Canada

The new, improved Pierre Elliott Trudeau

ROBERT LEWIS June 28 1976
Canada

The new, improved Pierre Elliott Trudeau

ROBERT LEWIS June 28 1976

The new, improved Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Canada

Seemingly intent on grabbing the mace, Pierre Trudeau stepped into the aisle of the House of Commons one day this month to defend one of his government’s more controversial proposals—the plan to cut back on Ottawa’s contributions to shared-cost programs with the provinces. The opposition parties, reflecting provincial objections to the scheme, howled Trudeau down. With that, the PM turned his back on thé Conservatives and New Democrats, faced his own party’s benches and extended his arms in a symbolic embrace. The Liberals erupted in lusty approval of their leader’s feisty moves.

That unusual scene on the staid Commons floor was far more than a ritual display of support for a government policy. Suddenly, Trudeau’s demonstrativeness had given the Grits something to cheer about in an otherwise depressing season of bad polls and worse vibes. The incident

seemed to suggest both Trudeau’s determination to put to rest the chatter that he is depressed and conquered by events—and to renew his supporters’ faith that he almost certainly will be around when the time comes to lead them against the energized Tories under Joe Clark.

For Trudeau it was a week of badly needed success, as he shifted suddenly to the offensive. Despite the provinces’ sour mood, Trudeau presided efficiently as chairman at the meeting with the 10 premiers at which Ottawa proposed to cut direct grants to the provinces for health and education, and to lower federal taxes accordingly. The premiers, whose provincial administrations would then be free to raise their own taxes, reacted angrily to Ottawa’s lack of detail—but a showdown over the issue was conveniently put off until federal and provincial finance ministers meet July 7. At the same time, Trudeau did manage

to manoeuvre the provinces into broad support for moves to bring the Canadian constitution home from Westminster. “Wrapping ourselves in the Union Jack,” conceded one provincial leader, “just won’t wash any more.”

Later, Trudeau made one of his most impressive Commons speeches in recent years when he entered debate on the bill to abolish capital punishment. Speaking at a time when it appeared that the bill could be defeated on second reading, Trudeau rested his case on the premise that “respect for human life is absolutely vital to the rights and freedoms we all enjoy” and pleaded with MPS not to “abandon reason in favor of vengeance.” The next day, he was off to Washington for a meeting with President Gerald Ford, an encounter that served to upstage Joe Clark’s own two-day visit to the U.S. capital, where he also met Ford and key members of the Adminis-

tration and Congress. (While he was in Washington, the Tories announced that Clark’s wife, Maureen, is expecting a baby next November.)

All in all, it was a week that revealed Trudeau in a decidedly up mood—and at a time when his mood has been a subject of

some considerable curiosity* (a reminder that Pierre Elliott Trudeau is still much on people’s minds, if not exactly in their

* Last month a minorflap developed when no one seemed to know where Trudeau was on a Monday; in fact he had gone off with Margaret and another couple for a long weekend canoe trip on the Petawawa River.

hearts). Of late, the PM’S aides have been at pains to spread the word that he is in “remarkably good form.” The aim: to counter a flurry of reports that Trudeau is in fact despondent—an impression Trudeau himself left during a private meeting with a group of reporters on May 14. At the time,

he seemed to be a man hemmed in by events, bitter about negative public reaction to bilingualism, about the foreign travel he enjoys and about the generally low public regard for politicians in the present anti-government era. In an almost whining tone, he complained that he was being misinterpreted by the press, and that the country had approved of bilingualism up to, but excluding, the point of accepting bilingual customs officials and French-language television in Vancouver. During that period, according to a cabinet colleague, Trudeau was particularly depressed that his French-Canadian cabinet members and, by implication, he himself were being depicted as corrupt by press reports of the so-called “judges affair.” (He was irate that the judges’ behavior in the affair was not being held up to similar scrutiny.) He was also being told bluntly by Ontario MPS that his personal stock was low—which prompted him to ruminate darkly about the lack of real leadership that he sees in the Ontario Liberal caucus.

Yet perhaps the best clue to Trudeau’s frame of mind in mid-May was his admission that, having pondered the bleak shape of things, he had decided that he still had much to accomplish in politics—including the somewhat vaulting task of “changing the system”—and that he was unlikely to step down in the near future. Evidently Margaret Trudeau’s own attitude toward political life will be a factor as well. As Trudeau told columnist Allan Fotheringham in late May: “Hypothetically, if family circumstances made my job impossible, then I suppose I might have to reconsider my job.” But, he added, that “if anything, Margaret has shown that she has a pretty great ability to adjust.” Trudeau allowed in the end that “it is not likely” that he would step down, added pugnaciously that “if I found in my own (Liberal) ranks that a certain number of guys wanted to cut my throat... I’d make sure I cut their throats first.”

By the beginning of June, Trudeau was playfully turning away questions about his future with such lines as “just say I’ll retire within the next 100 years . . . perhaps I’ll give you three weeks notice.” A more realistic time frame—barring defeat at the polls—would be five years from now, based on his private assertion that he would not want to face the rigors of political life when his children are between the ages of 10 and 21.

Trudeau will undoubtedly need all of his newly recovered resilience in the months ahead. The latest Gallup poll, issued this month, found the Liberals with just 31% of the popular vote—fully 12 percentage points behind the Tories—and the PM will soon have to face up to the unwelcome task of reshaping his cabinet with fresh faces. Those close to Trudeau are hopeful that his current high spirits will not be a passing phase. “When he gets that way,” notes a former staffer, “it can mean he’s going to do something about the situ-

ation.” Only rarely before, says the exstaffer, has Trudeau shown the same fighting spirit that he has of late. But for a political party on the slide, recovery can be tortuous. Undoubtedly, Trudeau fights best with his back to the wall but, as an adviser notes of the current climate, “there are no gods or heroes any more.”

ROBERT LEWIS