This is about my encounter with Trudeau.
Not Trudeau the younger, rather Trudeau the elder- Pierre.
Pierre Trudeau was well known for not suffering fools gladly, he also had the reputation of sometimes dealing with media people rather sharply.
Witness his response to the “How far would you go” question during the FLQ crisis. There is not a lot left to say when the answer given is “Just watch me”!
Forward to 1978. I was working at CKIQ radio in Kelowna, in the news department. In those days I lived in Vernon and drove into Kelowna for work each day. A medium commute by Vancouver lower mainland standards.
Living in Vernon meant I was also supposed to keep a news eye on that city for the Kelowna station.
So it came to be that Pierre Trudeau was coming to Vernon, and there would be a media availability.
My News Director Peter Munoz asked me to do the assignment.
I loved working with Peter, he was a wonderful mentor, and I was sad to hear some years ago now of his passing. But, I was scared all to hell about covering Trudeau, and I told Peter that I thought the PM had a knack for trashing a dumb media question with his intellect. Trudeau seemed merciless.
Peter sold me on doing it by use of one of his mentorship devices—simply saying he himself had covered Trudeau, but I had not yet, and I should. That was enough.
A midsummer’s day in the north Okanagan, and Trudeau was due to arrive at 2pm.
A check in onsite with the government organizers of the media avail revealed the format. Questions from local Okanagan media only, any topic. One question only from each reporter- no exceptions, no follow up questions. No questions to be put by any of the national press corps people travelling with the PM
The room was dressed with five press tables for local reporters, two at each table. Ten questions total- that would be all.
Now I had to come up with a question. I had nothing I thought would make much of a splash. I was still thinking about that when the organizers announced the PM’s helicopter was delayed. He was flying in from Alberta, stopping in Vernon, then off to Vancouver. He was running about an hour late.
The Vernon stop was never meant to amount to much- in-out-gone, and no ripples.
But a political bomb went off in Ottawa during the PM's flight, and he himself had lit the fuse. The shock wave from it had not yet reached the west coast, and better yet for me, was not known to the national press corps travelling with the PM.
With the assignment delayed I phoned back to my CKIQ Kelowna newsroom to let them know of the delay, and almost as an afterthought asked that they check the news wires to see if anything was going on.
Our staffer came back on the line with a “ Holy Crap!” exclamation. The Solicitor General of Canada had just resigned from the Trudeau cabinet. Francis Fox had been caught out forging a name onto documents of a woman applying to have an abortion. She was his girlfriend. He was married to somebody else.
I got off the phone just as I heard the helicopter coming in to land. I hung out at the helipad, listened to the conversations of the press corps as they filed into the venue. Nothing was said about Francis Fox. They didn’t know!
Now Trudeau is in the room, and he really commanded a room.
The questions started from table one at the left, I was at table four, the eighth person in line order. All of the questions were local ones, Trudeau answered them, and was starting to show some agitation to his time being wasted. His responses became more curt and dismissive.
The fellow sitting to my left at my press table had me nervous. He was Brian Kennedy, a really good reporter. Brian was my direct competition, working at CKOV in Kelowna. And it was his turn to ask. He asked about something local.
And I was up.
Simple question really : “ Is it true Mr. Prime Minister that you have accepted the resignation of your Solicitor General Francis Fox- and why ?”
The room exploded. TV lights flashed on, the until then bored press corps all fired up their equipment.
Trudeau was staring at me- hard, our eyes were locked. He looked really annoyed. Then he smiled. He’d been caught fair and square and he knew it.
He answered the question and then did something I had never expected.
He looked down his nose from the lecturn and said “Would you like to ask me another question”?
I did, he answered, and the event was over. The journalists sitting at table number five never got to ask a question. Everyone burst out the door and filed stories about the Solicitor General being fired.
I’d gotten in the big question and a bonus question, and I always thought it was really gracious of Pierre Trudeau to recognize he’d been stung, and to reward the way that all happened, in some small way, by asking if I’d like to ask a second question.
I’ve never forgotten it.
Turns out, the news about the Solicitor General was not intended to come out till Trudeau had reached Vancouver. But his flight was delayed, and Ottawa pressed the button on sending the news release just as Trudeau’s helicopter came over the horizon into my view
Sometimes timing is everything!