No one who was there on that magic weekend 30 years ago will ever forget it. The air in the Ottawa Civic Centre hung heavy with excitement and nervous trepidation (not to mention the body heat of nearly 10,000 people crammed into the undersized arena) as Liberals from every corner of the country gathered to choose their new national leader—and Canada’s 15th prime minister. The Liberal meeting was not the first of the big, splashy American-style conventions in Canada; that distinction went to the spectacular Progressive Conservative convention in 1967 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto where Nova Scotia premier Bob Stanfield had been elected to replace John Diefenbaker. But there was something special about that Liberal convention on the first weekend of April, 1968 that set it apart from the leadership conventions that had gone before or would come after.
“Trudeau came to the leadership of the Liberal party like a stone through a stained-glass window. ”
—Author Gordon Donaldson
Trudeau’s election did not seem inevitable
There was a sense of high drama, even danger. Not only would the Liberals be choosing a prime minister, they would, if they mustered the courage, be electing the man— there being no women leadership contestants in those days and precious few female MPs—who would break the mould of Canadian political leadership. Henceforth, a new standard would apply. Political leaders would be measured not against John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier or, perish, Mackenzie King, but against Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the most charismatic, enigmatic and arguably the most complex leader Canada, perhaps North America, has ever known.
In retrospect, the choice of Trudeau, then 48, to succeed Lester Pearson seems natural—even inevitable. He was the only French-Canadian candidate in a party that prided itself on alternating its leadership between the two founding nations. He was the only viable left-liberal candidate in a field heavy with veterans like Paul Martin Sr., Bob Winters and Paul Hellyer, and up-and-comer John Turner. Trudeau had the private, and ill-disguised, support of Pearson who, determined that there be a francophone in the race, had practically ordered him to run. In the happy afterglow of Centennial Year and Expo ’67, he was the only truly contemporary candidate— and he had, it was universally conceded, more political sex appeal than the other seven serious contenders combined.
And, not least, he was the darling of the news media. They—we—loved his style: his irreverence, his independence, his playboy lifestyle, his Mercedes convertible and his chutzpah in appearing in sandals and an ascot on
Parliament Hill, a place where “serious” politicians wore “suitable” three-piece suits. But Trudeau’s election did not seem inevitable that April weekend in Ottawa. He was an outsider. A singles player in a team sport, he was barely a Liberal—or, for that matter, a politician. When, in 1962, as an underemployed academic, he was first approached to run for the Liberals, he spurned the offer, contemptuously.
“I am concerned,” he wrote later, “with the anti-democratic reflexes of the spineless Liberal herd.”
What won the leadership for Trudeau was the speech he made to the full convention on the Friday night, the day before the balloting. He did not, however, make the best speech of the evening. That honor went to the “Abe Lincoln of the Ottawa Valley,” agriculture minister Joe Greene, who delivered the speech of his life—funny, emotional, at times searing—in both official languages. But if Trudeau could not match Greene in stump oratory, he surpassed him in impact. A solitary figure at the podium, seemingly untouched by the hoopla and the sea of burnt orange and white Trudeau signs that swayed around him, he delivered what sounded more like an acceptance speech than an appeal for votes. Switching seamlessly, often in midsentence, between French and English, he talked about war (Vietnam was tearing the United States apart that spring), famine, sickness and poverty. He was the only leadership contender who thought to invoke the name and achievements of Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated just the day before. He told the crowd that Canada would be strong when Canadians from all parts of the country felt at home everywhere in the country, “and when they feel that all Canada belongs to them. We want nothing more, but we will accept nothing less. Masters in our own house we musí be, but our house is all of Canada.” When he finished, the chants swelled through the arena: ‘We want Trudeau. On Trudeau.”
From the perspective of 30 years, Trudeau’s fourth-ballot victory the next day seems to have been ordained. But it was only with the greatest reluctance and the deepest foreboding that hundreds of the 2,400 voting delegates acquiesced in the election of their new leader. Elected to Parliament in 1965, he had been c cabinet minister—Justice—for less than a year when he entered the leadership race. The party rank and file still did not know him or what, beyond an intellectu al commitment to individual rights, he stood for. They did not know where he wanted to lead them. They did not know whether they could safely give theii trust to a man whom many suspected of being some sort of weird radical.
He was very much a stone crashing through the stained glass of the Canadian political establishment. Official Ottawa, wrote Christina McCall Newman, woke up the morning after the convention “feeling a little like a sobe: maiden who’d unexpectedly found herself on a wild party the night before, ane was now asking, if not in horror, at least in delicious trepidation, What have done?’ It was as though, having always been wooed and won by upright men ii blazers, she’d suddenly succumbed to Belmondo in a Cardin suit’
Among Conservatives, the reaction to Trudeau was far from delicious Following their convention the previous September, the party had movei
ahead of the Liberals in the polls. But as the Liberal delegates assembled in Ottawa, Tory guru Dalton Camp met with Stanfield. “Both of us accepted the fact that if Trudeau was going to win, we were going to be defeated,” Camp said in an interview. “It was because of you people in the media, making him into a god. He was so beautiful, he was so lovely, he was so gorgeous, he was so intellectual, and he could quote from Descartes and Socrates. And everybody was having orgasms every time he opened his mouth.” Camp and Stanfield were prescient. Before they knew it, they were staring into the abyss of a general election campaign, trailing by 22 points in their own internal polls.
That June, 1968 election, which Trudeau won with relative ease, was an astonishing campaign, unlike any before or since. As Trudeaumania swept the land, matrons swooned and their daughters begged for a kiss. It was :oo good to last, of course: 1968 proved to be his highwater mark. Unlike King and Louis St. Laurent before aim, and Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien after him,
Trudeau—by far the most compelling politician of the lot— was never able to win back-to-back majorities. He came within two seats )f losing in 1972, barely hanging on to a minority government He regained a majority in 1974 when he campaigned against wage and price controls (only to impose them after the election). He lost to Joe Clark ind the Tories in 1979, announced his retirement, changed his mind ind returned to regain a majority government in 1980 as a sullen decorate concluded that anyone, even Trudeau, was better than Clark. Jy the time Trudeau retired for good in 1984, his dispirited, lackustre Liberals were ripe for picking by Mulroney’s Conservatives.
The man whom former United States vice-president Walter Moniale once described as “a priceless asset to the industrialized world”
wore better abroad than he did at home. Trudeaumania proved to be an aberration, a phenomenon fueled by some of the same forces that produced the counter-culture and anti-war protests that swept North America and Europe in the late 1960s, driving from office two of the most powerful leaders in the world, Lyndon Johnson in Washington and Charles de Gaulle in Paris. But Trudeaumania was too intense and too transitory to be sustained as a partisan feedstock. And Trudeau himself was too much a loner and too little a politician to translate his early popularity into any sort of lasting hold on the hearts of the Canadian people. He commanded respect (never more so than during the FLQ crisis of 1970) and, sometimes, fear. Even today, 14 years after departing public life, Trudeau is highly admired by Canadians, according to pollsters—usually ranking with, or just above, Wayne Gretzky atop lists of most-admired Canadians. “He still has the image of a leader,” says Donna Dasko, of Environics Research Group. “He was strong, he had a powerful point of view and unwavering principles on issues that mattered to him. People just keep on admiring him.”
But those same strengths took a toll during his years in office. To the public, his intensity became increasingly trying—and tiring. No one was neutral about him: people either loved Trudeau or hated him—and they did both in roughly equal numbers. But he felt no craving to be loved. He was too much his own man. He would adapt to the public will when he had to, but he was not prepared to change to enhance his popularity. In the end, he exhausted Canadians—including the very Liberals he challenged and inspired on that unforgettable first weekend in April, 30 years ago. □
‘He just walked through the hall, under a single spotlight: this little guy, without bands, without anything. The whole place went berserk.’
—Crime writer Alison Gordon, who worked for Trudeau’s leadership campaign
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