‘Trudeau, too, must be allowed to grow old’

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 6 1998


‘Trudeau, too, must be allowed to grow old’

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 6 1998



‘Trudeau, too, must be allowed to grow old’


The reason is almost certainly not the 30th anniversary on April 6 of his rise to power as leader of the Liberal party. Pierre Elliott Trudeau, say friends, has always been far more interested in looking ahead than behind. But this week, Trudeau is doing something different from the regimen he has followed in winter and springtime in recent years. Usually, he spends part of each weekend skiing at Mont Tremblant, about 140 km north of his Montreal home and offices—spending “about 2 Y hours on the slopes without break: no rest, no coffee, no nothing,” says his friend, Montreal businessman and social maven Stratton Stevens, who usually accompanies him. On the. anniversary day, he is expected to be in British Columbia where he is spending most of about a week and a half skiing at Whistler and visiting two of his three sons, Justin, 26, and Michel, 22. (The third son, Sacha, 24, lives with him in Montreal.) He departed Montreal in good spirits; Trudeau, says Stevens, who lunched with him just before he left, “is happiest and most content when he is seeing his boys.”

That is the good news for admirers of Trudeau: even at 78 years of age, some stories about him from friends suggest that he maintains a pace and lifestyle that would exhaust many people 20 years younger. But as with almost everything else Trudeau has done in life, there are sharply different opinions of how he is faring these days. Stevens, who sees him regularly, is the most upbeat. “He has extraordi-

nary energy,” says Stevens, who has also frequently travelled abroad with the former prime minister. But many people who have seen Trudeau recently acknowledge that age is taking its toll. “He still skis, but less aggressively,” says Max Nemni, publisher of the revived profederalist magazine Cité libre, which Trudeau helped found. “He still recites poetry, but not as many stanzas.

He, too, must be allowed to grow old.”

Everyone agrees that Trudeau (who did not respond to a request from Maclean’s for an interview) remains a formidable force intellectually. But as with many people of a certain age, some days are better than others.

Former colleagues who still see him monitor his health closely: most, as they come away from lunches or meetings, delightedly report that his powers of reason remain sharp. But in the last two years, he has suffered from occasional memory lapses—something that once seemed unthinkable in a man renowned for his strength of recall. At a launch of the English-language edition of Cité libre in Toronto in January, Trudeau was asked if the occasion brought back memories. “Memory? I’m losing my memory,” he responded.

Acquaintances who have not seen him in several years are sometimes shocked by how visibly he has aged. He almost never has visitors at the Art Deco mansion that he bought in 1979 on Pine Avenue, adjacent to the southern slope of Mount Royal. He no longer likes to drive, preferring to walk or be driven. He moves deliberately and speaks almost painfully slowly, and some of his wardrobe seems tat-

tered and threadbare. Occasionally, he now reflects on his time in politics and, says someone who saw him recently, “he seems, incredibly, to be mellowing.”

‘He had great respect for Diefenbaker. He would remember special occasions, like his birthday. At one point, the prime minister was leaving on a tour of Europe and Diefenbaker was ill. The PM and I devised a code—the code name for Diefenbaker was Daffodil. And I would message what the weather was—and whether the daffodils were blooming.

—Senator Joyce Fairbairn

In particular, friends say, Trudeau was devastated by the death last year of Gérard Pelletier, whom he had known since high-school days. Pelletier, Trudeau and the late Jean Marchand were the socalled Three Wise Men who went to Ottawa together in 1965 with the aim of combatting separatism and reforming federalism. “Pierre is very, very reserved about his emotions, but it is clear that Gérard s loss hit him hard,” says Donald Macdonald, a former cabinet colleague of both men who lunched with Trudeau recently. “He

spent a lot of time reminiscing about Gérard. This was really the last of a small circle of lifelong friends.” And a longtime Liberal acquaintance who bumped into Trudeau on the street last month said “he looked like a little old man—and then I realized that is what he now is.”

But the fascination with the man who served as prime minister for 15 years remains. In October, Toronto’s York University will play host to a conference featuring academics and former politicians and colleagues of Trudeau debating his record. Historian J. L. Granatstein and author and journalist Andrew Cohen are editing a book of essays on Trudeau that will be published this fall by Random House. Contributors include Macdonald, former Trudeau senior adviser James Coutts, former Ontario premier Bob Rae, internationally renowned author and philosopher Michael Ignatieff, along with Cohen and Granatstein.

Even among those who have followed Trudeau closely for years, says Granatstein, “opinions are constantly in evolution.” For example, Granatstein says, “I never voted for the guy, disliked most of his policies, and was opposed to the War Measures Act.” But in the 14 years since Trudeau left office, Granatstein says he has “come around to admiring him and his accomplishments a great deal”—and his chapter in the book defends Trudeau’s decision to invoke the act during the 1970 October Crisis.

On the issue that matters most to him—Quebec’s place in Canada—Trudeau’s firm views are unchanged, and still presented with characteristic rigor. That was evident in the vehement opposition Trudeau showed to any form of special status for Quebec in an interview he gave to Cité libre late last year. On that subject, Trudeau said: “Distinct society and special status are one and the same thing. We fought against them, and for a while no one heard about them. We explained to the people of Quebec that they didn’t need crutches to walk.”

But, increasingly, such words fall on deaf ears. Michel C. Auger, political columnist with Quebec’s largest newspaper, Le Journal de Montréal, says that “for both federalists and sovereigntists, Trudeau has fallen off the radar screen in the present debate. His ideas are seen as outdated.” Even among

those federalists who say they admire Trudeau personally, there is skepticism about his ideas. Gordon Gibson, for one, was Trudeau’s first executive assistant in 1968 and a self-described “huge admirer of the man.” But over the years, the native British Columbian now says, “I came to realize that he had a rational, fully formed vision of the direction Canada should move in—and it was a wrong one and a failure.” Today, Gibson, an author and political analyst at the B.C.-based Fraser Institute, says: “There is no question the country is in worse shape for those ideas.”

Perhaps the biggest source of frustration for Trudeau is that his views seem to carry little weight with the present Liberal government. In the wake of the 1995 referendum, Trudeau publicly fretted at a news conference that he had “sat on my hands” during the campaign because the No committee made it clear they did not want him involved.

Since then, he has occasionally expressed frustration to friends that he is not consulted more often. After Prime Minister Jean Chrétien led the Liberals to power in 1993, he initially made a point of calling Trudeau about once a month to sound out his views. But those calls have lessened—although, says Peter Donolo, Chrétien’s director of communications, “the Prime Minister places the greatest respect and importance on Mr. Trudeau’s ideas.”

Sometimes, in fact, it can seem as if Trudeau is admired more by his political opponents than his traditional allies.

Bloc Québécois MP Daniel Turp says that he has “never agreed with any of Trudeau’s views towards Quebec.” But on a personal level, Turp adds, “It is easy for me to understand why people admire him. He has the convictions and mannerisms of a statesman, not just a standard politician.”

And Reform MP Rahim Jaffer, whose family moved to | Alberta from Uganda in 1971, exemplifies Trudeau’s vision | of a country of bilingual, multicultural citizens. Jaffer, who g attended the University of Ottawa in order to learn French, ° is Reform’s principal spokesman within Quebec. “It was Mr. Trudeau who fired my passion for politics,” he says.

“And if, today, his ideas are no longer mine, that takes away none of my admiration for his intelligence, dedication and charisma.”

In turn, Trudeau occasionally, and carefully, confides to friends his own views on what the Liberals are—or should be—doing. He bemoans Chrétien’s relative lack of commitment to what he considers traditional Liberal values—although, said one Trudeau friend, he is aware that “this group has had to deal with some harsh economic realities that he didn’t have to deal with, or, at least, didn’t deal with.” On Quebec, Trudeau has suggested that the Liberals—through some decentralizing policies and their recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society”—have dismantled some of what he worked so hard to build. The party, says Max Nemni bluntly, has “failed to keep Mr. Trudeau’s vision alive.”

It is also likely that Trudeau is less than happy about the

Liberals’ commitment to reduce international trade barriers. During his recent lunch with Macdonald, Trudeau for the first time discussed the key role that Macdonald played in heading a royal commission that recommended a free trade treaty with the United States in the mid-1980s. That position enraged many Liberals at the time. Trudeau, said Macdonald, “allowed very politely to me that it was not at all the sort of position he would have taken at the time.” On the other hand, Trudeau has been enthusiastic about the efforts of Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy—particularly in helping to organize an international treaty banning the use of land mines. Trudeau has told at least one friend that Axworthy’s work is “admirable.”

But for the most part, Trudeau seems content to live as far removed from the public eye as possible. He still appears regularly,

‘The most ill-at-ease that I ever saw him was when he resigned in 1984. Before he resigned, he wanted to know what the situation was across the country. I was the messenger. My assessment was that we would lose the next election. We wanted him to leave as a champion, but it was very difficult for him.’

—Former cabinet minister and Liberal party president Iona Campagnolo

‘He liked being Prime Minister— but he really did not like being leader of the Liberal party. He resented having to participate in any party events. During a campaign, you could never get him to visit a senior citizens’ home. He felt that he was using helpless old people. He would say: “They’re sitting there, they don’t really know what’s going on.” And he just would not do it. His best audience was university students.

—Former Liberal party president Norman MacLeod

though not daily, at his office at the law firm of Heenan Blaikie— located, ironically enough, on René Lévesque Boulevard. For lunch, he alternates between Italian or Greek restaurants in the area—favoring tzatziki—and often settles for something from the fast-food court in the building. “I have never seen Pierre either refuse any kind of food or fail to clean his plate,” says Stevens, who estimates he has known Trudeau for close to 20 years.

And Trudeau’s famed fondness for penny-pinching persists. Trudeau is a millionaire, the result of a fortune made by his father, Charles-Emile, who owned a chain of service stations. But he bas always cut corners wherever possible. For example, he orders

a cheaper senior citizen’s ticket whenever he goes to the movies. He pays for purchases with a plain Visa card, disdaining the more expensive gold category. Trudeau visits Toronto about once a month to visit his daughter, Sarah, age 6, and her mother, constitutional lawyer Deborah Coyne, whom he dated briefly. While there, Trudeau saves money by staying in a residence building at the University of Toronto.

Occasionally, Trudeau travels to Asia—often Hong Kong—to represent his law firm with key corporate clients. In the past decade, he has travelled with Stevens to, among other places, Greece, Turkey and France. In Paris, Stevens says, they occasionally share some wildly contrasting experiences. On one visit several years ago, the two men—both wearing cut-off jeans and T-shirts—checked into an inexpensive hotel favored by backpacking students. “One student,” Stevens recalls with a laugh, “whispered to his friend: There’s Pierre Trudeau,’ but the other guy said: ‘Naw—he wouldn’t stay in a dump like this.’ ” That night, Stevens adds, the two “went out for dinner and blew about $500 at Le Tour d’Argent”—a famed Paris restaurant.

Such extravagance is something Trudeau rarely indulges in at home. Friends who know him best agree that the reserved figure of recent years is much more the real Pierre Trudeau than the outgoing, outspoken character who alternately amused, amazed and infuriated Canadians while in public office. Gordon Robertson has known Trudeau for almost half a century—since he was Trudeau’s superior when the future prime minister worked in the Privy Council Office in 1949. Later, Robertson served as secretary to the cabinet when Trudeau headed the government. Says Robertson: “The man I first met was brilliant and quite friendly, but extremely shy and diffident. I always felt that as prime minister, he was behaving in a way that people seemed to want— but that the real Trudeau is the man I first met.” Like it or not, Trudeau cannot escape recognition. Even in Greece, says Stevens, when they were going through customs in the early 1990s, “one agent immediately knew who he was.” And former senior Liberal party official Norm MacLeod, whose daughter and son-in-law live near Deborah and Sarah Coyne in Toronto, says that they often see Trudeau walking with his daughter when he visits. “Whenever people walk by,” says MacLeod, “they do a double take.” Once, MacLeod recounts, “A woman came up and said: ‘Has anyone ever told you that you look like Pierre Trudeau?’ All he said, with a smile, was, ‘As a matter of fact, they have.’ ” Even in the autumn of his years, everyone knows who Trudeau is—but few, if any, can say they ever really knew him.

With MARYJANIGAN in Toronto

I was his special assistant from 1970 to 1972. saw a man who was extremely open to ideas, o any proposal that anyone wanted to put on he table. One of his most extraordinary itellectual qualities was his ability to see the ultimate consequences of a given position, f you argued A, he, in lightning speed, would ee that A led to M—and eventually to Z.’

—Former cabinet minister Francis Fox