My first trip outside this country took me to Canada. Back in the nineteen-forties, the family of a high-school friend invited me go with them to Montreal. I knew little of art and culture in those days, but I managed to grasp something of the city’s charm.
Ever since then, I have been interested in things Canadian. My focus has been on cities, whose variety never ceases to amaze me. I enjoyed speaking French in Quebec City, and encountering a rich variety of Pacific cultures in Vancouver.
These experiences were certainly a far cry from those of my parents who – like thousands of others - - went several times to the Ontario compound that housed the Dionne quintuplets. In the nineteen-thirties, those five little girls were a tourist attraction rivaling Niagara Falls.
Our country’s view of Canada has matured in the last fifty years or so. No longer simply a kind neighbor taken for granted, it has provided us with a number of useful challenges.
During the Vietnam War, I admired Canada for welcoming U.S. citizens who refused to participate in an unjust conflict. And I continue to envy the political climate that led to the establishment and maintenance of universal health care.
Decades ago, I valued the way in which Pierre Trudeau, as prime minister, galvanized and affirmed the nation. He upheld Canadian unity and identity against the Quebec separatist movement; and he brought about the establishment of an independent Canadian constitution.
In his lifetime, Pierre inspired both hero-worship and passionate opposition. Since his death in 2000, he has been ranked by most historians among the great Canadian prime ministers.
This past October, Pierre Trudeau’s son Justin led the Liberal Party to an impressive victory, becoming prime minister and evoking memories of his father.
Born when his father was in office, Justin Trudeau has always been a familiar figure to Canadians. He became even more so on the occasion of his father’s funeral, when he approached the casket and said movingly: “Je t’aime, papa.”
Like his father, Justin Trudeau is an accomplished athlete. In 2012, he earned some renown in the sports world when he agreed to participate in a charity boxing match against a Conservative senator named Patrick Brazeau. Presumably, Justin’s six-two athletic build helped him in this challenge.
At this point, Justin Trudeau’s energy and expressiveness mark a sharp difference with his predecessor, the uncharismatic (and ultimately unpopular) Stephen Harper. Trudeau’s media skills provide a useful contrast with Harper’s widely remarked lack of transparency.
The Canadian writer Guy Lawson has seen the recent election as ”an existential struggle over what it means to be a Canadian.” We do not yet know if he is right, but already there seems to be a new spirit in the nation.
We in the States will get a closer look at Justin Trudeau before long. A Washington visit is planned, and he will be honored at a formal state dinner at the White House. This is the first such reception for a Canadian leader since 1997, and it appears to signal a new rapprochement between Washington and Ottawa.
I think of my friends Tom and Maria in Montreal. During the enviably brief Canadian election season, they were very anxious for national change. As the electoral results show, many others felt the same way.
As we all begin a new year, I raise a hopeful toast to Tom and Maria and their fellow citizens. This political moment is important for the people of Canada and for us in the United States as well.
May we find a new spirit in the January of a new year.