For 21 seconds on Tuesday morning, Justin Trudeau said nothing. Between the end of a reporter's question about Donald Trump and the start of the prime minister's response, there was a long and tense silence.
Anyone could have filled that silence with a flow of terrible images and ideas from the past few days and the past four years in American life. But if it is possible for silence to say anything, it spoke about the weight of this moment and the profound challenge ahead for the United States of America – and for this country and its leadership.
After four years of vulgarity and chaos – and with a deadly virus taking lives and devastating local economies – the United States of America is boiling. Canada's second oldest ally and largest trading partner is in crisis. Its president has now sent federal security agents after peaceful protesters. He is threatening to mobilize military personnel under the powers granted him by the 1807 Insurrection Law.
On Tuesday morning, Trudeau was asked if he would publicly condemn the president – and what message he would be sending if he did not. The reporter finished asking the question, but Trudeau remained silent. Twice he opened his mouth as if he were about to say something, but no words came. Finally, he started to answer:
If Trudeau had assumed from the beginning that it was one of his responsibilities to condemn Donald Trump whenever the president did something that deserved criticism, the prime minister could have found himself making comments almost every day for the past four years.
The Trudeau government criticized the government's actions directly at the time – its policy of locking children in cages, for example. But Trudeau said more than once that his primary responsibility is to protect Canadians' economic and social well-being – which implies that upsetting the American president can have real implications for Canada.
& # 39; Horror and dismay & # 39;
The risk, as many argue, is that Trump's excesses will be normalized – although Trudeau would say he didn't shy away from talking about his own values, nor did he hesitate to criticize Canadian politicians whose behavior is objectionable. The flip side of the concern about normalizing Trump is the simple fact that nothing the Canadian Prime Minister says is likely to have any effect on the outcome of this fall's presidential election.
Given Trudeau's talent for public performance (at least during his first four years as prime minister), some assume that the half-minute break was somewhat planned in the theater. In politics, it is always difficult to distinguish the staged from the sincere. But even a consciously planned break would still be a statement about the unique indignation of that moment.
But it is very possible that Trudeau was really struggling to find the right words.
"We all watched in horror and dismay what is going on in the United States," said Trudeau finally.
"It's time to bring people together. But it's time to listen. It's time to learn what injustices continue despite progress over years and decades. But it's time for us Canadians to recognize that we also have our challenges, that Canadians blacks and racialized Canadians face discrimination as a reality they experience every day ".
The weakness of the & # 39; big & # 39; nations
So, after thinking about it for 21 seconds, the prime minister still stopped criticizing the president directly (although words like "horror" and "dismay" can talk a lot).
But that moment is much more than whether a prime minister should criticize a president. It is also about what happens when a country cannot look in the mirror and deal with what it sees.
There are those who withdraw from Trudeau's willingness to acknowledge this country's shortcomings – as if a prime minister's job was to remind Canadians that they live in the largest country in the world. But the United States – a country that has long insisted on its greatness – can now serve as an objective lesson in what can happen when a country refuses to deal with its weaknesses and failures.
American writer George Packer recently compared the United States to a "Bankrupt state"And that was before tear gas was used to pave the way for a president's photography operation.
There is no way back to 2015
For other countries, watching events in the USA with growing alarm, avoiding their fate begins with combating racism and inequality at home. Black Canadians have every reason to demand that the Trudeau government take their concerns seriously. But racism is not our only point of vulnerability. From reconciliation to social welfare, Canada's work is incomplete.
Still, Canadians are not mere spectators when things go wrong in American politics. Justin Trudeau's father said Canada is a rat in bed with an elephant. In 2020, the elephant is sick. Yes, he has survived serious illness outbreaks before, but it is an illusion to imagine that we will all wake up one morning to find that the current fever is broken and things are quickly returning to some kind of "normal" before 2016.
In the past four years, Canada has been forced to renegotiate NAFTA under threat of chaos, faced thousands of asylum seekers appearing on the southern border, endured Canadian steel and aluminum tariffs, the collapse of the American leadership in climate change and attacks on institutions international organizations that have given this country a voice in global affairs.
At the moment, the border between Canada and the United States is closed to all but essential travel, an unprecedented and economically damaging stoppage, driven by the expansion of COVID-19. With our American cousins struggling to fight the disease (a struggle that will undoubtedly be hampered by the conflict of the last few days), it is unclear when it will be possible to safely reopen that border.
Meanwhile, Canada has had to make a special effort to ensure that vital medical supplies manufactured in the United States can cross the border into this country.
The official US relationship with the world may change with a different president. The next four years may be easier for Canada as a result. But domestic dysfunction in the United States will not be easily corrected – and the past four years show how little can be taken for granted in American life today.
If Trudeau's government has not been blind to the global and continental issues raised in the past four years, it is also unclear whether it has found real answers. It is no surprise that two Canadian scholars recently proposed, dusting off the "third option" doctrine that Pierre Trudeau's government developed in the 1970s – the last time that the United States seemed to disintegrate.
This is the challenge that Canada's leadership now faces – promoting a democratic and pluralist society in a time of pandemic and climate change, while living alongside an afflicted superpower.
Twenty-one seconds is enough time to start thinking about everything that confronts us now. But a complete answer goes far beyond the most recent outrage in the United States.