TORONTO, Canada – For a brief, surreal moment, it looked like Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi would be pitching his Bedouin tent in the Atlantic province of Newfoundland, of all places.
The news broke late last week that Gadhafi, after his unforgettably erratic debut at the United Nations, would arrive Tuesday on the "the rock," as Canadians call Newfoundland, for a refueling stop back to northern Africa.
The thought of the self-styled "king of kings" and his entourage of female bodyguards spending 24 hours in sleepy Newfoundland seemed incongruous at best.
Not that the island isn't worth a visit: It's arguably Canada's most beautiful province, with countless coves and isolated, clapboard villages that tranquillize you in a heartbeat. Its people experienced desperately bad times when one of the world's most abundant populations of cod suddenly collapsed in 1992. Still, they're the most welcoming folks you can meet.
Rumors swirled about what the real reason for Gadhafi's visit might be. Few believed Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon when he announced that he would meet the Libyan president solely to register Canada's disgust at the hero's welcome Gadhafi gave the recently released Libyan convicted of bombing a passenger airplane over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Maybe the Libyan dictator just wanted some rest and relaxation after letting his spleen fly in all directions during a 95-minute address to the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Spinning conspiracy theories suggesting Israelis were involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy is no doubt exhausting, not to mention the voyage from longtime international pariah to accepted member of the global community.
Whatever the reason, Gadhafi's advance team spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday scrambling to find hotel rooms for his 130-member entourage in Newfoundland's capital of St. John's, and searching for a spot to pitch his tent. Better anchor it down good, many wind-hardened locals recommended, or it'll end up in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Libyan leader days earlier struck trouble finding a place to pitch his tent in the New York area during the U.N. session. Requests for space in Manhattan's Central Park and Upper East Side were rejected, as was one for Englewood, New Jersey. When his tent was spotted Tuesday on property owned by the real estate tycoon Donald Trump in suburban Bedford, N.Y., it didn't go over well: Trump hinted he had been tricked into renting his land, and the town ruled that the tent violated various zoning and housing codes.
Back in St. John's, there was also talk of Gadhafi being welcomed with a "screech-in" ceremony, where visitors are made honorary Newfies by throwing back a shot of rum and kissing a cod on the lips. Who would not have paid to see Gadhafi do that?
Alas, it was not to be. On Saturday came news that the man former U.S. President Ronald Reagan once dubbed the madman of the desert had cancelled his unofficial visit.
Gadhafi is an unsavory character, and many Newfoundlanders are pleased he's decided to give their home a miss. But his presence in Canada would have done whacky poetic justice to whacky political times.
Consider, for instance, the latest round of frenzied pre-election posturing: The main opposition leader, Michael Ignatieff, announced a couple of weeks ago that his Liberal party would no longer support Prime Minister Stephen Harper's shaky minority government. That set the stage for the fourth federal election in five and a half years. But the more Ignatieff calls for an election, the more his party's support slides in public opinion polls. Harper, on the other hand, insists an election would crush the green shoots heralding the end of the recession. Yet he's in full pre-election campaign mode, and his support is on the rise. TV attack ads by Harper's Conservative party charge that Ignatieff has "no long-term commitment" to Canada, noting he spent 30 years working as a professor and journalist in Britain and the United States.
Last week, when world leaders were at the U.N. discussing nuclear proliferation and climate change, Harper was instead at a Tim Hortons plant in a Toronto suburb.
He was highlighting the return of the company's corporate headquarters to Canada from the U.S. He mused about the joys of enjoying a "hot double double" — the concoction of coffee with two sugars and two creams — and was photographed sipping from a Tim Horton's cup.
Ignatieff ridiculed Harper for choosing doughnuts over diplomacy, accusing him of weakening Canada's presence on the world stage. But Harper knows it's votes from the "hockey moms and dads" who hang out at Tim Hortons coffee shops that might land him the majority government that has eluded him so far.
Harper is also fond of reminding Canadians that a year ago, the Liberals tried to overthrow his minority government by striking a coalition with "the socialists and the separatists" — a reference to the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Quebec-based Bloc Quebecois party, respectively.
And yet, Harper's government survived a parliamentary vote a week ago that would have triggered an election with the support of — you guessed it — "the socialists and the separatists."
Backing Harper was especially galling for New Democratic leader Jack Layton, whose party holds 36 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. He has tried to make a political career out of lambasting the Liberal party for having propped up the Harper government in the past and has noted, ad nauseam, the number of times the NDP has voted to defeat it — 97 at last count. But the polls indicate the NDP would win fewer seats this time around, so that mantra is out the window.
In short, Canada's political landscape is as follows: Ignatieff's Liberals huff and puff about an election that they really don't want; Harper's Conservatives warn against an election but are praying to the heavens to have one; and Layton's NDP has sucked up years of righteous indignation in one gulp. For consistency and lack of hypocrisy, Canadians would have to turn to the Bloc Quebecois — the party that wants to break up the country.
In this political circus, Moammar Ghadafi and his tent would have fit right in.