Gérard Pelletier (Obituary)

In the late 1940s, Marc Lalonde was a young university student in Montreal, trying to plan his life. For advice, he went to Gérard Pelletier, then a reporter with the newspaper Le Devoir and a man known as a socially concerned intellectual.

In the late 1940s, Marc Lalonde was a young university student in Montreal, trying to plan his life. For advice, he went to Gérard Pelletier, then a reporter with the newspaper Le Devoir and a man known as a socially concerned intellectual. As Lalonde recalled, Pelletier listened while he "explained my conundrum" - whether to study social sciences or law. Because Pelletier had done neither, he suggested that Lalonde seek out "a guy now working for the Privy Council in Ottawa who has done both." Lalonde thus met Pierre Trudeau. At one point in Lalonde's later lives as politician and lawyer, he was considered Trudeau's brightest, most influential cabinet minister. Lalonde now says admiringly of Pelletier, who died of cancer on June 22 at age 78: "I don't know which was more impressive: his personal modesty, or his total commitment to service."

Pelletier is most remembered as one of the "Three Wise Men" who, with labor leader Jean Marchand and university professor Trudeau, went into federal politics in 1965 to stanch the rise of separatism. But while he spearheaded passage of the Official Languages Act through Parliament in 1969 as secretary of state, politics was arguably Pelletier's least favorite area of achievement. "Gérard," says Lalonde, "was not much for the partisan cut-and-thrust of the House of Commons." At other times, he was also a labor activist, newspaper editor, diplomat and well-reviewed author.

Pelletier was what Quebecers call a rassembleur - someone skilled at bringing people together. He did that with Lalonde and Trudeau, and later - with more fireworks and less success - with Trudeau and René Lévesque. Pelletier's memoir, Years of Impatience 1950-1960, begins with a vivid description of Trudeau, Marchand and Pelletier awaiting a tardy Lévesque, who after his arrival appalled everyone by daubing a huge helping of mustard over a rare steak. Pelletier's Sunday morning, open-door brunches that he staged with his wife, Alec, at their cottage-style Elm Street home in Westmount, were legendary for the quality of debate and guests. That was also the case with the dinners the Pelletiers gave in Paris, where he served as Canada's ambassador for six years from 1975.

Despite his achievements, Pelletier was an almost excessively diffident man who avoided the limelight. "He was highly intelligent, with an intellectual elegance," said Mitchell Sharp, a senior minister under prime minister Lester Pearson when the Three Wise Men came to Ottawa. "But of the trio, he was the one nobody ever thought wanted to be prime minister."

Pelletier's courteous manner and careful way of speaking often led to the presumption that he was from an upper-class family. Journalist and former politician Doug Fisher, a political foe who came to admire Pelletier, recalled his surprise at seeing the modest style of Pelletier's home when he visited. "I learned he was the son of a railwayman, just like me," says Fisher. "We took off from there." Pelletier, born in Victoriaville, was the youngest of eight children. He met Trudeau while both were attending the University of Montreal, and later wrote: "He was the son of a millionaire" while "I lived in a minuscule, bedbug-infested room."

Pelletier had a sly sense of humor, and confessed at times that "I take much more amusement than I really should" from the verbal pyrotechnics involving Lévesque and Trudeau. His own 10 years in politics were bruising. He disliked the House of Commons. Despite his flair for dinner-table conversation, his public speeches were uninspiring. He never forgot the vilification he endured in Western Canada - orchestrated by John Diefenbaker - over the introduction of official bilingualism. But, says Gordon Robertson, a former clerk of the Privy Council, "He was a first-rate minister."

Pelletier's relationship with Trudeau was complex. "It's me who followed him often," said Trudeau recently. Pelletier was one of the few people to always speak bluntly to Trudeau. Author Ron Graham, in his book One-Eyed Kings, recounts how Trudeau in 1979 agonized over whether to remain in politics after the collapse of Joe Clark's minority government. In a telephone call to Pelletier in Paris, Trudeau said: "I can imagine someone else being prime minister, but I can't imagine anyone else being the father to my children." Responded Pelletier: "You're not free, Pierre. You have to stay." Pelletier, despite Trudeau's affection, kept a careful distance. As an ambassador, he never called Trudeau directly: instead, he sent messages through External Affairs. He told Fisher that his relationship with Trudeau was that of "close colleagues rather than friends" - Trudeau, for example, never came to his Sunday brunches.

The death of Pelletier, who had four children, leaves Trudeau as the surviving Wise Man: Marchand died in 1988. It marks the loss of one of the public leaders in the fight against Maurice Duplessis's iron-fisted Quebec government in the 1940s and '50s. "No one who was not there could understand the courage that took," says Lalonde. The relationship between Trudeau, Marchand and Pelletier was largely forged when they took to the picket lines together in a famous labor showdown against Duplessis's union-busting provincial police in 1949. In tribute, Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard called Pelletier "one of the people who helped develop modern-day Quebec" while Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who served with him in Parliament, said, "I have lost a friend." In death as in life, Pelletier the rassembleur still brought together political foes.

Maclean's July 7, 1997