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My brush with greatness – and villainy

Updated: Jan 26

Jim Withers


Like millions of my compatriots, I was saddened to learn that Ed Broadbent had died.


The long-time leader of the federal New Democratic Party was about as close to being a hero of mine as any politician can get.


We often delude ourselves into thinking we know who celebrities and elected officials really are, but I can’t imagine anything shaking my view that Broadbent was an exemplar of integrity and decency. George Burns liked to say that the key to success is sincerity, "if you can fake that you’ve got it made,” but whatever Broadbent's failings were, I don't question his sincerity as a tireless champion of social justice. And while he never got to hold the reins of power, Honest Ed unquestionably was a positive influence on hearts and minds as a politician, university prof and director of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development.


News of his death at age 87 on Jan. 11 transported me back 20 years to a cold, windy Tuesday in Ottawa when I had my only encounter with Broadbent – a brush with greatness, as it were. Then again, only a couple of hours later on that same day, I also had a brush with infamy in the form of George W. Bush, hidden away in his passing presidential limo.


The two brushes were linked.


The just-re-elected U.S. president was paying his first official visit to Canada, after churlishly crapping out on visiting a couple of years earlier over a snit with then-prime minister Jean Chrétien, and this was an event I couldn’t ignore. I figured I’d never have a better opportunity to stand up and be counted in my opposition to the bellicose U.S. foreign policies of the Bush administration, in particular its war in Iraq. Now in my mid 50s, you’d think I’d have long ago outgrown the need to take part in peace marches. Me, too.


Then again, after its Vietnam War debacle, you’d also think that Washington would have learned to avoid such imperialistic misadventures. Even the most obtuse bovine knows enough to stay clear of electric fences, but draft-dodgers Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney couldn’t wait to use the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 as a pretext to launch their own little war.


With Bush coming to Ottawa, fellow Montreal Gazette colleague Charlie Shannon and I – two superannuated hippie protesters – decided that Parliament Hill was the place to be. We booked the day off work, I rented a car and Charlie crafted our protest sign reading “Stop Bush whackin’ the world” on one side and “Non à la Busherie en Irak” on the other.


We arrived in downtown Ottawa around noon, just in time to join the demonstrators amassing at Confederation Park. Some wore ski masks and balaclavas. Some sported nose rings. There were hand-holding lesbians and a guy decked out like a mummy stagger-stepping through the crowd. Other than the always-chanting Raging Grannies in their gingham dresses and flowery bonnets, Charlie and I appeared to be the oldest participants. We must have looked like narcs or CSIS infiltrators. Adding to our suspicious appearance was the fact that we’d both chosen to wear sunglasses, Charlie was frequently snapping photos and I was jotting down notes (for my journal). We could have been spies, except that real spies probably don’t resemble members of ZZ Top.


A young woman pointed to her friend’s placard – “Pubic bush, not George Bush” – and said: “You aren’t offended, are you?”


“Not at all,” I replied, maybe a bit too emphatically. (Actually, I was offended that she’d seen the need to ask me such a question. I guess the subtext of her query was: “You guys are really old, eh?”)


That pubic-hair pun found itself on many of the home-made signs. I suppose it was an oblique variation of “Make love, not war,” which was so popular in the 1960s and ’70s. And my interpretation of a placard reading “Smoke crack not Iraq” was that it’s better to get wasted than to lay waste (to Baghdad). Scatological and sexual references were de rigueur, perhaps as a way of lashing out at the new puritanism that was rearing its intolerant head with the rise of the religious right stateside.


Signs included: “Bush lied, 100,000 died”; “War begins with Dubya”; “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t bomb it”; “A village in Texas has lost its idiot”; “Bush eats kittens”; and “Jesusland Psycho” (an allusion to a map circulated widely on the Internet referring to the U.S. states that voted for Bush as “Jesusland”). One guy got his picture in the next day’s local newspaper by carrying a “Free beer” sign mounted on a hockey stick. My favourite placard – other than Charlie’s – displayed a peace sign and the words “Back by popular demand.”


With the exception of a few menacing-looking young guys in military fatigues and balaclavas, appearing to be girded for a violent confrontation with the tactical officers lined up behind metal barricades, this was a high-spirited, good-natured group. They unabashedly pounded on bongos and cookie tins, blew whistles, chanted and waved signs.


Charlie and I didn’t have to wait long for the highlight of the day: meeting Broadbent, whom we spotted in the middle of the crowd sporting a bright orange scarf. He was amused by Charlie’s sign. We shook his hand and got someone to take our picture.


“Where are you guys from?” Broadbent asked in that convivial, bright-eyed way of his that looked and sounded like genuine curiosity.


“Montreal ... but originally from Ontario,” I said, instantly regretting that I’d added the Ontario part because it was extraneous and used up some of the precious face time we’d get with Ed. He seemed pleased when I mentioned that I was an admirer of his and a longtime NDP voter. I added that I appreciated his pitch for the late Tommy Douglas, the previous night, on a CBC-TV program in which the father of universal health care in our country was voted greatest Canadian of all time.


“Yes, I’m going to be speaking about Tommy Douglas in the House this afternoon,” he said.


Suddenly, to the strains of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World blasting from an amplifier, we marched toward Parliament Hill, winding through the almost-deserted, mid-week downtown streets. Our procession moved along Laurier Ave. to the sounds of drumming and whistling, with the Peace Tower clock adding a resonating BONGGGG every 15 minutes. Bongos and BONGGGGs, and maybe even the odd bong. A few civil servants viewed our march from office-building windows overhead.


By mid-afternoon, Charlie and I decided to take a break from the speeches and milling about in front of the Parliament Buildings and made our way to a pub in the market district. We had to skirt the riot cops stationed in front of the Château Laurier and Rideau Centre, where Bush and Prime Minister Paul Martin were meeting.


Five games of eight ball and a pitcher of draft beer later, Charlie and I set off to rejoin the protesters on Parliament Hill. We were unaware of the riot police-demonstrator clashes that occurred nearby while we were getting refreshed, but which would get big play on television on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. In fact, when showing the skirmishes, a CNN announcer told viewers that what they were witnessing wasn’t the recent violent protests in Ukraine, but rather, in sleepy Ottawa, capital of “our neighbour to the north.”


It was 5 o’clock and while crossing the almost-deserted Besserer St., Charlie and I were taken by surprise by the sight of Bush’s motorcade heading toward us. Emblazoned with the presidential seal, with small U.S. flags flapping in the breeze on both sides of the hood, the black limo turned right in front of us. Charlie began frantically waving his sign with the English side facing Bush’s limousine, and I, without a placard, performed as many thumbs-down and single-finger salutes as I could manage. I must have looked like a madman throwing a fit.


“He had to have seen that,” Charlie said as the motorcade disappeared.


On TV that night, Bush half-chuckled when he said, “I want to thank the Canadian people who came out to wave with all five fingers.” I took this as an acknowledgement that some Canadians – at least one – gave him something less than a high-five. My puerile gestures would, of course, have had absolutely no effect on Bush, let alone how he’d subsequently affect world history, but I have no regrets about my behaviour in that fleeting close encounter.


The sun had gone down and so had the temperature. The crowd on Parliament Hill lit candles and listened to speeches. Maverick anti-Bush MP Carolyn Parrish received thunderous cheers when she addressed the crowd, saying that she’d just gotten off the air with CNN. If they didn’t know who she was before, they did now, she said. (Parrish, in fact, more than held her own on CNN’s Crossfire, a kind of Punch and Judy yell-fest that sold itself as a political-debate show, against the sneering, hectoring, bow-tie-wearing Tucker Carlson, despite his efforts to bait her.)


Following directions from a PA system, we schlepped our way to Gatineau, Québec, across the river. We wouldn’t learn until our return home of more skirmishes between police and the protesters, including one near the Museum of Civilization after we left there about 9 p.m.


As we rolled through the darkness back toward Montréal, Charlie and I reviewed the day. We were bushed, so to speak, but pleased with ourselves for having gotten off our middle-aged asses and walked the walk for a worthy cause – an independent Canadian foreign policy.


“It’s heartening to see idealism in the younger generation,” I said. “I hope they hold onto that. It’s probably true that people become more conservative the older they get, but I don’t think that’s the case with me.”


Charlie went a step farther, declaring himself less conservative than when he was younger.


“And why is that?” I asked. “You see things more clearly now?”


“No,” he said, “I see that things have gotten much worse.


He slept most of the way home.


(Author and historian Pierre Berton died at age 84 on this day and, in doing so, managed to steal some of the shine from Bush’s visit. Berton, a Canadian patriot, would have been happy to know that. He, in his own way, gave Bush the finger.)


***

Twenty years later, I believe Charlie was right. And if things weren’t worse in '04 – same-sex marriage would become a reality in Canada the following year, and the U.S. would elect its first bi-racial president four years later – they certainly are worse now.

While I’d love to think that Martin Luther King was right when he said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” my faith has been shaken. As horrible as George W. Bush was, and let’s not allow any folksy fuzziness to blur out all the deaths he needlessly caused, Donald Trump and Trumpism pose a far greater threat to freedom, democracy and all the progress on social and equality issues we’ve seen in the past half-century.


This broken world needs more Ed Broadbents.

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