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The Canadian response

When it comes to the coronavirus, Canada is at a crossroads, as the country’s number of cases continues to jump, although the overall numbers remain low. Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, the prime minister’s wife, is a confirmed case, which she may have got in London. Justin Trudeau and their family are self-isolating, although they have no symptoms, taking the lead from Public Health Canada.

Margaret Trudeau is shown during an interview in Montreal, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. Trudeau says one of the goals of her one-woman show is to kill the conventional wisdom around what is, and isn’t, a play. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

On Friday, Trudeau said, that “we will get through this together”, and the stock market rebounded later that day. Canada’s biggest threat, though, comes from the 400,000 people who cross the border every day, although health officials say the risk is very low for Canadians.

Long before Justin became Canada’s 23rd prime minister, his father rocked politics with his eloquence, brilliance and glamour. Then, while on vacation in Tahiti, when 48-year old Pierre Elliot Trudeau was Canada’s Minister of Justice, he saw 18-year old Margaret Sinclair. The year was 1967, and 18-year old Margaret was a “flower child” at a time when being yourself had just come into fashion. When they married in 1971, Trudeau was prime minister, and the couple radiated the same star power as Harry and Meghan, possibly more.

Their relationship personified that rock ‘n’ roll decade. She danced at New York’s Studio 54, the coolest club in the world, cavorted with the Rolling Stones and made headlines around the world. While living at 24 Sussex Drive, the official prime minister’s residence in Ottawa, she had three boys, the first of whom was Justin, Canada’s second youngest PM and in a very non-dynastic country the only PM related to a former holder of the post.

During those rocky years, Mrs Trudeau’s mental health declined, something she has chronicled over the years and most recently in her one-woman show, which premiered last year in Chicago’s legendary Second City comedy club. She speaks very candidly in “Certain Woman of an Age,” about her very glamorous and very sad life, about her bipolar diagnosis and the years it took for her to accept the condition and get help, which transformed her life. Until she was 50, she had never lived an authentic life. It took her five decades to figure out who she was.

My father was the first psychiatrist in Canada to use lithium to treat bipolar disorder and to consult with Mrs Trudeau, who wrote about this in her autobiography. It took her several more psychiatrists until she accepted that she needed help. That ultimately came with a family intervention after the tragic death of her middle son Michel in a skiing accident. It was, she says, the overwhelming grief in her life. She also talks about eradicating the stigma around mental health. “Don’t put a mask on it,” she counsels, and get early treatment.

The sold-out show will showcase in Stratford, Ontario this summer. Maryon Pearson was the wife of the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize-winning Canadian prime minister Lester B Pearson. She gave Margaret a great retort when people asked what it was like having such a famous husband: “Behind every great man is a surprised woman.”  The Trudeaus’ marriage inevitably ended. She and Justin have a very close relationship, and the two keep Michel alive in their hearts talking about him.

I am writing this sitting in one of the world’s best hospitals in Toronto, called Sunnybrook, where my father was chief of psychiatry. The family moved from Montreal to Toronto. Back then, Toronto could have topped the charts as the world’s most boring city, all white, all WASP, and compared to French-speaking Quebec, deadly dull. Sitting in the intensive care unit wasn’t how I anticipated spending my father’s birthday, which I had flown over for at the end of February, but it has been a revelation and a good one. The UK and Canada have much in common, not least our medical systems.

I have been overwhelmed by the professionalism, level of care, the competence, the multi-disciplinary coordination of the staff, who, as it happens is white, black, Middle Eastern, Oriental, Caribbean, all devoted and competent. Like the NHS, Canada has an ageing population and a pool of finite resources, but when it comes to critical care, you can only be grateful that our systems, however flawed, exist. If we were in the States, this would have no doubt bankrupted everyone on this ward.

Margaret Trudeau recalls what her husband said back in the 1970s. “‘It’s going to be sad for many of the of the immigrants who come in because they might have been doctors (in their countries) still, you just wait and watch their children — they will be the best Canadians because they won’t for one second not take advantage of the educational opportunities in this country,” Margaret Trudeau recalled. All of which has come true.