THE REAL PIERRE ELLIOTT TRUDEAU
I marched into his office barely suppressing my anger. Fellow ministers, even some key ones in Montreal, were supporting a transfer of domestic flights from Dorval to Mirabel. To me the proposal seemed so outrageous that even to dignify it with debate was demeaning. At a time when Montreal was on its economic knees, desperately seeking some small advantage to make it more attractive, and with head offices being lost daily to Toronto, why would anyone add to its problems by making travel more difficult? Mirabel had been a mistake. Everyone outside government knew it at the time. Why compound that multimillion dollar gaffe by transferring flights from Dorval at great cost and inconvenience to the travelling public?
When I faced Trudeau squarely with the issue, I received an indifferent reception. He had been briefed and was not about to cave in to the complaints of my Westmount business constituents. I had an ace up my sleeve though: “You realize,” I said, “that a taxi fare with a modest tip from downtown Montreal to Mirabel is $50 or $100 return?”
He raised his eyes to meet mine. As he did so he removed his glasses and placed them before him on the desk. “Are you serious?” he asked in disbelief. I nodded. Those of us with Celtic blood understand such things. For Pierre Trudeau, isolated so long from the real world, $100 still meant a stylish weekend in New York, a ticket to Europe, perhaps even a second-hand car. I knew that those recommending the transfer were now into an uphill battle. To this day domestic flights leave from Dorval.
Trudeau is at once a great Canadian and an unfathomable being. The fortunes of the Liberal party have been so intertwined with the life, personality and policies of Pierre Elliott Trudeau that no understanding of the state of the party in the 1980s could be complete without reference to that intimate, complex and often unhappy relationship.
Trudeau set about to accomplish specific objectives and achieved them. While his interests were broad, his focus was narrow. Within that focus he was singularly successful. Trudeau always wanted, in his words, “to be on the right side of history.” On the major challenges of this period, he will be.
Arrogance: There will be critics, and I am one, who will argue that Trudeau’s lack of the human touch with his cabinet colleagues, with the provincial premiers, and with business and union leaders, contributed to a perception of arrogance and intellectual disdain. Personal relationships and camaraderie had no place in the Trudeau management style. He treated others rationally, not emotionally. Gut feelings or personal chemistry never appeared to get in the way of his Cartesian reasoning. No public person of this period was the match of Trudeau’s finely honed intellectual equipment which
Copyright 6 1986 by Donald Johnston, excerpted from Up the Hill, published this week by Optimum Publishing International Inc. of Montreal.
depended on reason, not on facts. He scrupulously kept his mind uncluttered by unnecessary detail, whether of events or individuals, quite often to the point of forgetting names, a cardinal sin for most politicians.
Trudeau’s organizational style was efficient, disciplined and precise. He went about his tasks meticulously, relying on the skills and judgment of trusted advisers in areas where he lacked the necessary expertise in politics or policies. By the time he reached his last mandate this meant that control of the government of Canada was concentrated in the hands of Trudeau, his principal secretaries—Jim Coutts and later Tom Axworthy—Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Pitfield and, ultimately, only one member of the cabinet, Marc Lalonde. With few exceptions Lalonde’s advice carried on all matters in Quebec and most elsewhere. From policy to appointments Trudeau seldom appeared to take seriously advice from other cabinet ministers if Marc recommended something different.
On the whole, Trudeau seemed to have little more than passing academic interest in the machinery of government and the operation of the bureaucracy. He no doubt believed financial management and accountability to be good objectives, but
as long as statistics told him we were doing well by comparison with the past and with what was happening elsewhere, these subjects did not engage him.
Grief: Attempts by ministers to add to the agenda set by Trudeau’s insiders frequently came to grief. Undermined at every turn, their carefully planned projects were derailed by the PCO under Michael Pitfield, who did not hesitate to speak unctuously in the name of the Prime Minister. Were these actions carried out with Trudeau’s blessing, or was he simply indifferent? I never knew the answer to that question.
The patriation of the Constitution and the introduction of the National Energy Program (NEP) dominated the agenda in the first two years of the mandate. In the meantime, the recession and runaway inflation were screaming for government action. The response to the 6 & 5 restraint program was a singular success. Happily it too received Trudeau’s full attention. As president of the Treasury Board, and therefore responsible for implementing the program, I was delighted by his interest. For my own part, I was so enthusiastic about the
potential of 6 & 5 that I wrote a song extolling its virtues. Keith Davey, in charge of selling the program across the country, incorporated my song into his strategy with a world premiere rendition and release of a recording at our annual caucus Christmas party. Trudeau loved it. Since everyone knows about the 6 & 5 program and only I still whistle the song, it is easy to see which was the greater success.
Challenges: From time to time Trudeau’s interests seemed to fix on challenges other than those which brought him into public life. But his principal focus was always on bringing Quebec into the mainstream and forging a lasting Canadian unity. Notwithstanding the enormous contributions made by Claude Ryan and Jean Chrétien, Pierre Trudeau was the field marshal opposite René Lévesque in the war against the Parti Québécois. In the referendum debate culminating in the victory of the “no” forces, it was Trudeau who stood head and shoulders above all others. He delivered the most impassioned and important speeches of his public life. Even his most ardent critics acknowledge that he made an indelible mark upon the history of this country. But did Trudeau’s preoccupation with language and the Constitution cause the government to neglect
major economic challenges, allowing Canadian business and industry to slip badly in international competitiveness?
Trudeau never had much time for, nor understanding of, business and the micro-economy. With the exception of a select few businessmen whom he regarded as friends of the government, he seemed to tolerate rather than appreciate the business community. Yet, in my opinion, he was instinctively and fundamentally a believer in the free-enterprise market system. He did not see the state as an efficient manager of industrial enterprises. Many seemed to have forgotten his outspoken criticism of the nationalization of Shawinigan Power by the Quebec government in 1963. He was really arguing the case “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” By 1979, however, offended by declarations of business support for the Conservatives shown in a survey published in The Financial Post, Trudeau and some of his cabinet began to see business interests only as necessary evils. I was sad to see members of the business community, once viewed as important constituents with valid concerns, relegated by the Liberal party to
the status of unfriendly adversaries.
Many of us in the cabinet thought this hostility to business smacked more of doctrine than common sense. Not so for the Prime Minister. He seemed curiously bored and almost puzzled by the complaints of bankers and others whom he perceived as receiving good treatment. Although the record bore him out, he had no interest in trying to tell his story to businessmen. They, in turn, were inept in dealing with him. I recall a roundtable discussion with senior businessmen at the Mount Royal Club during the 1979 election campaign. Instead of using this golden opportunity to level with the Prime Minister on the issues that concerned them, they commended his performance. They were in awe of him. He did nothing to improve the situation. After all, what was there to say in the face of such untempered flattery? Besides, small talk of any kind is not Pierre Trudeau’s long suit, and for him business small talk is an anathema.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau inherited the mantle, the issues and the conflicts of Wilfrid Laurier. The two men were alike in several ways. Laurier’s management style as a Prime Minister, his tolerance of failings in those he trusted, his unchallenged
intellectual superiority amongst his peers and, above all, his refusal to speak ill of those who differed with him or crossed him, all bear striking similarities to Trudeau’s management style and personal philosophy. For example, despite the media’s repeated attempts to find evidence suggesting a bitter relationship between Trudeau and John Turner, Trudeau gave them nothing to support it. Never did I hear him utter a disparaging word about Turner.
After our 1979 defeat, Pierre Trudeau and I were in the town of Mahone Bay, N.S., in the overwhelmingly Conservative South Shore riding. Despite his rejection by the local voters, it was as though a local hero had returned. People sought him out in stores and on the streets for autographs and handshakes. It was the same everywhere we went. Trudeau, the man, like Laurier before him, triumphed far above and beyond the political process.
Shadow: In each case the man had become the party. If a football team could win through the efforts of a star quarterback alone, the other players would soon become fat, lazy and ineffective, their incompetence camouflaged in the shadow of the great leader, and fundamentals of team play forgotten. So it is in politics. Unused, organizers slip quietly away. Aggressive fund-raising becomes less significant as parasites and profiteers take over, currying favor and worming their ways into positions of influence. The energy of the party, so evident and crucial during the ascension to power, rapidly dissipates.
While Trudeau’s strengths camouflaged the party’s weaknesses, they also hid from view the abilities of many ministers. It was common for the media to heap scorn and derision upon the ministers who sat at the table with Trudeau. That constant barrage no doubt contributed to our deteriorating fortunes. In fact, the press knew little of the capacities of those men and women, or of the time and energy they expended in carrying out their duties. The public, encouraged by the media, tended to view the cabinet as a bunch of also-rans. That was far from being an accurate reflection of reality. Many of my colleagues were exceptionally able. Unfortunately, most have now left public life and the loss has been great.
Enigma: Trudeau will always remain an enigma to me and to future historians. At most we will capture small glimpses from many sources and attempt to assemble them into a complete picture, as Richard Gwyn did with some success in his entertaining book The Northern Magus. Anecdotal material on Trudeau’s parsimony, his difficulty with small talk, his shyness, his intellectual powers, and his taste for young women are all widely circulated, exaggerated in some instances, understated in others. As with others of his complexity and accomplishment, the full measure of the man will never be known.
I first met Trudeau in May, 1957, on a two-month World University Service trip to West Africa. I had won a scholarship to attend as a McGill student. Trudeau had been invited to participate by the leader of the excursion, renowned botanist Dr. Pierre Dansereau, a friend of many years, and a neighbor of Pierre’s in Outremont. The entire group of 40-odd students, organizers and teachers from all over North America congre-
gated in New York at the outset for a series of orientation lectures. When I arrived in the conference room in New York City, Trudeau was sitting by himself at the back of the room absorbed in his thoughts. As we introduced ourselves awkwardly, I became aware that Trudeau was neither a student nor an organizer nor a teacher. Why, I wondered, is he here?
I never did find out what Trudeau’s specific duties were but he added interest to our adventure and, as history has shown, an important dimension for many who first struck up a friendship with him in West Africa. His basic shyness was
gradually broken down by those who became close to him. We debated the Quebec issue and other serious concerns at length but also saw the fun side of Trudeau, partying well into the night with him at local clubs in Accra. He seemed bent on adventure and, having already travelled the world extensively, he knew what to do or say in any situation. It gave us a feeling of security just to have him as a travelling companion. I enjoyed his company and developed a great respect for his intellectual ability over the course of that summer, but it never crossed my mind that he would one day be Prime Minister. Nor, as far as I could tell, had it occurred to him.
It is difficult to reconcile the shy, withdrawn Trudeau of that trip with the spectacular performances millions have witnessed over the years at press conferences, television inter-
views and from public platforms. I liken him to the actors of the Stanislavsky school who project themselves completely into the role to be played. Playing roles may also account for his love of costumes and hats which most public figures would shrink from for fear of being photographed in unorthodox attire. He has worn a cape at one Grey Cup, a Dutch Boy hat at the next and western garb at the Calgary Stampede. Among his most celebrated was the “Great Gatsby” panama hat he wore at the Williamsburg Economic Summit.
At times Trudeau’s demeanor can be hard to handle, espe-
cially for those who believe that social gatherings are for small talk, however banal. Trying to produce small talk when isolated with Trudeau at a stand-up cocktail reception has proved discomfiting for the most accomplished social lioness. “Isn’t it a nice party?” doesn’t seem quite appropriate, nor does, “I enjoyed Kant’s Categorical Imperative, didn’t you?” Perhaps somewhere in between. But if you are lucky, someone will come to the rescue.
Debonair: Even on the international scene Trudeau had his problems with social gatherings. Alexander Haig told me about his first White House meeting with Trudeau. Trudeau’s reputation as a wealthy debonair bachelor had preceded him to Washington. In consequence, the evening’s event had been well stocked with women anxious to meet this exciting new interna-
tional personality who drove fast cars, quoted Aristotle and wandered the globe in his quest for knowledge.
Unfortunately, the evening did not go according to plan. The guest of honor failed to perform. As Haig tells it, Trudeau spent most of the evening leaning against a wall, uncommunicative, an enigmatic smile on his face, while the female guests hovered on the periphery, waiting to meet the great man but afraid to approach. Whether Trudeau was gripped with an attack of shyness, was preoccupied with concerns of a more serious nature or was obstinately enjoying his own refusal to
play the game his hosts had prepared for him, Haig could not tell me. I wondered whether Trudeau’s behavior that evening had inspired the unflattering expletive that found its way onto President Nixon’s White House tapes.
Awkward: Although Trudeau is a great performer at times, there are situations in which, because of the setting, the chemistry or his own will, he is singularly awkward and out of place. But place Trudeau in a debate and then watch. He is a skilled debater, vicious with those whom he seeks to destroy in the parry and thrust of verbal exchanges. Time and again I have seen him seize one trivial exaggeration or inconsistency in an opponent’s argument, skilfully dissect it, and watch as the whole merit of his opponent’s argument collapses.
When dealing with those he considers peers, or with those he believes should know better, he is ruthless on the attack. With others, especially children, he is warm, kindly and gracious, and could aptly be described as a gentleman of the old school. It is a characteristic seldom seen by the general public, who have more commonly seen a combative and arrogant person. How one deals with subordinates, not how one deals with peers, is a true test of one’s character.
Caution: I have learned from personal experience to exercise caution in arguing with Pierre Trudeau. Perhaps hoping to calm my ruffled feathers the day he appointed Marc Lalonde as minister of finance (which turned out to be a brilliant choice), Trudeau invited me to lunch alone with him at 24 Sussex. In the course of the meal, I voiced my concerns about the flight of businessmen, professionals and the entrepreneur from the Liberal party. Trudeau nodded and waited. With the wind in my sails I continued. To hammer the point home I stated that the business community is more than Bay Street, but includes everyone from the bank president to the dé-
panneur (corner grocer) in the St. Henri section of my riding, who believes that our government is interventionist and antibusiness: “Yes,” I said, “the entrepreneurial spirit beats in the heart of the dépanneur as much as in that of the captain of industry, often even more when the latter is more of a corporate bureaucrat than an entrepreneur.”
That was the opening he had been waiting for. Trudeau replied somewhat as follows: “I believe I understand why some of the large business interests may be uncomfortable with a number of our programs, perhaps the NEP and elements of the MacEachen budget, but I am puzzled by this hostility towards us of your dépanneur friend in St. Henri. Could you elaborate?”
I knew I was in trouble. I set about to explain that the spirit
of the entrepreneur has little to do with the size of the business. “It is spawned and nourished,” I said, “by the spirit of the individual who wishes to make his own independent way and resents heavy taxation and regulatory intervention by government.” I hoped that would put the matter of the dépanneur to rest. It did not.
“Are you saying, Don, that the provisions of the MacEachen budget with respect to interest deductions and so on had an adverse impact on that dépanneur friend of yours?
Besides, I always thought that our tax rates for small business were quite generous and, in fact, better than those in the United States. Am I wrong?”
Example: I felt like screaming, “Forget about the damned dépanneur. It was a bad example.” I had lost. I knew it and he knew it. I returned to my soup.
However interested in the entrepreneur, the grocery store owner or the banker
he might have been, he was -
much more interested in winning the debate. That was not the only time I came out on the short end of such an exchange.
Despite my admiration for the man, sometimes his office, his actions, his attitudes and his general behavior brought my anger to the surface. In September, 1983,1 dictated some notes to myself about Pierre Trudeau. I had just returned from Quebec City. I was in the midst of planning the Canada Tomorrow Conference on Technology, a national event designed to bring together business, government, academics and experts from the science community to address the challenges of the new technologies.
The Prime Minister had been invited to deliver the opening address. With six short weeks to go to a national conference, his office had still not confirmed his participation. The following unedited excerpt from my note illustrates the frustration this situation evoked.
‘Angry’: “In all, the reflection upon my own position, the attitude in the party, the attitude of the Prime Minister, etc. I am angry and frustrated, most recently over the failure of the Office of the Prime Minister to confirm whether or not he will speak at the opening of the conference on science and technology to be held in November. He’s had the invitation since August. I had speaking notes prepared for him by Douglas Fullerton, as he requested, which were delivered early in September and he himself indicated during our meeting at Meech Lake that he would be interested in participating. I am now told at this point that there may be a conflict in the dates. Frankly, I find this kind of procedure and performance quite unacceptable and suspect that it is simply a reflection of the incompetence and insensitivity of his staff and also perhaps a
certain hostility of his staff towards me or towards my office.
“Recently, while I have maintained my admiration for the man in terms of his intellectual capacity, his chairmanship of meetings, etc., I am singularly struck by the flaws which run so clearly through his character once the charisma and mystery is swept away. He appears to lack imagination and he seems
clearly devoid of really gut feelings except when they concern a passionate dislike for someone who has ‘cut his throat.’ The number of the latter seems to grow exponentially whether it be premiers or businessmen. This is, I suspect, a result of carrying too much baggage over too many years to the point where it is almost impossible to liberate himself from history. The lessons of history which we do not like to see repeated can often become a prison and that is where the PM currently finds himself.
“In economic matters generally, whether they be fiscal, monetary or other-
wise, he is good at the mac-
ro level because he understands it. At the micro level he is devoid of understanding the issues which motivate private investors. He again is quite insensitive and has no understanding or grasp of the motivations of normal mortals. It is indeed sad because he could be so good. But he has become testy and, I
believe, too impatient ever to undergo a real learning experience at this stage in his life.
“He is determined to rely upon his analytical equipment rather than a knowledge base and if he can destroy or wound an argument which he doesn’t like with a quick logical thrust he would rather do so than have to wrestle with the fundamental merits of his adversary’s position.
‘Sad’: “I recognize that these are sad commentaries but alas they are true beyond doubt. He is older than we recognize and time has left its marks. He is an extremely self-centered, self-reliant man and cares little for the inconvenience of others if it in any way interferes with his own pursuits. At the same time he is extremely loyal to friends and trusted advisers.”
As it turned out, Trudeau did speak at the conference but, to our surprise, not with the text we had prepared upon his request. Instead of dealing with the challenges and the opportunities technology presents, his remarks focused almost entirely upon the protection of workers, only one of many key issues. The social democrats in the Prime Minister’s Office had struck again.
Winston Churchill’s description of Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” would also be an apt way of describing Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He has as many facets as a well-cut dia-
mond. Some we know. Others we suspect but do not see. He constantly surprises, disappoints, delights and angers.
I mentioned Trudeau’s proclivity for confusing names. During the election campaign in 1979, he visited the riding of Portneuf, a seat contested by Rolland Dion, who subsequently became my parliamentary secretary. At the end of a rousing speech on the merits of the candidate, Trudeau exclaimed, “ ... and that is why I want you to support my old friend Léon Dion.” There followed an embarrassing silence, especially for Rolland Dion. Any flattery offered by being confused with one of Quebec’s eminent constitutional authorities was entirely lost on him.
Penchant: Trudeau’s penchant for forgetting extends beyond people’s names. In June of 1978, on the eve of St. Jean Baptiste Day, he joined the citizenry of Beaupré to celebrate the town’s 50th anniversary. After the banquet he addressed the crowd, ending with the exhortation, “Vive les gens de Beauport.”
The gaffes Trudeau committed with respect to names are all the more interesting because of the man’s prodigious memory. He never takes notes and prides himself on remembering every detail of significant events. It is with great satisfaction that he recalls the circumstances of a particular adventure. This is only exceeded by his satisfaction in correcting someone else’s
recollection of the same event.
While forgetful of names that may be inconsequential to him, his mental filing cabinet is impressive. For example, in January of 1977 he spoke at the Chateau Frontenac to the Quebec Chamber of Commerce. Jean-Marie Cloutier introduced the Prime Minister in a self-deprecating manner, declaring himself to be a simple inconnu (unknown). Trudeau graciously responded by saying Mr. Cloutier would never be inconnu as far as he was concerned. Much later the same Mr. Cloutier came to Ottawa as part of a delegation from Quebec City to meet United States Vice-President Walter Mondale. Trudeau immediately identified him, much to Cloutier’s surprise and delight.
Trudeau remembers what he wants to remember.
Saber: Trudeau always protected his loyal troops. He never hesitated to rise during Question Period to defend the actions of a minister or a member, and he did so with an inquisitorial saber that quickly disemboweled the question, and sometimes the ego, of the questioner. Shortly after my arrival in the House of Commons in the autumn of 1978, Bryce Mackasey was named chairman of Air Canada. The appointment met with immediate and almost universal criticism. The Conservative opposition was quick to jump on the issue. On Dec. 15, David MacDonald, in questioning the Prime Minister, suggested that Trudeau had “probably downgraded both the independence and objectivity, and possibly the effi^ ciency of Air Canada in view of Mr. § Mackasey.” Watching from the back 8 bench, I wondered how Trudeau would 2 handle this sticky patronage issue.
He rose: “Mr. Speaker, I did note that [MacDonald] used the word ‘downgrading’ in association with the appointment of a former cabinet minister to the chairmanship of the board of Air Canada. I do not remember the honorable member opposite saying to the honorable Bryce Mackasey, when he was a minister or present in the House, that he was not an honorable man or was not an intelligent or capable man. Therefore, I can only conclude that in the mind of the honorable member, a man who has served his country well in the House of Commons is not competent to serve his country well in other pursuits. This is not the view of the government.”
On another occasion, I vividly remember how he came to my defence in the Liberal caucus. While cabinet communications are subject to the 30-year secrecy rule, there is no similar prescription for caucus. I trust my colleagues will forgive me for providing this small glimpse of Trudeau in this environment. After my appointment as president of the Treasury Board, Bill McWhinney, then a deputy secretary of the board and now senior vice-president of the Canadian International Development Agency, came to see me. Bill is a giant of a man possessed of great intelligence and no less a sense of humor. “We have an outstanding woman candidate for the TAP program,” he said. (TAP was the acronym for the Temporary Assignment Pool, a kind of SWAT squad of about 40 extremely capable and frequently brilliant bureaucrats under the juris-
diction of the Treasury Board, assigned on a temporary basis to various other departments as challenging projects arose.) Never having been consulted previously on appointments to TAP, I asked Bill why he was seeking my approval. “There are some political considerations,” he answered. “You see, this particular candidate is Pierrette Alain Lucas, a former candidate for the Progressive Conservative party in the Verdun riding in the 1977 byelection. Since you have responsibility for the TAP program, you might get some flak if she is hired.”
I was thunderstruck. Pierrette Alain and I had dated many years before during our bachelor days and she was a friend of long standing. She had also been a friend of Trudeau’s. Her intelligence, bilingualism and wit made her a superb candidate for the TAP program. We were also trying to increase the number of women in the bureaucracy. There remained only the political problem. “Bill, had it not been for this political question, would you have hired her on the basis of her credentials?”
“Absolutely,” he answered.
“Then do it,” I replied.
More than a year later, Pierrette’s name surfaced in an Ottawa Citizen column entitled “Bureaucrats,” where mention was made of her appointment to a senior post in the PCO. Sure enough, some members of the caucus were up in arms. I was
forewarned that the matter _
would be raised by Jacques Olivier, chairman of the Quebec caucus.
The next day Jacques Olivier rose in national caucus and addressed the Prime Minister in the strongest terms regarding the appointment. He stressed the naïveté of “some ministers” who did not appreciate how demoralizing it was to loyal troops that a defeated Conservative should receive better treatment from the government than a defeated Liberal. As he spoke I jotted down notes that I would use in rebuttal. I was about to rise when Trudeau stood up. He was an unexpected but welcome ally.
Impeccable: He advised the caucus that he had personally verified the record of Pierrette Lucas’ employment by the federal government. Futhermore, he added, her qualifications were impeccable: she had been approved by the Public Service Commission and, in keeping with the neutrality of the public service, it was quite appropriate that she should have been hired as a TAP officer. She progressed from there, he explained, on the strength of her own talents and abilities. Trudeau then challenged caucus members to justify the denial of employment to someone like Pierrette Lucas, a capable, bilingual woman who would clearly make a solid contribution. Finally, after a lengthy pause he added: “Besides, Pierrette has been, one might say, a friend of the family for many years.”
That final touch, delivered in a tone rife with ambiguity, brought an admiring titter from the caucus. The question was never raised again. It was as if the mere raising of the question of Pierrette Lucas had been an invasion of prime ministerial privacy. It was a class act and there were many more like it.
Joy: Trudeau’s j oy in being with children is genuine. It is not exaggerated. He shows patience and generosity not associated with his public persona. Visiting with us in Nova Scotia, he delighted in taking everyone’s children swimming. They numbered no fewer than eight and sometimes more. He would supervise them, instruct them and entertain them by the hour. That would be followed by a game of “kick the can,” where he did not pretend to have expertise. In fact, his competitive instincts made him less of a success there than in the pool. Not venturing far enough from the can to round up the others, he was soon dubbed “base-sticker” by the kids. It’s a game where to win, you have to gamble. Whatever the children did, he joined in, not out of a sense of duty, but with a youthful exuberance seldom seen in a young parent, let alone a senior citizen.
Pierre Trudeau is as combative physically as he is intellectually. An incident on Gold River, Nova Scotia, in the summer of 1979, will always be inscribed vividly in my memory. My wife, Heather, Pierre and I had taken eight small children,
including his three boys and two of our girls, and a baby-sitter to a swimming hole on a beautiful stretch of river near Chester. The spot was deep in a gorge below white water and could only be reached from the road by a long, steep, winding trail through heavy spruce growth.
Unfortunately a gang of local toughs, reminiscent of the lowlife depicted in the film Deliverance, had decided that Gold River was a good location for an afternoon drunk. When we passed three of them on the trail swigging sherry from a bottle, they recognized Trudeau and followed us down to the swimming hole. Trudeau and the children had worn swimming suits so they plunged right into the river. Heather, who had planned to change in the bushes, was now having second thoughts. Two of the toughs sauntered over to her and, nodding in my direction, loudly asked:
“That guy his bodyguard?” Heather quite liked that illusion and did nothing to change his mind.
Action: Observing the whole scene from a large rock a short distance along the shore, I suddenly realized that the one they called Tarcy was sending his companions downi stream to invite the rest of the gang to join him for some anticipated action.
They soon appeared, walking, wading and paddling upstream in rubber inner tubes, carrying beer and sherry bottles. They were drunk, swaggering and loud. I knew we were in for trouble.
Trudeau and the others were oblivious to the gang’s arrival. I summoned them from the water and asked Heather to take the children up the trail to the minibus as quickly as possible. Pierre lingered to tie the shoelaces of one of his boys and I stayed with him. That’s when Tarcy made his move. He sauntered up to us, a dozen drunken backers not far behind. “You’re Trudeau, ain’t ya?” Trudeau acknowledged his identity. “What would happen if I just punched you out right now?” asked Tarcy, moving toward Trudeau. He now stood between us and the trail back to our vehicle.
Fist: Trudeau’s eyes narrowed. With jaw set, he stepped up to Tarcy and put his closed fist under the bully’s nose. With clear blue eyes fixed on Tarcy’s bleary ones, Canada’s 15th Prime Minister threatened through clenched teeth: “Just you try it.” Tarcy was somewhat taken aback at this and Trudeau moved unhurriedly past him onto the trail, his son Justin in hand and me close behind.
The challenge had been so direct I was sure Tarcy and his gang would soon recover their wits and charge after us. Trudeau, however, seemed unconcerned and simply observed to me that we now had the high ground on a narrow trail and could easily handle a gang of drunks one by one. I sensed he would have almost welcomed the opportunity. Trudeau was no
bluffer. We came within a hair of a fight, the outcome of which I prefer not to contemplate, but Pierre had won the day. Whether it is in cabinet, at a first ministers’ conference, at an international summit or on a lonely stretch of riverbank miles from nowhere, Trudeau will not back down or run away from a fight.
Trudeau also has a dispassionate capacity for self-assessment. He knows his own strengths and uses them skilfully, although he did admit after the Gold River incident that he should remember he is in his 60s. He also knows his weaknesses, seldom exposing them to adversaries. Above all, even after 16 years as Canada’s Prime Minister there is not a trace of pompous self-importance. I doubt that many tread the corridors of power and leave, as he did, seemingly untouched
and unchanged by the praise, prestige, privilege and, in Trudeau’s case, international acclaim often bordering on adulation. Many in public life are captured by their own press clippings and the flirtation with power which does not belong to them but for which they are merely custodians of the public trust. But not Trudeau. Like Harry Truman, he remembers who he is and where he came from.
Rigorous: On the international stage Trudeau transferred his capacity for rigorous self-assessment to the country itself. He knew Canada’s measure in the international community and the effective roles it could play in the East-West dialogue as well as in the North-South dialogue. He never oversold Canada’s position. As a result, our country emerged from Trudeau’s stewardship widely respected around the globe. Canadians who travel abroad quickly realize I that.
Trudeau’s detractors are many, his supporters legion. In truth, it will be years before the full impact of his contributions can be understood. I summarized my own feelings at the Liberal leadership convention in these words: “I see the Prime Minister sitting here on the 16th anniversary of the magic of his election to the leadership of this party. What a Canadian!” His outstanding character personifies the striking contrast of his nation. He is warm. He is cold. He is wild. He is serene. But, above all, he is honest with himself and with others. These qualities we treasure because they reflect our national character. And then I added, in French, “Pierre Elliott Trudeau, by the nobility of his thoughts, his sense of history and his understanding of today’s realities, has conferred upon Canada an importance which truly matches its size.”
Unless he tells his own story, we shall continue to have an obscure picture of the man himself. Even then, he may prefer to perpetuate the mystery and leave historians with the question: “Who was Pierre Elliott Trudeau?”