Meeting the Prime Minister

Meeting the Prime Minister

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Meeting the Prime Minister

In all his legendary freedom of style and thought, in the midst of storms and upheavals, he remained faithful to what he held most dear; his family, his friends, his country, and his faith.

The Reverend Jean-Guy Duboc
At the State Funeral of Pierre Elliot Trudeau

It was May 1975. I had spent the year travelling through Central and South America. It was now the last leg of my trip, and I was in Georgetown, Guyana. I was almost broke, somewhat battle-scarred by an exciting but turbulent journey, and weakened by the ravages of a tropical disease I’d picked up in Ecuador six months before. Wanting to check for mail from home, I went to the Canadian High Commission in Georgetown.

It was a typically hot, humid day in the tropics. The High Commissioner, walking around the office in shirtsleeves, mentioned that Prime Minister Trudeau was coming to Guyana on a short visit and invited my friend Cheryl and me to attend a reception for Prime Minister Trudeau the following week. We were scheduled to leave Guyana before that, but after the invitation, we decided to stay to attend his reception.

It was too great an opportunity to miss. I had seen Mr. Trudeau before, in the “Trudeaumania” summer of 1968. He had been absolutely mobbed by an adoring public while campaigning at a wild rally in Toronto. I had been an avid fan.

A few weeks after the election, elated that Mr. Trudeau was now the leader of Canada, I left for Spain to pursue my graduate studies at the University of Madrid. Everywhere I went the first word out of people’s mouths after I said I was Canadian was “Trudeau.” Prime Minister Trudeau had put Canada on the map and made me proud to be a Canadian. Single-handedly, he had given Canada international status and stature. Now, seven years later, in the former British colony of Guyana, I was about to cross paths with my hero again.

On the day of Trudeau’s arrival, the streets were lined with schoolchildren waving placards bearing his picture. He was driven to a park in the centre of the city. When Cheryl and I arrived, there he was, looking as dapper and handsome as ever, in a tan safari jacket—the official dress of the Guyanese politicos. Tanned and healthy, Trudeau seemed out of place in the company of the dour Guyanese prime minister. After the speeches, the park was quickly cleared by the military police, who waved us all away with guns in hand. I wondered if we would be able to get through the security later that night for the reception at the Canadian High Commissioner’s private residence.

We were driven to the fete by Bill, the owner of Bill’s Guesthouse, where we’d been staying. Bill was so thrilled for us that he’d polished his car and sported a chauffeur’s cap so we would feel special. However, we were under no illusions as to why we’d been invited. Other than a couple of bankers, geologists and bauxite miners, there were so few Canadians in Guyana that we were there to fill the ranks.

Despite our worries, we made it through the security at the gates and, clutching our invitations, we breezed through the reception line shaking hands with the High Commissioner and a few other officials. Inside, the guests were dressed to the nines. Cheryl and I had managed to pull together a somewhat respectable look, but we were not what one would call “dressed up.” After all, we’d been on the road for almost a year—and our clothes showed it.

Suddenly, he was there, sweeping into the room through the reception line. The room went quiet and all eyes focused on Prime Minister Trudeau. He looked so relaxed and casual in his white safari jacket and wide smile.

He was chatting with some people on the other side of the room when he caught sight of us staring at him. Before we knew it, he looked us square in the eyes, strode across the room directly to us and said, “You’re a long way from home. How long have you been in Guyana?”

As we talked, he listened so intently to our stories about our travels that we felt as if we were the only people in the room. At one point he peppered us with questions about where we’d been in Canada and seemed pleased that we’d been “from sea to sea,” as Cheryl so aptly put it.

Behind him, I noticed a number of officials looking at their watches, pursing their lips and shooting us dirty looks. Anxiously, I pointed them out to the prime minister. He just smiled and said that he was enjoying his chat with us and that was all that mattered.

Five minutes later someone tugged gently at his sleeve. Again, he just smiled and shrugged the man away. It was then I realized that Trudeau was truly the people’s prime minister. It was more important to him at that moment, to talk to us—a couple of young, wandering Canadians— than it was to be rushed off to do something else.

He chatted with us about his own travels as a young man and, before bidding us farewell, he issued us an invitation to visit him and Margaret at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, after we returned to Canada. Cheryl chuckled as if to hint that she didn’t really think it was a sincere gesture.

“I’m serious, come and see us when you get home,” Trudeau said. And as he turned back to look at us, he added, “I want to know how the adventure ends.”

Our greatest regret is that we never took him up on it. Twenty-five years later, overwhelmed with grief, I found myself sitting at my computer at 2:30 A.M., listening to stories about people who had travelled to Parliament Hill from all parts of Canada to pass his flag-draped coffin. I’m still haunted by the fact that none of us, especially those of us who loved and respected him, will ever have the chance to experience his greatness again.

Goodbye, sweet prince. You were a statesman, a father and a true patriot who gave us a reason to believe that it is still a beautiful and magical world.

Elisabeth Munsterhjelm
Windsor, Ontario

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