Polish PM's visit stirs emotions on Parliament Hill

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was the guest of honour last night at a reception for the Polish-Canadian community to cap a visit to Canada that, Tusk confided, had nearly moved him to tears.

Harper takes a shot at the 'evil empire,' as his guest feels the weight of history

It's rare, indeed, to hear a foreign dignitary declare that his visit to Ottawa nearly made him cry.

Did David Cameron choke up at the thought of the close relations between Canada and Britain? Nope. Did Barack Obama get all teary about the volume of cross-border trade? Please.

But Donald Tusk pulled it off — and not one eyeball rolled.

The Polish Prime Minister was the guest of honour at a reception for the Polish-Canadian community on Parliament Hill, hosted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Crisply articulate, the conservative Polish leader spoke without script or hesitation, both at a joint press conference and at the reception. He is not known for histrionics. But, yes, he said his visit "made me want to cry."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk hold a press conference on Parliament Hill Monday. The two later attended a reception for the Polish-Canadian community. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

As the first Polish leader to visit Canada in 22 years, Tusk could be forgiven for not knowing what he was in for.

How would he know, for example, that he, a member of the Kashubian minority of northern Poland, would see the graves of other Kashubs in the Madawaska Valley, west of Ottawa? Those hardy farmers from Poland built the village of Wilno, Ont., whose people came out in force to greet Tusk — at the Catholic church, of course — to show how they'd prospered in the generations since. The stories of the early settlers' struggle seemed to affect the Prime Minister in a way that, well, an updated bilateral agreement on tax policy did not.

Polish TV spent two days in tiny Wilno to capture the story: a little-known saga from Poland's wrenching history that made the prime minister want to weep.

"We felt as if we were visiting the graves of our dearest, our relatives, our beloved," Tusk said, "because these names, these figures, those stories were our stories."

No doubt, his discussion with Harper was interesting in its own way. After all, the Polish government, like Canada's, plans to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67. The howls of anger in Warsaw led Tusk to shorten his visit and hurry home directly from the Ottawa reception. So there was plenty to talk about.

But it was the very Canadian story of a tough immigrant community, driven by desperation to start again with nothing, that seemed to animate both prime ministers.

Harper, needless to say, was not about to cry. But he, too, saw meaning in the Polish immigrants' story. For him, it lay in their resistance to trendy liberal ideas.

'Evil empire'

Recalling the Polish refugees who fled to Canada during the war, Harper noted that "free Poles who tried to go home after the war faced the welcome of the prison and the firing squad from the new Communist state."

Then came a classic Harper assault on mushy liberalism.

"To their shame," he added, "some in the West pretended not to see, or to make excuses. Some even claimed to see a moral equivalency between our own free dominion, and those of our allies, and what would come to be known, rightly, as the evil empire. I am proud to say however, that Polish-Canadians would have none of it."

The nod to Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" speech, the disdain for moral fuzziness, the claim to immigrant votes... it was all there, right down to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney beaming in the audience. The Polish business and community leaders got a dose of emotion from one prime minister, a dose of anti-communism from the other, and applause from both for their toughness.

Then, they flocked to have their pictures taken with the leaders and lingered on the steps of the Centre Block. Nobody pretended that it was a consequential visit. Donald Tusk got less media coverage than the Dalai Lama. But even smaller state occasions are worth watching — and, this time both sides hit their marks precisely. There should be an award for choreography.