By Gisele McKnight
A few dozen seniors waited nervously on Tuesday morning, Jan. 17, cards ready for a game of 45s. Frequent whispers of “Is he here yet?” could be heard among the coffee club crowd as stern-faced, plainclothes RCMP members stood at the door of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Fredericton.
Then the word went out: “He’s here, he’s here!” and the 23rd prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, walked through the door.
“Hello, everyone,” he said in a booming, friendly voice, and for the next 20 minutes, every eye in the place was on Mr. Trudeau as he went to every table, answering questions about, for example, legislation on disabilities and seniors issues.
The highlight of the visit was a story told by St. Margaret’s layreader Jim Sparkes, who was an RCMP officer in the 1970s, posted to Stornoway, the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition in Ottawa.
Jim worked protecting the Trudeau family when they lived at Stornoway from June 1979 to March 1980 when Joe Clark led a short-lived minority government after beating Pierre Trudeau. One day Jim caught Justin Trudeau climbing one of the trees on the Stornoway grounds, and Jim was compelled to say something when Justin started breaking off branches.
“You’d better stop that or I’ll have to tell your father,” recounted Jim.
“My father won’t care. These are Joe Clark’s trees!” said the eight-year-old Justin.
The prime minister hung his head and laughed at hearing the story, saying, “I have no memory of that!”
Mr. Trudeau took the opportunity to thank the RCMP, not only for their care of him, his brothers and parents while his father was prime minister, but now as they ensure the safety and protection of his own children and wife, especially while he’s away.
“I know they have great role models around them,” he said.
The prime minister was travelling with a group of aides and RCMP officers, Fredericton MP Matt DeCourcey and about a dozen journalists who are covering the prime minister’s national town-hall tour.
It was a mere 72 hours before the event that the Rev. Rick Robinson got a call from Mr. DeCourcey.
“He asked if I’d be interested in extending an invitation to the prime minister to come to our coffee club,” said Rick. “After about five seconds I said yes!”
By Saturday evening, a security detail was at the church to check out the location.
“Then Sunday afternoon about 15 RCMP officers in plain clothes went through the church to scout it out,” he said.
That was followed by more security personnel on Monday morning, including an explosives-sniffing dog and officers with mirrors peering under pews and into rooms to ensure the safety of the prime minister.
But for three days, Rick was more concerned with keeping a very big secret than with the rather remote possibility of there being a bomb in his church.
“We had to keep it contained. It was all for the prime minister to come and talk to seniors,” said Rick.
He knew he had to tell some of the coffee club members about their special visitor. This wasn’t something you could spring on them a few minutes before the arrival. Rick chose to use the telephone rather than email, so calls went out, with everyone sworn to secrecy.
“They complied 100 per cent,” said Rick. “They kept it mum.”
The big question Rick had to answer repeatedly was why — why was the prime minister coming to see them?
“I think he was looking for a social venue where seniors met, and our MP found out there was a coffee club here on the day he was visiting Fredericton,” said Rick.
“If he wanted to come to a nice, quiet place, he picked the wrong place!” said Marlene Drummond, a coffee club member. “We were just bubbling!”
“He was very positive, very polite, very genuine,” said Marlene’s daughter, Kim Drummond.
“I found it quite exciting,” said St. Margaret’s member Cathy Lutes. “He shook literally everyone’s hand. He wanted to meet everyone and he was very interested in what everyone was doing.
“He’s a downhome person. His parents did a lovely job raising him.”
As for Rick, as the entourage pulled out of the parking lot, there was some relief that the surprise visit had not been leaked and the visit had gone over well with both the prime minister and the coffee club.
“We’re absolutely thrilled,” he said. “It went as planned.”