar provisions were included in the British North America mandating such schools in Ontario, it wasn't that much of a political leap.
Fast forward to the 1890s and the Metis had become a tiny minority in their own province, swamped by floods of Protestant settlers from Ontario. Manitoba Premier Thomas Greenway scrapped the province's publicly funded Protestant and Catholic schools, creating instead a single non-sectarian public system. This provoked howls of outrage from Quebec - quelle surprise - that the rights of the French language and Catholic Church were being trodden upon. The more prosaic reality was that numbers simply did not warrant a separate French Catholic system as they did in Ontario.
After a series of protracted court battles the issue fell into the lap of the then Prime Minister, Mackenzie Bowell. In an attempt to resolve the issue he proposed "remedial" legislation that would have forced the Manitoba government to re-establish public funding for Catholic schools. This is despite the fact that education is a provincial responsibility.
Laurier opposed the remedial legislation, arguing that the federal government was both intruding on provincial jurisdiction and exacerbating a national unity crisis. Laurier's solution was to work with the Manitoba Premier Greenway to establish a reasonable compromise. This was Laurier's "sunny way." Invoking an old parable Laurier explained his strategy for resolving the Manitoba Schools Question thusly:
Well, sir, the government are very windy. They have blown and raged and theatened, but the more they have theatened and raged and blown the more that man Greenway has stuck to his coat. If it were in my power, I would try the sunny way. I would approach this man Greenway with the sunny way of patriotism, asking him to be just and to be fair, asking him to be generous to the minority, in order that we may have peace among all the creeds and races which it has pleased God to bring upon this corner of our common country. Do you not believe that there is more to be gained by appealing to the heart and soul of men rather than to compel them to do a thing?
After trouncing the Conservatives in the 1896 election, Laurier met with Greenway and hashed out a deal. French Catholic education would be allowed in public schools, but only if there were at least 10 Francophone pupils at the school. As even a Papal observer concluded it was the fairest deal possible given the province's tiny Catholic population.
That was Laurier's legacy. Persuasion rather than coercion. Does that sound like the legacy of the Trudeaus? Father or son? When Peter Lougheed fought for provincial rights against the authoritarian National Energy Policy (NEP) did Pierre Trudeau show him the "sunny way"? Quite the opposite. He ran roughshod over the rights of Albertans in a way far more blatant, and far less excusable, than Mackenzie Bowell nearly a century earlier.
Justin Trudeau isn't Wilfrid Laurier's heir, he is Pierre Trudeau's heir. There will be few sunny ways now that Justin, Gerald, Katie and Kathleen are masters of our national destiny.