Trudeau ill

The news release was modest but cryptic. Their famous father was "not well" and receiving medical treatment, said Justin and Sacha Trudeau in a brief statement last Thursday.

Trudeau ill

The news release was modest but cryptic. Their famous father was "not well" and receiving medical treatment, said Justin and Sacha Trudeau in a brief statement last Thursday. Would the media and public please respect their privacy?

Sorry, not much chance of that. Within minutes, it seemed, word of Pierre Trudeau's illness was ricocheting across the nation. And like the man himself, the depth of his infirmity was clothed in mystery. One Quebec radio host reported that Trudeau had been given the last rites by the Catholic church. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's top officials said they had been assured the former prime minister was not at death's door. Trudeau's caretaker emerged to say he had seen his boss eating lunch with one of his sons on Friday at the table and that he appeared in good spirits. Still, the family had gathered: ex-wife Margaret and the two surviving sons were all at Trudeau's Montreal home, the boys putting their teaching and film careers temporarily on hold. And the watch intensified.

By Thursday evening, scores of news organizations - and a growing throng of well-wishers - had staked out the front and back entrances to Trudeau's quirky Mount Royal house, an Art Deco cube shouldered into the side of the mountain. The camera lights and crackling intensity lent the scene the air of an impending papal announcement. "Just watch me," a younger, tougher Trudeau had once said when imposing the War Measures Act against hostage-taking Quebec separatists. A nation transfixed by his daring and his almost feral magnetism had done just that - throughout the roller-coaster ride of his 15 years in power, afterwards too. Why should now, at the twilight of a remarkable life, be any different?

A Trudeau confidant told Maclean's that the situation was, indeed, serious. The 80-year-old former prime minister has been suffering for at least two years from Parkinson's disease, a debilitating nervous disorder that can cause slowness, rigidity, tremors of the hands and legs and sometimes dementia. But the most crushing blow came when his youngest son, Michel, was killed by an avalanche while skiing in British Columbia's back country in November, 1998. Trudeau's former wife, Margaret, said he never truly recovered from that tragedy. And in January, he was hospitalized for 10 days - and placed on a respirator - for pneumonia, an illness much more serious than family and friends let on at the time.

For Canadians who have not seen recent photos of a frail Pierre Trudeau (friends have taken great pains to keep him away from the cameras), the very idea is almost impossible to grasp. He was, after all, the epitome of vigour: the solitary canoeist; the swinger with the ever-present rose in his lapel who fathered a child in his 70s; the political gunslinger - thumbs suggestively hooked in his belt - who took on all comers, including a series of nationalistic Quebec premiers. If nothing else, Trudeau is forever captured as the vaulting gymnast who stripped to his bathing trunks to backflip off the high-diving board at repeated campaign stops in 1968, seducing in turn a stagnating Liberal party and an entire country soon after.

The late Marshall McLuhan, media guru and a Trudeau confidant, said the former prime minister was the ideal candidate for the dawning age of television politics - cool and cerebral with "the perfect mask" and "the face of a North American Indian." He was our Kennedy, more than one observer has noted over the years. And like the U.S. president, he charmed by seduction, by the use of raw political power and, because of his almost casual eloquence in both official languages, by seeming to set higher standards for a country that was seeking to emerge from 100 years of adolescence.

But it was not just that generation of let's-make-a-change baby boomers that Trudeau made his own. A poll last year by the Toronto-based Environics Research Group Ltd. found Trudeau was far and away the most popular of four former prime ministers: his nearly 70-per-cent approval rating was more than double what it was in 1983, during his last full year in office, and also more than double that of Conservative successor Brian Mulroney, to whom time has not been nearly as charitable. Trudeau had become a legend. Forget the hyperinflation of the 1970s, the high unemployment and growing deficits of the Trudeau years, the gross patronage, the constant federal-provincial bickering and the hapless job-creation schemes. This was the man who, the story goes, single-handedly turned around the 1980 Quebec referendum with one memorable speech at the Paul Sauvé Arena in east-end Montreal in the very heart of Parti Québécois country; who stared down a phalanx of provincial barons to patriate the Constitution and create the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and who strode out of retirement in 1987 to galvanize opposition to Mulroney's Meech Lake accord and open a Pandora's box of unforeseen political consequences - Lucien Bouchard among them.

Demonized by some, worshipped by others, "Trudeau was a different sort of person from the usual politicians that we had been accustomed to," observes Roger Landry, the former publisher of Montreal's La Presse newspaper and, briefly, Trudeau's Quebec press secretary during the 1972 election. "You have to recognize that he was a man of superior quality. He was highly intellectual, very cultured and he had very structured ideas. When he believed in something, that was what he believed in and there was no half measure."

And so we watched. He has been called an enigma, a bewitcher, even a "magus," in the words of journalist-author Richard Gwyn. He was the swinger whose profligate government spending was so at odds with the ascetic, poetry-loving recluse; a natural performer, many of whose ostensibly spontaneous gestures - the famous pirouette at Buckingham Palace, for example - may have been planned in advance. Above all else, Trudeau was the Quebecer trying to achieve one overriding objective: binding French-speaking Canadians as directly as possible to the larger country they had helped create.

Quebec nationalists hated him for what they said was his penchant for "putting Quebec in its place." Many English-Canadians loved him, in part for enshrining a bilingual nation and inspiring their sons and daughters to learn French. That, in the end, he might be less loved in the province and city he called home than in the rest of the country - and that separatists were ensconced in Quebec even as he swept 74 of 75 federal seats there in the 1980 election, and remained a vital political force - was among the many ironies marking an audacious life.

But he was certainly respected by his political enemies and, judging by the scene outside his Mount Royal home last week, countless other Canadians. As the watch grew, television and radio stations interrupted regular programming with updates on the former prime minister's condition. Dignitaries, even one historian, made their pilgrimage to the site to pay their respects, as did many ordinary Canadians, often bearing flowers. Roses of course. There were always roses.

Maclean's September 18, 2000