Montreal reflected Trudeau's dreams for the whole country
Ann Paris was a nervous wreck when she started working for the former prime minister at the Montreal law firm of Heenan Blaikie three years ago. “I kept sitting outside the office doors thinking ‘Ahh, it’s Pierre Elliott Tmdeau in there,’ ” Paris recalled last week. Every morning, she answered Trudeau’s polite greeting with a pinched, “Bonjour; monsieur Trudeau.” Then when Trudeau stepped out of his office, the personal assistant bolted out of her chair. “There was practically a spring on my seat,” she laughed. But Paris soon decided she had to get over feeling so intimidated. One morning, she finally greeted her boss in an upbeat, confident manner. “Mr. Trudeau,” she added, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Eve been a little nervous for the past two weeks.” But, she continued, “I’d like to let you know I’m over it.” Trudeau, said Paris, “just looked at me and said ‘what took you so long?’ ” Trudeau once acknowledged the split within himself between the politician who acted a role and his private self. Like Paris, Montrealers often caught glimpses of the latter in the 16 years after he stepped down as prime minister. He walked to work, dined out often and went to half-price movies. “Above all else, he was a Montrealer,” said filmmaker Brian McKenna, who directed the 1994 documentary Pierre Elliott
Trudeau: Memoirs. “He
was a "ian who mar-
nated the spirit of the
City.” Montreal, in turn,
reflected his dreams for
the country with its
blend of French, English and new Canadians. “He just felt so much a part of that mix,” said Roy Heenan, chairman of the law firm where Trudeau worked. “This was his cosmopolitan city.”
Despite his celebrity, he managed to lead a low-key life. When his sons were young, he saw them off to school before heading to the office. Trudeau walked there each day—about a 20-minute hike—until he fell ill earlier this year. He would typically leave work around 5 p.m. for the more arduous hike up the steep slope to his home. On occasion, he paused to shake hands with strangers anxious to meet him.
Friends insist Trudeau never traded on his status. Montreal businessman Stratton Stevens recalled accompanying his old friend to a licence bureau in 1984. Trudeau, who needed to replace the Ontario plates on his Mercedes with Quebec ones, took a number and waited his turn. “Here he was, the ex-prime
minister of Canada,” said Stevens. “I don’t think this would happen in any country in the world.” But Trudeau didn’t want special privileges—and he certainly didn’t get them at the licence bureau. A clerk told Trudeau to return with proof he had paid the taxes when he originally bought the car in Quebec. When they returned two days later, a clerk demanded a certificate of road-worthiness because the car was more than 20 years old. On the third visit, Trudeau finally got his plates.
Nor did he always impress his fellow diners. According to his old friend and long-time cabinet minister Marc Lalonde, they occasionally ate at some “pretty shabby places.” Stevens recounted a time when a woman approached Trudeau in an eastend restaurant, and told him, “I’m sure you’ve been told many times that you look like Pierre Elliott Trudeau.” When he responded in the affirmative, she added, “I’m going to say one thing and I don’t want you to be offended, sir. You’re not as good-looking as he is.”
Much has been made about many Quebecers’ ambivalence towards Trudeau. But during his years in politics, the Liberals always won the lion’s share of seats in Quebec. In his column in Montreal’s La Presse, Stéphane Laporte recalled how, when he reached voting age, he voted provincially for former Parti Québécois premier René Lévesque and federally for Trudeau. “So what if it was contradictory, if it defied all logic,” wrote Laporte. “We loved them both.” Among allophones, Trudeau’s passing brought sadness. On the day of the funeral, Onnig Albanian closed his jewelry shop to watch the event on television. “The people of Montreal loved him very much because he was one of them,” says Alixanian. Now, for many Montrealers, a stroll down Sherbrooke or Peel streets no longer carries the same thrilling promise of a chance encounter. EÛ3
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