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Saturday, September 30, 2000

Different view from land of Oz

 SYDNEY -- By the time the news had filtered out in the early morning, there was neither the time nor the inclination to cancel the party.

 More than 140 Canadian athletes, upon learning of the death of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, boarded buses from the Athletes Village today and headed by ferry to picturesque Manly for a barbecue party at the beach.

 At the very same time, about 20 members of the Canadian Olympic team took part in an official ceremony at the Athletes' Village that saw the Canadian flag lowered to half staff and a moment of silence called for.

 In keeping with the rules of the International Olympic Committee and the local organizing committee, the flag at the village would only be at half staff for 24 hours. That time frame would have passed sometime last night, in all Canadian time zones.

 "The vast majority of athletes are young, they don't know or don't have the special understanding of the importance of Trudeau,'' said Dina Bell-Laroche, the press chief and spokesperson for the Canadian Olympic team. "They didn't grow up in the Trudeau era. They know who he is, but they have less understanding of the man and all he meant. I've talked to a lot of them. They don't feel about it the same way I do.

 "For family and friends at Canadian Olympic Place, they know about it and they're talking about it. It's a different situation with parents of the athletes."

 The flag at Canadian Olympic Place at Macquarie University also flies at half staff here.

 Almost every conversation between Canadians here over the past 24 hours has begun with "Did you hear?" and ended with either "I know" or "Oh my God." Conversation and the Internet seem to be the only way to comprehend the context of Trudeau's death amidst a still bustling Olympic Games and Australia basking in all its success and glory.

 This afternoon here -- last night in Canada -- CBC Television promised Canadians in Sydney that it would broadcast a two-hour special on Trudeau, a program that was available for the Canadians at the Athlete's Village and for anyone accredited to watch from the Canadian Olympic Association office at the Main Press Centre.

 The Olympic Games, if you watch from afar, are supposed to bring countries together. That is part of its ideal. But too often what it does -- and the death of Trudeau is the most recent example -- is polarize nations.

 It shows how distinct each country is. It shows that what is news in one country is afterthought in another. It shows how the sensibilities of each nation are unique to that nation. And it shows there is a Canadian identify, even if sometimes we tend to believe the opposite.

 There is no story other than Trudeau right now in Canada but you would never know that here. In three Australian newspapers yesterday, the death of Trudeau was treated as just another story for another day.

 Under the headline "Trudeau loses cancer battle" the story appeared on Page 36 of The Australian. Beside it was a larger story on the U.S. presidential race.

 In the Daily Telegraph, the tabloid here, Trudeau's death was reported in six paragraphs in a small box beneath a story of students rioting in Indonesia.

 In the Sydney Morning Herald, under the headline of "Flamboyant politician who captivated Canada," only five paragraphs were printed beside a photo of the flag being lowered to half staff on Parliament Hill. The story appeared below that of a gang war in Thailand and beside a story on the approval of an abortion pill.

 It isn't what is making news here. On the early morning television news programs, Trudeau was not even mentioned.

 The big story here is hockey. Australia's hockeyroos, the women's field hockey team, won its second straight gold medal. That seems to be the lead story on every newscast on every station.

 That is followed by the sagging Australian dollar, more Olympic hype, and the tragic ferry deaths in Greece.

 There was so much more to the life and death of Pierre Elliott Trudeau than anyone in Australia is hearing about or, sadly, anyone cares to hear about.

 He was the most compelling Canadian figure of the past century. Our figure. Our century. Our news.