COLUMN

How Trudeau moved the nation

Barbara Amiel March 19 1984
COLUMN

How Trudeau moved the nation

Barbara Amiel March 19 1984

How Trudeau moved the nation

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

There was only one occasion on which I actually came face-to-face with Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Not that I hadn’t tried. In my capacity as editor of the Toronto Sun, I had asked repeatedly for an interview. The requests were never acknowledged. Various television stations had assured me that they had requested time for an interview on behalf of the public affairs programs I have variously worked for: Trudeau, I was told, preferred other interviewers, as was his right.

But we did meet once in the winter of 1982, when a vivacious socialite escorted me into a roped-off area where, far from hoi polloi who flocked to the Toronto opening of Abel Gance’s film Napoleon, a favored few sat dining and drinking after the movie. To this day I have no idea whether it was knowing mischief on the part of the lady in the strapless red dress, but suddenly I realized that we were heading for the Prime Minister’s table.

He was receiving well-wishers, his face animated, eyes crinkling in a smile. My hostess introduced me. Trudeau had no smile. He repeated my name and asked me to spell it. “A-M-I-E-L, Prime Minister,” I said. The Prime Minister looked at me with indifferent coldness. “I take it you are not a Canadian,” he said. Seated next to him was Jim Coutts. “Hello, Barbara,” he said awkwardly.

The moment unnerved me. There is no reason for a prime minister to be pleasant to those who have mercilessly criticized him. In that, one has some respect for Trudeau’s lack of hypocrisy. But, although there could be no letting up on criticism of his policies which I saw and continue to see as unmitigated disasters for Canada, in his persona Trudeau was larger than his job. For just as our grandparents could be called Victorians, whether we like it or not we are the “Trudeauians.” His rule placed a stamp on us all, and now that the era is ending it is intriguing to look at what his attributes actually were.

He probably had more style than any politician in Canada’s history. Without being in any sense Madison Avenue, he was Madison Avenue’s dream of a merchandisable product, from the turtleneck and sandals he sported to the tip of his perfectly tailored double-breasted suits; from his prescient interest in the People’s Republic of China to his yen for Outward Bound-type holidays. He had the cosmopolitan presence of a man who was fluently bilingual coupled with the handsome, bachelor looks and lifestyle of a world-weary, nouvelle-vague film hero.

And it was not because he tried—it came to him naturally. Few politicians would have coincided so much with the leading edge of the trends of his time as Trudeau. The package was perfect, topped by the fact that, while he most certainly had his share of arrogance, he was utterly devoid of pomposity.

There is no question that his personality could be supremely engaging. He had all the quickness, the ability for quick repartee, of a good litigation lawyer. He was one of the best advocates for his‘case that a case could possibly have. The great pity was that his case, his cause, his client, was statism.

That is key to an understanding of Trudeau. He was an archetypal statist. Statism, very much the trend of our

‘The state may be out of the nation ’s bedrooms, but it is ensconced in every other room of the house ’

century, is the modern version of feudalism, in which the citizen is subservient to a state that controls or regulates virtually every aspect of his private and public life.

Not everyone recognized Trudeau’s philosophy, although he himself was utterly consistent in it; he had even published it for anyone who wanted to bother reading such essays as The Practice and Theory of Federalism (1961). Many of our intellectuals and media mistook him for one of them: a small-1 contemporary liberal. When Barbara Frum helped spearhead the drive to get support for Trudeau’s leadership bid, one cannot believe that she thought he was a statist. Doubtless, she mistook him for one of her own—what some of us unpleasantly refer to as bleedingheart liberals.

Disillusionment was not long in coming. A statist has no compunction about taking hard, tough measures such as suspending due process of law when necessary. Thus Trudeau’s response to the Quebec-FLQ October Crisis, with its roundup of suspects, imprisoned and barred from contacting legal counsel, was perfectly consistent. It was anathema to a liberal of Frum’s ilk. They deserted him in droves.

But the bleeding-heart liberals are the Trojan horse of statism. Their sentimentality about the vicissitudes of life opens the door for the state into every nook and cranny of a citizen’s life. Trudeau understood that completely. He used the alibis the liberals gave him (riches are made at the expense or exploitation of the poor; crime is the product of environment; disparity in society is the result of unfair social policies) to infuse the state more and more into citizens’ lives.

The state may have gotten out of the bedrooms of the nation, as Trudeau promised, but his government ensconced itself firmly in every other room of the house. (In fact, it never really left the bedroom: in Trudeau’s attempts to tighten up on prostitution and pornography, the state has taken an even more intrusive interest in the sexual habits of its citizens.) Every aspect of private citizens’ lives, from the content of programs on their television screens to their marital relations, came under the vigilant eye of the state.

But the interesting thing is that while no politician did or could have done as much to push Canada firmly into total statism, Trudeau encountered one factor beyond even his manipulative abilities: namely that often-noted, marvellous, middle-of-the-road national character of Canadians. No one could have tried more brilliantly to remake Canada than Trudeau—the right way, too, without seeming to be too extreme— gradually edging us into the National Energy Program, gradually weaning us from our alliance with the United States.

But there is a glorious inertia about Canada. The country has the exquisite quality of a bale of hay. Punch it with all your might, and it will neither yield nor resist. Canada is still a member of NATO and not a nonaligned country. We are still under the rule of law rather than being entirely governed by administrative tribunals and orders-in-council. We still have the parliamentary system, weakened as it is. We are still a federal state rather than a unitary one—which, I hazard, was Trudeau’s ultimate aim. And in our moods, tastes and habits we are still part of the free world. We did not become like that other great northern neighbor of the Soviet Union. In spite of the Trudeau era, Canada has not been Finlandized.