My friend Ariel assured me the bus would be air-conditioned.
“It’s for tourists, not Cubanos, you will be fine,” he promised. And, well, he was right.
The bus trip from Havana to Santa Clara was comfortable, and it was interesting viewing rural Cuba along the way. I had never been this far into the country, I had always spent my time in Havana. Staying at the Nacional Hotel, hanging out at the Campay Segundo promenade, or Hemingway’s Floridita bar, drinking mojitos and listening to fantastic Cuban music.
But this was serious – I came to Cuba on a mission, and Ariel, a former Cuban Navy captain, God bless his soul, was intent on making it happen.
We were on our way to pay tribute to Che Guevara, the legendary guerrilla fighter and revolutionary, a man I deeply admired. I have no time to give you his history – Google it.
We passed many Cubans, selling blocks of cheese and other things, on the highway. It seemed to be an underground economy of some sort.
Let’s just say Canadians are appreciated in Cuba. Despite US pressure, US trade sanctions, and failed CIA assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, Canada stood firm.
Believe me, the Central Intelligence Agency tried – I visited the MININT museum in Havana, which is filled with US spy equipment and evidence of deadly intelligence subversion. The Cubans, to their credit, foiled every attempt, and it’s all there, if you want to look at it.
Canadians who suffer months of freezing cold at home can savor an affordable week in Cuba, hosted by the most friendly island in the world. True, the food is not as good as in Mexico, but … you are getting the best the country has to offer, and Cubans have been doing some interesting things with their cuisine lately.
But I digress.
I stood in front of Che’s burial wall, at his massive mausoleum … along with those who died with him in Bolivia, at the hands of CIA-assisted forces – a bucket-list moment in my life, and one that I greatly treasure.
A few years later, I had the amazing good fortune to meet an elderly retired Cuban soldier and artillery man in Havana, who had met both Che and Castro. He would leave the military and become a schoolteacher, teaching history.
Of Che he said, “Yes, he had long vision … a great man,” adding expression with his hands, in that Latin way.
Castro was a different sort, he said, a natural leader and very intelligent.
The old man, who said he was educated in Russia, then pulled his chair closer to mine, and spoke quietly, signalling he was about to pass on something important, a risky thing in Cuba.
Castro, he revealed, turned down Che’s request to return to Argentina, after his adventure in the Congo. Che wanted out.
But Fidel would convince him to undertake one more fateful mission, in Bolivia. It would be his last.
Back in 1976, the prime minister of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, along with his young wife Maggie and, their youngest, Michel, would travel to Cuba for an official visit. There is a photo of Castro, proudly holding the four-month-old child in his hands, with Maggie looking on in admiration.
Said Maggie: “In some pictures Fidel had a big patch of wet saliva on his uniform because he had come over early to cuddle the baby.”
It was a proud moment for Canada, and Cuba. The trip set the stage for partnerships between the two countries in agriculture and other areas, and strong tourism links.
Although there were pressing issues (Castro’s dodgy human rights record, for one) and NATO allies were critical, Pierre and Fidel hit it off. At one point, along a Cuban Cayo, they both snorkeled over beautiful corals, with spearguns, looking for a nice fish for dinner.
By all accounts, they were successful, enjoying fresh barbecued fish along with Spanish Rioja wine, Castro’s favorite. Can you imagine world leaders doing that today? Trudeau was a man of the world, and had acquitted himself quite well.
And Maggie fell for Castro’s charm … he was just too large, too amazing, too revolutionary, too … Fidel.
In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Maggie said Castro had wanted them to send Michel back to Cuba when he was seven to attend pioneer camp for children.
“It was very kind of him,” she said of Castro’s offer. “He was very proud of what he was doing with their children, in establishing them as strong citizens.”
Tragically, Michel Trudeau would die in an avalanche on November 13, 1998, while skiing in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park in British Columbia. His body has never been recovered from the icy mountain lake. Sources say Pierre never got over it – it pained him until his death.
Whether by plan, or fate … Justin, Michel’s dashing and charismatic younger brother, would seize the torch … brilliantly parlaying the Trudeau mystique to become leader of the Liberal Party, and then prime minister of Canada in 2015, at the meagre age of 43 — an amazing accomplishment.
But like any young leader lacking political experience, he would have to learn the hard way, ducking a series of political scandals that squandered his popularity. Still riding a wave of Trudeau-esque support in Eastern Canada, the young PM would scrape out a second term in October this year, a minority government.
But like his father before him — in a tragic second act carried out as if it were his Shakespearean destiny — his relationship with Western Canada would end in ruin. Not a single Liberal was elected in Alberta or Saskatchewan.
Worse yet, Trudeau refused to be humbled by the setback, vowing to continue his divisive policies in his victory speech. Political pundits immediately jumped on it, like a starving dog on a piece of raw meat.
Ironically, the rather ineffective Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, won the popular vote – a wakeup call for Canada’s Liberals, whose deficit spending has surpassed C$70 billion (US$52.7 billion) and climbing.
The nation is now deeply divided. Never before have Western Canadians given up on their country as they have now.
The once great Confederation, as we know it, has hit the skids.
As Justin seeks the dream of a politically correct green future and foolishly moves to “phase out” the province’s oil industry over climate concerns, Alberta and its sister province Saskatchewan have entered a slow, economic death spiral.
Yes, the Canadian government, under Trudeau, purchased the Trans Mountain Pipeline project to get Alberta’s precious oil-sands petroleum to tidewater, but Westerners feel it is just “Eastern promises” – too little, too late.
Meanwhile, political forces in British Columbia, to the west of landlocked Alberta, have done everything they can to stop the pipeline in the courts, creating a never-ending legal nightmare and bad feelings between the two provinces.
Albertans are now jamming “Wexit” (Western exit) meetings across the province by the hundreds – a symbolic move toward separation from the Canadian federation. This comes after years and years of roiling Western alienation.
The bar I attend, the Scotsman’s Well, in Calgary is full of friends (and not-so-friendly types) who’ve lost their jobs – electricians, oil-patch workers, construction workers, refrigeration workers, etc. Some of them have lost their homes, their livelihoods and more … the dignity that comes from honest work.
Faron, an unemployed oil-rig worker in his 40s, is one of those thousands who have been affected. He has had to look to the US and other Canadian provinces for work, eventually creating his own consulting and reno company. “I didn’t want to become a statistic,” he says.
“The oil patch is recessing rapidly due to investment pouring out of Canada,” he says, blaming Liberal policies. “This makes for some tough years ahead … the problem is, so much of the money generated supports other industries … so broad-based contraction will continue.”
He fully supports separation, saying, “It’s akin to always settling for mediocrity or striving for greatness, [but] regardless if we choose that path or not, Alberta, and Canada as a whole, faces tough times ahead.
“We may as well fix what is broken while we tighten our budgets and our belts and move forward in a much more democratic way, based on Western family values and Western interests.”
With visions of a bleak future, it is no wonder that many Westerners have given up on the Canadian dream.
But the prospect of “a revolution on the prairies” horrifies many Albertans, who are traditionally apathetic when it comes to politics. Life is good in Canada, for many, so why rock the boat? Separation might only make things worse. The concerns are valid.
A recent poll in the Western Standard pretty much reflects this feeling.
Meanwhile, Trudeau has embraced a green mandate, risking thousands of oil and gas jobs and the outflow of investment; Ontario has no sympathy and openly mocks its western neighbors for not diversifying its economy; and Quebec continues to collect billions in Alberta transfer payments (C$611 billion, from 1961-2017), as it has for years.
Also, legislation passed by the Liberal government (Bill C-69 and Bill C-48) has been largely perceived as anti-business, and Trudeau refuses to step back on the controversial carbon tax, which is reviled in the West.
Even attempts at innovation have been rejected.
Former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall told a radio commentator he attempted to pitch an idea to create jobs, and build good faith. He asked Trudeau if some of those Western transfer payments could be returned, in a project to cap abandoned “orphan wells” across the West. It would have created hundreds of jobs and taken care of a worsening environmental issue. Trudeau flatly ignored it.
According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, direct employment in Canada’s oil and gas sector was expected to fall by more than 12,000 jobs in 2019 – that’s a lot of people, a lot of families. Quoting a report from PetroLMI, it said the workforce was forecast to drop to about 173,300, an alarming decline of 23% from 226,500 in 2014.
At least a third of Calgary’s office towers – once bustling with oil-patch-related firms – remain empty, according to official stats. And both Calgary and Edmonton still have among the highest unemployment rates in major Canadian cities, at 7.2% and 7.1% respectively.
Alberta’s premier, Jason Kenney, while expressly against separation, has started the “autonomy” ball rolling. He is pushing for a separate Alberta pension fund and talking about kicking out the Mounties, who are in essence strong-arm men for the Prime Minister’s Office. Those who support Wexit believe this too falls short of the action needed.
Whether Alberta could survive a possible separation from Canada, or could even think of making a go of it alone … let me say this.
There is a breaking point … the point at which people lose faith and hope. If the Liberals do not act to quell this discontent, and soon, the argument for autonomy will gain momentum.
There’s no room for bleeding hearts here, none … the wind is blowing from the West, and the feds will soon get the message.
Equally, Westerners are a resilient and independent lot, and they don’t want handouts. They only want a level playing field. Seeking a degree of autonomy and a new deal under Confederation would go a long ways to solving western alienation.
In fact, anything, any olive branch of any sort would help … but Trudeau and the Liberals have not telegraphed any real intention of seeking a compromise.
It is their way, or the highway. And for those who’ve driven the Trans-Canada Highway, that is one mighty long cold and desolate highway.
Some believe Canada has survived worse, and will survive this – a 1995 referendum over Quebec separation, which ended in a narrow victory for Canada.
Kenney, to his credit, has called for a referendum on equalization payments – a move some critics have derided as “political science fiction,” because the vote would be an expensive piece of theater that holds no legal weight. Maybe so, but last I looked, Canada was still a democracy, and people need to be heard.
At the end of the day, Alberta’s future lies with Albertans, not Justin, not the feds. It is up to them to decide their future. And right now, the future is looking grim.
As Che once said rather bluntly: “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”
A bit dramatic and par for a revolutionary … but the words ring true.
I was in Taksim Square in Istanbul last January … and I bought a lighter with Che’s image on it from a street vendor. Nifty little lighter, I like it. I smoke the occasional Cuban cigar.
I slapped it down on a restaurant table, and a Turkish waiter came to me … looked down at the lighter, held his right hand to his heart and his other on my shoulder, and said, in a voice choking with emotion, “Good man … good man.”
I then had the best fish dinner I ever had in my life.
If only Canada had a good man.