CANADA

A Trudeau tragedy

CHRIS WOOD November 23 1998
CANADA

A Trudeau tragedy

CHRIS WOOD November 23 1998

A Trudeau tragedy

CANADA

The former prime minister’s son Michel is presumed drowned

It was a chance for the sort of busman’s holiday ski instructor Michel Trudeau especially adored: a little early-season skiing and snowboarding in one of British Columbia’s most spectacular wilderness areas. With five friends from Rossland—the resort town where he worked—and Fernie, B.C., the 23-yearold Trudeau spent most of Remembrance Day hiking through snow to reach the Slocan Chief, a popular chalet in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, high in the Kootenay Mountains 430 km east of Vancouver. But then the weather turned nasty, with heavy snow and fierce winds. Early on the morning of Friday, Nov. 13, Trudeau—former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s high-spirited youngest son— and three companions began the 10-km hike back down to the park entrance. By 1 p.m., they had made it only halfway and were struggling through 60-cm drifts to traverse a slope overlooking Kokanee Lake. A second group of skiers arrived just in time to see what happened next. Nelson forestry worker Tim Robinson watched in horror as, he says, “the snow was fracturing and collapsing all over the place. I watched it hit their group, and then they disappeared.”

The avalanche overwhelmed the four young men, sweeping them down a 200foot slope and carrying Trudeau and one friend out into the glacier-fed lake’s frigid waters. The other skier struggled back to shore. Trudeau did not. ‘We could see him and we could hear him,” Robinson told Maclean’s, “but he was just too far from shore. He couldn’t get back. There was nothing we could do for him.” Moments later, a second avalanche swept Robinson and his two friends down the slope as well. Robinson’s trio managed to struggle back to the trail and make their way to the park entrance. But it was 8 p.m. before they were able to report the avalanche. The following day, a helicopter from Banff National Park flew in to rescue Trudeau’s three companions. But Michel remained missing and was presumed to have drowned in the lake’s near-freezing waters.

It was a stunningly unexpected end to a promising life. The last of Trudeau’s three

sons with ex-wife Margaret Trudeau Kemper, Micha, as he was known to friends, had an impish charm that delighted dignitaries when, as a child, he travelled with his father on official visits to foreign lands. Like his older siblings Sacha and Justin, Michel acquired a love of the outdoors that included skiing—a passion both parents shared. “He had an incredible zest and a wonderful, lively nature,” recalls one friend of Margaret’s. “He was such a reflection of her in that way.” Like his parents, Michel shunned convention. After getting a degree in marine biology at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, he put science aside to follow his love of skiing to Rossland.

Trudeau would have known the avalanche risk in Kokanee Park. Last January, six people who had been staying in the same chalet perished in a midwinter slide. November is early, though: the Canadian Avalanche Centre at Revelstoke, B.C., will not publish its first threat assessment until later this week. But its manager, Evan Manners, said a weather phenomenon known as the Pineapple Express—warm, moist air off the Pacific that drops heavy snow often followed by rain—swept into the Kokanee area at about the time Trudeau arrived, creating “ideal conditions for avalanche events.”

Late Saturday, the same foul weather was hampering attempts to recover Trudeau’s body. Heavy overhanging snow threatened fresh avalanches. “They’ve got to dive into the lake,” said Nelson RCMP Cpl. Randy Koch. “Right now, it’s not safe to do that.” There was no word whether either parent, both of whom received the news in Montreal, would travel to the area. In addition to his parents and older brothers, Michel left behind a girlfriend and a much-beloved black labrador retriever. The dog had accompanied Michel on his last ski trip—but survived the avalanche that claimed his master.

CHRIS WOOD