From wife-and-mother to perfectly preserved flower child on the road back to 24 Sussex

JUNE CALLWOOD August 1 1974


From wife-and-mother to perfectly preserved flower child on the road back to 24 Sussex

JUNE CALLWOOD August 1 1974

In the years of Trudeau reign that lie ahead it may well develop that the Prime Minister is the second most interesting resident of 24 Sussex Drive.

What the crisp and collected Liberal campaign of ’74 accomplished this summer, in addition to the considerable feat of electing a majority government, was the coming out of Margaret Sinclair Trudeau, who was revealed as a first lady whose personal flair has not been equaled in Canadian history since John A. Macdonald’s spouse rode through the Rocky Mountains on the cowcatcher of a CPR engine because she wanted an unobstructed view.

Only 25 years old, the youngest-ever wife of a Canadian prime minister, the youngest woman at present married to any world leader, cloistered in rigid privacy throughout the three years since her marriage, Margaret Trudeau went into the campaign a figure of mystery to Canadians and hoped to keep it that way. She was gambling that she could electioneer for two months to help Pierre Elliott Trudeau to victory and, when the election was over, escape back to seclusion without having been turned into a pillar of plastic in the meantime.

She accomplished it and in the process turned your average federal election campaign into the nearest thing to a love-in that has been seen since young people in bare feet used to give flowers to policemen.

It was to be expected that eventually, one of the veterans of the Sixties revolution of long hair, incense, peace symbols and deliberate poverty would reach a position of influence, still baking consecrated homemade bread, still hugging strangers, and still urging truth and brotherhood as a sensible way to run the world.

It could not have been imagined that it would happen so soon, in the Seventies, with most of the original crew of intelligent, articulate and wellborn hippies now retired to communes, film festivals and cross-countries on 10-speed bikes, nursing their euphoria hangovers. About half way through the election campaign, however, it became apparent that the Prime Minister of Canada is married to a perfectly preserved flower child. “She’s so genuine you can’t stand it,” observed Dan Turner, whose lengthy and revealing interview with her a year ago was both a scoop and a sensation. Doug Small, a Canadian Press reporter with such enthusiasm for his craft that even younger associates feel old, shared a car with Margaret Trudeau toward the end of the campaign when she had made a circuit without Trudeau of some small towns in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. They talked for about an hour on the way back to Montreal and he later confessed he was almost relieved when she said it was off the record.

She produces that effect on people who talk to her for any length of time: they worry she’s going to get hurt. Her truthfulness and trust are like the artistry of a high-wire act, all guts and beauty — but what is she doing up there? What’s the matter with sidewalks?

None of this was immediately apparent when the campaign began because Margaret Trudeau was giving a performance of what she thought was expected of a prime minister’s wife appearing in public. Since she had almost no experience in that line of work she had to keep concentrating: smile, shake hands, be reserved, say nothing!

It proved a strain. “I was just sitting there, hiding in a role,” she later explained. “I had this crazy idea that I had to have everyone’s approval. I think it ;has something to do with being one of five daughters.”

Nevertheless, she was well received. The only criticism, in fact, was directed at Trudeau and the Liberal strategists who were seen as exploiting her appeal to gain votes, out of cynicism and desperation.

It had a contrived look: the rareness of her exposure to the public and Trudeau’s 1972 statement that she would never be used in a campaign, (“The whole idea is repugnant to me”) seem to bear that out. Her qualities of dewy beauty and nervous ways, the curiosity generated by the 29-year age difference between the Trudeaus and the almost total information blackout on her, all combined to bring out the crowds and assure media alertness. She also helped improve the image of her husband as the haughty Trudeau of the flared nostrils. With her by his side it was easier to believe him changed, a roseate family man.

However slick it looked, and it happened to coincide with what the Grit strategists had in mind, Margaret Trudeau’s participation was her own idea, arrived at independently on the night of the ’72 election while her husband was bleakly counting his losses.

The problem as she saw it was that the voters just didn’t know Trudeau. If they thought he was aloof and cold, as the commentators said, they were wrong. She reasoned that if she went with him during the next campaign, people who saw them together would see his gentler side.

So late in May, as the rented nine-car train dubbed the Trudeau Express whistle-stopped for four days through the Maritimes and Quebec, Margaret Trudeau was along to be introduced everywhere as “wife and mother” and to listen with an ethereal smile and rapt eyes full on her husband while he delivered his speeches.

Their two-year-old Justin remained at home, but the campaign train carried Sacha, five-months old and still being breast-fed. After the first jolt it began to seem commonplace that a baby was traveling on a federal election campaign, his wail of indignation when he was hungry rising over the clatter of typewriters as reporters met deadlines and speech writers prepared drafts. People on the Prime Minister’s tour even grew accustomed to the high comedy of the Trudeau arrivals at airports or train stations. Their bullet-proof limousine would draw up behind the pulsating red lights of a motorcycle escort to be unloaded by burly security men of bassinets, diaper bags, folding strollers and teddy bears, while Sacha in his mother’s arms watched the scene with round blue eyes.

The presence of Sacha, a flourish no fiction writer would have dared to include in a script about a prime minister fighting for political survival, was too much for some critics, who were already portraying the campaign as a long ride on Margaret’s coattails. There was also a mild complaint from Margaret herself. What she minded, she told one reporter, was being made into a platform object labeled WIFEANDMOTHER.

It was rare for her to talk to reporters, even briefly. Ever since her obsessively secret wedding on March 4, 1971, the former Margaret Sinclair had simply disappeared into 24 Sussex Drive, emerging only to greet the Queen or, on alternate Christmas Days, give birth to sons.

“Trudeau kept saying that she was none of our business,” reflected Charles Lynch, Southam News Services’ paterfamilias in the Ottawa Press Gallery. “There was a lot of pressure on us from our editors to get stories about her, but eventually we did as he wished and left her alone. I think we were wrong. He was asking for more privacy than any other public figure in Canada.”

During the closing days of the ’72 campaign Margaret Trudeau made a few appearances with her husband but spoke to no one outside the Prime Minister’s party. Reporters therefore were thunderstruck when she jumped into the press bus one day and said cheerily, “Hi! I hear you have more fun back here.”

Her poise and offhandedness simply didn’t fit with the media’s vision of Margaret the Unsure. She found an empty seat next to a young reporter, Dan Turner, and chatted with a candor that startled him.

When he asked for an interview she put him off, but after eight months of patient negotiation finally agreed to it. The result was Turner’s famous story syndicated across the country by the Toronto Star. In it Margaret Trudeau talked of the deep influence on her of the British poet William Blake and J. Krishnamurti, both of whom believe in an infinite cosmos beyond space and time.

She spoke of “being innocent, being giving, being spontaneous, loving and living now,” of passing from Child-Innocence through the sulphurous hell of Experience and breaking through into High Innocence, a weightless state of total self-realization transcending ego.

Many readers could make neither head nor tail of it and took comfort in Turner’s homey aside that she served him cakes and cider. But a number of young Canadians of approximately her age suddenly knew exactly who was living at 24 Sussex Drive and couldn’t believe it.

Bob Hunter of the Vancouver Sun, that paper’s link with the counter-culture, expressed his unbridled delight. Turner’s interview, he said, “broke the bubble of illusion.” The story placed Margaret Trudeau “squarely in the mainstream of nonviolent hippie thought.”

With that the princess returned to the castle and the drawbridge was declared permanently up once more.

There was a curious absence of public interest in some of the disclosures in Turner’s article or in the earlier cover-girl story in Chatelaine magazine (Margaret Trudeau — The Girl Who Caught The PM ) done by two able Vancouver reporters, Simma Holt (now a Liberal M P ) and Kay Alsop. They had circumvented the refusal of her family to be interviewed by tracking down former schoolteachers, neighbors and childhood friends.

The two accounts agreed that Margaret Joan Sinclair, fourth born of five daughters of a former federal cabinet minister, James Sinclair, and his 12-years-younger wife Kathleen, was well-to-do, brainy, beautiful and adored by all. The ideal childhood brought her, at 18, to exactly the right time, place, age and background to take part in the 1967 summer that began the youth revolution variously blamed on Spock, the Vietnam war, Bob Dylan, marijuana, permissiveness, affluence, the Beatles and the U.S. Supreme Court decision on school desegregation.

She got involved in the student radical movement at Simon Fraser University, though never in the riots (fanaticism of any kind always turns her off — she even hated Trudeaumania); she camped out on Long Beach on Vancouver Island’s west coast; and after a precociously early college graduation at 20 she spent seven months in Morocco living as close to the Moroccans as she could get, which in a 60-cents-a-day hotel room was close enough to keep her parents in a state of panic known only to other middle-class parents with similarly inquisitive children.

It says a good deal about the equanimity of Canadians that these revelations about the activities of their Prime Minister’s wife seemed to have no significance. The judgment of her elders, based on the evidence of Margaret Trudeau as a bride trembling and clinging to her husband during their state visit to Russia, Margaret Trudeau as a broody mother full of tenderness, and Margaret Trudeau on a political platform with easy blushes flooding her porcelain complexion, was that she was simply a nice, sweet young thing with good manners.

Nothing plunges Margaret Trudeau into quicker despair than being categorized, which is why in the middle of the election campaign early in June she was feeling depressed. The tour had reached her home town, Vancouver, where she would be leaving Justin and the newly weaned Sacha with her parents for a few weeks. It was a sunny evening, June 4, and the agenda required the Trudeaus to attend a Liberal rally being staged in a high school.

She was moving slowly through the press of people outside the school, smiling steadily, making a few conventional greetings, shaking hands and reflecting unhappily on the easy intimacy crowds assume towards public figures. Just inside the door of the building were two women and a child. Margaret Trudeau stuck out her hand automatically, then realized they were her sisters, Heather and Betsy, with Heather’s daughter Katie. Moved to tears by the unexpectedness of it, she embraced them.

Something in that small encounter dissolved her anxiety of being in public, gave her confidence enough to stop feeling the need to be formal. She took her sisters’ appearance as a gesture of love and approval: it was just what she needed. She turned over a new leaf: she would be herself on all future occasions, private or public.

That was the evening she gave her first speech on her own, introducing her husband to the crowd as “a very loving human being.” “shy and modest and very, very kind” and “quite a beautiful guy.” It’s the open, unguarded style of her generation but it had never before graced any political rally in the western world.

It was only the beginning. She got rid of the demure blue patent pumps she had been wearing and substituted earth shoes, supremely comfortable but odd-looking with their lowered heel. “I hadn’t worn them before because I thought people would think them ugly,” she explained, “but after that night I decided why not?” She put away the matching blue patent purse and began to tote a burlap bag labeled BON WEEK END, a nice bilingual touch.

Crowds improved for her when she began to really look at faces, most of which turned out to be beautiful. She discovered a trick to protect her hand from being hurt by forceful squeezing: if she could catch the person’s eye just before taking their hand, they wouldn’t hurt her. The method worked so consistently that she dreaded shaking hands with people wearing dark glasses, which she found spoiled eye contact.

In her new emancipation, she would tolerate nothing trite. Her conversations with strangers had the flavor of genuine interest. A woman in Vancouver spoke of an 18-year-old child and Margaret said reflectively, “Eighteen is wonderful — they’ve got their dreams.” She said to Keith Mitchell, a Liberal Party worker in Vancouver, “You’ve got to risk losing in order to win big. I put my skepticism in my back pocket four years ago and I'll tell you it’s the only way to be, a total believer . . .”

When someone in Summerside asked about her children she stopped cold and told the woman about Sacha stuffing himself on ice cream now that she wasn’t around to enforce his routine, how Justin marked off the days of her absence on his own calendar.

In the middle of June, when the chartered DC-9 was bringing the Prime Minister’s tour back to Ottawa after a swing through the Maritimes, Margaret Trudeau gave Maclean’s an interview. It was nearing midnight and she had changed to jeans and was curled up in the corner of the aircraft’s first row of seats, her knees drawn up.

“It took five years off my life when I started to be real on this campaign,” she said. “It’s like Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing. I feel as though I've been underground for a long time.” She considered. “My contribution is that I’m the real stuff,” she said sturdily. “I’m not going to play any games. I’ve got nothing to hide, no one can do me any harm. I’m sure I can improve, but right now I’m being the very best person I can.”

Ottawa has noticed that she walks a good deal by herself, deep in thought. What she thinks about, frequently, is how to avoid being packaged. “I’ve fought hard for freedom, and I’m not going to be taken over as property.”

The few years after 1967 when, she says, the social revolution that started in her generation offered “a chance to prolong innocence, to wonder at life, the right to be children,” she and her parents struggled with the consequences this had on their expectations for her. “I’ve never known one moment’s hunger or anxiety,” she told them, pleading for a chance to explore. Her father wondered if she was becoming dangerously radical.

She was just back from Morocco, growing vegetables and watching the sea coming in and out at her grandmother’s, when her mother called to say that the Prime Minister wanted to have dinner with her. She’d met him before during a family vacation, and liked him, but she didn’t want to go. She felt too confused and unready.

Her mother coaxed her. Margaret stalled by saying she had nothing to wear, nothing but ragged skirts. Her mother said she would pick out some suitable clothes and did. She went to dinner feeling like someone in disguise.

“But he spotted me through it,” she said. She loved him at once. And over months spent walking in woods and on mountains talking about their lives, he became convinced that marriage would work.

When she arrived in Ottawa in 1971 as the wife of Canada’s Prime Minister, 22 years old and fresh from being barefoot in her grandmother’s garden by the sea, transported with no transition period to the receiving line of a diplomatic reception, she was offered much advice.

“Lots of people were ready to package and use me,” she said bluntly, “which made me react strongly against getting involved with them.” Matter of factly, without self-pity, she added, “I was cut off from my friends, and I get nourishment from friendships. It’s not easy for me to make new friends, and the women of Ottawa aren’t of my generation, haven’t been through the experiences I have.”

After her Vancouver speech her defense of her right to be herself moved to a new battlefield. The Liberal Party’s strategy team, hearing the sounds of retching from many colleagues, descended on her and said her thoughts on loving were marvelous but in the future they would be happy to write her speeches for her.

She said no. She said she would campaign in her own way and give her own speeches. When she was scheduled to talk about women in politics at a Liberal rally in Saint-Hyacinthe, a woman in her husband’s office thoughtfully provided “some basic points.” Margaret Trudeau replied that she didn’t want them.

“But that’s political dynamite,” she recalls the woman saying. “You might say something wrong.”

“No, I won’t.”

Usually a silent spectator at campaign conferences, she found herself thinking that she was an intelligent woman, an honors graduate, a mother of two children who had a stake in the country, and that she had a contribution to make. “My mouth just opened and I said I’ve got something to offer,” she relates.

What comes out, usually, is advice that the politicians find outrageous: that they should be simple, real and, well, loving. They tell her that isn’t practical; she says, try it.

She has been undermining the boys in the backroom for years. In the past it has been a confined war. When her husband comes home tired after a long day at the office and tells her that they think he needs a haircut, she says hotly, “Don’t let them package you!” It’s a matter of principle with her: she’s anti-plastic.

Her family’s close friend, Senator Ray Perrault of Vancouver, once commented, “Anyone who says that Margaret Trudeau can be ordered around doesn’t know Jimmy Sinclair or the Sinclair girls. They have a stubborn Scotch streak in them and they can really dig in.”

On the campaign, she was urging the Prime Minister to throw away his prepared speeches and talk to people “from inside,” advice he seemed to take, at least in part. His vocabulary seemed to be shifting: such words as “gentle” and “compassionate” kept cropping up.

Through it all, from the first moment when she began to campaign with him in Newfoundland to the final afternoon on Toronto’s Centre Island, she watched him adoringly whenever he was speaking and smiled without ceasing, her posture tranquil and undistracted.

She said during the interview that she erred on the night she said he had taught her about loving (and when her comment provoked a ribald laughter from the audience, she was shocked: love is a sacred word with her). She taught him about love; he taught her about living.

Her comment affords some insight into the relationship between them. The Prime Minister, 54 and an aesthetic intellectual, conditioned to be frugal with feelings, must marvel at how free she is. For her part she was feeling adrift when they began dating, and he provided the strength she needed at that time. “He took me by the hand and helped me face life,” she explains. “Pierre helped me find the strongest answers.”

Both seem to be changed in the three years they have been married and almost isolated socially, since she had little in common with his old friends or he with hers. During the campaign both kept meeting people they had known a long time who marveled at the differences. His changes were said to be in the direction of easiness, while the young people who slipped out of crowds to hug her would say, “She’s really settled down. She’s found her love and she’s happy. You can tell by looking at her.”

One of them, Mary Jo Campbell, a friend from Simon Fraser University, met her outside Marke Raines’ campaign headquarters in Vancouver. There was a wistful moment when the two looked at one another without words, Mary Jo with her arm around a lean youth in jeans, Margaret about to get back into a station wagon covered with Liberal campaign posters.

When the wagon drove away, Mary Jo said of her friend. “She’s a very pure person, she always has been. She really knows how to love.”

On the final day of the campaign, 36 hours away from the Liberal victory, the Trudeaus were paying a call on an international picnic on Centre Island in the Toronto bay. The PM made a brief speech, extolling the “beautiful day, beautiful people,” and then gave the last word to her.

She stepped to a microphone dressed in a floor-length gingham dress and her earth shoes, with a SAVE OUR ISLAND button a protester had thrown to her and she promptly had pinned on. She said, in her light little-girl voice, “I started this campaign by getting into a lot of trouble because I tried to tell people about love and many of them took it the wrong way. But that’s about all I can talk about because I really believe in love ...”

She made it all the way through the campaign, as she hoped she would. Nobody programmed her, nobody packaged her, nobody pushed her around. Anyone who thinks he can doesn’t know the Sinclair girls.