A Very Private Politician

Pierre Trudeau was a public showman whose happiest times were spent with his family

Julian Beltrame October 9 2000

A Very Private Politician

Pierre Trudeau was a public showman whose happiest times were spent with his family

Julian Beltrame October 9 2000

A Very Private Politician


Pierre Trudeau was a public showman whose happiest times were spent with his family

Julian Beltrame

The images are burned into the Canadian imagination. The naughty Pierre Trudeau pirouetting behind the back of the Queen at Buckingham Palace, the gunslinger, the playboy dancing with a fetching beauty half his age, the athletic Trudeau jackknifing into a pool. Despite his age—he was in his late 40s when he burst onto the public stage by winning the Liberal leadership in 1968—there seemed to be a glow about him, as if pure energy was oozing from his pores. Yet years later,

Trudeau would describe solitary nights spent with his three young sons as the source of true contentment.

“Every Saturday night, I would get away from my commitments and read to them,” he told York University professor B. W. Powe for an essay contained in the 1998 book Trudeaus Shadow. “It was one of the happiest periods of my life.”

Pierre Elliott Trudeau was a contradiction: a man who guarded his privacy jealously while choosing the most public of vocations, a reclusive figure who rev^ elled in acting the showman. But above all, his long| time friend Senator Serge Joyal told Macleans, he was 4 a family man who doted on his children, Justin, Sacha | and the ill-fated Michel, who was swept to his death | by an avalanche in British Columbia’s Kokanee Glac£ ier Provincial Park two years ago at the age of 23. “He With Margaret after the 1974 election: to her, he was 'the love of my life

told me immediately after leaving government in 1984 that the most important thing in his life now was his children and overseeing their education,” recalls Joyal. Trudeau leaped to the task as single-mindedly as he took to politics, often eschewing social and political engagements so that he could spend time with his sons at the family’s country home in the Laurentians, or taking them on experience-broadening trips to France, England, China and Siberia.

Trudeau’s devotion may have been partly an attempt to catch up after the years when he was too occupied with the affairs of state. He was 31 in 1971 and still in his first mandate as prime minister when he


junior. The children came in quick succession, and although he often took one or two on foreign trips with him, he lamented in his 1993 Memoirs that the hectic life of a politician necessitated leaving the kids behind with the young Margaret.

She would later describe the period in terms of claustrophobic tor-

married Margaret Sinclair, a naïve Vancouver flower child 29 years

‘The things I will do after I retire? Many books 1 still want to read. Perhaps learn to play the piano better. See the few remaining countries that IVe never visited. See my children grow up and begin to fulfil themselves. Those are the things that are still ahead/

-Trudeau, Interview with the BBC’s David Frost, February, 1982

‘I MAS A NEOPHYTE at both politics and family life. Perhaps it was a little too much and, regrettably, I didn’t succeed all that well.’

ment. She felt abandoned, a prisoner in the gilded cage of 24 Sussex Drive. The fairy-tale marriage began unravelling and the couple separated in 1977. They finally divorced in 1984, three months before Trudeau stepped down as prime minister. He demanded and obtained sole custody of the children.

As Trudeau adapted to the role of single dad, never publicly speaking of his turbulent breakup, Margaret broke free in spectacular fashion. Even before their split, her escapades famously included drug use and partying with The Rolling Stones. Later, her dalliances included Jack Nicholson, Geraldo Rivera and parties at New York City’s celebrated Studio 54 that made headlines around the world and became fodder for the two tell-all books she penned, 1979’s Beyond Reason and Consequences in 1982. If Trudeau minded—and who wouldn’t—or worried about the effect

their mother’s extravagant behaviour had on the sons, he never said so. In fact, Trudeau partly blamed himself, writing in Memoirs that he was ill-prepared for the many demands of his public and private life. “I was a neophyte at both politics and family life,” Trudeau wrote. “I married late in life and I was learning about marriage and parenthood at the same time as I was learning about the workings of politics. So perhaps it was a little too much for me and, regrettably, I didn’t succeed all that well.”

He was determined to make amends to his children—and spend more time with them. It was something he missed with his own father, who died when Trudeau was 15 and was relatively absent during his formative years. Instead, it was his mother, Grace Elliott, who was the constant presence, instilling in him a love of

learning and books. Friends say Trudeau was able to pass on to his children his own twin passions for the outdoors and for intellectual pursuits.

Margaret, meanwhile, continued to visit the children regularly at Trudeau’s Montreal home, even after she had married Ottawa businessman Fried Kemper and had two children with him. Recently, she still called Trudeau “the love of my life,” in spite of the rupture in their relationship. And she was with him when his failing health took a turn for the worse.

Perhaps the strangest chapter of Trudeau’s private life was the revelation that he had fathered the daughter of Deborah Coyne, a constitutional adviser to Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells during the Meech Lake saga. While the relationship cooled after the birth of Sarah on May 5, 1991, Trudeau continued to visit his daughter in Toronto, where Coyne lived for a time in the 1990s. According to friends, he also made sure his sons came to regard

her as a sister. Typically, Trudeau has never publicly talked about the unconventional relationship.

Trudeau’s decline accelerated in 1997 with the death of his old friend Gérard Pelletier. Along with Trudeau, he was one of Quebec’s “Three Wise Men” who came to Ottawa in the 1960s (the third, Jean Marchand, died in 1988). Seventeen months later, Michel died tragically. The first loss devastated Trudeau, the second appeared to crush him. He soon fell ill with pneumonia, with which he was hospitalized for 10 days last January. “He’s never really recovered,” Joyal said.

At the funeral of Pelletier, Trudeau, a devout Roman Catholic, read a passage from Corinthians, adding his personal postscript: “Part of my soul has left me—and he’s waiting for me.” The sentiment must have been doubly true with the loss of Michel—for a man who, throughout his life, hid his private pains as adamantly as he showcased his public flamboyance. EB

‘I became accustomed very young to rowing against the current, attacking authority and not giving a damn for public opinion’


1979 interview