National Post - January 12, 2009
By Colin Kenny
When Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Ziedi threw his shoes at George W. Bush at a press conference last week, I immediately thought of my own personal bad boy, Geza Matrai.
Geza and I are getting a bit long in the tooth now. But when he decided to write himself into Canadian history, we were both 27.
I was Operations Director in the office of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. That meant I was supposed to make sure that nothing untoward happened to Mr. Trudeau when he traveled, and that nothing untoward happened to foreign dignitaries when they came to visit.
In 1971 Geza was already an ex-hairdresser and a former wrestling coach, an incongruous combination to say the least. More importantly, he was a Hungarian refugee – he fled to Canada with his family with 40,000 other Hungarians in 1956 when Moscow crushed Hungarians’ attempt to throw off their Stalinist government.
Most Canadians weren’t fond of Soviets at the time, but hatred was palpable among most Hungarian-Canadians, Ukrainian-Canadians and Jewish-Canadians, all of whom had deep-seated grievances against continued mistreatment by the Soviet government.
Mr. Trudeau knew about these grievances and respected them, but he was nothing if not cheeky in the way he practiced politics at home and abroad. He sometimes seemed to take great pleasure in raising hackles in Washington. The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a deadly struggle for superpower supremacy, but that hadn’t stopped Mr. Trudeau from visiting Russia early in 1971 with his new wife Margaret – where he mused publicly that the domination of the United States presented "a danger to [Canadian] national identity from a cultural, economic and perhaps even military point of view." Nor did it stop Mr. Trudeau from inviting Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin to visit Canada later in the year.
We knew that security would have to be tight for the October visit. The Canadian Jewish community promised to mount protests across the country as Mr. Kosygin visited, Ottawa, then Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton and finally Toronto. Police cancelled leave for their forces and rehearsed fail-safe security drills involving thousands of officers.
Enter Geza Matrai. On the second day of Mr. Kosygin’s visit to Ottawa he and Mr. Trudeau walked out of the Centre Block of Parliament, headed for limousines that would whisk them to the nearby Chateau Laurier Hotel for lunch. Mr. Kosygin mused that it was a beautiful, sunny day. Mr. Trudeau stunned both Soviet and Canadian security by suggesting that they walk to the hotel. Big mistake.
Geza Matrai was stalking Mr. Kosygin, and with security headed one way and the leaders headed the other, his chance came. He jumped on the 67-year-old Mr. Kosygin’s back, riding him half way to the ground, pulling his coat and tie askew. It was a startling and embarrassing development, for which Mr. Trudeau apologized in the Commons the next day, saying Mr. Matrai had brought “shame” to all Canadians. Geza Matrai was later sentenced to three months in jail for his assault.
That assault is all that most Canadians recall of Mr. Kosygin’s visit, but when I muse back on the eight days, I remember so many other impressions – some of them stark and sober, some of them with humour attached. I remember our day in Toronto particularly.
I remember how security around Mr. Kosygin – which we had planned to be as tight as it could be – got a lot tighter. I will never forget the driving skills of Toronto police squad car drivers whisking along at a brisk pace, shielding Mr. Kosygin’s limo from demonstrators with a bumper-to-bumper entourage all the way along the route from the Inn on the Park (now the Fairmont Prince) on Eglinton Ave. E. to the Ontario Science Centre.
I remember all those sweepers we had to send out onto the closed Highway 401 to sweep away the nails protesters had tossed from overpasses to try to bring Mr. Kosygin’s limo to a halt.
I recall the sympathy I felt for Isadore Sharp, a prominent member of the Toronto Jewish Community who owned the Inn on the Park, which was hosting Mr. Kosygin and Mr. and Mrs. Trudeau (the Japanese-style bed in the Trudeau suite was a big drawing card). What kind of criticism did Mr. Sharp take from fellow Jews, who loathed Kosygin for the overt discrimination against Jews in Soviet society and the Soviet government’s refusal to allow these people to emigrate?
Ditto for Barney Danson, a Jew and a Canadian war hero, who was Mr. Trudeau’s parliamentary secretary and was given the task of making the speech that welcomed Mr. Kosygin to Toronto. The skirting on the tables in the banquet room at the Inn on the Park was a trifle short that day, and you could see Mr. Kosygin’s translator kicking his boss in various ways to indicate whether he should laugh or nod approval at Mr. Danson’s comments.
At one point author Farley Mowat – who was later barred from the United States by overly zealous immigration authorities – showed up in the hotel lobby with the gift of a huge white Samoyed dog, native to Siberia.
I was able to arrange for Mr. Kosygin’s daughter, Lyudmilla, to accept the dog, but the delay cost me my seat in Car No. 3 of the cavalcade leaving the building moments later, and I ended up scrambling to get in one of the straggler cards filled with KGB agents.
Security was so tight one senior officer who knew me said “Good to see you, Colin – now let’s see your security pass. But you know who I am,” I replied. “Just show us your pass, Colin” he replied. “Then we’ll really know.”
Security, security, security, tighter than the tightest drum. And all because of Geza Matrai.
When Muntadhar al-Ziedi threw his shoes at Mr. Bush the other day, I decided to try and get in touch with Mr. Matrai, who is now, like me, a senior citizen.
It turns out that Geza has been a social worker in and around Toronto all these years, and after getting his start in radical organizations like the Edmund Burke Society and the Canadian Social Credit Party, he is now a member of the executive of the Mississauga South Conservative Association.
I reached him by phone. He was very friendly. When I explained to him that I had a role in ensuring security around Mr. Kosygin on Parliament Hill 37 years ago, he said “I’m sorry if I messed up your day. I was hoping to do the same thing in Toronto, but I was in jail by then. When the moment came, I knew I had to jump him or I would never be able to look at myself in the mirror again.”
He offered me a few insights as to how he was treated after he was arrested. I noted that Mr. Muntadhar al-Ziedi has apparently shown signs of being roughed up after being taken into custody by Iraqi authorities.
Geza said it wasn’t like that with the RCMP. He was hauled into an alcove of the centre block, where one officer appeared to be thinking of applying enough pressure to break his arm until he assured him he had no weapon. At which point the officer pulled back and told him that Kosygin was decidedly a bad guy, but that jumping on him wasn’t such a good idea.
Inside jail, he was treated quite well by guards, who didn’t seem to like communists any more than he did. But some fellow prisoners were another story. Those who made a living peddling drugs were not impressed by the fact that – as a Social Credit candidate in the 1971 Ontario election – he had called for capital punishment for twice-convicted drug dealers. Twice he had boiling water thrown on him, and once he was attacked with a very sharp knife. “My wrestling experience saved me,” he explained.
I suggested that it was strange that he has been a social worker for all these years, given his radical right wing background. He said he didn’t hate all left-wingers. He even had a great admiration for the late Stanley Knowles, an icon of the New Democratic Party. “I believe in social justice,” he said. “I just hate communists.
“Social work has been a terrific job for me. You don’t know how it is to come to Canada and depend on the kindness and generosity of people to get you started again. Doing social work is my way of paying Canadians back for that.”
One other anecdote: a few years after the Kosygin incident Mr. Matrai was demonstrating against Prime Minister Trudeau outside the Park Plaza Hotel in Toronto, shouting “Russians are killers.” He thought he had his hand out pointing at Mr. Trudeau in an accusatory way. The Prime Minister thought he wanted to shake hands, so the two of them did so.
I guess I wasn’t surprised that Geza has absolutely no regrets about jumping the Soviet premier. “Maybe I am only a footnote to Canadian history, but I did what I believed in and it cemented my relationship with fellow Hungarian freedom fighters.”
Does he see any similarity between himself and Mr. Muntadhar al-Ziedi in Iraq?
“Absolutely. That was me. He threw his shoes. I did my jump. The two of us are very kindred spirits.”
[Senator Colin Kenny was Chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence in the last Parliament. He can be reached via email at email@example.com ]