After his retirement, Trudeau continued his globe-trotting ways
By John Geddes in Ottawa
Pierre Trudeau was sitting on a log one day in 1994 with three friends and two hired guides in a remote jungle in Indonesia, when three hunters appeared wearing only penis gourds and carrying machetes. One of the tribesmen began gesturing vigorously, in a motion that Senator Jack Austin, one of Trudeau’s companions that day, remembers as a strange signal involving both hands. Trudeau quickly deciphered it. “Pierre says instandy, ‘He wants a cigarette,’ ” Austin recalls. “One of our guides whips out a package, and Pierre says, ‘Jack will buy the pack.’ And so I did, and Pierre distributed the cigarettes.”
It turned out the guides could roughly translate the dialect of the three tribesmen, so Trudeau was soon asking questions. How many wives did they have? Had they fought wars recently? The episode ended with the three men inviting Trudeau on a trek to see the mummified remains of the dead heroes of their people. Unfortunately, such a detour was impossible. But Austin followed many other sideroads and tributaries in a series of long journeys he and the former prime minister took together after Trudeau left 24 Sussex Drive. In a sense, these late travels form a bookend with the adventurous, globe-trotting young Trudeau. “When he stepped out of politics in 1984,” Austin says, “Pierre had an unfinished agenda with respect to seeing and understanding the world.”
Austin played a key role in helping Trudeau finish that agenda. He had been Trudeau’s principal secretary in 1974-1975, and, after being appointed to the Senate in 1975, went on to serve in Trudeau’s cabinet in the early 1980s. He says Trudeau devoured stories of two unusual trips Austin took without him, one to Bhutan in 1981 and another to Baffin Island in 1983. Those talks led to their decision to travel together. Austin organized four trips for Trudeau and a few friends—to Pakistan and China in 1987, South and I Central America in 1989, Africa in 1992, and finally Indonesia in 1994. While Trudeau was alive, Austin respected his privacy by not discussing the journeys. But last week, on the day after he attended Trudeau’s funeral, he agreed to be interviewed by Macleans.
Trudeau was no ordinary tourist. In South Africa in 1992, he spent a morning with Nelson Mandela, who had been released from prison two years previously and was struggling to bring about the end of apartheid as leader of the African National Congress. Austin, who was present, says Trudeau and Mandela discussed relations between the ANC and the white regime. Mandela asked Trudeau to speak out publicly against what he said was state-directed violence against the ANC. Trudeau suggested a private message to white South African leaders might be useful. He met with president F. W de Klerk for two hours on the same trip. “De Klerk asked, ‘What’s Mandela saying?’ ” Austin recalls. “Trudeau said, ‘He’s accusing you and your government of fomenting violence.’ ”
But playing elder statesman was not the prime purpose of Trudeau’s travels. Austin says his attitude was “jesuitical”— he was not really content unless the going was tough. They travelled by jeep in mountainous northern Pakistan and into the vast deserts of western China. In a Coptic church in the Ethiopian countryside, Trudeau sat on wooden pews and quietly discussed belief in God with rural priests. Through it all, Austin says he came to know a lessguarded Trudeau than the politician he had served in Ottawa. “After he retired, and after he got over the psyche of confidentiality that goes with being prime minister, he became much more open.”
In 1995, Trudeau fulfilled a long-standing dream of visiting Antarctica. It was an expedition Austin was not interested in, but Trudeau went anyway. “And then he’d been everywhere,” Austin says. “If there is an important part of the world he hadn’t seen, I don’t know what it is.” For a man who relished the road so much, Trudeau revealed little about his post-1984 travels in his 1993 Memoirs. It is left to the lucky few who went along with him to tell the stories. El
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