Canada's Champion

Reviled by some and deified by others, he leaves an indelible imprint on the country he loved

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 9 2000

Canada's Champion

Reviled by some and deified by others, he leaves an indelible imprint on the country he loved

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 9 2000
Throughout his nearly 81 years, Pierre Trudeau seemed to live by extremes: he either filled a room with his charisma and energy, or withdrew completely, making his boredom and lack of interest apparent to all. One such time came in the fall of 1979, when Trudeau agreed to meet visiting political-science students from Montreal s Concordia University. His Liberals had lost the election to Joe Clark's Progressive Conservatives in the spring, and he was struggling with the unaccustomed role of leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Shortly before the scheduled 10 a.m. meeting on Parliament Hill, the 20-odd students were squirming nervously in their seats when, one later recalled, “you could feel him enter before you saw or heard him.”

In battered sports jacket and casual pants, Trudeau strode energetically to the front of the room and perched, half-sitting, on a table. Without a hello, he gestured at the group and said, “What are your hopes? What are your dreams? Who are you, and what do you want to become?” After a moment’s stunned silence, a student asked Trudeau why, as prime minister, he had not used his constitutional power to disallow recent Parti Québécois legislation that declared French to be Quebec’s only official language. Trudeau’s face turned to stone. He gave a stiff, legalistic answer. Shortly after, he looked pointedly at his watch, mumbled an excuse—and left.

For Canadians, it always seemed that way with Trudeau—there were no half measures, and no telling what he might do or say next. But whether they were enchanted, enraged or rebuffed by the man who was their prime minister for 15 years and five months, they were never indifferent to him. On Sept. 7, when his sons Justin and Sacha issued a statement declaring that their father was “not well” and asking for privacy, Canadians instead turned their attention towards Trudeau again. Reporters camped outside his Montreal home, strangers delivered flowers and get well wishes, and people across the country speculated about his health. Then, the initial fuss subsided—but the burst of media coverage, much of it nostalgic in tone, had once again put him at the forefront of Canadians’ thoughts.

In all, it was the kind of attention once devoted to the passing of royalty. And when the news broke that Trudeau had died of prostate cancer—he had battled pneumonia, compounded by the onset of Parkinson’s disease and, perhaps, the depression he felt ever since the 1998 death of his third son, Michel—the tributes came from Canadians of all backgrounds and political persuasions.

Shared sorrow—towards a politician whose legacy will still be debated decades from now. Trudeau’s economic achievements were, at best, mixed. His other key accomplishments are easy enough to recount—but often draw vastly different reactions. He overhauled the Criminal Code as justice minister to legalize homosexual acts and abortion, and introduced the Official Languages Act. Add to that the decisive 1980 Quebec referendum victory, the patriation of the Constitution and the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—along with such lesser initiatives as lowering the voting age to 18 from 21 and introducing television to Parliament. He also brought forward the 1980 legislation establishing the National Energy Program, which the Liberals said was aimed at safeguarding the country’s oil supply from foreign domination.

Almost all of those initiatives have their detractors. Many westerners are still rankled by the memory of the NEP, which lasted until 1984 and was seen as a sign of both unwanted government intervention and, because it established a range of new taxes and price controls over domestically produced oil and natural gas, a symbol of the way in which Central Canada was prepared to siphon money from the West to prop up its own economy. As to the charter, some critics complain that it puts too much power in the hands of judges instead of elected representatives. Others say official bilingualism is artificial and overly expensive. (To that, Trudeau said memorably in 1968: “Of course, a bilingual state is more expensive than a uni-lingual one, but it is a richer state.”) Even on the issue of Quebec, Trudeau may have done as much to stoke the flames of sovereignty in recent years as he once did to try to stamp out the movement. His strong opposition to the Meech Lake constitutional accord in 1990, for one, galvanized anti-Meech forces in English Canada—but the subsequent collapse of the accord gave a strong boost to sovereigntist fortunes. And the incident that drove his poll numbers to their highest levels ever—the October, 1970, imposition of the War Measures Act after the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross and Quebec labor minister Pierre Laporte—is criticized by some historians as an unnecessary abuse of human rights.

Trudeau, however, was no stranger to debate—or contradiction. Born to a millionaire family whose fortune was made from a chain of service stations, he was a notorious penny-pincher in private life who favored left-leaning, big-spending policies in government. In 1963, he campaigned on behalf of the NDP, and called the Liberals “idiots” for allowing Lester Pearson to permit nuclear warheads in Canada. But two years later, he ran for the Liberals under Pearson, and within two months of his election, became Pearson's parliamentary secretary. And despite his professed disdain for the parish-pump side of elected politics, he eventually became a frequent and adept practitioner of patronage: his departing 1984 round of appointments to old supporters and cabinet colleagues stoked one of the controversies that helped sink successor John Turner.

Much of Trudeau’s early appeal as prime minister came from his dashing, flamboyant style. During his 20s, as author Gordon Donaldson recounted in his 1994 book, The Prime Ministers of Canada, Trudeau “drifted through occupied Germany on faked papers, was slung in jail for trying to enter Yugoslavia without a visa” and, in Palestine, “was arrested as a Zionist spy and thrown into a dungeon where Christ is supposed to have been held. After emerging, he was accosted by bandits, whom he scared off by feigning madness and raving in Montreal slang.” As a politician, he had no less flair. He sported a green leather jacket, on occasion showed up in the House of Commons wearing sandals, and drove a funky Mercedes 300-SL sports convertible.

Sometimes, he walked to his office on Parliament Hill from 24 Sussex Drive. Accosted one day outside Parliament by a 17-year-old girl who asked for a kiss, he responded “why not, it’s spring”—and bussed her. Although he affected disdain for the media, it never seemed a coincidence that his most colorful acts— such as performing a pirouette at Buckingham Palace—occurred with many cameras close by. And he was often keen to chat or lunch or dine with women reporters—even when he wasn’t necessarily trying to date them. Those sessions sometimes evolved into policy discussions. When one young reporter told him how she had just visited a Cape Breton smelter and found that conditions there made it “the worst place on earth,” Trudeau, fascinated, launched a long series of questions as to whether that amounted to a good argument for nuclear power.

But his often flip behavior masked a character of much greater complexity—although he kept his deeper inner thoughts largely to himself. Even acquaintances who had known him for decades said they found him hard to read emotionally. When Trudeau's old friend Gérard Pelletier died in 1997, Donald Macdonald, a former cabinet colleague of both men, said Pelletier was “the last of a small circle of lifelong friends.” A former aide to Trudeau in the Prime Minister’s Office, who saw him on a daily basis for more than two years, remarked years later that “I’m not sure Mr. Trudeau ever knew my full name.”

On the other hand, Trudeau was at his most open with children. In the early 1980s, a senior civil servant working in the Privy Council Office happened to mention to Trudeau that his nine-year-old daughter was a great fan of the Canadian a Cappella group the Nylons—who were scheduled to perform on Parliament Hill for Dominion (now Canada) Day festivities that year. On July 1, as the group was coming onstage, Trudeau, from his front-row seat, gestured to the girl to join him at his seat. He bounced her on his knees in time with the music, and at the end, leaped up to dance with her.

Trudeau was capable of forming unlikely enthusiasms for political opponents. Despite their many differences, he was hugely fond of former Tory prime minister John Diefenbaker, and once declared: “I just love that old guy.” When the former prime minister fell ill just before Trudeau’s departure for a European trip, Trudeau and then-aide Joyce Fairbairn devised a secret code—Daffodil—so he could receive updates on Diefenbaker’s health. “I would message what the weather was—and whether the daffodils were blooming,” Fairbairn recalled several years ago.

Trudeau’s emotions ran deepest over the issue of his native Quebec. His contempt for the nationalist movement was open and undisguised—although it did not necessarily extend to some of its pro-sovereigntist practitioners. Many members of the first PQ government in 1976 were people Trudeau had worked alongside in early years, when progressive Quebecers were united against the authoritarian government of Maurice Duplessis. Once, in the late 1970s, Trudeau gave a news conference in Quebec City. When it was over, reporters were startled to see several PQ cabinet members, led by language hardliner Camille Laurin, rush up to greet Trudeau, who greeted them equally warmly. And while Trudeau fought the Yes side with sometimes scathing mockery during the 1980 referendum, his remarks immediately after the vote were respectful. “To my fellow Quebecers who have been wounded by defeat,” he said, “I wish to say simply that we have all lost a little in this referendum.”

Trudeau was unapologetic about his preoccupation with Quebec. In 1973, he told CTV s W-Five that his reasons for getting into politics were twofold: “One, to make sure that Quebec wouldn’t leave Canada through separatism, and the other, to make sure that Canada wouldn’t shove Quebec out through narrow-mindedness.” That assertion makes it all the more ironic that, in recent years, Trudeau continued to rise in the esteem of English Canada, while in Quebec—where his Liberals won 74 of 75 seats in his last election—his popularity plummeted. The primary reason was his visceral opposition to the Meech accord, as well as the failed 1992 Charlottetown accord. On both occasions, he argued that any agreement that gave Quebec extra powers over other provinces was “insulting” because it implied Quebecers needed extra protection to thrive.

That argument was bitterly resented by both sovereigntists and many Quebec federalists; Trudeau was alternately described within the province as being out-of-date or anti-Quebec. Michel C. Auger, political columnist for Quebec’s largest newspaper, Le Journal de Montréal, observed several years ago that “for both federalists and sovereigntists, Trudeau has fallen off the radar screen. His ideas are seen as outdated.” Still, the former prime minister continued to be treated with respect personally by both friends and opponents. On an international level, said Alain Gagnon, director of McGill University’s Quebec studies program, “francophone Quebecers were always very proud of having Mr. Trudeau as a statesman.” But, Gagnon said, Trudeau’s death caused less emotion among francophone Quebecers because many felt he was antagonistic towards them.

Even within the federal Liberal party, feelings about Trudeau’s legacy and policies are sometimes divided. Trudeau’s opposition to Meech, something he shared with Jean Chrétien, split the party sharply in 1990 because then-Leader Turner and others, including current Finance Minister Paul Martin, supported the accord. Those rifts are still evident—most clearly, some Liberals say, in the coolness that persists between Chrétien and Martin. But Chrétien's own relationship with his former boss has often been complicated. Although he has always made a point of publicly praising Trudeau, Chrétien has many times, with mixed anger and sorrow, told the story of how, when he was finance minister in 1978, Trudeau blindsided him by announcing a $2-billion budget cut without telling him in advance. www.maclean' for links

And Chrétien has also struggled to get out from under Trudeau’s giant shadow. When the Liberals came to power in 1993, Chrétien would call Trudeau about once a month. After a while, the gap between those calls lengthened—and Trudeau, in the wake of the 1995 referendum, publicly complained at a news conference that he “sat on my hands” during the campaign because no one asked him to get involved.

But Trudeau has remained a strong force among rank-and-file Liberals. His name continues to evoke potent memories and images. They are many: the fearless Trudeau who sat unblinking while protesters threw stones during the 1968 St-Jean-Baptiste Day rally in Montreal; the romantic swashbuckler who dated Barbra Streisand, Margot Kidder and Liona Boyd and married Margaret; Trudeau the philosopher, the gunslinger and the devoted father. And, finally, the smooth and sophisticated leader who seemed at home on any stage around the world—so much so that former U.S. vice-president Walter Mondale once called him “a priceless asset to the industrialized world.”

In the end, it was never clear how many of those images were convenient creations he fashioned for himself, and how many reflected his real inner self. For all his time in public life, he was clearly happiest in private, testing his limits in treks and canoe trips either by himself, with his sons or a few friends. He gave a rare look into his thoughts on life in a 1944 essay called “Exhaustion and Fulfilment: The Ascetic in a Canoe.” At the age of 25, with the self-assurance of youth, he solemnly and rather ponderously outlined the joys to be had from a canoe trip that lasts “for days, or weeks, or perhaps months on end.”

The attraction, he said, is that “you return not so much a man who reasons more, but a more reasonable man. For, throughout this time, your mind has learned to exercise itself in the working conditions that nature intended.” There was something else, he concluded, about the outdoors. “I know a man whose school could never teach him patriotism,” Trudeau wrote, “but who acquired that virtue when he felt in his bones the vastness of his land, and the greatness of those who founded it.” Reason was Trudeau's watchword, along with passion for his country. Canadians will long remember—and revere—him for both.

A Scholar and a Fool

The first known published description of Pierre Elliott Trudeau appears in the 1938 yearbook of Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, the highbrow private Jesuit school in Montreal. Trudeau, the yearbook noted, is “the perfect balance between the scholar and the fool.” At 19, Trudeau was brilliant, sensitive, first in his class. But he was only serious about one thing, the yearbook added, “and that’s the mentality of the fool and the prankster.”

Trudeau’s pranks were the stuff of legend. One of his closest friends, Quebec journalist Jacques Hébert, recalls one classic Trudeau moment in China, in 1960. Trudeau was walking through a hotel, with an economist on one side of him and an interpreter on the other. “All of a sudden, he made a perfect somersault, and continued talking as if nothing had happened,” Hébert said.

There was a reason why a man as private and solitary as Trudeau would do somersaults to draw attention to himself. “He was always somewhat shy,” Hébert recalls, “but at the same time, he was fighting it. That’s why he would show off. It was his way of trying to fight that natural shyness.”

Trudeau often surprised his friends. While studying at Harvard University, he scolded Pierre Vadeboncoeur, one of his oldest friends, for using a stamp that cost two cents more than necessary. But then, belying his later cheapskate image, he helped Vadeboncoeur buy a house by assuming the second mortgage. Trudeau had the money: his father Charlie, who died when Trudeau was 15, was an extroverted French-speaking millionaire.

He wasn’t a political animal at first; at university in Montreal, he wrote about the pleasures of motorcycle riding, while the Second World War was raging. After university (Harvard, Ecole des sciences politiques in Paris, London School of Economics), Trudeau's money enabled him to enjoy what appeared to be a life of leisure, with a chic sports car and beautiful women. Yet even then, he wrote reports for unions fighting the oppressive regime of Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis.

For those who knew him, the biggest surprise came when Trudeau jumped into politics at age 46 and then sought the Liberal leadership less than three years later, in 1968. “I tried to discourage him,” remembers Brébeuf classmate, Jean de Grandpré, the retired chairman of Bell Canada Enterprises. “He was ambitious, but a very private person who didn’t like backroom negotiations, dirty politics, smoke-filled rooms. I said, you will not be very comfortable in this environment.’ ” Trudeau ignored him. He knew he’d lose his freedom as prime minister. But he maintained his privacy. And Trudeau never lost his penchant for pranks, the type that keep outsiders at a distance.—Sarah Scott