WHEN WE WERE YOUNG: Looking at the Trudeau phenomenon 30 years later
In the 15 years and five months that Pierre Elliott Trudeau served as prime minister, he conjured up every emotion in the Canadian people except indifference. The retained images of his years in office are a highlight reel of the Canadian psyche. From the “Just Society” to “Just watch me,” he left powerful and potent memories of joy and triumph, disappointment and defeat. From the moment of his election 30 years ago as Liberal leader on April 6,1968, to the solitary walk in the February snow that preceded his resignation in 1984, Trudeau dominated the scene as no other prime minister. Only Sir John A. Macdonald and Mackenzie King served longer. But Trudeau was the first prime minister of the electronic age. He had cool and charisma. His insouciant shrug was as powerful a weapon as his verbal stiletto. But his results were mixed. He advocated a strong and united Canada, even as decentralization became the rage. While he built his bedrock commitment to national unity on minority language rights and a place for francophones in the Canadian mainstream, his years in office embraced the election of a separatist government in Quebec and a backlash against official bilingualism. Since his retirement into relative seclusion in Montreal, many of his other policies—from deficit spending to disengagement from the United States—have been dismantled. But he will be remembered for changing the course of Canadian history—and, above all, for entrenching a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in a new Constitution.
Two images, two sides of Trudeau:
It is the fall of 1978 and Trudeau’s Liberals are desperate. He is trailing Joe Clark’s Tories in the polls, and must call an election within months. Otto Lang, Trudeau’s justice minister, floats the notion of restoring the death penalty as a way to placate voters concerned about crime. Now, at an Ottawa news conference, Trudeau concedes that, yes, perhaps the Liberals would allow for a national referendum on capital punishment. “In the present climate,” he added, “maybe we should throw a lot of hot potatoes back to the people.” There is shock and horror in the halls. If there is one thing that Liberals still stand for, it is abolition. Now, here was their leader prepared to pursue re-election over principle. Ultimately, abolition remained, but it was a measure of how far Trudeau had given himself over to the pollsters and backroomers of the Liberal party.
It is the spring of 1979, and now Trudeau knows that he is going down to defeat with 10 days to go in the election campaign. He retreats to a hotel room to write the first of two speeches he will deliver on successive days in Montreal and Toronto. Aides rush the handwritten drafts out for typing, their hearts sinking as
they preview the subject. Against all advice, he actually has decided to go down swinging on the one subject that matters most to him in political life—the Constitution. In both cities, he delivers long, intricate but fascinating lectures on the need for Canada to bring the Constitution home from Great Britain and to have a Canadian-made method for its amendment. Trudeau loses the election and steps down as Liberal leader.
What happens next is the first paragraph in the “Canada-is-notboring-because ...” essay contest: Joe Clark’s Tories, the gang that couldn’t count straight, lose a vote on John Crosbie’s budget—on a motion proposed by then-NDP MP Bob Rae—and Trudeau, improbably, is persuaded to unretire a month after his resignation. He wins the election and he proceeds to implement what will be come his lasting legacy—as he put it in the Toronto speech, “a Constitution made in Canada, by Canadians, for Canadians.” He goes on to fight the 1980 referendum in Quebec, a victory he savors.
It is the winter of 1998 and Peter Lougheed, one of Trudeau’s most ardent foes at the federal-provincial bargaining table, has not mellowed during a vacation in the Arizona sunshine. The former Alberta premier calls Trudeau’s decision to move ahead with patriation, when there was a separatist government in Quebec, “an historic mistake. He should not have brought it forward then. It was a Rubicon for us.” Retired McGill University professor of philosophy Charles Taylor, who ran against Trudeau in 1965 as an NDP candidate, is only slightly more forgiving. Trudeau’s hard line on special
status for Quebec, he notes, has gained wide acceptance. “The Trudeau solution,” says Taylor, “is common property. It turns out that it is not the right solution. If we come through this, it will only be by negating that policy.”
Trudeau declined requests to be interviewed for a 30th anniversary retrospective. But in a Maclean’s interview on his 10th anniversary in 1978, he told me: “Ask yourself if that [separatist] movement would be stronger if we hadn’t in the past 10 years done all we did in Ottawa to make French an official language and to show that French-Canadians in Quebec and Ottawa could pull their weight and exercise sufficient power.” One of his most loyal supporters notes more bluntly that Trudeau “came into politics to entrench minority rights—and he did. He did not come into politics for the Foreign Investment Review Act or the National Energy Program.”
The NEP came in later years, but FIRA had more to do with staying alive—retaining the votes of New Democrats during the minority government period from 1972 to 1974. There has been only one other minority since—the nine-month Clark interregnum in 1979. It was as if Canadians had a mystical bond with Trudeau. They wanted to teach him a lesson in humility in 1972 and they did: the Liberal candidate in an Ontario riding won a recount by four votes, enough to keep Trudeau in power. And eight years later, they returned Trudeau to power with a majority, seemingly just in time to engage René Lévesque in the 1980 Quebec referendum.
During the Trudeau years in power—April 20, 1968, to June 4,1979, and March 3,1980, to June 30, 1984— the United States had five presidents: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Duke University historian John Herd Thompson, a fierce critic of Trudeau, acknowledges: “Could there have been a single Canadian who did not reflect with pride at some time during those years that Canada had chosen a better man?” There was no doubt about his style. He slid down banisters, did backflips off diving boards and sat on a rock nibbling reindeer meat in Lapland. He dated Barbra Streisand, Margot Kidder and Liona Boyd. In the House of Commons, he told an opposition MP to “f— off,” in Ottawa he advised protesting strikers “Mangez la merde,” and he hoisted a middle finger at demonstrators in Salmon Arm, B.C. He was bad.
In foreign affairs, he gave Canada a place in the world beyond our previous modest expectations. He extended diplomatic recognition to the Vatican and mainland China and he steadfastly opposed arms sales to South Africa, which angered the British. He asserted Canadian sovereignty when the American oil tanker Manhattan sailed through Arctic waters in 1970—a stance that raised concern about who controlled our Arctic waters. But by the end of his time, he had abandoned the so-called Third Option of strengthening ties with Europe and his government accepted the first tests of the U.S. cruise missile in Canada.
Domestically, Trudeau lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, introduced television to the House of Commons and led the move to legalize abortion and homosexual acts between consenting adults in a major Criminal Code overhaul billed as the Just Society. On the economy, his performance was uneven. He brought in wage and price controls after denouncing them. Inflation and deficits soared.
Typically, it was Trudeau’s performance in several crises in Quebec that most endeared him to his admirers—and provoked his adversaries. Just before the 1968 election, during the St-Jean-Baptiste parade in Montreal—a traditional time of nationalist expression— Trudeau faced down bottle-throwing separatists in a symbolic gesture of his determination to oppose people who would break up the country. “I am trying to put Quebec in its place,” he said to cheers during that campaign, “and the place of Quebec is in all of Canada.” The magic lasted until Front de libération du Québec terrorists in Montreal kidnapped British diplomat James Cross and murdered Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte. Canada, truly, had come of age. Trudeau was defiant when asked how far he would go to fight the FLQ: “Just.watch me.” What Canadians saw was his stern imposition of the draconian War Measures Act. The Canadian army took over the streets and authorities had unlimited powers of search and arrest. Trudeau’s response rankled the separatists and civil libertarians, but proved to be one of his most admired acts in public opinion. And, in the first Quebec referendum in 1980, Trudeau delivered the coup de grâce to the separatist campaign in three magnificent speeches.
The subsequent failures to find an accommodation between Quebec and English Canada is an enduring frustration that has persisted for the 14 years since Trudeau retired. He patriated the Constitution, but without the agreement of the government of Quebec. Trudeau’s critics blame him for that, and for leading the fight against the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional agreements, which might finally have resolved the unity issues. Now, another showdown looms in Quebec. How that is resolved will determine Quebec’s role in Canada—and Pierre Trudeau’s true place in history. □
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