Trudeau's Funeral | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Trudeau's Funeral

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 16, 2000. Partner content is not updated.

It was the most riveting moment in a day of high drama. In Montreal's cavernous Notre Dame Basilica, 28-year-old Justin Trudeau came out from the shadow of his family's privacy and stepped into his father's shoes, if only briefly.

Trudeau's Funeral

It was the most riveting moment in a day of high drama. In Montreal's cavernous Notre Dame Basilica, 28-year-old Justin Trudeau came out from the shadow of his family's privacy and stepped into his father's shoes, if only briefly. On one of the most wrenching days of his life, his father's flag-draped coffin not six metres away, the emotion was there - in the tone of his voice, in his deliberate walk and the conviction of his words. In a 15-minute eulogy, he brought back Pierre Trudeau's animating vision of a unified Canada, evoking the idealism of the time and echoes of once-powerful phrases like "The Just Society."

The young Trudeau's words capped five days of official mourning for the former prime minister, who died at his home in Montreal on Sept. 28. In unleashing memories of a fondly cherished past, Justin provoked active speculation about his political future. But for governing Liberals there were more practical concerns: whether to go to the polls in the gauzy afterglow of this reborn Trudeaumania, a time when grown men cried and a nation paused to mourn.

What would he have thought of it all, the raw feelings aimed so squarely at him? There is ample evidence that the austere Pierre Trudeau disapproved of showy emotional displays. He was, after all, the prime minister of "reason over passion." If there was one thing Canadians knew about him during his 16 years in power, it was that his feelings were deeply encrypted, his interior life a private preserve. Still, would he have been moved by the piles of red roses at impromptu shrines, the 50,000 mourners who filed past his casket as he lay in state, first in Ottawa and then in Montreal, or waited by the train tracks to touch the car that carried his body home? We'll never know. But some of Trudeau's closest associates and political allies think they do. Montrealer Stratton Stevens, an old friend who lived near Trudeau and "held his hand" the night before he died, claimed that the former prime minister was a modest man who shunned ostentation. "If he had his way, he'd have been buried in a little village in a little church service," Stevens said.

Others thought Trudeau would have appreciated the people's grief and love. Not for himself - but because of his sons, Justin and Sacha, 26. They were the famous Christmas babies born into the fishbowl of 24 Sussex Drive, who grew up to be his closest companions and were with him the day he died. Former Nova Scotia premier and Trudeau cabinet minister Gerald Regan, who attended the funeral, recalled how Trudeau worried that the boys would be hurt by media and Opposition attacks levelled at him when he was in office. "He told them not to worry," said Regan. "He said, 'Look, there are people out there who still like us.' " Standing on the steps of the basilica, Regan then waved his arm at the thousands of mourners waiting outside. "He would have wanted his sons to see this," he said.

And what a sight it was. For five days, Justin, a Vancouver teacher, and Sacha, a Montreal filmmaker, witnessed an unprecedented outpouring for their father. But while the two stalwart sons watched the wave of tributes, Canadians were also watching them - as well as their half-sister Sarah Elisabeth Coyne, 9. Born when Trudeau was 71, she made a rare public appearance at the funeral with her mother, constitutional expert Deborah Coyne.

The glare intensified when Justin rose from the first pew in the basilica. With a white handkerchief in one hand, he walked stiffly to the lectern. Until that moment, he had been almost unknown to Canadians. But when he started his eulogy he had their undivided attention. "Friends, Romans, countrymen," he said in what was a quirky start to an otherwise compelling oration. And many among the 3,000 mourners knew a thing or two about public speaking: in the high-vaulted church sat row upon row of dark-suited politicians, a who's who of Canada's ruling elite stretching back four decades that included former prime ministers Joe Clark and John Turner. Cuban leader Fidel Castro, well-known for delivering three-hour speeches, was also there, seated close to former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, as well as Prince Andrew. Actor Margot Kidder, who cherished her 20-year friendship with Trudeau, arrived two hours before the funeral to take her seat. And Montreal poet and music icon Leonard Cohen, one of Trudeau's honorary pallbearers, sat nearby.

In a speech that was both moving and highly theatrical, Justin recalled his father as a doting dad who raised his children with an old-fashioned set of values. "He taught us to believe in ourselves, to stand up for ourselves, to know ourselves and accept responsibility for ourselves," he said. "We knew we were the luckiest kids in the world and we had done nothing to actually deserve it."

The dark-haired Justin then moved easily from the personal to the political. With words so evocative they could have been written by a professional speechwriter, he spoke of Trudeau's exit from political life in 1984. He reminded mourners, and a far larger television audience, that his father came out of retirement in the late 1980s and 1990s to fight against the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, linchpins of former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney's failed attempts at constitutional reconciliation with Quebec. As Mulroney listened in a distant pew, Justin said: "He came back to remind us of who we are and what we're all capable of. But he won't be coming back anymore. It's all up to us, all of us, now."

An eloquent tribute - but one that, in a cathedral packed with opinion-makers and rainmakers, took on a far greater significance. Shortly after the service, the whispers began about a possible political future for Justin, helped along by the near certainty that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is preparing to call a November election. Referring to Justin's eulogy, former Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan said: "It occurred to me that perhaps this was the first manifestation of a dynasty. And, at the least, I was led to believe that the Trudeau family had not said its last word. We may hear a lot more from this young man."

To date, Justin has shown no outright interest in a political career. As a child growing up at 24 Sussex - and travelling the world with his famous father - he was the most photographed kid in Canada. But as a young man, he has shunned politics and public life. Since 1999, he has taught drama and French to students at Vancouver's West Point Grey Academy, a private school with a spectacular view of English Bay and the North Shore mountains. His phone number is listed in the Vancouver book. He tends more to Buddhism than the strictures of his father's Roman Catholicism. Last week, when he became a sudden celebrity and reporters came snooping around his apartment in the South Granville area, one of his neighbours pleaded, "Please leave him in peace. He's such a nice boy."

During a wide-ranging interview with Maclean's in 1998, Trudeau's former wife, Margaret, said her son Justin was "a very romantic boy. He's open to life - he has my soul." She added that his decision to become a teacher came to him unconventionally. "He called me," she said. "He told me 'Mom, I climbed up to the top of this mountain and I had the most extraordinary experience. I'm going to be a teacher.' "

Extraordinary, too, was the love and loyalty the Trudeau sons showed their father. Before moving to Vancouver in 1997, Justin and his late brother, Michel - who was 23 when he died in an avalanche in British Columbia in 1998 - had lived with their father in the family's renowned Art Deco mansion. "Justin was the one who was consistently there for Pierre," Margaret said. Justin's decision to relocate 3,600 km away (Michel moved to British Columbia as well) meant Trudeau, then 78, became an empty-nester for the first time. "It was devastating for Pierre," said Margaret. "And Justin, who is our tender heart, was very upset about it. He had a hard time leaving his dad." Shortly after that, Sacha, who was living in Toronto and who Margaret has described as "Pierre's clone," moved back to Montreal to keep his father company. The two lived together until Trudeau's death.

Justin had not been able to escape public scrutiny altogether. Two years ago, he was unwillingly thrust into the spotlight when, with Michel's death, he became the family spokesman. Since then, Justin and Margaret have worked together to promote avalanche awareness. Occasionally, he has been asked about entering politics - and he has not completely ruled it out. "I am a teacher," he said recently. "And I believe in making a difference. If I felt that could be done in politics I might end up there, but I'm not making any plans around it." After his eloquent eulogy last week, some Canadians no doubt wished for a firmer commitment - as the nation struggled with its loss.

A Pilgrimage to Ottawa

From the moment my colleague Cheryl Hawkes said she wanted to go to Ottawa for the lying in state of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, I knew I had to go, too. Unlike my co-worker, I had never worked on Parliament Hill, had never spoken with the charismatic politician. But as a young teen, I had succumbed to Trudeaumania, and in the closest I ever came to manifesting an interest in politics, I went to see the prime minister when he came to Brantford, Ont., in support of the local Liberal candidate in the 1968 federal election. I caught another glimpse of Trudeau in the flesh on a high-school trip; with the certainty only an adolescent can muster, I was convinced he made eye contact with me alone in the crowded visitors' gallery - from the floor of the House far below.

During the five-hour drive from Toronto, Cheryl, her neighbour Alison Bidwell and I chatted about many such memories. Curiously, however, we did not discuss why we felt it necessary to leave behind family, friends and weekend chores to make the trip. We simply did it. Many others clearly felt the same way. By the time we joined the lineup at 7:15 p.m., it stretched down the Hill and curled around the grounds to run parallel to Wellington Street. (There was a second, mirror-image lineup on the west side of the Hill.) People talked to each other in that friendly- but-not-too-friendly Canadian way. The young man behind us said he'd driven in from Brockville, Ont., because "I just felt it was something I needed to do."

Occasionally, sounds of laughter punctuated the night air. Children too young to know who their parents were mourning burned energy doing somersaults on the lawn. The smell of roses, which were piled high around the Centennial Flame, was heartrendingly sweet. And throughout our three-hour wait, pages patrolled the line looking for the elderly and the infirm, whom they immediately guided inside.

The mood seemed to change as people stepped inside the Hall of Honour. Just inside was the 1991 official portrait of Trudeau, brought from its usual place in the Centre Block corridor outside the Commons chamber and draped with black crêpe. Conversation stopped; people immediately stood taller, straightened their clothes and patted hair into place. Once at the front of the line, mourners stood four abreast for a moment beside the flag-draped casket. Some knelt and made the sign of the cross, others bowed their heads or reached out to touch the casket.

I did the latter. We were then ushered down a long hallway with desks along one wall. Each featured two books of condolence - and a box of tissues. Along with their name and home town, some people had written heartfelt paragraphs of tribute. I simply wrote "Thank you."

A Man and His City

Ann Paris was a nervous wreck when she started working for the former prime minister at the Montreal law firm of Heenan Blaikie three years ago. "I kept sitting outside the office doors thinking 'Ahh, it's Pierre Elliott Trudeau in there,' " Paris recalled last week. Every morning, she answered Trudeau's polite greeting with a pinched, "Bonjour, monsieur Trudeau." Then when Trudeau stepped out of his office, the personal assistant bolted out of her chair. "There was practically a spring on my seat," she laughed. But Paris soon decided she had to get over feeling so intimidated. One morning, she finally greeted her boss in an upbeat, confident manner. "Mr. Trudeau," she added, "I don't know if you've noticed, but I've been a little nervous for the past two weeks." But, she continued, "I'd like to let you know I'm over it." Trudeau, said Paris, "just looked at me and said 'what took you so long?' "

Trudeau once acknowledged the split within himself between the politician who acted a role and his private self. Like Paris, Montrealers often caught glimpses of the latter in the 16 years after he stepped down as prime minister. He walked to work, dined out often and went to half-price movies. "Above all else, he was a Montrealer," said filmmaker Brian McKenna, who directed the 1994 documentary Pierre Elliott Trudeau: Memoirs. "He was a man who incarnated the spirit of the city." Montreal, in turn, reflected his dreams for the country with its blend of French, English and new Canadians. "He just felt so much a part of that mix," said Roy Heenan, chairman of the law firm where Trudeau worked. "This was his cosmopolitan city."

Despite his celebrity, he managed to lead a low-key life. When his sons were young, he saw them off to school before heading to the office. Trudeau walked there each day - about a 20-minute hike - until he fell ill earlier this year. He would typically leave work around 5 p.m. for the more arduous hike up the steep slope to his home. On occasion, he paused to shake hands with strangers anxious to meet him.

Friends insist Trudeau never traded on his status. Montreal businessman Stratton Stevens recalled accompanying his old friend to a licence bureau in 1984. Trudeau, who needed to replace the Ontario plates on his Mercedes with Quebec ones, took a number and waited his turn. "Here he was, the ex-prime minister of Canada," said Stevens. "I don't think this would happen in any country in the world." But Trudeau didn't want special privileges - and he certainly didn't get them at the licence bureau. A clerk told Trudeau to return with proof he had paid the taxes when he originally bought the car in Quebec. When they returned two days later, a clerk demanded a certificate of road-worthiness because the car was more than 20 years old. On the third visit, Trudeau finally got his plates.

Nor did he always impress his fellow diners. According to his old friend and long-time cabinet minister Marc Lalonde, they occasionally ate at some "pretty shabby places." Stevens recounted a time when a woman approached Trudeau in an east-end restaurant, and told him, "I'm sure you've been told many times that you look like Pierre Elliott Trudeau." When he responded in the affirmative, she added, "I'm going to say one thing and I don't want you to be offended, sir. You're not as good-looking as he is."

Much has been made about many Quebecers' ambivalence towards Trudeau. But during his years in politics, the Liberals always won the lion's share of seats in Quebec. In his column in Montreal's La Presse, Stéphane Laporte recalled how, when he reached voting age, he voted provincially for former Parti Québécois premier René Lévesque and federally for Trudeau. "So what if it was contradictory, if it defied all logic," wrote Laporte. "We loved them both." Among allophones, Trudeau's passing brought sadness. On the day of the funeral, Onnig Alixanian closed his jewelry shop to watch the event on television. "The people of Montreal loved him very much because he was one of them," says Alixanian. Now, for many Montrealers, a stroll down Sherbrooke or Peel streets no longer carries the same thrilling promise of a chance encounter.

Maclean's October 16, 2000