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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

1,000 good wishes
In June, 1970, a 10-year-old boy was thrilled to meet
Canada's prime minister. A tragedy five years later
turned this photo into a talisman that forever
linked his family to the Trudeaus'
own fates, at least in his little brother's imagination.

Saturday, October 7, 2000

TORONTO -- This memorial is not only for Pierre Elliott Trudeau, but also for the young boy who's about to take his hand.

Two years ago, when I read the reports in the newspaper about the death of Trudeau's son Michel, suddenly and far too young, I felt a stirring of emotion far deeper and older, far more personal, than the story alone might have provoked.

Prized among the possessions of my family there is a framed photograph of my older brother Mark, age 10, shaking hands with Prime Minister Trudeau in Hanover, Ont., in 1970. On June 17 of that year, it graced the cover of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record; my grandmother had obtained a copy and mailed it off to the PM, requesting that he sign it, and of course he did: "For Mark Dixon, with a thousand good wishes."

This same brother Mark himself died suddenly and far too young in July, 1975, just a few months shy of the birth of this same Michel who was to be mourned by a nation. My brother died in an industrial accident on the night shift at a vegetable-packaging plant where, in fact, he was too young to be working. I got up in the morning and he was gone.

In the 1998 newspaper photographs of the Trudeau family, I was jolted by the recognition of the expression on their faces, the expression etched by the sudden loss of a brother and a son. I will not dwell on the quality of such loss here, except to say that it seems to invert the natural order of things, turns the landscape into a brittle thing and spurs a profound desire for human company. If you walk past a room with four mourners in it, you should join them, because they're probably lonely.

I spoke to my father about it. He felt the familiar tug of grief too, and felt a similar synchronicity with the image of Mark in the old photograph. And he worried for the former prime minister, who was far too old to be forced to contend with this kind of loss. The great man's burden had touched our own, and we felt joined with him in it, bewildered and saddened by it.

Today, in the wake of a week-long national outpouring of grief that I've followed with almost stupefying concentration, feeling like a reluctant connoisseur of loss, I look at the picture again.

A sunshine snapshot of a little town: I think the PM was there for the launch of a weather balloon, but I was only five years old, so my memory can't be trusted.

It's a pretty tight squeeze; I count 10 people in the frame, though the last two are represented only by tufts of hair and, in one tuft's case, a pair of wrinkled hands folded, almost in prayer, trying to push past my little big brother. Look at them: The man must have been moving steadily through the crowd and wondered how this brat suddenly appeared in front of him: Had he crawled between his legs? Did he swing down from a roof overhead? Climb up from a sewer? Look at that triumphant boy's face, the faces of his cohorts: These boys are capable of anything, don't you think? Yes they are.

Here's the tallest one looking, with almost cross-eyed triumph, straight into the camera. And here's the chubby-cheeked one, fingers wrapped delicately around the box-camera. (Mark's, I happen to know.) His lips are pursed in concentration, the diminutive cyclops-eye straining upward to catch the PM's grin. And he's so well dressed, this kid, did you notice? The white collar pulled to the left by his tie? The corduroy jacket? And his hair has been neatly combed from a part on the left. He already knows, this one, that clothes make the man. Yes he does.

And then the main event in this eight-by-ten circus, the focus of everyone's excitement, the PM himself, taking up the entire right side of the photograph, a kerchief instead of a rose in his lapel, the stud of an earring in his left (oh no, wait, that's just a blemish in the photograph), smiling down from way up high, offering a rumpled, casual, enormous-seeming hand to . . .

. . . my brother Mark, he of the zipper jacket and two front teeth, the apex of the picture, smile full of gratitude, excitement, humour, all the light of a Hanover afternoon bouncing off his upturned face. These two each understand the other's pleasure in this exchange. That's the real beauty of the shot, the complicity between the child and the man, conveying already, before the great man wrote the words in the sky above, a thousand good wishes.

Growing up, I felt the influence of Pierre Trudeau in many ways. As a family we strove to become bilingual, and my three younger siblings were sent to French schools, where they succeeded. The other day, listening to Justin Trudeau speak his moving eulogy, I was struck by some mannerisms he seemed to share both with his father and with my youngest brother, Stefan. It would seem that we as a family had watched this man very closely.

But the influence of this photograph has been paramount. I don't feel any tug of grief when I look at it now. It's an inspiring image of dynamism and possibility. I do not believe its possibility has been thwarted, despite the departures of its central participants. Sure, a thousand good wishes must have been hard to get through in the five years my brother had left in life, but I'm certain he toughed it out, because I recall the spirit of this boy, my older brother, whenever I look at this picture.

And sure, the PM went on to strive through darkness -- the failure of the White Paper was days away, the October Crisis on the horizon, his spendthrift ways even then inspiring Mike Harris to enter politics -- but I recall the man's vision for his country whenever I look at this picture. I believe, perhaps as it is only possible for a child of my generation to believe, in Trudeau's Canada.

And so it can only be true that a thousand good wishes have been conveyed in the thousand times I've looked at this picture. And a thousand good wishes are further conveyed in the thousand words it has inspired.

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