Last week I saw former Prime Minister John Turner at Hart House. Given the current state of Canadian affairs, it only seemed natural to listen in. Besides, attending Socialist, Leftist or “anti-establishment” events exclusively isn’t all that healthy. You need a little dirt in your system. At least from time to time.
The talk promised to be “a phenomenal opportunity to learn from some of the greatest minds and practitioners in Canadian economic policymaking,” and it delivered the goods, albeit in unexpected ways. My expectations weren’t much, I imagined a stuffy environment with overly ambitious, awkward undergrads whose hopes were so high not even Starbucks could sober them. And naturally, naturally, it would be a predominantly White crowd. Guess what? In a room full of Neocon babies and old world Capitalist fat cats, I was on the money.
The babies were fine; relatively harmless. In the back, a few older Lefties loomed (I love when they do that), and so I took my seat and the little chat began.
Mr. Turner came on and everyone clapped. His infectious joviality was evident from the start and I wondered what fuelled it. As he got comfortable, he suddenly shifted gears and appeared quite serious. It was then that he launched into an important topic, one so great, some may call it the topic of our times: democracy.
Well, what I really mean is, “Democracy.”
“Democracy,” he said with dramatic flair, “does not happen by accident.”
Indeed, I mused, it doesn’t. My head started filling up with dusty images of Afghanistan and its rocky terrain, boots on the ground, Iraq. No, Democracy definitely, definitely doesn’t happen by accident. It’s planned and plotted for. It’s hacked and heaved and hoisted onto people like an old rug. It’s an external, Western import, sprung from the antiquated forehead of Greek philosophy, but without the Athenian grace or wisdom. Today’s Democracy is full of Big Macs, guns, terror and white supremacy; schooled under the shadow of Imperialism, but made colder with technology.
Shouldn’t everyone know that by now?
Well, I can tell you who does know that. The Iranians.
Ask anyone of Iranian descent to tell you about Mosaddegh and I guarantee that most times you’ll hear a sad sigh followed by a tale so important, many have passed it down, generation to generation, like the legend of Ferdowsi. They will tell you, the open truth, that Iran had a democratically elected leader, one who was both beloved and brave, a man my friend’s mom calls, “the grandfather of the Iranian people,” only the CIA and MI6 got rid of him.
That, my friends, is Democracy. It has nothing to do with political philosophy or freedom, and absolutely everything to do with greed and hegemony.
Needless to say, you can imagine my intrigue when Mr. Turner dove into the “oil question.”
He told us of the good old days before he was Prime Minister, when he was Minister of Finance, living it up with the IMF. Ah, the IMF. In any case, it turns out that due to the heady conundrum of high oil prices (sound familiar?), the IMF needed a bit of cash. So, to paraphrase Mr. Turner, they asked him to get out there and get it. Turner and his wife, Gelis, were put on a government plane and flown to the Middle East. He was under strict instruction to visit each of the capital cities within the region and it was imperative that he not return, empty-handed. In his own words, his last stop was Tehran.
At this part of the story, Turner chuckled and slyly told us, “The Shah was what John F. Kennedy called his kind of Shah”. With a sneaky wink he looked over at us while people laughed. I laid back in my seat and wondered if there could have been any other type of Shah than a subservient one?
When a government rids another of its very own democratically elected leader, what other kind of Shah could there possibly have been, Mr. Turner? He certainly wasn’t the Iranian people’s kind of Shah.
Rest assured, upon his arrival in Tehran, Turner was met with typical Middle Eastern hospitality. Mrs. Turner, we were told, even presented Empress Farah with a real Canadian parka—a piece the Empress apparently cherished for many years. I wondered how Mrs. Turner might have explained the heritage behind the garment. Would she have told the Empress how its pieces were cut and sewn with deft hands and careful craftsmanship or anything at all about the people who had created this new symbol of Canadian diplomacy?
This is how we, as Canadians, protect ourselves from the cold. No, it is not a European creation, though it certainly is beautiful, and will be a stunning addition to your collection.
In any case, Turner told us the Empress loved the parka, which was undoubtedly beautiful, and he and his wife had a splendid few days in Tehran.
Now here’s the interesting part. Near the end of his stay, Turner explained that the Shah turned to him and with good humor asked why he had come. Turner explained, in a matter of fact sort of way, that he had come, rather simply, for money. Let’s be honest, it could’t have been for the booze and nightlife alone. When the Shah then asked how much money Turner had in mind, he smiled and said a cool 5 billion dollars.
Now at this point everyone in the room was laughing and enjoying the feel good vibes. What a funny story. But for me, my lady-like gravity was eroding under my inner punk sensibilities. Five billion dollars, I thought, 5 billion dollars at a time when Iranian peasants lacked adequate infrastructure and the urban poor were virtually voiceless. Five billion dollars from a country enforcing the sort of “Western freedoms” that could get you thrown in jail for being in possession of the Communist Manifesto. Five billion dollars in the Seventies? My god, I thought, that is vulgar.
I winced when Mr. Turner then said the Shah reached for his chequebook and asked to whom he should write the cheque.
“And I told him, I said, make it out to the International Monetary Fund, Washington D.C. and that’s 5…0…0…0…,” at this point the room erupted into laughter. Oh, that caricature. That royal, loyal servitude.
The truth is, the 5 billion dollars that was forked over with the ease of a clipped receipt belonged to the Iranian people. The fact that decades later I can sit in a room with the former PM of Canada and listen to him describe that scene so lightheartedly is absolutely wild.
Turner said many more things that night. Somewhere in there was talk of the Magna Carta, a shared currency between the US and Canada, and the Keystone Pipeline. His response to the Keystone Pipeline was that he believed in it because it served our “best friend,” down south, and would be “good” for at least 50 years. Maybe the problem with politicians like Turner is that they’re natural gamblers never thinking about the long-term impact of their decisions when immediate gratification is a signature away. The silenced Aboriginal worldview would invite the consideration that we, as a collective, ought not to think of a mere 50 years ahead, but seven generations.
Anyway, like I said, Turner covered a lot of ground that evening, but perhaps his most notable statement, the one I came back to again and again as I strolled home under the tall shadows of a particularly frosty, moonlit evening, was also one of his very simplest slogans: “We, Canadians, have to get off our butts and change Democracy”.
Yes, Mr. Turner we do. We most certainly do.