Obama in Canada: 'Uncle Rocky' and his Burlington family ties
If you've taken the Queen Elizabeth Way from Toronto to Niagara Falls you know what Barack Obama, the potential next leader of the free world, faced in August 2004 when he made the sometimes white-knuckle drive with his wife Michelle.
Fresh off his rousing keynote address to the Democratic convention in Boston, Obama was in the area to celebrate his Canadian connection.
The occasion was the wedding dinner for the 2003 marriage of his younger sister Maya Soetoro and Burlington, Ont., native Konrad Ng. Like many tourists visiting southern Ontario, Obama wanted to see Niagara Falls.
Obama, who was in the midst of his campaign for a Senate seat, was following his brother-in-law for the 70 kilometres on the QEW. Ng didn't want to lose the future leader of the Democratic party.
Obama and his wife Michelle had flown into Toronto and got a hotel room with their daughters Malia Ann and Natasha, before they rented the car and drove the 120 kilometres south to Niagara Falls.
"[Obama] was able to take a couple days [from the campaign] and visit us and meet his new niece," said Ng, 34, whose daughter Suhaila, now four, was born a month earlier.
Obama commented that Toronto reminded him of Chicago.
"Every place we went he would remark on the commonality [of the places he visited]. I think it's in his character to see those things that are common to us," said Ng.
Family members who had not been able to attend the Hawaii wedding in late 2003 were invited to attend an event at a Chinese restaurant in Mississauga.
In addition to the Falls visit, the Obamas also stopped in Burlington, where Ng's parents live, and hung out at Spencer Smith Park for a few hours.
"[Obama] has young children so we went to the lake and played at the playground. Lake Ontario for me, growing up around it, has always a place to reflect. It's a very peaceful place. I always like sharing it with people," said Ng by phone from Hawaii.
Obama was recognized everywhere he went.
"They would say, 'Hey, are you that guy that gave that terrific speech?' I think that was pretty amazing when you are in Burlington in Spencer Smith Park and some people are walking their dog and they come up," recalled Ng.
Family important to Obama
Ng, who studied philosophy at McGill University and cultural studies at the University of Victoria, is now a professor at the University of Hawaii, where he teaches at the Academy for Creative Media.
Ng met his future wife in Hawaii while working on his PhD in political science at the University of Hawaii.
After Obama's mother divorced Barack Obama Sr., she married Lolo Soetoro and moved to Indonesia and later gave birth to Maya. The family moved to Hawaii, where Barack Obama was being looked after by his grandparents.
The brother and sister, who was teaching night courses at University of Hawaii before taking a bigger role in the election campaign, have a lot in common.
"We both love a good story that captures the human experience in all of its complexities," Maya Soetoro said of her brother Barack in an interview last year with the Associated Press.
Ng said the family is close, and during a visit the conversations "are in the context of family.
"For my wife and I and our child — our daughter calls him Uncle Rocky — he's my wife's older brother, my wife's his sister. We just talk family."
Loves his Bulls
Obama is a basketball fan who keeps tabs on his beloved Chicago Bulls, who have had some good battles with the Toronto Raptors over the years.
"When I first met him we talked sports, we talked about the Bulls, we talked about the Raptors. He was aware of [Toronto], but he's a Bulls fan," Ng said with a laugh.
Ng, who is campaigning for Obama, but only some, as his daughter is only four, said he tries to remain unfazed by his connection to the presidential candidate and needs "to keep it all in perspective that we're just family and [Obama] just happens to have a good job."
Ng's conclusion: "He's got a very interesting and widely recognized job he is going for."
Ng can feel the excitement "around his message, his vision" that has formed during the Obama run for the presidency.
"That's when it really starts, for me, to sink in. Wow, there's enormous movement for change… that's when I think this can be historic.
"Then the idea that he is my family sort of floats off into the distance and I realize there is a larger movement going on."
Ng said he could not ask for better in-laws, and described Michelle and Barack Obama as "down to earth, caring, understanding people. They are good listeners. They are intelligent. They're smart."
People often ask Ng — who hopes to get to Denver in August for the Democratic convention — if Obama is any different from what they see and hear when he expresses empathy or kindness during a speech.
"That's who he is."
As for the effects of an Obama presidency on Canada, Ng said: "Any change in the direction of U.S. politics will resonate throughout the world. The type of hope he promises will spill over borders will give the world a decent shot at getting to a better place."