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How an SMCS Student Brought Political History to Life

Where there is a will, there is surely a way. 

With the clock winding down on the 2019-20 academic year, and many of the school clubs and activities at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS) unable to restart due to physical distancing, abbreviated schedules, or having wrapped up for the year --- one student is going against the grain.

Lucas Flemming wanted to start a new club --- a politics club --- in the last month of the school year.  

“I’ve always had a deep interest in how governments run, both domestically and internationally,” says Flemming a Grade 11 student at SMCS. “As well, I’ve always been interested in the ties between history and politics, and looking at how politics and policies have shaped the modern world to what it is today.”

That passion set the wheels in motion.

THE POLITICAL WILL

“The steps I took to start the club were first to ask my friends and see if there was any interest and since there was, I went to Mr. Kiel,” continues Flemming.  

Andrew Kiel ’09, Coordinator of Spiritual Life at SMCS also oversees the more than 50 clubs and activities at the school --- each of which is moderated by an SMCS staff member.

“From there, Mr. Kiel helped guide me through the basic things I would need, such as a base amount of members, a moderator, and ensuring the club was its own new idea and not already a formal club,” says Flemming.

With permission in place, the Politics Club at SMCS was born.

Next task: pinpointing a moderator. 

“Since I teach him and we’re talking politics all the time in American history, he thought I’d be a good moderator,” says Pat Mancuso ’90, history teacher at SMCS. “I said sure, I’ll moderate it. And it’s been pretty lively. We’ve had excellent discussions about several topics.”

THE POLITICAL AGENDA

With everything in place, Flemming set his sights even higher.

Given the topics discussed in various Canadian and American history classes at SMCS including, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Meech Lake Accord, and Canadian-American political relations, Flemming decided to bring real-life to history.

He reached out to former prime minister, the Right Hon. Brian Mulroney.

‘Think History’ is among the textbooks used by students taking Canadian history at SMCS.

“My impetus for reaching out to Mr. Mulroney was actually not directly related to the politics club,” says Flemming. “Last year in Grade 10, I reached out to him for some insight on a culminating project I was doing on the Gulf War. It was just an email and I wasn’t expecting a response but within 20 minutes he had called me and we had a conversation. I also believe it was that conversation that sparked my interest in creating the club.”

Would his good fortune strike twice?

“I reached out to him via email again recently to see if he would be interested in speaking in the club,” continues Flemming. “I wasn’t expecting a response but surely within the hour, I was on the phone with him and he said he’d love to speak.”

On a Friday afternoon, Mulroney, who is affiliated with Norton Rose Fulbright Canada, a law firm in Montreal, conducted a question and answer session over the phone with members of the Politics Club at SMCS.

“His response both times surprised me. As a man of such power and accolades, I never thought he would even have the time to respond. However, on both occasions he took the time out of his day to speak with me. For that I’m truly grateful,” says Flemming.

He, along with fellow members of the Club, continued to do homework, brainstorming, and preparing a list of questions for the former Canadian prime minister, who recently turned 81 years old.

Former prime minister, Brian Mulroney recently spoke with members of the SMCS Politics Club.

“My most burning question would be, “How did you secure Canada's free trade deal with Ronald Reagan and the United States,” adds Flemming. “I’d also like to ask him about his critical role in developing Canada's international relations.”

“After learning about his role in Canadian history, I’m most curious to get more insight on his actual relationships with world leaders like Ronald Reagan, because history sometimes can’t cover the intangible things like a strong connection that ultimately led to a solid international bond,” says Flemming.

“When Mr. Mancuso asked us to think of questions, I realized that Mr. Mulroney would actually be present in the call,” recounts Andrew Lobo, a Grade 11 student and Politics Club member. 
“I quickly got up from my desk and told my family, who were also very excited. They encouraged me to ask good questions because this was a rare opportunity to converse with a former world leader.”

“My initial reaction to hearing that former prime minister Brian Mulroney would be joining our Politics Club meeting was disbelief,” says Gianluca Cudizio, also in Grade 11. “I could not believe that I would be able to talk to someone that I've read so much about in my history textbooks and has been such a prominent figure in Canadian society.”


CALLING IN TO QUESTION

All 15 members of the Politics Club connected with Mr. Mulroney, via Zoom, on a recent Friday afternoon armed with their researched questions, which included:

How did you convince the UN to launch their humanitarian effort in Ethiopia? 

How did the Gulf War affect international relations between Canada and the rest of the world?

What was it like working alongside Ronald Reagan, who was known for his bold personality?

How would you balance between the opening of the economy and stopping the spread of the Coronavirus?

How did your experiences as a lawyer in Quebec help your transition to politics? 

How did your experiences with the law help you succeed in politics?

Could you describe one of the more challenging situations you had during your time in office?

What is your opinion of the assault weapons ban, and how will it affect crime and gun violence? How would you have handled the issue of gun crime?

What background or academic prerequisites would you recommend for someone interested in entering politics?

Given the number of COVID-19 deaths in privately-owned long-term care facilities, should the government take back ownership of these facilities to ensure proper conditions there?

IMPACTFUL EXCHANGE

“One of the first things Mr. Mulroney said when he came on the call was that he understood members of the club likely approached politics from all perspectives --- Conservative, Liberal, NDP. He welcomed this, and he believes it is healthy for a democracy to listen to opinions from all sides of the political spectrum.

A Grade 10 student asked Mr. Mulroney what academic prerequisites he would recommend for someone looking to enter a career in politics. His answer was something I already knew! Take history and philosophy! These subjects allow the future political leader to absorb the widest possible perspective on the world’s problems and appropriate solutions.”

- Pat Mancuso, history teacher, moderator of the Politics Club

“What surprised me most about the conversation was how close he was with former president Ronald Reagan. Reagan is considered by many to be one of the greatest presidents! Mr. Mulroney had a very good relationship with him because of their common interests and Reagan's ‘affection’ for Canada. 

I learned that anyone who wants something bad enough can attain it through hard work. In his case, it was becoming prime minister. He told us how he was raised in a working-class family. He learned to work hard throughout his young career, and eventually got elected as prime minister! He won every province and territory, and won over 50% of the vote for the first time since 1958, while also winning the highest number of seats by any party in Canadian history!

I also learned about his role in the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and about his other policies while he was in office.

This experience was an incredible one. Having a conversation with a former prime minister is something that not many people have the opportunity to do and I am so grateful that I was able to experience it. It was an amazing opportunity and it affirmed my interest in politics. I realized that if you work hard, any goal is attainable. It motivated me to learn more about our Canadian politics as well as politics on the world stage.”

- Andrew Lobo, Grade 11, SMCS Politics Club member

“What surprised me most about the Politics Club's conversation with Mr. Mulroney was his enthusiasm when answering our questions about his life experiences. Mr. Mulroney understood that the youth of today are going to be the prime ministers of tomorrow, so he tried to engage us in his stories about collaborating with other leaders, such as former president Ronald Regan and life as prime minister. His stories went beyond what we read in history textbooks and gave a deeper insight into those issues. 

 

What I learned from our conversation with Mr. Mulroney was that you need to fight for what you believe in. Mr. Mulroney told a story about the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and how the U.S. Congress wanted to make major alterations to the deal that he and former president Regan agreed upon. At that moment former prime minister Mulroney stood up for the interests of Canadians and would not agree to a deal without Canada's interests being protected too. His conviction for protecting Canadian interests taught me that sometimes you need to speak up and fight for what you want.

The overall impact that this conversation with Mr. Mulroney has had on me was inspiring. This conversation showed me that these figures that we spend our lives reading about in school are not extraordinary people, but just regular people that have accomplished extraordinary things. Mr. Mulroney emphasized that no matter what you believe, if you're passionate about it you should never stop fighting for it, this message resonated with me. I am so grateful to have been able to have a conversation with a former prime minister, especially one as accomplished as Mr. Mulroney. This experience is one that I will not forget and I will remember Mr. Mulroney's message of perseverance throughout my studies and future career.”

-Gianluca Cudizio, Grade 11 student, SMCS Politics Club member

“The thing that surprised me most about our conversation was the amount of conviction and wisdom that Mr. Mulroney spoke with. I was also surprised with Mr. Mulroney’s storytelling abilities and appreciated the in-depth analysis he gave to all of our questions.

The main thing I learned from this experience is the difference between someone who succeeds and someone who doesn't is simply putting in the effort. I learn the truly amazing things that can happen when a passion is put to work.

Former US President Ronald Reagan and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at the Shamrock Summit in 1985.
Courtesy of: thestar.com

I believe that not only myself but every member of the club was touched and inspired by our conversation with Mr. Mulroney. It changed the way I think about the values of a great leader, not only someone who is capable, but someone who is willing.

I feel as though my world has been opened to a new mindset that if I can speak with the Prime Minister, I can do anything I set my mind to. Lastly, I’ve learned what it means to be a St. Michael’s student through using goodness, discipline, and knowledge, I can conquer any task.”

- Lucas Flemming, Grade 11 student, president of the SMCS Politics Club

REFLECTIONS FROM THE FORMER PRIME MINISTER

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney served as Canada’s 18th prime minister from 1984 to 1993. 

SMCS reached out to Mr. Mulroney to get his thoughts on the recent virtual meeting with Politics Club members. He connected on the phone from Florida, where he and his wife, Mila are currently staying during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What was your reaction when you got the call from student, Lucas Flemming?

I had spoken to him before. He called me about something before, unrelated to this.

This is something that I do from time to time, talk with students, either university students or high school students across the country, where I phone in and take questions from them and speak to them for an hour or so. I was happy to do it.

We set it up. I called in and there we were for about an hour.

How often do you take part in these types of sessions?

I do it as often as I can. I very much enjoy my conversations with young people.

Why would you say that this is something important for you to continue to do?
These students, the ones I spoke with for example at St. Mike’s, they were very intelligent, articulate, they asked perceptive questions. These young people are leaders of tomorrow and if anything, Canada needs is a great quality of leaders in the coming generations. And so, if I can do anything to encourage them, I was happy to do it.

If I can encourage them a little bit by them speaking with someone who, believe it or not was once their age, and interested in similar way in politics and so on. And they know that I became Prime Minister, so they can do it too. That’s what I encourage them to think. Hell, if I could do it, they could do it too!

Courtesy of: CBC.ca

As a young boy did you ever have a similar experience to the ones these students had with you, that inspired you? 

When I was young and I was at St. FX (Francis Xavier) University, when I was maybe 17, I was chosen as a delegate to the Progressive Conservative leadership convention that elected John Diefenbaker. That was in December of 1956 --- a long time ago. And that gave me the bug. And subsequently, while I was still about that age, I would have conversations with Mr. Diefenbaker and others in his cabinet, and I was still in early college. And, of course, I enjoyed that very much at the time. I just hope a little of that rubs off on the students.

What struck you about the question and answer session with these boys?

How smart they were. How intelligent the questions were. How articulate all who participated were. They must be getting a very, very good education at St. Mike’s, I’ll tell you that, because they were all, I thought, very impressive young people, young men.

I was struck by the fact that they were talking of issues that require some vision and some fortitude. And they had clearly thought their way through some of the problems we’re confronting and so I was very impressed. I had been impressed with Lucas (Flemming) of course, but the colleagues that he brought on-side, and the questions that they put to me --- I was very impressed by them and by the manner, very calm and effective manner in which they articulated their questions.

Courtesy of: The Canadian Encyclopedia.ca

It is so impactful as a student to read the pages of history and then to be able to speak to the individual who is written about in those books or in that chapter. What do you hope these boys take away from this experience?

I told them that when they got to university, if they are interested in politics, they ought to focus not so much on political activity per se --- although putting up posters and doing that kind of thing is good for the soul --- but they should realize that they will never be given an opportunity again in their lives to focus on their studies --- and if they are interested in politics --- in history and philosophy. Become great students and prepare themselves for further degrees and a career in public life, if they are interested. And there was a good response to that. I hope that’s what they do. 

Once you get into the political arena as I did, it is not the minor leagues of politics. And so, you’ve got to have a background, you’ve got to know what your bearings are. You’ve got to know your moral positions that you take. You have to understand that they have to be grounded in something – much more than a fleeting political slogan. So, we had a conversation about that and I hope that some of that registered.