Let us now praise famous men... Justin Trudeau comes to mind. “Canada is back,” the country’s new Prime Minister told the climate conference in Paris – and closed the door on the bigoted, aggressive Canada which his Conservative predecessor had been trying to create.
It’s nice to write a story that’s an “upper” rather than a “downer” – which most Middle East reports must be. I was in Canada during the election, when former Prime Minister Stephen Harper ran a campaign of such cruel mendacity against his own country’s Muslim minority that I began to wonder if Canada had lost its moral standing in the world.
Hands up, I asked a large and wealthy group of Canadian businessmen in Banff, those of you who have had to apologise abroad for the behaviour of Stephen Harper. A miserable three raised their hands. “Some weren’t exactly telling the truth,” a conference organiser privately responded. I knew that. From being a magnanimous, peacekeeping power which believed in the UN, human rights and a multicultural future, Canada was becoming a country obsessed with security, state intrusion, fear (of Muslims, of course) and conglomerate power. Harper was an economist. Trudeau used to be a schoolteacher.
Almost the first thing he did was tell Barack Obama that Canada would no longer use its air force to bomb Isis. He closed down the government’s legal case against Muslim women who wished to wear the “niqab” partial face covering at nationalisation ceremonies. And he sent the Canadian air force to Beirut to pick up hundreds of Syrian refugees – every day – and bring them to a new home in Canada.
Unlike our own mean-minded Dave Cameron – who bleakly ignored the first planeload of Syrians who landed in the UK – Trudeau went to the airport to greet the first 163 refugees who would find sanctuary in his country, put his arms around them, endured the obligatory selfies and told them, “welcome home”. On Trudeau’s instructions, the Royal Canadian Air Force is flying in 25,000 refugees by the end of February. Obama is taking a pitiful 10,000 by the end of next year – Trump permitting.
Last year, at the Vancouver headquarters of the Duke of Connaught’s Own Rifles, I met the unit’s commanding officer, a turbaned Indian-born Sikh lieutenant colonel called Harjit Sajjan. He’d served in the peacekeeping force in Bosnia and three tours in Afghanistan – where he was not only an intelligence officer but designed a military gas mask for bearded soldiers. A humorous, energetic Canadian patriot – a bit over-clever, I cruelly thought to myself at the time – he might have made a great commander-in-chief. He did better. Trudeau has just appointed him Canada’s Minister of Defence.
And Trudeau also announced an Afghan female minister. Half his cabinet are women. Asked why, Trudeau replied, “Because it’s 2015”. Harper’s cuts to the culture and arts budgets – and to the poverty-stricken state broadcaster CBC – are to be reversed. He responded to the Paris massacre of 13 October by calmly offering all help to Canada’s “French cousins” rather than advocating war, although his description of the attacks merely as “deeply worrying” and “unsettling” brought the defeated Harperites roaring back into fury.
There are some shadows. Trudeau and his wife appear in a front-page-led feature in the new issue of Vogue – shades of his gadabout but humane late Prime Minister father, Pierre, who also had a beautiful wife – but if Angela Merkel can claim the front page of Time, why shouldn’t a Canadian make it to Vogue? Trudeau’s own French Canadian community has some anti-Muslim racism worth forgetting, and in opposition Trudeau supported Harper’s horrible Barbaric Cultural Practices Act which banned polygamy and “honour killing”– so the law was clearly aimed at Muslims – even though national legislation already forbade such crimes. Maybe the Québécois influence Trudeau more than he might confess; there’s even a faintly misogynist streak in the community. In French Canada, a boyfriend is “mon chum” and a girlfriend is “ma blonde”.
Just as in America, whoever followed George W Bush had to be better, so Trudeau is Jesus to Harper’s Old Testament darkness. He’ll screw up at times, just like Obama has. But on election night, he told Canadians that “we know in our bones that Canada was built by people from all corners of the world who worship every faith... A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.” Strong stuff when we’re supposed to be living in the age of “terror”. So for a while, Canadians can call Trudeau their “chum” – and his wife their “blonde”.
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