PIERRE ELLIOTT TRUDEAU
[Most of this essay was written in 2001.]
It is now about one year since the death at 80 of Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1919-2000), Canada's unusual, memorable and controversial 15th prime minister (1968-1979, 1980-1984).
Mr. Trudeau, a Liberal, was a figure so extraordinary among Canadians -- a reserved lot, as the peoples of the earth go -- whether they liked him or not, and many came to detest him -- that he dominated Canadian political life for 15 years. His greatest accomplishment was undoubtedly his patriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982, with its accompanying Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Even after his retirement from politics in 1984 Mr. Trudeau was like a lion gone reluctantly into a cave: from time to time he returned to the center of the nation, and roared his opinion on current issues, especially involving his beloved federalism.
Mr. Trudeau was always listened to respectfully.
In a room or a crowd, Mr. Trudeau tended to dominate all around him, especially in Canada. He was a thinking man, a man of clear, logically reasoned opinions. (Whether one agreed that his logic was logical was another matter.) On the world stage Mr. Trudeau was also, in his day, a prominent figure, an influential statesman. It may even be to his credit that U.S. president Richard Milhous Nixon detested him.
Mr. Trudeau was not tall. But he was not particularly short for a Canadian: about five feet nine inches. Despite this, there was something elfin about him, a delightful (or infuriating) pixieish quality in him which was part of his extraordinary appeal to women.
When still a bachelor, as Mr. Trudeau was until his 40s, he had many affairs, with American singer Barbra Streisand, Canadian actress Margot Kidder, and Canadian classical guitarist Leona Boyd, among others. But he married only once: to Margaret Sinclair, the young daughter of one of his British Columbia Liberal colleagues, in 1972. They quickly had three boys, Justin, Sacha, and Michel, before the incompatible personalities of the prime minister and his wife began inevitably to clash. Mr. Trudeau and Maggie -- as his wife became known to Canadians -- separated amicably. (It speaks well for both of them that she nursed him in his final illness even as he died in 2000 of prostate cancer.)
After his separation Mr. Trudeau had other affairs, one of which, with a much younger journalist, produced a lovely daughter. (In the late 1990s Trudeau used occasionally to push her on the swings in a Toronto park I formerly enjoyed, the Jean Sibelius park on Brunswick Avenue. She was present at Mr. Trudeau's funeral, where former American president Jimmy Carter was wonderfully kind to her.)
Prime Minister Trudeau was a charismatic but enigmatic figure. What was going on in that delicate, aristocratic head? No one ever knew what Mr. Trudeau, a Catholic intellectual educated at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and the London School of Economics, would do or say next. He was a witty man, an original.
On his sizeable charisma and sheer class -- whatever that is, but most of us can recognize it when we see it, and Mr. Trudeau had it, especially for Canadians -- Mr. Trudeau floated in his mid-forties to the top of Canadian society and politics, and then to an even more important role in the world. With his trademark little smile, perfectly cut and designed clothes, and red rose in his lapel, he radiated charisma. Mr. Trudeau didn't give a damn what most people, including Canadians, thought of him. To some, this was his characteristic infuriating dandyish arrogance. To many others, this was part of his attraction.
To many in regions of the country such as the West, Mr. Trudeau was out of touch with their aspirations.
Mr. Trudeau first caught the attention of the news media in 1967 when, as the justice minister of prime minister Lester Bowles Pearson (1897-1972), Mr. Trudeau introduced legislation decriminalizing homosexuality. "The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation," he memorably said (his first of many memorable utterances). But his charisma for Canadians was first demonstrated after Mr. Pearson decided to retire in 1968; within a week Mr. Trudeau emerged out of nowhere as the favourite to succeed as Liberal party leader and prime minister. Quickly he caught the attention of young Canadians in a phenomenon that became known as Trudeaumania. He quickly triumphed at the leadership convention which chose him Liberal leader and thus prime minister. In the ensuing 1968 election campaign he marched triumphantly to election on a sea of photo ops.
Many have remarked on Mr. Trudeau's intelligence. A constitutional and labour lawyer in his native province, Mr. Trudeau demonstrated an extraordinary intellectual power of understanding of Canada's complex constitutional framework and development, and of the place of Québec within it. Mr. Trudeau was one of the few Canadians, certainly of his time, who had a clear unshakeable vision of the country as a whole. He was a strong federalist. He believed in a symmetrical federalism. He believed firmly in individual rights, rights of the individual against the collective, and that the federal government must speak for Canada as a whole. "Who speaks for Canada?" he repeatedly said with a challenging, gunslinger stance and fervour.
The answer was clear (in his eyes): He did.
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Mr. Trudeau's strong opinions won him both profound respect among Canadians and trenchant enemies. Those who agreed with him were the Liberal party he led so effectively, a large number of Canadians in Ontario, Québec, and Atlantic Canada (and a few in the West). Those who disagreed with his vision were at least threefold.
The first were Québec separatists. Members of the Parti Québécois, especially their leader, Mr. Trudeau's rumpled and dishevelled "little guy" opposite, René Lévesque (1922-1987), resented Mr. Trudeau's federalism. It was antithetical to their own vision, that Québec should be a sovereign independent nation like the other nations of the world. They regarded Mr. Trudeau as a vendu, that is, someone who had sold out the interests of Québec to "the damned English."
The second group opposing Mr. Trudeau were Western Canadians who resented what they felt was Mr. Trudeau's Eastern Canadian misunderstandings of (or indifference to) their region's aspirations and interests. For them the crowning arrogance of Mr. Trudeau's administration was his National Energy Policy, which he announced in 1980. Many Western Canadians, perhaps most, felt
(The National Energy policy caused a recession in Western Canada, with decreased investment and drilling and increased unemployment.)
The third group was members of the federal Progressive Conservative party, who resented Mr. Trudeau's bantam-rooster presence and his talent at attracting the voters to crush them in elections.
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If his attention was fully engaged, Mr. Trudeau could be a wily opponent. One of Mr. Trudeau's important problems, however, was that his attention was not always engaged. Whether through his brilliance or a short attention span, Mr. Trudeau tended to run his career as a series of crusades; at the peak of each he usually lost interest. It would quickly be followed by Mr. Trudeau's next crusade or campaign.
Proceeding in this way, by jigs and jogs, Mr. Trudeau caused his opponents untold confusion and exasperation. No sooner had they figured out how to counter one of his crusades than he had abandoned it and shot off on another. No sooner had they figured out how successfully to take a stance on one issue than he was somewhere else. It was horrible for them. It was often also confusing for Mr. Trudeau's followers, and for the country.
In the 1974 election, for instance, Mr. Trudeau opposed wage and price controls, the policy of his opponent, Conservative Robert Stanfield. Once he had been elected, however, Mr. Trudeau quickly announced a policy of -- yes, you guessed it -- wage and price controls.
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Somehow Mr. Trudeau floated through it all, sustaining very few important defeats, and entertaining or infuriating most of the country by his antics. From time to time the country tired of him. He narrowly escaped defeat by Conservative leader Robert Stanfield in 1972. He was narrowly defeated by Conservative leader Joe Clark in 1979. And at the end of his political career in 1984 he was nearly universally rejected.
In political retirement he did something or other for a distinguished Montreal law firm. He inhabited an Art Nouveau mansion on Pine Street in Montreal. And during the Meech Lake dispute (1987-1990) he emerged to condemn the agreement signed by his successor, Conservative 17th prime minister Brian Mulroney (b. 1939).
When Mr. Trudeau died of prostate cancer in autumn 2000 his funeral was the most memorable Canadian state occasion in my lifetime. The eloquent words of his oldest son Justin spoke to a country. "He came back for Meech. He came back for Charlottetown. But he won't be coming back any more. It's all up to us, all of us, now," he said.
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[To Be Continued and Revised]
Books by and about Pierre Elliott Trudeau
Axworthy, Thomas S. and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Towards A Just Society. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1980.
After Trudeau's retirement, Trudeau's Liberal party cabinet associate produced this dull and mediocre official memoir of the aims of Trudeau's period in power.
Clarkson, Stephen and Christina McCall Newman. Trudeau and Our Times. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Gwyn, Richard. The Northern Magus: Pierre Trudeau and Canadians. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1980.
Probably the best book on Trudeau. Richard Gwyn has been for many years an astute political columnist for the Toronto Star, as well as the author of several biographies and political books.
Newman, Peter C. A Nation Divided: Canada and the Coming of Pierre Trudeau. Alfred A. Knopf.
Radwanski, George. Trudeau. Toronto: Macmillan Company of Canada, 1978.
An admiring study of Trudeau, light, as usual, on Trudeau's intellectual background and attainments. In 2002 Radwanski, a journalist said to be a Liberal, was the privacy commissioner of Canada. In the summer of 2003 he was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had spent unacceptably large amounts on meals and travel.
Stuebing, Douglas, with John Marshall and Gary Oakes. Trudeau: A Man for Tomorrow. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, 1968.
Stewart, Walter. Shrug: Trudeau in Power. Toronto: New Press, 1971.
Trudeau, Pierre Elliott (with Jacques Hébert). Two Innocents in Red China. 1961.
This book was first published in French, then translated into English in 1968 by I.M. Dunn for Oxford University Press in Toronto.
-------. Le Fédéralisme et la société canadienne-française. 1967. (Translated as Federalism and the French Canadians. 1968.)
-------. Memoirs. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999 (?).
Reviewers attacked Trudeau's Memoirs when it came out because it gave no details of the inner man. Still, it is an interesting book.
-------. Against the Current: Selected Writings 1939-1996. Pelletier, Gérard, ed. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996.
-------. The Essential Trudeau. Graham, Ron, ed. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1998.
Vastel, Michel. The Outsider: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1990.
Last modified: 3:01 PM 06/06/2004