This week Canadian Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau will be soon in as the country’s twenty-third Prime Minister. Since his Liberal Party of Canada’s majority election victory much has been said and written about what to expect from Trudeau. I am pleased that for the most part the attention has been focussed on Justin, and not his father Pierre Elliott Trudeau who was our fifteenth PM. It is up to Justin to succeed or fail based on his own merits, not his father’s legacy.
However hearing the Trudeau name repeatedly brought back a personal memory of my meeting with Trudeau Senior. When he left politics in the early eighties he was offered and accepted a partnership with a prestigious Montreal law firm. This is a fairly common occurrence; Montreal being, among many other things, the city of former Prime Ministers. I suspect the deal is more about giving former Prime Ministers a place to do their thing – memoirs, speaking engagements – in return for placing their name on the firm’s letterhead.
I consider myself fortunate to have had a short, one-on-one meeting with Mr. Trudeau during this time. He a former Prime Minister and me a young political organizer. The encounter started out with neither of us seeing eye-to-eye with the other, but ended with smiles.
Let me explain. In the spring of 1985 I was a contracted coordinator of political conventions. I played no part in policy, but was responsible for putting microphones in front of guest speakers, food on plates and delegates in accommodations. I was also the coordinator of several committees involved with the convention I was working on at that time. The chairmen of one of those committees was a lawyer at Mr. Trudeau’s firm, and I needed to meet with him.
One fine morning I arrived at the lobby of the building that housed this firm only to discover that the bank of elevators destined for the upper floors was, with one execution, out of order. As the crowd grew in the lobby, and a security guard did his best to manage traffic in the one elevator, many folks opted to go off for a coffee, and return when things were back to normal. (Had this been Toronto there would have been much weeping and gnashing of teeth at the thought of lost office time.)
I finally squeezed into the lone functioning elevator, the door closed and we shot up to the building’s midway point before the car stopped and people started to get off. This continued for several floors, winnowing down the number of passengers until there were but two of us; Mr. Trudeau and myself. I had not even noticed he was there at first. We stood there in the ‘men at a urinal’ stance – look anywhere but at the other person – employed when only two people are in an elevator when suddenly the elevator stopped, and the lights went out.
For the next few moments I experienced a combination of claustrophobia and a tied-tongue. What to say? I would like to tell you I asked him some pretty pointed questions about his time in office, but the truth is that neither of us said a word. After a few moments the lights came back on, the elevator jerked to life, moved up to our floor and we got off. Over the years I have toyed with embellishing the experience, saying we had made plans to meet up for lunch, or go canoeing, but I always thought better of it.
When Mr. Trudeau passed away in 2000, among his honorary pallbearers were Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro. There is a photograph of these two men talking outside Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica. I often wonder if they were discussing Trudeau’s story of being stuck in an elevator with me. Guess not.