Pinetree secondary principal Jeremy Clarke had to keep a secret for 10 days.
But it was worth it to see the ecstatic faces of his students when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally showed up at their school Wednesday afternoon.
“I did talk to my staff after and said it was probably the most difficult secret I ever kept," he said the day after the visit. "I did apologize.”
For nearly two hours, Trudeau met with students, visited a Geography 12 class and a French 10 class, and fielded questions during a 45 minute town-hall type meeting in the school’s multi-purpose room.
Students even had to stay past the usual 3 p.m. school closing time to get a glimpse of Trudeau, who was a substitute teacher at Pinetree back in 1998, and knew some of the staff at the school.
“We had kids lining the hallway trying to give him high fives. He was very good at shaking hands and taking selfies with kids. There’s still a sense of excitement,” Clarke told The Tri-City News Thursday. “Whether you like his politics or not, it was very cool to have a sitting prime minister in the school.”
But for several days and even up to the last minute, Clarke had to keep Trudeau’s visit a secret from his staff and students, even to the point of providing a few “white lies,” about reasons why part of the school parking lot was closed off and the multi-purpose room shut down after lunch that day.
“My understanding, when talking to organizers, the quieter they can be the less obtrusive they can be, they wanted to avoid a circus here at our building, which we did appreciate.”
So how does a Canadian prime minister end up at a Coquitlam school? That was the question we posed to Clarke who was part of the advance planning team for the visit.
It all started with an email from the Prime Minister’s Office with an inquiry as to whether the school would be interested in a visit from Trudeau. When Clarke answered ‘yes,’ a chain of events occurred to ensure that the visit would go smoothly and safely.
First, a representative from the PM’s office arrived for a planning session, which included a few security officers, who worked with Clarke to determine where Trudeau would be, what rooms he would visit and who he would be meeting.
Once those details were worked out together with the security team, it was radio silence for several days.
“We actually thought it wouldn’t be happening,” Clarke said.
Then on Sunday of the long weekend, Clarke received an email requesting a meeting on the holiday Monday. He complied, and the result was an even longer meeting and tour of the school with nine members of the RCMP.
They scoured the school, identified potential security issues, and came up with a plan.
The result was a smoothly executed visit by the tousle-haired prime minister and the large contingent of police officers in plain clothes.
In fact, when several cars with dark windows, looking very official, arrived outside the school, Clarke and a few administrators let in on the secret were ready for the visit.
However, more than one staff and student began to ask questions, especially since some of the administrators were dressed nicer than usual — with a shirt and tie.
“They were starting to clue in that something was going on.”
When Trudeau did arrive, the excitement was palpable, Clarke said, although students didn’t believe what was happening at first.
The first class Trudeau visited was a Geography 12 class during which students had been debating the pros and cons of the Trans Mountain Pipeline.
“They got to be able to ask questions about what they had been talking about, protecting the environment, the impact on the economy and resource extraction.”
Word spread as Trudeau made his way through the school, and soon crowds of students began to gather.
At one point administrators and police even had to hold back the throng, and by the time the prime minister entered the multi-purpose room, students were ready to ask some tough questions.
Clarke said Trudeau wasn’t lobbed softball questions, but was instead asked to defend the Trans Mountain Pipeline deal, talk about affordable housing and explain why university tuition wasn’t free, as it is in some countries.
Wonderful to have a special guest Prime Minister @justinpjtrudeau visit & speak with students & staff at Pinetree Secondary today.— Michael Thomas - PoCo School Trustee (@ThomasFromPoCo) May 22, 2019
Fun fact: PM JT began his career as a teacher in #SD43. He worked at several schools including @PinetreeSD43 and @PittRiver43 @sd43bc pic.twitter.com/5uhYIqNp6A
At one point, Trudeau had to field a difficult question as to why Canada detained Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, a diplomatic minefield given the sensitivity of the issue and the fact that some students at Pinetree are international students from China or recent immigrants from China.
“These are questions that affect our students,” Clarke commented. “We didn’t do any preparation with them.”
In the end, the planning and secrecy may have been worth it, because the prime minister spent nearly two hours at the school and met a lot of people.
And for Clarke, whose school reputation was on the line, things couldn’t have gone better.
“There was some yelling and screaming and fandemonium,” he said, but for the most part the students “behaved very well.”