Note: Transcripts may contain errors. If you wish to re-use all, or part of, a transcript, please contact CBC for permission. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. Copyright © CBC 2016
The Current Transcript for September 19, 2016
Host: Anna-Maria Tremonti
STORIES FROM THIS EPISODE
If you have a dogmatic approach that the Canadian government and its agencies cannot share information with any country that has the merest sniff of mistreatment, then you wouldn’t have an intelligence service.
ANNA-MARIA TREMONTI: A former CSIS agent on the decision to collaborate with Syria in the cases of three naturalized Canadians originally from the Middle East, who were arrested and tortured in Syria in the years after the 9/11 attacks. Apparently under great political and public pressure to identify potential terrorist suspects, RCMP emails newly obtained by CBC News indicate Canada's national police force knew what was in store for Ahmad El Maati, Abdullah Almalki and Muayyed Nureddin. On a day after weekend incidents in the US that have their security agencies scrambling to find those behind multiple stabbings and bombs, including those five new ones. We are going back to a time when Canadian police and security officials made decisions in the name of counterterrorism that had consequences still being sorted through today. We'll look at that first. And then, back to the 60s…
Next to Vancouver where the first killer whale ever captured alive continues to evoke interest.
AMT: At one time the orca or killer whale was seen as a terrifying monster, but then a wounded orca ended up in Vancouver, and in no time at all once frightened Vancouverites fell in love. The story of the killer whale who changed the world, in half an hour. And Alexandre Trudeau was a teenager horsing around with his brother on a descent from a sacred mountain in China. Their annoyed father Pierre scolded them.
Behaving like barbarians, you know, the Chinese see us as barbarians often. You're giving them reason to do that.
AMT: Alexandre Trudeau on his father's influence and his own love of travel in China and beyond, in an hour. I'm Anna-Maria Tremonti, this is The Current.
Back To Top »
Documents reveal CSIS and RCMP's role in torture of 3 Canadians in Syria
Guests: Terence McKenna
On behalf of the government of Canada, I wish to apologize to you, Monia Mazigh, and your family, for any role Canadian officials may have played in the terrible ordeal that all of you experienced in 2002 and 2003.
ANNA-MARIA TREMONTI: Well that was almost 10 years ago that then Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered that apology to Maher Arar. He was apologizing for Canada's role in Mr. Arar's rendition to Damascus, Syria by US security officials where he was tortured by Syrian interrogators. Mr. Arar was not the only Canadian citizen tortured in Syria's infamous Far' Falastin prison, nor was his case the only one in which Canadian officials were implicated. In 2008, a closed-door judicial inquiry found that Canadian officials indirectly contributed to the torture of three other Muslim-Canadians in Syria and Egypt. And now, a newly obtained cache of 18,000 government documents shows just how much the RCMP and CSIS knew about and sanctioned the mistreatment of Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin. Terence McKenna has been combing through those documents. He has prepared a three-part television documentary that will air on The National starting tonight, as well as on the FIfth Estate’s YouTube channel Thursday. But first he joins us here. Hello, Terrence.
TERENCE MCKENNA: Hi Anna-Maria.
AMT: Those three names Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, Muayyed Nureddin. Remind our listeners who they are. Let's start with Mr. Almalki.
TERENCE MCKENNA: So Abdullah Almalki’s problems began in the fall of 2001, in the weeks just after 9/11. He was an electrical engineer living in the Nepean, Ontario just outside Ottawa. He had a successful electronics export business and things were really kind of looking up in his life, except for the nagging feeling that he had every time he left the house. He thought he was being followed, which as it turns out he was.
AMT: By whom.
TERENCE MCKENNA: The RCMP and CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Their reason was this, in 1995 Almalki had worked in Afghanistan for a Canadian charity run by Ahmed Said Khadr.
AMT: Ahmed Said Khadr is the father of Omar Khadr. He is also the man we now know was working with Osama bin Laden.
TERENCE MCKENNA: Well, secretly working with Osama bin Laden. That's right. But Almalki says he knew nothing about that. So, after Almalki returned to Canada, he popped up on CSIS’ radar, they trailed him around Ottawa, opened his mail, monitored his phone and his bank transactions. And then of course 9/11 happened.
AMT: Which changed everything.
TERENCE MCKENNA: It did CSIS and the RCMP were suddenly desperate to thwart potential al-Qaeda attacks in Canada. Just how desperate is revealed in this trove of thousands of never before seen government documents, emails, and reports that CBC News obtained after a lengthy court fight.
AMT: And what did they say about Abdullah Almalki?
TERENCE MCKENNA: It's clear that he was a top priority. But it's also clear that there was intense pressure on CSIS and the RCMP to identify people suspected as terrorists. And in the process, the intelligence against Abdullah Almalki got kind of ramped up.
AMT: How so?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Well, here's an example. At a meeting on October 6, 2001 CSIS identifies Almalki to the RCMP as quote, a potential procurement officer for the Bin Laden organization, end quote. But at an RCMP note a day later, the word potential is gone. It simply states Almalki is quote, believed to be a procurement officer for Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda, end quote. And shortly after that, the RCMP’s language gets even more definitive. It put out a worldwide terrorist alert stating that Almalki was quote, described by CSIS as an important member of al-Qaeda, end quote. That RCMP alert was sent to the CIA and the FBI.
AMT: So the characterization of him becomes more damning. Terence, was CSIS or the RCMP collecting any intel to support that changing portrayal?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Not really, you know, in fact some RCMP agents were surprised by CSIS’ dramatic portrayal of Almalki. They didn't see him doing anything suspicious. One RCMP caseworker wrote a memo about Almalki, stating that the task force was quote, presently finding it difficult to establish anything on him other than the fact that he is an Arab running around, end quote. You can see there was a kind of a racial element at work there.
AMT: Hmm. So, in the midst of all of this Abdullah Almalki unwittingly plans a trip to Syria.
TERENCE MCKENNA: That's right. The Syrian-Canadian went freely to visit his ailing grandmother. When CSIS learned that he was planning the trip, officers notified the CIA and the Syrian government. Almalki was quickly placed on a watch list, which meant he would be detained and questioned after landing in Damascus.
AMT: So, Syria has a track record for torture. CSIS or the RCMP would have known that. Were they concerned that they could be contributing to the mistreatment or even the torture of a Canadian citizen?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Not really. Phil Gurski is a former CSIS intelligence officer who worked on the Almalki file.
PHIL GURSKI: If you have a dogmatic approach that the Canadian government and its agencies cannot share information with any country that has the merest sniff of mistreatment, and I'm not belittling that particular thing, then you wouldn’t have an intelligence service.
TERENCE MCKENNA: There's more, the Canadian Security Task Force decided to send Syrian intelligence questions to be asked during his interrogation. Inspector Mike Cabana was a senior RCMP officer on the task force. An RCMP note marked secret spells it out. It says quote, inspector Cabana believes it would be prudent at this time to begin the planning for a potential interview of Almalki by Syrian officials based on questions derived from the RCMP project AO Canada Investigation, end quote.
AMT: So that AO Canada investigation was what they called, what they were doing their surveillance, all of that, right?
TERENCE MCKENNA: That's right.
AMT: Right. OK, so they were writing questions for his Syrian interrogators even though they strongly suspected he might be tortured at the same time?
TERENCE MCKENNA: They did. Almalki was then picked up at the airport in Damascus and taken to the Far' Falastin prison where he was viciously beaten.
ABDULLAH ALMALKI: They took my dignity away, you know, just shattered my humanity with it. I just felt very humiliated.
TERENCE MCKENNA: They forced him to lay on his stomach on the floor so they could beat the soles of his feet with electric cables. Syria had been told by the RCMP that Almalki was a senior al-Qaeda official. So his interrogator was trying to get him to confess. He accused Almalki of being Bin Laden's right hand man. Almalki pointed out that Bin Laden already had a right hand man, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. So his torturer focused on Bin Laden's other side.
I confessed falsely after all these hours of torture that hours that I was his left hand man. At that point if they told me that if I was a duck I would have said yes, you know, whatever they wanted.
AMT: So Terence, while Canadian security and intelligence officers are feeding questions to Syrian intelligence, what were our diplomats in Syria doing? They’re usually tasked with protecting a Canadian abroad.
TERENCE MCKENNA: Well, they are but apparently not in this case. In fact, Canada's Ambassador to Syria Franco Pillarella told the RCMP that he could personally deliver to Syrian intelligence questions to be asked to Almalki.
AMT: So he was working with Almalki’s interrogators?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Well he was trying to. Ambassador Pillarella would later testify that while he was aware of widespread allegations of torture in Syria, unless a person witnessed it, quote, one cannot say for a certainty that this is what would happen, end quote. And CSIS and the RCMP were both eager to find out if they could take part in Almalki’s interrogations.
AMT: And did they?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Well, not directly. In November 2002 a CSIS delegation flew to Damascus, but they were not allowed to personally attend the interrogation sessions. Although they did provide the questions.
ABDULLAH ALMALKI: And one day during the interrogation I saw that document he was asking me questions from. And the title was meeting with Canadian delegation on November 23rd, 24th. They were not even trying to hide that the questions they were getting were from Canada, the information they were receiving from Canada, and that they were even meeting with Canadian officials.
AMT: So, again, Canadian security and diplomatic officials are working with Syrian intelligence officials in this case. Now, coerced confessions don't make for great intel, everybody says that. Did anyone raise concerns about that?
TERENCE MCKENNA: You know, concerns about coerced confessions came to a head with one of the other Canadians detained in Egypt, Ahmad El Maati.
AMT: And remind us how El Maati came to find himself in a Syrian prison.
TERENCE MCKENNA: Well, he knew Abdullah Almalki.
AMT: And he'd been to Afghanistan as well hadn't he?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Yes he had. He had been to fight the Soviet-backed forces in the early 90s. Although he says he never took up arms, he says he served as an ambulance driver and a cook. When El Maati came back to Canada though, he wanted to get married. So he reached out to Almalki for advice on finding a wife.
AMT: And he did that while Abdullah Almalki was already under surveillance.
TERENCE MCKENNA: That's right, exactly.
TERENCE MCKENNA: Soon El Maati was under surveillance too. He was picked up, he was placed on a US security watch list, he was working as a truck driver in 2001. And in August, just a few weeks before 9/11, he was stopped at the Queenston-Lewiston bridge in Ontario. US border agents found a map they deemed suspicious in the glove compartment of his truck.
AMT: And what was suspicious about the map?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Well, the US authorities sent the map to CSIS and the RCMP, and they determined that among the buildings identified on this map which was in downtown Ottawa were virus and disease control labs, as well as a nuclear power plant run by Atomic Energy Canada.
AMT: So they thought he was planning an attack.
TERENCE MCKENNA: They did. Former CSIS director Richard Fadden was a security adviser to the prime minister at the time.
RICHARD FADDEN: There was some information and some intelligence about these characters which suggested that they were a threat to the national security. You know, they weren't picked off the street randomly, handed over to the RCMP and had these things happen to them.
AMT: But in fact that map was pretty benign.
TERENCE MCKENNA: It turned out to be a standard photocopied map given to all the delivery people and truck drivers like Ahmad El Maati to help them navigate that Ottawa office complex. It really wasn't unusual at all for a truck driver making deliveries to have a map like that in his camp. But the US was very concerned and wanted El Maati arrested. The RCMP kind of agreed, but they felt they didn't have enough evidence to do that. Officers however had another plan to get him off the streets. They had learned that El Maati was planning a trip to Syria in November 2001 to get married. They told the US who told Syrian intelligence. El Maati was detained at the airport in Damascus and taken to the Far' Falastin prison.
AHMAD EL MAATI: They took me to an office. Probably some kind of a high ranking officer. They put a hood on my head, they handcuffed me from the back. [arms wrestling] He asked me in Arabic, tell me everything. I said what’s everything, what do you want to know? And then he said I'm going to teach you how to speak. [yelling in Arabic] And then right at the spot they started punching me in the face. Slapping me and said that they’ll teach me how to speak.
AMT: How long did they hold him Terence?
TERENCE MCKENNA: He was held at the Far' Falastin for about two months. And the RCMP emails from that time leave no doubt what the force was expecting for him. Here's the quote, he will be arrested and interrogated bracket's Syrian style, end quote.
AMT: And so, was that obvious in the e-mails that you got?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Mmhmm.
AMT: And then they later sent him to Egypt. Why Egypt?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Well, his father was Egyptian. But the more likely reason is the fact that Egypt was the epicentre of the US extraordinary rendition program. In Egypt the CIA supervised the questioning and torture of suspected terrorists.
AMT: Were Canadian security officers sending questions to be asked of El Maati?
TERENCE MCKENNA: They certainly were. RCMP inspector Cabana wanted his agents to participate in El Maati’s interrogation. In fact, Canadian consular officials visited El Maati at Cairo's Tora prison, they asked him if he would meet with Canadian police. El Maati said that he would only do that on Canadian soil. He also told them he was tortured into making a false confession in Syria.
AMT: And how did the Canadian officials respond to that?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Well, it's not completely clear but other Canadian security officers were growing increasingly wary of Canada's close cooperation with Syria and Egypt. Here's Phil Gurski again, the former CSIS intelligence officer who worked on the Almalki file.
PHIL GURSKI: I think once there was a certainty or relative certainty that a Canadian was being mistreated. I think at that point the cooperation should have stopped. Absolutely.
AMT: He uses that polite word, mistreated. Now, all of this was unfolding in the fall of 2001 and throughout 2002. Maher Arar was put on that US rendition flight around the same time wasn't he?
TERENCE MCKENNA: That's right. He was detained in New York in September 2002. Flown to Jordan and then on to Syria, where like Almalki and El Maati, he was tortured into making false confessions about working with al-Qaeda. But back in Canada, Arar's wife Monia Mazigh started agitating publicly about her husband's case. For the first time, there was real pressure mounting in Ottawa for the feds to do more for Canadian citizens being held and likely tortured abroad. The RCMP and CSIS however, were more concerned about getting one more Canadian into custody in Syria before the door closed for good.
AMT: And that would be Muayyed Nureddin.
TERENCE MCKENNA: Exactly.
AMT: Why was he a suspect?
TERENCE MCKENNA: He was the principal at the Salaheddin Islamic school in Toronto. CSIS and the RCMP were watching people who visited and worked at the mosque, because it was an alleged hotbed of radical and extremist interpretations of Islam. Plus Nureddin had made several visits to his family in northern Iraq, which CSIS suspected was actually to courrier money for a terrorist group in the region called Ansar al-Islam. Nureddin said the allegation was ridiculous.
MUAYYED NUREDDIN: So I traveled three times to Iraq in nine years. How can someone acting as courtier travel three times in nine years? And how much money I had with me? A big organization cannot survive on my money.
AMT: how much money was he traveling with?
TERENCE MCKENNA: So, there's police documents to show that he always declared whatever cash he was carrying to Canada Customs. In one instance, it was 4,000 euros and 12,000 US dollars. Nureddin said hand delivering cash was the only way to get money to his family in northern Iraq.
AMT: But this was a concern for CSIS and the RCMP?
TERENCE MCKENNA: It was. They learned he was planning a trip to Iraq in the fall of 2003 and he would be flying back to Canada from Damascus. The RCMP notified the CIA and CSIS put out an all-points bulletin to foreign intelligence agencies. It stated quote, we can confirm that we are searching for and will arrange for the detention of naturalized Canadian citizen Muayyed Abdul-Jabbar Nureddin. If encountered, we thank you for your cooperation, end quote.
AMT: And where was he arrested?
TERENCE MCKENNA: At the Syrian border. A guard asked him to step into a back room.
MUAYYED NUREDDIN: He told me you are wanted.
TERENCE MCKENNA: What did that mean to you?
MUAYYED NUREDDIN: [sighs] Once he said you are wanted, it remind me that dictatorial regime back home. When they just detained the person with no reason.Then a lieutenant came in and he said you will not see the sun again.
TERENCE MCKENNA: Nureddin was taken to the same Syrian prison as the other Canadians before him. He was even interrogated and tortured by the same Syrian military intelligence agents.
AMT: And was he asked questions supplied by the RCMP and CSIS as well?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Nureddin has no doubt about it.
MUAYYED NUREDDIN: I was shocked. Like, my country, that’s supposed to work on my safety, how come they sent questions and they let me end up in the torture chamber?
AMT: How long was he held Terence?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Muayyed Nureddin was detained and tortured in Syria for a month. Ahmad El Maati was held in Syria and Egypt for 26 months. Abdullah Almalki spent 22 months in a Syrian prison, and Maher Arar 13 months.
AMT: And not one of them was ever charged with anything?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Not a thing. Not in Canada after they were released and returned, not in Syria or Egypt. In fact, two federal commissions of inquiry found that the tortured Canadians were entirely blameless for their ordeals.
AMT: Well, whatever happened to the main players in the Canadian government who had a hand in those detentions in Syria and Egypt?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Well, after he gave false testimony about the Arar case to a Canadian parliamentary committee, Giuliano Zaccardelli, the RCMP Commissioner, was pressured to resign and he has since received an appointment to a senior position at Interpol, the international police force. After his involvement in Almalki’s torture as Canada's Ambassador to Syria, Franco Pillarella was reassigned as ambassador to Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova. Today, he is retired in Monte Carlo. And after overseeing RCMP involvement in the files, inspector Mike Cabana was promoted to Assistant Commissioner of the RCMP, a position he still holds today.
AMT: Well, we heard at the beginning the public apology that then Prime Minister Stephen Harper made to Maher Arar almost 10 years ago. Ottawa agreed to a 10.4 million dollar compensation package. What happened with the other three?
TERENCE MCKENNA: Not much. There is a closed door judicial inquiry that found evidence of Canadian officials indirect involvement in their torture. The House of Commons voted in favour of a formal apology and compensation for the government's role in the three Canadians’ torture in Syria and Egypt, but neither ever happened. The House vote was in December 2009, and all three men are still waiting for some official recognition from the government, and for some closure.
AMT: So, given the evidence on paper that you have received in these thousands of documents that show Canadian police officials and government officials were in such close contact with the security and torture forces of the Assad regime, how are we supposed to process this now as Assad remains in power in Syria?
TERENCE MCKENNA: The governments of both Canada in the United States have such a compromised relationship with Assad. You know, the RCMP even tried to charge one of the torturers with torture, and issued like an arrest warrant for him in Canada. Which is just completely at odds with the fact that they had participated in the torture themselves by supplying the questions. So, you know, the whole the whole thing just shows incredibly compromised relationship that both the US and Canada have with the Assad regime.
AMT: So those emails raise lots more questions.
TERENCE MCKENNA: I think so.
AMT: Thank you Terence.
TERENCE MCKENNA: Thank you. Terence McKenna is a documentary maker with CBC Television. The Torture Files is a joint presentation of The National and the Fifth Estate. For more on this CBC News investigation you can watch The National for Terence's documentary, it airs in three parts starting tonight. You can also stream the full documentary on the Fifth Estate's new YouTube channel, that's available on Thursday. We did put in a request for an interview on Friday with former RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli, who now works with Interpol. We have not yet received a response. As you listen to this if you want to weigh in on what you're thinking, let us know. You can tweet us we are @TheCurrentCBC. Find us on Facebook, you can also email us from our site cbc.ca/thecurrent.
AMT: The news is next, and then we meet a disruptor of a different kind. One who paved the way for Free Willy and shamu. The story of Moby Doll, the original lovable orca. I’m Anna-Maria Tremonti, this is The Current, on CBC Radio One, Sirius XM and online at cbc.ca/thecurrent.
Back To Top »
How Moby Doll changed the worldview of 'monster' orca whales
Guests: Mark Leiren-Young, Pat McGreer, Jason Colby
ANNA-MARIA TREMONTI: Hello, I'm Anna-Maria Tremonti, and you're listening to The Current.
AMT: Still to come, Canada may have a unique relationship with the Trudeau family, Pierre and sons. But the Trudeau's themselves have a unique relationship with China. In Chairman Mao's day, China was a special place for the former prime minister. In the 21st century, Alexandre Trudeau, Sacha, feels its pull. He joins me to share his insights into its history with his family, in half an hour. But first, the disruptive truth about killer whales in black and white.
[Music: The Disruptors Theme]
Next to Vancouver where the first killer whale ever captured alive continues to evoke interest.
AMT: Well, it is July of 1964 and newscasts were all abuzz with word that a killer whale had been captured off the coast of Saturna Island in British Columbia.
That’s the sound of the world’s only live killer whale in captivity. A mammal that has in the past five days been the subject of more headlines, theories and protests than anything else in Vancouver for some time. The latest word from scientists who've been flocking around the whale, is that she may be pregnant, in which case a happy event would take place next May, at the end of the year-long gestation period from this spring’s mating.
AMT: Well, it turns out that the scientists and the journalists were jumping the gun when it came to planning for a little whale, because the whale in captivity was he not a she. And sadly, he would not live for anywhere near one more year. But while that whale's legacy has a very long tail indeed. Mark Leiren-Young has just written a book about the whale that came to be known as Moby Doll. The book is called The Killer Whale Who Changed the World. As part of our yearlong project The Disruptors, Mark Leiren-Young argues that Moby Doll was a disruptor, changing forever the way we view the orca whale. He joins us from Vancouver. Hello.
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: Hi Anna-Maria, this is great.
AMT: I'm really interested in this story, take us back to the beginning of the story of Moby Doll. How did this whale come to be captured in the first place?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: Well, the Vancouver aquarium wanted to have a display in their new foyer, so they thought what they needed was to represent the most impressive species in the coastal waters. And of course, everyone knew at the time that killer whales were far too dangerous to ever capture alive. So what they were going to do was harpoon one, and then use the dead whale to create the first ever anatomically correct life-sized replica of a killer whale.
AMT: So they basically said let's go kill a whale, so we can make a nice statue?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: So that we can make an accurate statue.
AMT: Yeah, yeah.
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: Which was unheard of at the time. There was nothing like that.
AMT: Extraordinary. How were whales viewed at the time?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: Monsters. I mean, if you saw a whale at the time the standard response was to break out the rifle in your boat and start shooting. And there was a sense that these creatures were going to do you what they did to seals, and that they were going to just eat you at the first opportunity.
AMT: So they wanted to go out to kill a whale, what went wrong with the operation?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: They missed. What went wrong was that, well first, them waiting and waiting and waiting off the coast of Saturna island, which is one of the few places in the world where killer whales swim so close to shore you can practically touch them. And so, they set up a harpoon gun on Saturna, and the harpoonist who was also the artist Samuel Burich, was waiting for a whale with Joe Bauer, who was there as the assistant. And they had actually called the mission off. They'd been waiting for so long that they decided the whales just weren't coming this year. And they were packing up their gear when Joe Bauer spotted a whale. And they raced down, set up the harpoon gun fired and the harpoon hit the whale but didn't kill it, and hooked the whale like a giant bait fish.
AMT: And what did they do?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: Well, they went after it and they called for backup. They called for Murray Newman, who ran the aquarium and Dr. Pat McGeer, who I know you've caught with us.
AMT: That's right. Pat McGeer is waiting to join this conversation. Pat McGeer is a physician and scientist and Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia. He was one of the first scientists to come in contact with the whale after it was captured. And we have reached him in his lab today. Hello, Pat McGeer.
PAT MCGEER: Good morning.
AMT: You arrived shortly after that whale was harpooned, what was your first impression?
PAT MCGEER: Well, the lighthouse keeper was going to row me out to the boat which held the harpoon tieline, said it was too dangerous. But I said to hell with the risks, roll me out there. They were shooting at the killer whale and I managed to persuade them to stop shooting, because they weren't going to kill it anyway. And it looked like the whale was just swimming peacefully behind the boat. Then shortly after that, Murray Newman arrived and had this marvelous idea, let's tow it into the dry dock. So it was Murray's enterprise and genius that got this killer whale moved into captivity, where it could be studied.
AMT: Now, this is a time when the killer whale is seen as a monster. What made you want to make sure that it stayed alive?
PAT MCGEER: Just common sense. Look, the whale was swimming peacefully behind the boat. Why try and kill it?
AMT: OK. Mark Leiren-Young then, the whale comes back to Vancouver, what happens?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: Well, it's a bit of a circus on the way in. CBC TV one of my favourite things that I dug up was from the archives here at CBC in Vancouver. And CBC TV reported that the Vancouver aquarium had captured a monster.
AMT: They actually used the word?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: They actually used the word monster, which I love. What happened was, people sort of gathered to see the monster arriving. Sam Burich and Joe Bauer basically led the whale back to Vancouver on the end of the harpoon line, and they were leading it as carefully as possible, trying to match the rhythms the whales, so it took 17 hours, 18 hours to cross over from Saturna to Vancouver to get it to the dry dock. Then they had to lead the whale into the dry dock, and crowds gathered to check out the whale. And their response was, well, like, the circus arrived. I mean, it really was like they captured King Kong. The whale was displayed publicly for one day in the dry dock right after it arrived.
AMT: How many people showed up?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: The number that I've heard is up to 20,000, which was the same number that showed up for The Beatles at Empire stadium that summer.
AMT: Pat McGeer, do you remember the curiosity of the public?
PAT MCGEER: Absolutely. It was very dramatic. The most feared creature on Earth was being towed into captivity. Nobody had seen a killer whale. All they knew was that it was appropriately named killer. So this was a chance to look at the most dangerous creature alive. So of course that spurned curiosity, and they allowed people to enter the grounds of the dry dock and just huge mobs of them gathered around the wharf on the outside, gawking at this killer whale which was just swimming peacefully around in circles.
AMT: Mark, how did naming the whale Moby Doll affect how people view this whale?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: I find that really fascinating, because I think naming the whale Moby Doll really changed everything. Instead of envisioning Moby Dick, who was the stuff of nightmares and horror movies, you were picturing Moby Doll who was this cute, cuddly creature. And I think when Murray Newman chose the name Moby Doll for the whale, he really shifted everything. If you want a disruptor moment, it was naming that whale Moby Doll.
AMT: I've got a little more tape. This is from that same newscast in 1964. Keep listening.
Dr. Murray Newman, a curator of the Vancouver Aquarium is worried about the wound from last week's harpooning. Although it wasn't serious, it now appears to be puffy and festering. A needle with antibiotics was fired at the whale, but it bounced off her tough hide. The drugs could be included in food, but since her capture Moby Doll has eaten only a few pounds of fish. Her appetite seems to be improving, however. The scientists have just one problem, what's the best way to approach a live killer whale?
AMT: Pat McGeer, how did you and the others working with Moby Doll know how to take care of a live killer whale?
PAT MCGEER: We didn't. But we thought it best to give the whale a shot of penicillin, because it was a rusty harpoon that had gone through the nape of the neck. So we just used a long tube and I injected the killer whale with a shot of penicillin. Eventually, it died of course of an aspergillus infection, but that was down the road a few weeks.
AMT: And so, right after that penicillin shot, what like, did his health improve a little bit?
PAT MCGEER: Well, eventually a skin infection developed, but all of this happened because the killer whale was moved from the dry dock into very unsanitary waters off Jericho beach. So the whale was exposed to all of the detritus that comes down the Fraser River. And really, that's why the whale died. It was where it was moved into very impure water.
AMT: And what were you learning from the whale at this point?
PAT MCGEER: Well, that it was not a ferocious creature looking for a human being to eat. [laughs] So, everything we did was new and actually the only authentic paper on the physiology of the killer whales is the one that we wrote at that time 1964 and 1965, there never really been any scientific studies since.
AMT: It's so fascinating. And you were very interested in the brain were you not, the brain of the whale?
PAT MCGEER: Yeah, because we were doing some assays on brain metabolism, and our methods were so crude we needed a larger brain. And I reckoned that the killer whale brain would be one of the largest we would ever get. And it turned out to be quite true. I have a model of the killer whale’s brain actually at home. It’s much larger than the human brain, very complex brain. So this is an extremely intelligent creature.
AMT: And Mark Leiren-Young, how long was it before Moby Doll died then?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: Just under three months.
AMT: How did the public react?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: The response was pretty much mourning. I mean, there was a sense that the monster was now referred to as Vancouver's beloved whale.
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: And Vancouver’s beloved pet whale.
AMT: So, there would have been ongoing coverage of this whale and the new pen, it just would have been, stayed in the news?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: Everything, the whale was pretty much in the news nonstop from the day that it was captured. Everything was news. I mean, to me the most compelling story that really came out of it was that the sculptor Sam Burich was also the world's first whale sitter. He began to worry that the whale was lonely and since the whale communicated in squeaks, Sam would sit by the side of the pool playing his harmonica in the hopes that that would somehow communicate with the whale. So the guy who had been terrified of whales was suddenly trying to become the whale’s friend. And I've always found that quite haunting and beautiful.
AMT: And what else did you find as you went back and looked at that time Mark, and sort of the reaction of people?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: Just the phenomenal shift in attitudes and how quickly those attitudes shifted. Pat was just talking about giving the whale the first shot. He came up with the idea of using a 10 or 12 foot pole, depending on which newspaper you read, to use the penicillin. So, initially they literally would not touch this thing without a ten foot pole. And to go from that to hand-feeding the whale, and from fearing it to loving it was just astonishing.
AMT: And Pat, was that the same for you, like did you think they were more fearsome than they are?
PAT MCGEER: I had no knowledge one way or another, but there had been reports from [unintelligible] that they had tilted the ice flows in the Antarctic so that they could eat the man, tip them off the ice flows and eat them. So the stories were were bizarre. But as a scientist, you always reject your theories and believe your observations. So the observations didn't coincide at all with what was being held as theories, so you just immediately reject it.
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: One of the things that I thought was really interesting about Pat's perspective, you are the only one without any preconceptions, who hadn't read all about killer whales, you were just, you were the scientist who'd been drafted to study the brain. So I always thought you came in with such a unique perspective on the story.
PAT MCGEER: Yeah. And then, of course, immediately people learned about this. It turned out to be that killer whales could be captured and taught, and before long 32 aquariums around the world had killer whales on display, and people were learning about the amazing behavior of these creatures. It transformed the world not just about killer whales, but about the attitudes towards whales in general. And of course now, it's considered politically incorrect to have a killer whale in captivity. So, learning about them has become artificially arrested. They're now a protected species instead of a hunted species. So, for complete reversal, this is what the result of Moby Doll was.
AMT: Mmm. Mark Leiren-Young, you think he was a disruptor.
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: Oh, Absolutely. I stand by the whale changed the world. If you look at what Moby Doll lead to, it's not a coincidence that Greenpeace started in Vancouver. The first person to count the whales wasn't studying killer whales until he met Moby Doll. So, scientist Michael Bigg was the first person to realize how few orcas were out there. And that was the result of becoming interested in Moby while working for Dr. McGeer. John Ford is now really the leading linguist in studying orcas and their dialects. First saw Moby Doll at age nine in the pool. And Paul Spong, who was the scientist responsible for convincing Greenpeace they should try and save the whales, his first encounter with an orca was seeing Moby Doll's brain in Dr. McGeer's laboratory.
AMT: Well, let's bring someone else into this conversation to talk a little bit more about all of that then. Jason Colby is with us. Jason is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Victoria. He's working on a book about how our impressions of killer whales have changed since they have been taken into captivity. He is also in our Victoria studio. Hello, Jason Colby.
JASON COLBY: Great to be with you.
AMT: So as we listen to the story of Moby Doll, what other captive whales are influential at around the same time?
JASON COLBY: I'm going to push back a little bit on Mark's argument and title, even though I think Moby Doll’s extraordinarily important. I would actually make the argument, you could make the argument, that two other whales that were taken into captivity maybe have a better claim as being whales that changed the world.
AMT: And who were they?
JASON COLBY: The first one I would note was captured in BC and was purchased by the Seattle Marine Aquarium and came to me known as Namu. And Namu was the first to be truly on public display, doing shows. And the owner of the Seattle Marine Aquarium, Ted Griffin became the first person in the world that we know of to swim with a killer whale, and that was a really transformative moment in the sense that he got in the water and thousands and thousands people saw that this animal not only wouldn't eat people, but would actually perform with and even befriend a person. And the other one is actually one that the Mark kind of alluded to, that I actually think was the most important whale ever kept in captivity, most important killer whale, most influential, and that’s Skana, who was at the Vancouver Aquarium.
AMT: What year is Skana?
JASON COLBY: Skana is captured by Griffin in Puget Sound in February of 1967, and sold to the Vancouver Aquarium the following year.
AMT: OK, so after Moby Doll, but keep going.
JASON COLBY: After Moby Doll, yup. And Skana is there for 13 years. And, you know, among other things really affects the political transformation and intellectual transformation of Paul Spong, who becomes a very influential orca scientist but also influential member of Greenpeace. I wouldn't say that Skana is more important than Moby Doll for transforming the views of killer whales, but for the broader picture that Dr. McGeer hinted at, of the way people view whales and ocean life around the world, she was profound. In the sense that you can't imagine Greenpeace turning toward the issue of whaling and the extraordinary change that that brought without Skana’s influence.
AMT: And Skana was playful, Skana could have hurt Paul Spong but she played with him, essentially.
JASON COLBY: Yeah, I mean, the thing that's important about Skana is that she showed that, you know, the joke scientists often have, you know, under carefully controlled conditions animals behave as they damn well please. You know, one very famous instance intentionally got all of her responses in one of his experiments wrong, you know, which was statistically impossible unless she was attempting to do so.
AMT: What was it about having them in captivity that moved our understanding forward?
JASON COLBY: But when Moby Doll was taken, the argument was not between whale watching and whale catching, it was between whale catching and whale killing. Killer whales are being taken, you know, killed by scientists by fishermen by, you know, by whaling ships around the world, and what bringing them into captivity did, it enabled people to see this animal close up, especially once they become performing, to develop a sort of respect and empathy and understanding for this as a, you know, a complex animal. Now, this also eventually really leads to the misgivings about having such a large social intelligent animal in captivity, but you have to appreciate the impact that that has on millions of people that are able to see this animal for the first time and for the only time in their lives, not just in BC and Washington State, where they're first displayed, but all over the world. In places like, you know, San Antonio, Ohio, you know, Niagara Falls, where people around would never have seen these animals.
AMT: What would have happened to whales on the West Coast if they hadn't been taken into captivity, Jason?
JASON COLBY: I think you can make a very strong argument that they may have gone toward extinction. And in fact, you know, the Southern residents we may be watching sort of a long slide toward extinction now. There are pretty good indications that throughout the 20th century their numbers were in free fall, partly because of food decline but more likely because of human violence. Most that were taken into captivity in the 60s and 70s actually had bullet holes in them and so it's very likely that they were on a decline.
AMT: Mark Leiren-Young, what do you make of the debate today over whales in captivity?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: What’s really hitting me right now is that the whales in captivity debate sort of takes away from the fact that we're worrying more about 30 whales in captivity than the 82 southern residents that are incredibly endangered right now.
AMT: Take us through that Mark, why is that? Why are they so endangered now?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: Well, as Jason said, food supply, the southern resident orcas really only eat salmon. There aren't enough salmon right now. And we're ruining their environment acoustically, pollution, ocean acidification. And right now the biggest threat is the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline, which would increase the traffic to the point where it will have significant effects on these southern resident orcas.
AMT: Pat McGeer, what do you think?
PAT MCGEER: I think a lot of that is simply nonsense. There's all kinds of killer whales all around the world. First of all, you couldn't have them in captivity because they were too dangerous. Once we got over that hump, then aquariums around the world began to house them and learn about killer whales. Then it became politically incorrect to have them in captivity. So now learning about killer whales has become arrested. They're very intelligent, you know, they have their own language. We should be learning how killer whales talk with one another through their clicks. Now killer whales are being used as a symbol or an excuse to shut down all other sorts of things. And as a scientist, I just dismiss ridiculous notions of this kind and I consider them to be ridiculous. Before, people used to shoot at killer whales. Now if a boat goes within 100 yards of a pod of killer whales the boat owner gets fined. So you go from one preposterous extreme to another.
AMT: Jason, how do you respond to what Pat’s saying?
JASON COLBY: I totally agree with him that captivity has and actually continues to play a really important part in the study of killer whales. On the other hand, if those that have been involved in the capture of killer whales are going to make the argument that this has made people appreciate them more and appreciate the environment more, than they have to come to terms with the political outcome of that, which is that people will care more about this population and want to sustain it. Well we do have to understand that there's a balance between, you know, economic health and environmental health, and the environment cannot take unlimited strain.
AMT: Mark Leiren-Young, after all your research into this story about Moby Doll, what is it that you take away from the experience with this whale?
MARK LEIREN-YOUNG: That the world can change. To me what I came away with was a sense of hope. That this whale really gave a sense of hope that we could change, that we could learn things, we could change.
AMT: And Pat McGeer, as one of the people who was out there with the whale at the very beginning, what do you want us to remember now?
PAT MCGEER: Well, I hope that people will continue to learn about killer whales. And if you now can't go near them in the wild, if you can't have them in captivity, you're going to arrest all learning and people aren't going to know, and then they'll become indifferent and go to sleep about whales and killer whales in particular. So each generation has to learn and you have to keep the knowledge and culture alive. If there is no more knowledge, then it's all going to die.
AMT: OK, we have to leave it there. Thank you all of you for this discussion today.
MANY VOICES: Thank you so much.
AMT: Mark Leiren-Young’s book is called The Killer Whale Who Changed the World. He's in Vancouver. Pat McGeer was one of the scientists who worked with Moby Doll, he's now a Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia. Jason Colby is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Victoria, working on a book about killer whales in captivity. You can go to our website to see archival photos and video of Moby Doll cbc.ca/thecurrent. And if you actually remember seeing Moby Doll, you’ve got to let us know. Also tell us how your view of killer whales and killer whales in captivity may have changed over the years. Find us on Facebook. Tweet us @TheCurrentCBC, or go to the site cbc.ca/thecurrent. And stay with us, Alexandre Trudeau is waiting in the wings.
Back To Top »
Alexandre Trudeau shares family's unique relationship with China
Guests: Alexandre Trudeau
ANNA-MARIA TREMONTI: Hello, I'm Anna-Maria Tremonti, this is The Current.
[Chinese classical music playing]
We discussed a great many subjects. Chairman Mao asked a lot of questions about Canada, its geography, its climate in terms of production, particularly of agricultural goods. He was extremely lucid and clear in talking to me. He met me, he walked me to the door. He said don't forget to say hello to your wife. He obviously is a man enjoying his health as far as I could see, and I was always very glad to see that and report that.
[Chinese classical music playing]
AMT: That is Pierre Trudeau in a CBC Television report from China in October of 1973. The then prime minister was speaking after meeting privately with Chairman Mao Zedong, who was nearly 80 years old at the time and rarely seen in public at the time. Prime Minister Trudeau was there on an historic trip establishing official relations with communist China. For the elder Trudeau, China was an abiding interest, and one he seems to have passed on to the next generation. His son Justin, the current prime minister returned recently from his first official visit to the country. But in the years after Pierre Trudeau's death, son Alexandre perhaps better known as Sacha, traveled extensively through China. Getting to know intimately the country that so entranced his father. Alexandre Trudeau's new book about his travels is entitled Barbarian Lost, and he is with me in our Toronto studio. Hello.
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Hi.
AMT: What was it like to hear your dad from those days?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Oh, I was laughing. First of all, that accent that we don't hear anymore, like a little bit, we forget how our accent has been Americanized, I think. He has that British little to him. Also, slow moving, you know, we think giving answers these days, you know, give them quickly. And also it's not true that Mao was in good health. You know, Mao was not in good health in 1973, he was pretty senile. But that's, you know, diplomatic speak when he’s talking.
AMT: [laughs] Well, now, your mother Margaret Trudeau was with your father during the trip in 1973, she was pregnant with you. What did she tell you about that time?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: She said that it was unheard of to see, you know, women even today, you know, when a Chinese woman gives birth, she has a 40 day sequestration after the birth. But that's just where, you know, she's supposed to stay in bed, not wash and eat boiled eggs all the time. And a lot of people still do this. And the idea and when you're pregnant to travel around, to be involved in a state visit, was completely remarkable and strange for the Chinese. But I think in some ways sort of inspirational to see oh this woman here, she is, that's brave to be out and about following her husband about with eight months pregnant.
AMT: It’s incredible when you think about it.
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Could have been dangerous, frankly.
AMT: Well, so why do you think your father was so drawn to China?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Because it's such a huge intellectual, you know, challenge. It's I think I mean, the same reasons I am, it's a place that's unique, it's separate. We tend to forget how powerful and influential the West has been over the last five, six centuries, such that virtually everywhere you travel to is organized along some kind of Western ideals. China's not. And so you, it's the place you go to leave. you know, what you know and that's so important for a traveler.
AMT: Tell me about the first time you traveled to China. It was 1990--
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: 1990, yeah.
AMT: 1990, the year after Tiananmen square, right?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Yeah, exactly.
AMT: And who you were with?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Well, it was at that time my father was very intent, every summer we traveled. Not the kind of travel that we'd been doing when he was a prime minister, which was, you know, interesting but very, you know, framed with state stuff. So travel casually. And so, we were just working through a list of the great countries, you know, UK, France, and Ireland are then in Europe because those are sort of our ancestor’s countries, and then Soviet Union we'd done, and we'd come then United States we'd end up doing him and I. But China was it--
AMT: [interposing] You’d actually wanted--
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Yeah, we were supposed to go the year of Tiananmen and I remember watching the events on TV being so excited, we're going there, you know, we're going to see what's going to happen. My father more realistic, had to say no no it's not going to happen. But then I insisted the next year and he knew that, you know, I was 16. He knew that if we didn't go then we would never go as a family. And it wasn't the kind of trip that he perhaps he wanted to do, which was one with, you know, backpacks and trains and the Chinese didn't let us do that.
AMT: No, because they know who he was.
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Yeah. And then, you know, they don't accept that, you know, our system where once you leave politics you're rightly a nobody, and should be. But no, that's not the way they saw it. So it was a organized tour everywhere.
AMT: And it was you and your dad and Justin?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: And Justin, yeah.
AMT: And you learned an important lesson on that trip. You were visiting a sacred mountain, what happened?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Well, this happened a fair few times, I remember something similar in Mongolia. But, you know, when you're a teenager being in a state visit is hard, you know, it's boring. You know, you're sitting down yet again in a reception room you know drinking tea and people are saying niceties, you know, flattering each other and diplomatic speak. So we'd done that for about a week in Beijing and then we got to the countryside, this massive, Taishan is a beautiful mountain, it rises right from the Yellow River plain and it was like, good, a playground, Justin and I thought, you know. And, you know, we were bouncing off the walls running. So we ran up it and decided we're going to sprint down this whole mountain which, you know, my father was a little bit irked because we kind of left him behind with all the officials and all the rest, you know.
AMT: And it had stairs going down.
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Stairs the whole way down. And because we grew up in a house with a lot of stairs, we loved jumping down staircases, so that's what we did. We just jumped all the staircase, you know. But it's quite a high mountain, so by the time we were at the bottom, we were a little bit wobbly and then, you know, by night time we were completely racked and the whole next few days we were a mess. We were kind of crippled, you know, hobbling around and, you know, my father was rather angry about it and he turns to us and says, boys you know the Chinese used to look at Westerners as barbarians. You know, you guys are giving them reason to. You know, like, I guess we had our excuses as I say, we didn't want to be part of any official visit at that point. But it made me think, you know, yeah, the sense of sacred and those kind of things are things you don't consider when you're 16. And that's what being a traveler is, you know, being kind of unaware of stuff and having to wake up to it.
AMT: And that's where you get the title of the book Barbarian Lost.
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Indeed.
AMT: Didn't want you to be barbarians. [laughs]
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: [laughs]
AMT: You call yourself a traveler, what does that mean?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Well, I kind of say I'm a professional traveler, and that means I start traveling and then I find ways to make sense of it. You know, which meant my documentary filmmaking, which is very much, you know, every story I told was going to a place that I felt needed to be understood. Often places that we’re looking at from afar like Iraq or Israel or Liberia or Russia and then getting behind, getting in, digging in, losing my own comfort zone and leaving, you know, intellectually leaving everything I knew behind, and starting building a new understanding a place on its own terms. And often having a vantage point of one which one consider oneself from the outside, which is I think so important in the path of wisdom.
AMT: What were you hoping to discover about China when you returned in 2006?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Well, by that time I was, you know, I'd been working for about 10 years as a filmmaker. So, and China had really become an elephant in my room and the planet, where, you know, whether it's in the Middle East, like, where the oil was going, you know, or in Africa, the world of China, China coming in as a food buyer and a land buyer and a new friend of governments. It was becoming so geopolitically important. Not to mention the awakening as I saw it from afar of the Chinese people, who were coming out of a, you know, a very stark period of, you know, very little choice and freedom, to one where they they're experiencing more and more material freedoms, if not different kinds of freedom. So I wanted to, I knew and I say now I had a sense this is a big story. You know, maybe the biggest in a way, and I like to call it in some ways a great success story. You know, a billion and a half people have moved from, you know, a third world economy to approaching, you know, not necessarily first world yet but huge wealth creation that has happened there. So I just felt I needed to understand it, as someone who prides himself as understanding the world I needed China. I needed to know it deeply.
AMT: And you wanted to talk to regular people, a range of just regular folk. What did you learn from the people you met?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Yeah, that's always my method. You know, as I say, you know, when my father as we heard at the beginning, you know, that's nice and it sounds symbolically nice, but it's kind of empty, you know, diplomatic speak. You know, you've got to get behind that. You know, he himself taught me that, you've got to get to, you know, the little guy, you know, and see him and see how it works and then you build your understanding of society up, not down from some big ideas and, you know, the leaders and you build it up. So, what did I learn. China’s remarkable, well, one might say it shouldn't be surprising. It's an ancient place, so what you have is it's ancient and it's stable. The same people, speaking the same language, believing the same things, have lived in the same place for 3,000 years, if not five. And so there's an incredible amount of sedimented knowledge and so people who are referring to it, are drawing from it, when you talk to, it makes it an incredibly surprising place and stimulating intellectually, I mean. There's some great, I mean, they’re in the book, great conversations I have with, you know, truly radical thinkers, you know, people, you know, you question so deeply, things like the way we fabricate the past or, you know, what human freedom is all about. Or, you know, what art does. It's a book, as I say, when you come out of, I mean for me, it's a book of the many Chinas. You know, there's really, you kind of get a maybe one, it is a kind of character which has some unity to it, but it's also there are so many different perspectives. It's surprising China. I’m even when I go back now, I'm always surprised. I always meet someone like wow, you know, this businessman is like a true Buddhist, you know, has a real, you know, has a real, you know, sense of the human soul. You know, there's always those kind of remarkable surprises.
AMT: Talk to me a little bit more then about the ideas. Like, you spent so much time learning about the culture and aspects of Confucianism what appeals to you the most?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Confucianism is, you have to understand it to understand China. And it connects back to the, you know, almost cliché notion that, you know, the West is about individual freedom and China is about collective responsibility. And that's true and that's through it's a large fact of Chinese geography that China has not a lot of arable land and has had water scarcity problems from the start. And so, early on Chinese populations were under a lot of pressure and they didn't have or they didn't choose, but it's mostly because of geography. If they had been in a neighbourhood like the Mediterranean, like the Romans or something, they would have expanded to conquer weaker neighbours to get more land to feed themselves. But they didn't have that, there's nowhere from the original basin of the two rivers, the Yangtze and the Yellow, there's nowhere China could quickly go to get more arable land, at least to apply their type of agriculture. And so they had to codify, they had to answer their problems internally. Which means this very almost, you know, spidery network of hierarchies and codes for behaviour and most of all, you know, that starting with the family, you're born into, you know, heavy responsibility and almost servility as a child towards their parents as, you know, in classic China as a wife towards the husband as a man towards his city and his leader, you know, and you're bound, you're a prisoner, even the Emperor in classic Chinese Confucian is a prisoner of duties, has to perform those duties.
AMT: Preordained, right?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Preordained duties that, you know, the Emperor is the link between the heavens and the Earth, and has to ensure that ritual connection is perfectly sustained. So there's no latitude.
AMT: I'm going to ask how that makes you feel, because you are the son of a famous man and the brother of another famous man, famous political Canadians. When you look at that, do you see any parallels to the way you grew up, to the expectations around your own family?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Yeah, absolutely. That was something I complained about for years is that, you know, being someone who people watch grow up, people not only think they know you, but, you know, expect certain things from you and you have to sort of navigate that. You have to use that as I did, you know, I'm happy that people pay attention. You know, I’d be fool to say that it didn't help as a communicator in a certain way, but it does preordain what people expect. And, you know, you have to correct that, or perhaps as I do, you know, I try and provoke people. [laughs] Do things that are jarring just to change that feeling.
AMT: Do you struggle with that now, or have you made your peace with it?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: No, in many ways I don't struggle with it. You know, I've built the life that I chose myself. I've done, you know, it's earlier when, you know, you're presenting a first film and then, you know, and people are expecting. I think after 20 years of, you know, being a journalist and a filmmaker, I have my own ideas and people have a bit more knowledge of me as a free will. I also named my first son after my father. I have a love for that continue. I grew to love the fact that, you know, that you have something proud to be carrying something that comes from the past and trying to deliver it into the future and being only just a piece of a story. You know, as a younger man you want to control the story in a much stronger way. But as you grow older, it's you find it's more beautiful to be part of something.
AMT: Yeah. Well, I want to ask about that because at one point you make the point that you could have gone to China to work. You were offered a job and you chose to stay in Montreal. Why?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Yeah, well this was in the late 90s and my father was clear to me that this was, you know, he was a vibrant vigorous man. And it almost turned overnight that he became an old man. You know, it partly connected to the fact that all his life's purposes were over. You know, his sons were now men, are young men and were out in the world. They were not dependent on him anymore and that sort of maybe, that just sort of switched. And we also, it was the same fall when my brother died. So, I suddenly realized that not only did I have real responsibilities, like he needed me, but I wanted to be there. You know, nothing else mattered to me. Even earlier I'd realized as a child that, you know, I’d looked at the math and realized my father, or compared to my friends who my father was really the age of their grandparents, and realized that, you know, my time with him would be limited. And so, you know, even when I was 18 where I was, you know, I was almost going to go lose myself in Africa and what drew me back was saying, was the realisation well, partly, was saying my time to learn from my father is limited. I've got to take advantage of that. Especially, you know, when the end was near, it was like I'll be there for him, nothing else matters.
AMT: You have talked about spending time with a dying parent as a gift.
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Yeah, it's powerful. I mean, we have such a fickle, inauthentic relationship with death, I feel now. And it's weakened us as humans, where we're afraid of it. Partly because of how good life has become, you know, death is more remote than it ever was. We used to, you know, live with the tragedy of death. You know, whether you're a king or a pauper, you know, death could come for you and your children at any time, you know. You know, childbirth was an exceedingly dangerous thing. You know, our ancestors had a relationship with death which was in some ways much healthier. Now, you know, the institutionalizing of death, you know, the fear of it, means for a lot of lonely deaths.
AMT: Did you talk about death with your dad, was that a place you could go with him?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Yeah, my father was ready and he was a he, you know, he was a man of faith, so it was something he was at peace with. And I had grown to be at peace with too. I mean, there's deaths that you cannot be at peace with. You know, I described in the book even, you know, this book is a dialogue in many ways, one of the structures is with this remarkable Chinese woman whom I traveled with and, you know, this book took place over time and at the end we'd met up again after a year. So we'd grown older and I'd have children suddenly and when I started this book I didn't. And now, she says how's that changed you and, you know, one of the things that I found that changed me the most is it restored my fear of death, which I'd gotten used to. You know, I'd seen death in the world in a tragic sad way. But I learned to accept it as part of human reality, something we have to accept, we have to be at peace with. But being a parent, innately the very thought of anything, a risk to your children, you know, paralyzes us. Which is kind of fun, not fun, what am I making light of it, I mean, it's not light at all, it's the heaviest thing there is. But it brings an irrational fear back in, which is important to understand wisdom. But the death of my father was caring for a parent. It's this full circle because they, you know, when someone is close to the end they almost return to a kind of childlike. And there are dependence as we were once with them, that's powerful. That gives a lot of wisdom.
AMT: I was really struck that you traveled the world but then you took this other journey with your dad right there in Montreal, right there in that house.
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Yeah.
AMT: Where you live now.
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Journeys are, there’s nothing in the end physical about travel. It's intellectual, but I also believe it's spiritual. You know, we travel because it's the work of our soul, you know, to get closer to who we are in one way and in another way abnegate who we are, get to be in an encounter with everyone and the world, and you know, these are big themes but that's what drives me.
AMT: So what did you think of the relationship your brother is now trying to build with China?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: I think it's crucial. We're kind of neighbours in a way, across the North Pacific. There's obviously a resource relationship, which is crude but vital. You know, Canada is in exporting nation. We have a real challenge to be more than just a seller of oil and, you know, agricultural products. But we're that at the minimum and that's a great thing. You know, it creates a lot of the wealth that we have around us and the comforts that we enjoy in this society. And we need a market for that stuff. You know, there's a challenge of course and I think my brother's real challenge is to steer the ship generationally, and lay the basis for us being, you know, one of the strongest players in the knowledge economy. But part of that is having complex deep relationships with important countries that are evolving and need partners that are sophisticated and creative in their engagements.
AMT: Is that something you talk to him about, the China experience?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Frankly, no, no. Because my space with him I think is we've kept it as a family one. And, you know, I have such strong ideals and I'm frankly a radical, you know, and I've accepted that and I've chosen, that's why I'm not doing anything political, you know. And I have great sympathy for the difficulties of his job and I don't want to, you know, he read my book and I'm very happy he did. But I'm not an advice giver to him. You know, I I think he should be taking advice from the people who work for the government, not outsiders. You know, and especially not his brother. He knows what I think and that probably has a strong voice in his head and he has to listen to it, or may listen to it and sometimes not listen to it. So we have a playful very very family fun, we joke, we laugh. You know, we’re still rambunctious boys in many ways and that he can get from no one else. So, it's important that I think that he has a place in his life that's outside of politics and I'm a part of that.
AMT: And how do you carry on your father's legacy? What do you hope to pass on to your children?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Curiosity, humility. You know, not that I, I struggle with that but I think it's so important to understand. I mean, Barbarian Lost is, you know, say understand that China, outsiders will never understand it. You know, it's a book by an outsider you know. But the curiosity drives us to, you know, curiosity I think is the most important thing parents can instill in their children. You know, a love of discovery, because on the love of discovery, it's also the patience and the empathy for others, you know, it's in our curiosity that we become drawn to other people and other places. So, yeah, as a traveler I think that's my particular skill, that's what I learned from my father. That's what I'm passing on to my children, little by little.
AMT: You traveling with them now?
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: I have traveled with them and it's harder now with three.
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: Yeah, we do rough travel, you know, my boy was off to camp and so we went and got him and he's nine, his sleeping bag and his first little mattress and I'm like, OK, you'll be camping at camp and I'll show you. Well, I think we'll have to wait till next spring how to camp in a city, which is a rare skill, which is actually fun. How to camp, you know, be a real vagabond which is how I started traveling when I was 17, you know, hitchhiking and bivouacking anywhere. These are skills I think that provide an insight into the world that are as hard to get at otherwise.
AMT: A different kind of survival. Thanks for coming in.
ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU: My pleasure.
AMT: Alexandre Trudeau, his book is called the Barbarian Lost: Travels in the New China. He's in our Toronto studio. I don't know if you ever heard this band when you were there Omnipotent Youth Society. We're going to just play a little bit of that. That is our program for today. But we've got a little bit of music we're going to share with you at the same time you were traveling through China. In 2006, four young men were becoming very popular, so we'll leave you with their music. This is the contemporary Chinese alternative rock band Omnipotent Youth Society. I'm Anna-Maria Tremonti, thanks for listening to The Current.
[Music: Omnipotent Youth Society]
Back To Top »
CBC would like to acknowledge the support of the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund.