John Lennon and
Pierre Trudeau:
Instant Karma

May 2017

In the final year of the turbulent 1960s, as both the Vietnam War and the massive countercultural 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 on 3 June to the University of Ottawa, where student leader Allan Rock (the future Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations) hosted them, and 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 at the time, 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 on 13 September when John, Yoko, and a hastily assembled version of the Plastic Ono Band flew at the last minute from London to Toronto to take part in an all-day rock ‘n’ roll festival held at Varsity Stadium. 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 Europe, Lennon himself declared, “We got a lot of hope from Woodstock”. If that many people could gather together for peace and not war, perhaps countercultural forces could actually change the world for the better? The Toronto show was a fraction of the size of Woodstock, but Lennon was exhilarated by the experience of performing live, and without the other three Beatles. He closed the Plastic Ono Band 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 again, this time to announce a music festival that would take place outside Toronto in the summer of 1970, and that would be far bigger than Woodstock in terms of both crowd size and cultural impact. The couple had also renewed their efforts to meet Trudeau, and formal negotiations between their staff and Trudeau’s office were soon underway. Other world leaders – including British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and US 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. Just a month earlier, he had caused further uproar when he returned his MBE medal to the Queen, in yet another snub to what he called “The Establishment”.

None of this prevented 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 is also easy to imagine that Lennon’s iconoclasm – at least in some areas – 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.

John and Yoko met Trudeau on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on 23 December 1969. After introductions and a brief photo session, they were ushered into Trudeau’s office. John was very 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 A Spaniard in the Works from 1965). Their primary topic of conversation was the Cold War. Mutual trust had to be created, they agreed, in order that “disarmament and peaceful diplomatic relations could begin”. Each of them – Trudeau and Lennon – would work “in very different ways…toward this goal”.

It was a remarkable meeting of minds, personalities, and agendas, especially given that Trudeau was more than twenty years older than Lennon, and that the two men came from such very different worlds. The meeting was supposed to last fifteen minutes. It lasted fifty. After John and Yoko left Trudeau, they met the press. “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 thereafter Lennon himself was overtaken by public disputes and personal demons. Trudeau, meanwhile, entered his third year as Prime Minister in April, and faced the biggest challenge of his political career in the autumn, 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 is very easy to look back on Lennon’s activism and dismiss it as foolish or naive, as many did at the time, and even more have done since. That’s unfair. What Lennon was trying to do was to create hope, in however flawed a way. Faced, like all of us, with “What are we up against? How can we?”, Lennon looked squarely at the violence, misery, and abuse that still thrives all around us, and he tried in response to model a means of peaceful protest, both on an individual level, and in much larger ways that activated the energies of resistance, and that united the popular with the political.

Like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, John Lennon was a peace activist who died at the hands of an assassin. Three years after Lennon’s death, Trudeau set out on the final major undertaking of his political career: his so-called “peace initiative”. It was in many ways very different from John and Yoko’s peace mission, 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 “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.

We have need of such activism again, with violence raging and political movements of intolerance and isolation gaining so much ground in the past year. Today it is commonplace for pop icons and political leaders to meet, and for them to 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 fifty 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.