In the final year of the turbulent 1960s, as the Vietnam War and the massive counter-cultural protests against it reached new levels of intensity, John Lennon and Yoko Ono visited Canada three separate times.
The purpose of these trips varied, but on the third and final one they achieved what seems to have been among their top priorities as the leading peace activists of the era: they met the prime minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau.
During John and Yoko’s first visit in the spring of 1969, they staged their famous “Bed-In” at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, lying down together for eight days in front of the world’s media to publicize their message of peace, and in the middle of it all recording their anti-war anthem Give Peace a Chance.
Following Montreal, the couple travelled in June to the University of Ottawa, where student leader Allan Rock hosted them. Rock, Canada’s future United Nations ambassador, then took them in his car on a tour of the city, which included a stop at the prime minister’s official residence. Trudeau, they learned, was not in, but Lennon stood at the doorstep and wrote him a note before he returned to the car and they pulled away.
The second visit took place in September 1969 when John, Yoko and a hastily assembled version of the Plastic Ono Band (which for this gig included Eric Clapton) flew at the last minute from London to Toronto to take part in an all-day rock ‘n’ roll festival held at the city’s Varsity Stadium – and produced a live recording. Less than a month earlier, another rock ‘n’ roll festival – at Woodstock in upstate New York – had taken the American youth movement to its highest peak and given it a heady, almost fantastic, sense of its own power and purpose.
In their crusade for peace, John and Yoko asked difficult questions, crucially relevant today.
How do we effectively protest against social injustices and war? It’s easy to deplore it. How do we all come together to stop it? John and Yoko did not, of course, put an end to violence. But they thought creatively and courageously about uniting people in opposition to it, and their example can inspire us today.
New hope for peace
In Europe, Lennon said: “We got a lot of hope from Woodstock.” If so many people could gather together for peace and not war, he said, perhaps counter-cultural forces could actually change the world for the better.
Their Toronto show was a fraction of the size of Woodstock, but Lennon was exhilarated by the experience. He closed his set with the song he most wanted the crowd to hear: Give Peace a Chance.
Almost three months to the day, John and Yoko returned to Canada, this time to announce a music festival to take place outside Toronto in the summer of 1970, billed to be far bigger than Woodstock.
The couple had renewed their efforts to meet Trudeau, and formal negotiations between their staff and Trudeau’s office were under way. Other world leaders – including British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and U.S. President Richard Nixon – did not want to know John Lennon. He was the dangerous Beatle, the “we are more popular than Jesus” Beatle.
Just a year earlier, he had been convicted on drug possession charges, and posed naked with Yoko on the jacket of their Two Virgins album. A month earlier, he had returned his MBE medal to the Queen in yet another snub to “The Establishment.”
None of this stopped Trudeau from agreeing to meet him. From a political point of view, of course, Trudeau undoubtedly recognized that posing with one of the most famous rock stars in the world was an opportunity to boost his popularity among younger voters. But it’s also easy to imagine that Lennon’s iconoclasm appealed to Trudeau, and that he saw in Lennon an ally on issues such as effective peace activism and the escalating horrors of the Vietnam War.
A meeting of the minds
John and Yoko met Trudeau on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Dec. 23, 1969. After introductions and a brief photo session, they were ushered into Trudeau’s office. John was nervous when the meeting began but, according to Yoko, Trudeau immediately put him at his ease by telling him that he liked his book (presumably either In his Own Write from 1964, or Spaniard in the Works from 1965).
Their primary topic of conversation was the Cold War. They agreed mutual trust had to be created so that “disarmament and peaceful diplomatic relations could begin.” Each of them – Trudeau and Lennon – would work “in very different ways toward this goal.” Although Trudeau was more than 20 years older than Lennon and the two men came from such very different worlds, it was a remarkable meeting of minds, personalities and agendas. The meeting was supposed to last 15 minutes. It lasted 50.
After John and Yoko left Trudeau, they met the media. “If all politicians were like Mr. Trudeau, there would be peace,” John told them. Later, Trudeau remarked: “Give Peace a Chance has always seemed to me to be sensible advice.”
Nine days later, the 1960s were over and a new decade had begun. Lennon, back in London in January, wrote and recorded Instant Karma!, his greatest single as a solo artist: “Why in the world are we here? / Surely not to live in pain and fear.” By the spring, however, plans for the massive peace concert outside Toronto had collapsed, and soon after Lennon’s life was overtaken by public disputes and personal demons.
Trudeau, meanwhile, entered his third year as prime minister in April, and by autumn, faced the biggest challenge of his political career with the FLQ crisis and the invoking of the War Measures Act. Within a year of their meeting, peace for both Lennon and Trudeau must have seemed further away than ever.
It’s easy to look back on Lennon’s activism and dismiss it as naive, as many did at the time and more have done since. That’s unfair. What Lennon was trying to do was to create hope.
Lennon looked squarely at the violence, misery and abuse that still thrives all around us. He responded with a model of peaceful protest, both on an individual level and in much larger ways, to activate the energies of resistance and to unite the popular with the political.
Like Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon was a peace activist who died at the hands of an assassin. Three years after Lennon’s death in 1980, Trudeau set out on the final major undertaking of his political career: his “peace initiative.” It was different from John and Yoko’s peace mission to Canada, yet it is possible to see in their crusade a precedent for Trudeau’s own initiative.
After visiting several countries on both sides of the Cold War divide, Trudeau brought his peace mission to a close with a speech to the Canadian House of Commons in February 1984. His initiative may not have accomplished all that he had wished. But as he recalled in his 1993 Memoirs: “Let it be said that we have lived up to our ideals; and that we have done what we could to lift the shadow of war.” In 1969, and especially in their three visits to Canada, John and Yoko, too, did what they could “to lift the shadow of war” and give peace a chance.
With violence raging and political movements of intolerance and isolation gaining so much ground in the past year, we might draw inspiration from their words. Today it’s commonplace for pop icons and political leaders to meet and use their respective positions to champion progressive ideals.
Nearly half a century ago, when Trudeau opened his door to Lennon, that was not the case. Their extraordinary meeting marks the first time that a rock hero and a world leader met face to face to discuss the past, the present and the future. Their 50 minutes together highlighted the importance of peace to both men, as well as their shared commitment to raising political consciousness and mobilizing the popular forces of compassion and acceptance.