This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 9, 2000. Partner content is not updated.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau: 1919-2000
Flamboyant and contradictory, as cerebral as he was physical, he enchanted, inspired - and at times enraged - Canadians with his vision and his passion for the country. He changed Canada forever, and in the process, he touched our souls.
Throughout his nearly 81 years, Pierre Trudeau seemed to live by extremes: he either filled a room with his charisma and energy, or withdrew completely, making his boredom and lack of interest apparent to all. One such time came in the fall of 1979, when Trudeau agreed to meet visiting political-science students from Montreal's Concordia University. His Liberals had lost the election to Joe Clark's Progressive Conservatives in the spring, and he was struggling with the unaccustomed role of leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Shortly before the scheduled 10 a.m. meeting on Parliament Hill, the 20-odd students were squirming nervously in their seats when, one later recalled, "you could feel him enter before you saw or heard him."
In battered sports jacket and casual pants, Trudeau strode energetically to the front of the room and perched, half-sitting, on a table. Without a hello, he gestured at the group and said, "What are your hopes? What are your dreams? Who are you, and what do you want to become?" After a moment's stunned silence, a student asked Trudeau why, as prime minister, he had not used his constitutional power to disallow recent Parti Québécois legislation that declared French to be Quebec's only official language. Trudeau's face turned to stone. He gave a stiff, legalistic answer. Shortly after, he looked pointedly at his watch, mumbled an excuse - and left.
For Canadians, it always seemed that way with Trudeau - there were no half measures, and no telling what he might do or say next. But whether they were enchanted, enraged or rebuffed by the man who was their prime minister for 15 years and five months, they were never indifferent to him. On Sept. 7, when his sons Justin and Sacha issued a statement declaring that their father was "not well" and asking for privacy, Canadians instead turned their attention towards Trudeau again. Reporters camped outside his Montreal home, strangers delivered flowers and get-well wishes, and people across the country speculated about his health. Then, the initial fuss subsided - but the burst of media coverage, much of it nostalgic in tone, had once again put him at the forefront of Canadians' thoughts.
In all, it was the kind of attention once devoted to the passing of royalty. And when the news broke that Trudeau had died of prostate cancer - he had battled pneumonia, compounded by the onset of Parkinson's disease and, perhaps, the depression he felt ever since the 1998 death of his third son, Michel - the tributes came from Canadians of all backgrounds and political persuasions.
Shared sorrow - towards a politician whose legacy will still be debated decades from now. Trudeau's economic achievements were, at best, mixed. His other key accomplishments are easy enough to recount - but often draw vastly different reactions. He overhauled the Criminal Code as justice minister to legalize homosexual acts and abortion, and introduced the Official Languages Act. Add to that the decisive 1980 Quebec referendum victory, the patriation of the Constitution and the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms - along with such lesser initiatives as lowering the voting age to 18 from 21 and introducing television to Parliament. He also brought forward the 1980 legislation establishing the National Energy Program, which the Liberals said was aimed at safeguarding the country's oil supply from foreign domination.
Almost all of those initiatives have their detractors. Many westerners are still rankled by the memory of the NEP, which lasted until 1984 and was seen as a sign of both unwanted government intervention and, because it established a range of new taxes and price controls over domestically produced oil and natural gas, a symbol of the way in which Central Canada was prepared to siphon money from the West to prop up its own economy. As to the charter, some critics complain that it puts too much power in the hands of judges instead of elected representatives. Others say official bilingualism is artificial and overly expensive. (To that, Trudeau said memorably in 1968: "Of course, a bilingual state is more expensive than a unilingual one, but it is a richer state.")
Even on the issue of Quebec, Trudeau may have done as much to stoke the flames of sovereignty in recent years as he once did to try to stamp out the movement. His strong opposition to the Meech Lake constitutional accord in 1990, for one, galvanized anti-Meech forces in English Canada - but the subsequent collapse of the accord gave a strong boost to sovereigntist fortunes. And the incident that drove his poll numbers to their highest levels ever - the October, 1970, imposition of the War Measures Act after the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross and Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte - is criticized by some historians as an unnecessary abuse of human rights.
Trudeau, however, was no stranger to debate - or contradiction. Born to a millionaire family whose fortune was made from a chain of service stations, he was a notorious penny-pincher in private life who favoured left-leaning, big-spending policies in government. In 1963, he campaigned on behalf of the NDP, and called the Liberals "idiots" for allowing Lester Pearson to permit nuclear warheads in Canada. But two years later, he ran for the Liberals under Pearson, and within two months of his election, became Pearson's parliamentary secretary. And despite his professed disdain for the parish-pump side of elected politics, he eventually became a frequent and adept practitioner of patronage: his departing 1984 round of appointments to old supporters and cabinet colleagues stoked one of the controversies that helped sink successor John Turner.
Much of Trudeau's early appeal as prime minister came from his dashing, flamboyant style. During his 20s, as author Gordon Donaldson recounted in his 1994 book, The Prime Ministers of Canada, Trudeau "drifted through occupied Germany on faked papers, was slung in jail for trying to enter Yugoslavia without a visa" and, in Palestine, "was arrested as a Zionist spy and thrown into a dungeon where Christ is supposed to have been held. After emerging, he was accosted by bandits, whom he scared off by feigning madness and raving in Montreal slang." As a politician, he had no less flair. He sported a green leather jacket, on occasion showed up in the House of Commons wearing sandals, and drove a funky Mercedes 300-SL sports convertible.
Sometimes, he walked to his office on Parliament Hill from 24 Sussex Drive. Accosted one day outside Parliament by a 17-year-old girl who asked for a kiss, he responded "why not, it's spring" - and bussed her. Although he affected disdain for the media, it never seemed a coincidence that his most colourful acts - such as performing a pirouette at Buckingham Palace - occurred with many cameras close by. And he was often keen to chat or lunch or dine with women reporters - even when he wasn't necessarily trying to date them. Those sessions sometimes evolved into policy discussions. When one young reporter told him how she had just visited a Cape Breton smelter and found that conditions there made it "the worst place on earth," Trudeau, fascinated, launched a long series of questions as to whether that amounted to a good argument for nuclear power.
But his often flip behaviour masked a character of much greater complexity - although he kept his deeper inner thoughts largely to himself. Even acquaintances who had known him for decades said they found him hard to read emotionally. When Trudeau's old friend Gérard Pelletier died in 1997, Donald Macdonald, a former cabinet colleague of both men, said Pelletier was "the last of a small circle of lifelong friends." A former aide to Trudeau in the Prime Minister's Office, who saw him on a daily basis for more than two years, remarked years later that "I'm not sure Mr. Trudeau ever knew my full name."
On the other hand, Trudeau was at his most open with children. In the early 1980s, a senior civil servant working in the Privy Council Office happened to mention to Trudeau that his nine-year-old daughter was a great fan of the Canadian a cappella group the Nylons - who were scheduled to perform on Parliament Hill for Dominion (now Canada) Day festivities that year. On July 1, as the group was coming onstage, Trudeau, from his front-row seat, gestured to the girl to join him at his seat. He bounced her on his knees in time with the music, and at the end, leaped up to dance with her.
Trudeau was capable of forming unlikely enthusiasms for political opponents. Despite their many differences, he was hugely fond of former Tory prime minister John Diefenbaker, and once declared: "I just love that old guy." When the former prime minister fell ill just before Trudeau's departure for a European trip, Trudeau and then-aide Joyce Fairbairn devised a secret code - Daffodil - so he could receive updates on Diefenbaker's health. "I would message what the weather was - and whether the daffodils were blooming," Fairbairn recalled several years ago.
Trudeau's emotions ran deepest over the issue of his native Quebec. His contempt for the nationalist movement was open and undisguised - although it did not necessarily extend to some of its pro-sovereigntist practitioners. Many members of the first PQ government in 1976 were people Trudeau had worked alongside in early years, when progressive Quebecers were united against the authoritarian government of Maurice Duplessis. Once, in the late 1970s, Trudeau gave a news conference in Quebec City. When it was over, reporters were startled to see several PQ cabinet members, led by language hardliner Camille Laurin, rush up to greet Trudeau, who greeted them equally warmly. And while Trudeau fought the Yes side with sometimes scathing mockery during the 1980 referendum, his remarks immediately after the vote were respectful. "To my fellow Quebecers who have been wounded by defeat," he said, "I wish to say simply that we have all lost a little in this referendum."
Trudeau was unapologetic about his preoccupation with Quebec. In 1973, he told CTV's W-Five that his reasons for getting into politics were twofold: "One, to make sure that Quebec wouldn't leave Canada through separatism, and the other, to make sure that Canada wouldn't shove Quebec out through narrow-mindedness." That assertion makes it all the more ironic that, in recent years, Trudeau continued to rise in the esteem of English Canada, while in Quebec - where his Liberals won 74 of 75 seats in his last election - his popularity plummeted. The primary reason was his visceral opposition to the Meech accord, as well as the failed 1992 Charlottetown accord. On both occasions, he argued that any agreement that gave Quebec extra powers over other provinces was "insulting" because it implied Quebecers needed extra protection to thrive.
That argument was bitterly resented by both sovereigntists and many Quebec federalists; Trudeau was alternately described within the province as being out-of-date or anti-Quebec. Michel C. Auger, political columnist for Quebec's largest newspaper, Le Journal de Montréal, observed several years ago that "for both federalists and sovereigntists, Trudeau has fallen off the radar screen. His ideas are seen as outdated." Still, the former prime minister continued to be treated with respect personally by both friends and opponents. On an international level, said Alain Gagnon, director of McGill University's Quebec studies program, "francophone Quebecers were always very proud of having Mr. Trudeau as a statesman." But, Gagnon said, Trudeau's death caused less emotion among francophone Quebecers because many felt he was antagonistic towards them.
Even within the federal Liberal party, feelings about Trudeau's legacy and policies are sometimes divided. Trudeau's opposition to Meech, something he shared with Jean Chrétien, split the party sharply in 1990 because then-Leader Turner and others, including current Finance Minister Paul Martin, supported the accord. Those rifts are still evident - most clearly, some Liberals say, in the coolness that persists between Chrétien and Martin. But Chrétien's own relationship with his former boss has often been complicated. Although he has always made a point of publicly praising Trudeau, Chrétien has many times, with mixed anger and sorrow, told the story of how, when he was finance minister in 1978, Trudeau blindsided him by announcing a $2-billion budget cut without telling him in advance.
And Chrétien has also struggled to get out from under Trudeau's giant shadow. When the Liberals came to power in 1993, Chrétien would call Trudeau about once a month. After a while, the gap between those calls lengthened - and Trudeau, in the wake of the 1995 referendum, publicly complained at a news conference that he "sat on my hands" during the campaign because no one asked him to get involved.
But Trudeau has remained a strong force among rank-and-file Liberals. His name continues to evoke potent memories and images. They are many: the fearless Trudeau who sat unblinking while protesters threw stones during the 1968 St-Jean-Baptiste Day rally in Montreal; the romantic swashbuckler who dated Barbra Streisand, Margot Kidder and Liona Boyd and married Margaret; Trudeau the philosopher, the gunslinger and the devoted father. And, finally, the smooth and sophisticated leader who seemed at home on any stage around the world - so much so that former U.S. vice-president Walter Mondale once called him "a priceless asset to the industrialized world."
In the end, it was never clear how many of those images were convenient creations he fashioned for himself, and how many reflected his real inner self. For all his time in public life, he was clearly happiest in private, testing his limits in treks and canoe trips either by himself, with his sons or a few friends. He gave a rare look into his thoughts on life in a 1944 essay called "Exhaustion and Fulfilment: The Ascetic in a Canoe." At the age of 25, with the self-assurance of youth, he solemnly and rather ponderously outlined the joys to be had from a canoe trip that lasts "for days, or weeks, or perhaps months on end."
The attraction, he said, is that "you return not so much a man who reasons more, but a more reasonable man. For, throughout this time, your mind has learned to exercise itself in the working conditions that nature intended." There was something else, he concluded, about the outdoors. "I know a man whose school could never teach him patriotism," Trudeau wrote, "but who acquired that virtue when he felt in his bones the vastness of his land, and the greatness of those who founded it." Reason was Trudeau's watchword, along with passion for his country. Canadians will long remember - and revere - him for both.
A Very Private Politician
The images are burned into the Canadian imagination. The naughty Pierre Trudeau pirouetting behind the back of the Queen at Buckingham Palace, the gunslinger, the playboy dancing with a fetching beauty half his age, the athletic Trudeau jackknifing into a pool. Despite his age - he was in his late 40s when he burst onto the public stage by winning the Liberal leadership in 1968 - there seemed to be a glow about him, as if pure energy was oozing from his pores. Yet years later, Trudeau would describe solitary nights spent with his three young sons as the source of true contentment. "Every Saturday night, I would get away from my commitments and read to them," he told York University professor B. W. Powe for an essay contained in the 1998 book Trudeau's Shadow. "It was one of the happiest periods of my life."
Pierre Elliott Trudeau was a contradiction: a man who guarded his privacy jealously while choosing the most public of vocations, a reclusive figure who revelled in acting the showman. But above all, his longtime friend Senator Serge Joyal told Maclean's, he was a family man who doted on his children, Justin, Sacha and the ill-fated Michel, who was swept to his death by an avalanche in British Columbia's Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park two years ago at the age of 23. "He told me immediately after leaving government in 1984 that the most important thing in his life now was his children and overseeing their education," recalls Joyal. Trudeau leaped to the task as single-mindedly as he took to politics, often eschewing social and political engagements so that he could spend time with his sons at the family's country home in the Laurentians, or taking them on experience-broadening trips to France, England, China and Siberia.
Trudeau's devotion may have been partly an attempt to catch up after the years when he was too occupied with the affairs of state. He was 51 in 1971 and still in his first mandate as prime minister when he married Margaret Sinclair, a naïve Vancouver flower child 29 years his junior. The children came in quick succession, and although he often took one or two on foreign trips with him, he lamented in his 1993 Memoirs that the hectic life of a politician necessitated leaving the kids behind with the young Margaret.
She would later describe the period in terms of claustrophobic torment. She felt abandoned, a prisoner in the gilded cage of 24 Sussex Drive. The fairy-tale marriage began unravelling and the couple separated in 1977. They finally divorced in 1984, three months before Trudeau stepped down as prime minister. He demanded and obtained sole custody of the children.
As Trudeau adapted to the role of single dad, never publicly speaking of his turbulent breakup, Margaret broke free in spectacular fashion. Even before their split, her escapades famously included drug use and partying with The Rolling Stones. Later, her dalliances included Jack Nicholson, Geraldo Rivera and parties at New York City's celebrated Studio 54 that made headlines around the world and became fodder for the two tell-all books she penned, 1979's Beyond Reason and Consequences in 1982. If Trudeau minded - and who wouldn't - or worried about the effect their mother's extravagant behaviour had on the sons, he never said so. In fact, Trudeau partly blamed himself, writing in Memoirs that he was ill-prepared for the many demands of his public and private life. "I was a neophyte at both politics and family life," Trudeau wrote. "I married late in life and I was learning about marriage and parenthood at the same time as I was learning about the workings of politics. So perhaps it was a little too much for me and, regrettably, I didn't succeed all that well."
He was determined to make amends to his children - and spend more time with them. It was something he missed with his own father, who died when Trudeau was 15 and was relatively absent during his formative years. Instead, it was his mother, Grace Elliott, who was the constant presence, instilling in him a love of learning and books. Friends say Trudeau was able to pass on to his children his own twin passions for the outdoors and for intellectual pursuits.
Margaret, meanwhile, continued to visit the children regularly at Trudeau's Montreal home, even after she had married Ottawa businessman Fried Kemper and had two children with him. Recently, she still called Trudeau "the love of my life," in spite of the rupture in their relationship. And she was with him when his failing health took a turn for the worse.
Perhaps the strangest chapter of Trudeau's private life was the revelation that he had fathered the daughter of Deborah Coyne, a constitutional adviser to Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells during the Meech Lake saga. While the relationship cooled after the birth of Sarah on May 5, 1991, Trudeau continued to visit his daughter in Toronto, where Coyne lived for a time in the 1990s. According to friends, he also made sure his sons came to regard her as a sister. Typically, Trudeau has never publicly talked about the unconventional relationship.
Trudeau's decline accelerated in 1997 with the death of his old friend Gérard Pelletier. Along with Trudeau, he was one of Quebec's "Three Wise Men" who came to Ottawa in the 1960s (the third, Jean Marchand, died in 1988). Seventeen months later, Michel died tragically. The first loss devastated Trudeau, the second appeared to crush him. He soon fell ill with pneumonia, with which he was hospitalized for 10 days last January. "He's never really recovered," Joyal said.
At the funeral of Pelletier, Trudeau, a devout Roman Catholic, read a passage from Corinthians, adding his personal postscript: "Part of my soul has left me - and he's waiting for me." The sentiment must have been doubly true with the loss of Michel - for a man who, throughout his life, hid his private pains as adamantly as he showcased his public flamboyance.
The Star of His Own Movie
There was Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda. Liona Boyd and Maggie. Pierre Trudeau also dated actors Margot Kidder and Kim Cattrall, now one of the stars of HBO's sizzling series Sex and the City. Some were lovers, some just friends. But their combined numbers and beauty made one thing clear: Trudeau was more than Canada's Prime Minister - he was also our leading man.
Following a generation of dutiful but dour postwar politicians like Lester Pearson, John Diefenbaker and Bob Stanfield, Trudeau arrived like a comet, entering the Canadian atmosphere adorned in black cape and fancy fedoras. Whether playing the role of urban dandy or buckskinned outdoorsman, he was always the star of his own movie, always the remote and rakish sex symbol who made women swoon. And what a range of characters he played. He moved from eligible bachelor to married man, doting dad and cuckolded husband without ever losing his appeal. "There was a 1940s movie star quality about Trudeau," says Linda Griffiths, the Toronto actor and co-creator of the one-woman stage play Maggie and Pierre. "He had that old-fashioned courtly, gentlemanly thing, where somebody was always on his arm."
But he also had a modern magnetism that the mass media both fed on and magnified. In June, 1968, during his first election campaign as leader of the Liberal party, the country was swept up in Trudeaumania. As if at a Beatles concert, young and not-so-young girls screamed and demanded kisses when the unpredictable 48-year-old politician whistle-stopped into their towns. Trudeau gloried in the adulation. But, according to Christina McCall, it also changed him.
In her book Grits, McCall says Trudeau was not always the dashing lothario. Before coming to power, he was socially shy and diffident. As an MP (he was first elected to Parliament in 1965), he would slip in and out of official gatherings without anyone noticing but his closest friends. His relationships with women - who were often half his age - were usually brief. But after 1968, McCall says, Trudeau's "sweet reticence had vanished and was replaced by a display of overweening pride." Now, when he entered a room, "women swarmed to him, mouths moist, eyes translucent."
One of them was Margaret Sinclair, a naïve Vancouver flower child who first met Trudeau on a beach in Tahiti before he became prime minister. In 1971, after a clandestine courtship, they were married in a ceremony kept secret from the public. He was 51, she was 22. Together, they had three sons: Justin, Sacha and Michel (who was killed in 1998 at age 23 in an avalanche in British Columbia). By 1977, the marriage had collapsed when Margaret sought her freedom from what she described as the "unbearable" confines of her life with Trudeau at 24 Sussex Drive.
Margaret was the only woman who ever lived with Trudeau. The rest of his celebrity dates seemed at times intended to be little more than glamorous appendages for photo ops, arm candy for this otherwise solitary man. What did these women really mean to Trudeau? We may never know. In his book Memoirs, Trudeau summed up the breakup of his marriage to Margaret briefly and tersely, concluding: "Anyone who has gone through the breakdown of a marriage - perhaps without three small children, and perhaps not in the glare of the public spotlight - will understand why I choose to write no more about the matter." He has said nothing about other relationships. Perhaps for the impermeable Trudeau, silence was the best refuge.
He Inspired an Entire Generation
When the history of our times is written, Pierre Trudeau will be acknowledged as the greatest public figure that Canada produced in the second half of the 20th century. This will not be in recognition of his accomplishments at home, which were considerable, or of his achievements on the international stage, which weren't. It will be because he did what no politician before or since has done: he touched the dreams of an entire generation of Canadians. He made them excited about politics and public affairs. He caused them to believe they could actually change the country and even the world. He inspired them to get personally involved. And many of the idealists who were inspired by Trudeau are still involved - in Parliament and provincial legislatures, the senior levels of the public service, the judiciary, the professions, broadcasting and the arts. He changed their lives. He set them off along paths they might not otherwise have taken. He made them, and the country, better.
Trudeau was lucky, of course. Timing is everything in politics, and he caught the wave perfectly. He appeared on the scene just as the nation, emerging from the high of Expo 67 and the Centennial, was looking for ways to extend the excitement. It was a time of national confidence, when anything seemed possible. The year he won the Liberal leadership, 1968, was a year of turmoil in many parts of the world as students took to the streets in protest over, chiefly, the war in Vietnam. A similar ferment pervaded Canada but instead of resisting it, Trudeau tapped into it, distilled it, channelled the desire for change and reform into the established political process - and, instead of bloody clashes on the barricades, we had Trudeaumania.
His detractors maintained Trudeau was a creation of the mass media. If that were so, he would have crashed and burned within a year. He soared because he was what the country was ready for at that time - a leader who did not look or sound like a politician and who seemed not to care about personal popularity, a reformer who believed government could be changed, improved and made to serve the people better. He was also smart, very smart, not to mention articulate (in both official languages), athletic, dashing, glamorous, sexy and strong. We all wished we could be just like him.
Journalists and others who travelled with him over the years - as I did to places like India, Malaysia, Singapore, Russia, Cuba and Venezuela - could not help but feel a small thrill of national pride at the interest and curiosity he provoked among the politicians and press in the countries we visited. For perhaps the first time ever, they were genuinely interested in a Canadian leader. He was a star and, because he was, Canada was something of a star, too.
It didn't last long. Trudeau's weaknesses were managing the domestic economy and foreign policy. True, he recognized Red China (as it was known then), but does anyone remember his "Third Option" and his much-vaunted "contractual link" with Europe? Stripped to its essentials, his foreign policy amounted to little more than a futile attempt to distance Canada from the United States, whether by cozying up to its enemies, like Fidel Castro, or by negotiating closer ties with Europeans or others.
At home, his achievements were real: the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults, divorce and abortion reform, the Official Languages Act, patriation of the Constitution, and entrenchment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These and other initiatives are Trudeau's legacy to the nation. But what makes him much more than just another prime minister with a superior legislative record who won a few elections and ultimately overstayed his welcome is the transforming effect he had on the generation of Canadians who propelled him into office. Singlehandedly, he increased the public's expectations of political leadership, in the process raising the bar for those who would come after him.
Can you imagine young people today defying their parents to attend a Stockwell Day rally? Pushing and shoving to touch the garments of Joe Clark? Swooning at the sight of Paul Martin? Or girls (and their moms) clawing their way through police lines to plant a big kiss on the lips of Jean Chrétien?
Yes, bring on the historians.
Farewell to a Titan
Even for Canada's most celebrated political warrior, some battles end in defeat. Last week, after months of failing health, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau succumbed to prostate cancer. The country responded with an outpouring of emotion, more muted perhaps than the tidal wave of Trudeaumania that began his prime ministerial career in 1968, but no less warm. And dignified, as befitted the man who had swashbuckled through Canada's often fractious political life and yet had somehow, always, risen above it.
Parliament stood still - tributes flowed even from longtime adversaries. One last time, Trudeau returned to the place he had dominated for 16 years, his body lying in state over the weekend in Parliament's Hall of Honour. Throughout two days and nights, Canadians from all corners came to pay their respects, many with children who were born after he left office. His Art Deco home in Montreal, where he died on Sept. 28 at age 80, surrounded by his ex-wife, Margaret, and their sons, Justin and Sacha, became an impromptu shrine for friends and admirers who laid red roses at the front door. And across Canada, ordinary Canadians - Anglo-Albertans who had been inspired to learn French because of him, immigrants who had come to Canada because of his reputation, matronly women who had once flirted briefly with him at some political function - remembered, and were inspired again.
The world, too, remembered. Trudeau's death was front-page news in The Times of London and The New York Times, which called him "a dashing fighter for Canada." The United Nations Security Council observed a moment of silence. The Queen and other heads of state and government sent their condolences to the Trudeau family. Other prime ministers have left their mark on the world stage. Trudeau didn't just stride the world stage, he danced upon it, his insatiable curiosity and sophistication carrying the rest of us along in his wake.
Few Canadians realized just how ill Trudeau had been. For at least two years, he suffered from Parkinson's disease, a debilitating nervous system disorder, and prostate cancer. Friends said the death of Michel, his youngest son, swept away by an avalanche while hiking in British Columbia in November, 1998, sent Trudeau into a profound depression. And earlier this summer, after a four-day retreat in rural New Brunswick with his son Sacha and old friend Roméo LeBlanc, Trudeau, a celebrated outdoorsman, returned to his Montreal home and suffered a stroke on Aug. 5 that sent him to hospital. "It was a wonderful four days," recalled former governor general LeBlanc, who had been Trudeau's press secretary from 1968 to 1971. "He was so amazed by the world around him."
After lying in state on Parliament Hill, Trudeau's body was to be transported to Montreal by train on Monday for last respects and a state funeral on Tuesday at Notre-Dame Basilica. The federal government has created a Web site for Canadians to pass along their memories and condolences, at www.trudeau.gc.ca. He will be buried in Montreal. His legacy will be rooted in the country at large.
The Fight of a Lifetime
It was the fight of his life, the upshot of what one biographer would later call Pierre Trudeau's "magnificent obsession." But to achieve what he did in the spring of 1982 - patriation of the Constitution from Britain after 51 years of fruitless attempts, and with a wide-ranging Charter of Rights and Freedoms that entrenched his cherished goal of linguistic guarantees for French- and English-Canadians - required something more than obsession. It took political ruthlessness, a willingness to turn the country almost on its ear.
Was this all about Quebec? Well, yes - and no. It started that way, of course. Trudeau was, after all, a product of the political and intellectual ferment there in the late 1950s and early 1960s, an upheaval that divided Quebec's best and brightest into bitterly opposed camps. Although he was an eager participant in some of the early causes, such as the wrenching strikes of asbestos and Radio-Canada workers, Trudeau would have no truck with the nationalists of Quebec. He saw Quebec nationalism, as he did Maurice Duplessis's repressive postwar regime, as backward and valuing the state above the individual. For Trudeau - "Citizen of the world," said the badge he tacked to his door at Harvard in 1945 - this was definitely not the road to be travelled. What he wanted was a Canada and a Quebec constructed more in his own image: bilingual and bicultural, and above all else, with the freedom to choose. For Trudeau, language was a right, like free speech and individual choice - one of the "counterweights," as he called them in his early essays, to the power of the state.
Achieving these objectives would not be easy. And for Trudeau, his combative personality would set the tone. He was, after all, the rookie justice minister in Lester Pearson's government who made his mark by knocking heads publicly with Quebec premier Daniel Johnson in early 1968 at a federal-provincial conference. He was the fledgling Liberal leader who won the country's respect later that year by sitting, unflinching, in the review stand of Montreal's St-Jean-Baptiste Day parade while bottles thrown by separatist supporters shattered around him. He was the prime minister who invoked the War Measures Act in 1970 and refused to negotiate with terrorists - the strongman who kept his head while others panicked.
By the time of the first Quebec referendum on sovereignty in May, 1980, the Trudeau legend - French Power in Ottawa, standing up to nationalists in Quebec - was complete. For the first time, the country had a French-Canadian prime minister who was enormously popular in his home province (the federal Liberals had just won 74 of 75 seats in the 1980 election and would go on to win the referendum campaign three months later by 60 per cent to 40 per cent) and willing to take on a Quebec government in a high-stakes game of political poker. Five prime ministers before him had tried and failed to budge the stone sled of constitutional reform. Trudeau himself had spent the best part of 12 years trying to cajole agreement from the provinces. And now he was facing growing demands for more powers from the West, where burgeoning oil revenues were also fuelling provincial ambitions.
Trudeau's home province had consistently refused to accept patriation, let alone linguistic guarantees that might affect education (a provincial jurisdiction) until its demands for greater autonomy were met. And language was proving to be a flash point. Language riots in the suburbs of Montreal contributed hugely to Bourassa's defeat by René Lévesque in 1976, and led directly to the Parti Québécois' Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language and the antithesis of everything Trudeau held sacred. And in Lévesque, Trudeau would confront a leader who was not only a fierce adversary but one who represented the nationalist flip side of the Québécois coin.
The two men could not have been more different. Judging by his electoral success in the province, Trudeau was widely admired. He was the man who could dance on the broader Canadian and world stages and allow Quebecers to bask in his cosmopolitan glory. But Lévesque was the one they loved. A rumpled, rubber ball of a man, a former war correspondent who came to host one of the most popular TV shows in the province, Lévesque was just as engaging as Trudeau. But he also seemed to embody all of the sometimes frustrating, sometimes endearing insecurities of a people struggling to find their place in the sea of Anglo North America.
The two men had been butting heads since the early 1960s, when Lévesque was a popular, reform-minded minister in Jean Lesage's Liberal government and Trudeau a sardonic law professor and a member of Lévesque's informal circle of advisers. Lévesque was one of only a handful of prominent Quebecers who opposed Trudeau's implementation of the War Measures Act. He paid a price for it at the polls three years later when his upstart PQ was nearly wiped out by Bourassa's Liberals. But by 1979, when Joe Clark's Tories surprised the federal Liberals and won a minority government, Lévesque thought he would have the last laugh. With Trudeau sidelined, Lévesque called his long-awaited referendum on sovereignty-association for the spring of 1980. But Clark's government self-destructed after only nine months in power, allowing Trudeau's Liberals to come roaring back with the enthusiasm of the born-again.
In typical Trudeau fashion, he took the referendum battle right to the enemy's heartland, the Paul Sauvé Arena in east-end Montreal, where Lévesque had celebrated his 1976 election victory, and pledged to change the constitutional order to accommodate Quebec. "Even I was impressed at the time," allowed the PQ's veteran strategist Claude Morin. But this was to be more than a strict Quebec-Ottawa round. The rejuvenated Liberal government took on the West and the growing autonomy of premiers like Alberta's Peter Lougheed by creating the despised National Energy Program. It cut back on transfer payments to the provinces - to howls of protest. Trudeau also hinted that, in the area of constitutional reform, Ottawa might go it alone. And after a desultory meeting of first ministers in September, 1980, he made good on his threat to try to patriate the Constitution unilaterally with a charter of rights - including the minority language rights that were certain to antagonize the West.
Two decades later, it is difficult to recall the intensity of that period. But for nearly 18 long months, from the emotion-ridden sovereignty referendum to the patriation agreement in November, 1981 - with an angry Quebec on the sidelines - the battle raged with a fierceness that only the fight over conscription in 1942 and, later, free trade in 1988, would match. Court challenges were mounted. Only two provinces, Ontario and New Brunswick, backed Ottawa's initiative. The charter of rights was created by a special parliamentary committee - the first to have its hearings televised - in an extraordinary conclave of one-upmanship and partisan bickering. By the time the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on the legality of the unilateral initiative - it was legal, the court found, but broke with convention, a serious rebuke to Trudeau - the country was exhausted. Only Trudeau seemed calm as he convened what he called "the one last time" constitutional conference for Nov. 2, 1981. It almost lived up to its billing.
For three days, the two sides offered up only half-hearted compromises. The dissident premiers in the so-called Gang of Eight provinces showed some cracks - Saskatchewan's Allan Blakeney, especially, tried to hold out an olive branch to Trudeau. But the coalition seemed to be holding. In fact, on the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 4, after the third day of steadily deteriorating talks, Lévesque sat in his Hull, Que., hotel room, sipping cognac with close colleagues, confident that he had beaten back all the federal initiatives.
Little did Lévesque know that across the river in Ottawa's Ch%teau Laurier Hotel the three most westerly provinces and Newfoundland were cobbling together one final offer. Nor did he realize that, earlier in the day, his flirtation with Trudeau's suggestion of a referendum to decide the fate of the charter had driven a wedge through the dissident coalition. The premiers were fighting arrogance and abuse of process - but did not want to take on the popular charter of rights. The next morning, Lévesque came face-to-face with the sweaty opportunism of Canadian politics - and with the slightly messy reality that was to become Pierre Trudeau's Canada. "We have a new proposal, René," Newfoundland's Brian Peckford announced laconically at the regular breakfast meeting of the Gang of Eight. "It's there by your plate."
It is tempting to say that the formal arrangement reached later that day was a classic Canadian compromise. The dissident provinces, with the exception of Quebec, would accept Trudeau's charter of rights (with a few modifications). Trudeau, in turn, would incorporate their preferred amending formula. But that interpretation would not take into account Trudeau's exercise of an enormous amount of raw prime ministerial willpower. He outfoxed Lévesque by challenging him mano a mano, playing on their long-standing rivalry. He outmanoeuvred the West by daring its premiers to be the populists they claimed they were and accept the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, language guarantees and all, on the grounds that it reflected the desires of the people. And he left a legacy that is still being debated.
Quebec's anger at being left behind by its allies - "It's the Canadian way," Lévesque hissed that fateful morning, "to abandon Quebec at the moment of crisis" - has reverberated through the decades: Meech Lake, the Charlottetown accord, Lucien Bouchard's sovereignty referendum of 1995. The West's appetite for reform, and its resolve to never again be taken for granted, is unabated. Add to those the welter of new charter-inspired rights and challenges that Canadian courts are constantly grappling with. All of these are part of Trudeau's legacy. They may not have been the counterweights he once wrote about with such enthusiasm. But they have become the true counterweights in the Canada of today, competing passions that propel a society forward and keep it in check at the same time, passions that he fanned with so much style and perhaps even purpose.
No time for 'weak-kneed people'
Just after 8 o'clock on Monday, Oct. 5, 1970, a brilliant fall morning in Montreal, four members of the so-called Liberation Cell of the Front de libération du Québec abducted British trade commissioner James Cross from his home. In exchange for Cross's release, the men made seven demands, among them: $500,000 in gold bullion and the release of 23 "political prisoners" - fellow FLQ members in jail for terrorist acts. This was to be the first real test of Canada's new prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, at 50, just two years on the job, and, equally important, of his 37-year-old Quebec counterpart, Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa. The Quebec government wanted to appease the kidnappers by releasing at least some prisoners, but Trudeau convinced Bourassa to offer only safe passage out of the country. Within an hour of the announcement of that offer, on Saturday Oct. 10, provincial labour minister Pierre Laporte was kidnapped while playing touch football outside his home on Montreal's South Shore by members of another FLQ cell.
The kidnappings sparked the implementation of the federal War Measures Act, which sent the police and army into the streets of Montreal to arrest, interrogate and detain more than 400 separatist sympathizers. Two days after its proclamation, Laporte was dead, strangled with his own gold neck chain and stuffed into the trunk of an old car. His murder sparked revulsion against political terrorism in Quebec and across the country. Laporte's murderers were eventually found and convicted. Cross's abductors gave up in December, releasing him and going into exile in Cuba and later France; some of them eventually returned to Quebec. The October Crisis transformed Pierre Trudeau, cementing his reputation for all time as a tough leader who would not back down. "All I can say is, 'go on and bleed,' " he told a CBC reporter in a famous interview on Parliament Hill in the midst of the crisis. "But it is more important to keep law and order in society than to be worried about weak-kneed people."
Dallying With the Economy
In the spring of 1984, during his final wistful months as prime minister, Pierre Trudeau had to choose between two strikingly different policies that he could champion. He could continue his quixotic campaign for peace in a Cold War world during his final appearance at the annual meeting of the Western world's seven industrial powers, scheduled for June. Or he could urge his fellow leaders at the lavish London gathering to launch a global trading initiative to lower tariff and non-tariff barriers to secure Canada's future as a trading nation. As pre-summit briefings commenced, Trudeau listened carefully as deputy trade minister Sylvia Ostry warned that protectionism was rising dangerously in industrialized nations because Western manufacturers could not compete with the low prices of Third World imports. Ostry argued that Canada should find ways to counter that protectionist trend while helping its own hard-hit domestic sectors to adjust. The prime minister posed expert questions, nodding thoughtfully. Then, to the frustration of his civil servants and the consternation of his fellow leaders, he flew to the United Kingdom - and talked about disarmament.
It was always that way. It was not as if Trudeau did not understand economic theories. He did. It was not as though he did not care about the ever-deteriorating condition of the nation's finances. He did. But he lacked the patience to wade through the conflicting economic theories, develop a coherent plan - and stick with it.
Instead, he dallied with one approach after another, reversing his own positions with breathtaking ease. One of those abrupt switches - the controversial decision to impose wage-and-price controls in October, 1975 - provoked the resignation of his respected finance minister, John Turner. Breaking his 25-year silence on Trudeau's most dramatic economic initiative, Turner told Maclean's that he vehemently objected to the imposition of controls - largely because the federal Liberals had romped to a majority government with the promise that they would not impose them. As well, Turner believed that the world was becoming too interconnected to invoke controls: Ottawa might be able to curb wages - but it could do little about the price of imports.
According to Turner, Trudeau was far more optimistic about the possibility that controls might succeed. Shortly after the Liberals' July, 1974, election victory, Trudeau began lobbying his finance minister to shift gears. Recalled Turner: "Trudeau said, 'We are going to put in wage-and-price controls.' I said, 'Not with me around. I campaigned against them.' The unions trusted me. Business trusted me. No. We told people that we wouldn't do it. And we were going to reverse that in three or four months after the election?"
Today, Turner is still rueful about the private discussion with Trudeau that provoked his September, 1975, resignation. "The real problem was the issue of wage-and-price controls," he told Maclean's on the understanding that the interview would not be published until after Trudeau's death. "I should have been more explicit when I resigned as to why I resigned. But because of my loyalty to Mr. Trudeau, I went quietly."
For Trudeau, the economy usually took second place to causes, such as national unity, that were dearer to his heart. Ostry's push for freer trade was doomed: those domestic sectors that could not compete against cheaper imports - textiles, footwear and clothing - were largely located in Quebec. Why, in the final months of more than 15 years in power, would Trudeau disrupt the Quebec economy and risk a resurgence of separatist strength? "He was highly intelligent and intellectual: he read all of his briefing documents, including the footnotes," reflected Ostry. "He just wasn't interested in economics. He listened to everything and understood it. But, in the end, he had one priority: national unity."
The nation paid a steep price for Trudeau's distracted approach to its long-term economic health. It took much of the 1990s to eliminate the breathtaking deficits that first appeared during his tenure. Federal cash transfers to the provinces were slashed - so programs in health, medical services and social assistance were pared to the bone. With public debt charges still consuming more than 25 cents out of every revenue dollar, Ottawa's spending power has been eroded. As a direct consequence, it has lost clout in provincial capitals. Ironically, the strong central government Trudeau fought so valiantly to maintain was undermined by his handling of the economy.
In 1968, when he swept triumphantly to power, the economy was vibrant - and the traditional economic remedies easily worked. Small shortfalls were the norm: 1968-1969 revenues were $12 billion and the deficit was $670 million. The economy was booming, generating the cash that Ottawa required to fund its ever-expanding social safety net. By 1984, the economic picture was far, far bleaker. The nation was painfully emerging from the worst downturn since the 1930s. Ottawa's annual shortfall was more than half the size of its revenues: in 1983-1984, the deficit was a staggering $33 billion on revenues of $64 billion. Inflation was relatively high, 5.3 per cent in January, 1984, and unemployment soaring at 11.2 per cent. The nation was reeling.
It was not all Trudeau's fault. It was his ill luck that, during most of his tenure, the global economy was in upheaval. By the early 1970s, the first traces of globalization were apparent: the economies of individual nations were becoming so interwoven that governments could not insulate their citizenry from outside forces. In 1973 and 1979, world oil prices shot up, fuelling inflation and imposing crippling costs on oil-dependent industries and consumers.
Worse, as Trudeau eventually discovered, in this grave new world the old economic remedies didn't work. In the 1950s and 1960s, governments could spend freely when times were tough to curb unemployment - and pare spending when times were good to control inflation. By the mid-1970s, however, Canada was struggling with the new phenomenon of stagflation: high inflation and high unemployment. Economists and politicians groped for solutions. Turner recalled that Trudeau was so desperate for answers that he could be captivated by any persuasive theorist, including the Canadian-born Harvard University economist John Kenneth Galbraith. "Galbraith used to sneak into 24 Sussex," Turner said. "I would hear about it - and I would tell Galbraith, 'Look, don't feed him this crap.' Galbraith was pretty left of centre. We would hear these theories the next week." Turner paused, contemplating Trudeau's record. "The economy," he added sadly, "was not his main thing."
Eventually, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development concluded that nations should tackle inflation first. Trudeau rejected that approach: he was unwilling to curb inflation by slashing spending as long as unemployment remained high. He did not want to risk further national distress, especially in Quebec. And he was reluctant to pay the price of unpopularity at the polls.
Instead, he kept looking for a made-in-Canada solution. From 1975 to 1984, in his bid to "wrestle inflation to the ground," he tried everything from wage-and-price controls to gimmicks such as the Six & Five campaign of 1982-1984, which created ceilings of six per cent and then five per cent for wage and price rises. Inflation ebbed, but it was only licked in the early 1990s - after industrialized nations, in a concerted attack, curbed their spending and raised interest rates. The price of that onslaught was a deep recession. "How can you be an inflation fighter and be in favour of social justice?" mused Trudeau's former principal secretary Tom Axworthy. "We tried a billion different ways to deal with inflation without necessarily putting millions of people out of work. In the end, there had to be a recession to get out of it. It's really too bad that there isn't another way."
Without firm economic leadership, the crises were endless. Trudeau would occasionally fix his enormous powers of concentration on a problem - and opt for a course. But he rarely followed through. In 1978, after a stern lecture from German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Trudeau abruptly announced immediate spending cuts of $2 billion out of program spending of $43 billion. There was a flurry of paperwork. But program spending kept increasing - and the deficits kept accumulating.
Ironically, Trudeau had a frugal personality. "He would say, 'Where are you going to find the money for that?' " recalled former cabinet minister David Smith. "In many ways, he was very conservative." But that fiscal rectitude could never withstand other priorities. In 1972, anxious to shore up support for his minority government with the New Democratic Party, he increased spending by 50 per cent over two years: from $18.8 billion to $28.2 billion.
Worse, Trudeau never could accept the central fact of today's economic life: Canada is unable to isolate itself from world forces. He probably should not have tried to protect inefficient industries. He should have worked with global leaders to find a solution to inflation. "It's easy to say in retrospect," says Axworthy, "but it would have been better to spend a lot more time using organizations such as the Group of Seven rather than looking for a domestic solution, which got less relevant with each succeeding year. We were on the wrong side of history."
In the end, it was the economy that wrestled Pierre Trudeau to the ground. But he bequeathed the solutions to his successors. In 1982, exasperated by problems within the economic union, he appointed a royal commission chaired by former Liberal finance minister Donald Macdonald. That influential report, released in 1985, called for free trade with the United States, greater reliance on market mechanisms - and rapid adjustment to global change.
So, almost inadvertently, Trudeau did begin the search for a better way. "In effect, when Trudeau appointed me, he launched a new way of thinking about the Canadian economy," Macdonald recalled years later. "True, that way was despite his instincts. But we had to get out into the world." Ironically, Pierre Trudeau's finest economic legacy was to begin the dismantlement of his own policies.
Maclean's October 9, 2000