The Nation’s Business

Canadian echoes of Tiananmen Square

Peter C. Newman October 5 1998
The Nation’s Business

Canadian echoes of Tiananmen Square

Peter C. Newman October 5 1998

Canadian echoes of Tiananmen Square

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

The issue of the APEC protesters’ arrests is not just what happened, but what might— and easily could— have happened

Every once in a while television provides not just couch potato fodder—laughs, tears and hype—but stone-cold truth. For me, that moment of moments was the shot of that crazy Chinese kid braving a tank during the brief, tragic protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the fall of 1989. He was daring the armored behemoth to squash him for all the world to see, and it was the tank that backed off. Watching that memorable tableau, I figured the only comfort to be drawn from that unforgettable confrontation was not that the human spirit conquers all—because nearly a decade later human rights in China are still in the deep freeze—but that it couldn’t happen here.

But something like it very nearly did, and with the active participation of the man whose mandate it is to protect Canadian citizens from armed foreign incursions, the Prime Minister of Canada. The more Canadians learn about the dramatic events at the University of British Columbia last fall, when students protested the visit of Indonesian president Suharto, then Asia’s harshest dictator, the more they realize how close the brush with tragedy. It could have turned into Canada’s version of Tiananmen Square.

At the time, our Prime Minister dismissed the confrontation as inconsequential. Asked about the indiscriminate use of pepper spray to squash the legitimate and not unruly student rally, Jean Chrétien quipped: “For me, pepper, I put on my plate.”

As I heard him deliver that culinary bit of wisdom, it struck me that this tasty sound bite would inevitably become part of his legacy. Ever since Chrétien became Prime Minister, I have been hectoring him for not explaining to a nation, befuddled by his inane rhetoric, why he bothered to spend 30 years trying to become the country’s political leader when he did not know how to gainfully occupy his office hours.

His little pepper joke was the equivalent of Pierre Trudeau’s famous off-the-cuff quip to the CBC’sTim Ralfe, who had asked him how far he was willing to go in trampling human rights during the 1970 FLQ crisis. “Just watch me!” the prime minister shot back, and he proceeded to pass legislation that empowered soldiers to jail dozens of Quebec intellectuals.

I was in Ottawa at the time and vividly remember attending a reception at the home of Jean-Luc Pepin, then-minister of trade in the Trudeau government. Because he was an outspoken Quebec federalist, Pepin was assigned a bodyguard to chaperone his cocktail party. Armed with a compact James Bondish machine-gun, the lone soldier assigned to keep us out of harm’s way steadfastly frogmarched outside the living-room windows, watching the understandably subdued goings-on.

Then it started to rain. Being good Canadians, we invited our guardian inside, offering him drinks and advice about where he should point his gun. He turned out to be a talkative Newfoundlander who accepted more of the former than the latter, quickly dominating the evening’s suddenly lively discussions. Somehow we felt better having the increasingly tipsy gunner inside the tent.

But not for long. The Screech Commando decided to use his 10 minutes of fame to share some Newfoundland jokes. As he waved his machine-gun with good-humored menace at anyone who didn't laugh quite loud enough, his one-liners triggered considerable consternation. It was not a comfortable arrangement. We felt, not without reason, that his self-deprecating Newfie jokes were a test. If we laughed too hard, he might think we were laughing at him. And he was the guy with the machine-gun.

The warrior from the Rock was at the point of explaining how some of “de boyz” up in Gander wouldn’t be too upset if Quebec did leave, because they could drive to Toronto in half the time, when his sergeant appeared and ordered him back out in the rain. The last time I saw him, he was carefully drawing a bead on the moon with his machine-gun, softly laughing to himself.

I remember thinking how lucky a people we were to have such benign guardians of public safety: tipsy machine-gunners who never fire a shot. But all that changed last fall, when Chrétien allowed armed thugs (masquerading as Suharto bodyguards) into the country during the APEC Summit. The battle with university protesters was fought on the lush, treed UBC campus, and it was mainly because of the RCMP’s pre-emptive arrests of some of these gun jockeys that no one was shot.

The issue here isn’t what happened, but what might, and easily could have happened. The PM’s priorities were there for everyone to read:

1. To make sure that the Indonesian leader’s visit was not disrupted by having his corrupt practices questioned.

2. To systematically put down the rights of protesters to voice their objections to the visit, even if that meant crushing the longstanding privilege of giving the politicians the finger.

The details of this disgraceful event will emerge at the hearings being held in Vancouver during the next few weeks. But we know enough now to realize that our Prime Minister is a man who has little compassion or tolerance for democratic dissent. Manhandling that protester in Hull some two years ago, dismissing with a joke the legitimate protest of students, and refusing to honor the government’s own pay equity commitment, are not isolated instances.

How I wish our Prime Minister could take a lesson from that Newfoundland fusilier so many years ago who is probably still out there, moon-dancing the night away.