In his about-to-be-published memoirs, a long-time frien of Trudeau recalls a man who could often be difficult
MY TRAVELS WITH PIERRE
In his about-to-be-published memoirs, a long-time frien of Trudeau recalls a man who could often be difficult
In a lifetime of mingling with everyone from Pierre Elliott Trudeau to Frank Sinatra, Leo Kolber has become one of Canada’s most powerful people. As a close adviser to Samuel Bronfman and then to sons Charles and Edgar, Kolber ran the Bronfman family trust for 30 years, and has been a Liberal senator for two decades. In this excerpt from his about-to-bepublished memoirs, Leo: A Life (with L. Ian MacDonald, McGill-Queen’s University Press), he recalls his relationship with Trudeau:
I FIRST MET Pierre Trudeau at the Grey Cup in Montreal in 1969, the time he famously showed up wearing a cape for the ceremonial kickoff. I was chairman of Grey Cup Week, so [my wife] Sandra and I had a suite at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, and Trudeau came to a party there. It was the first time I saw the effect Trudeau had on a room when he walked in. He immediately became the centre of attention. Since I was the host, he came over to chat.
“You have my great sympathy for taking on this job,” I told him.
“Why do you say that?” he asked.
“Because,” I said, “you are the chief executive of the country, running a huge organization, but you can’t choose your own executives, the cabinet. They are essentially thrust on you, and you also have all these geographical considerations.”
“That’s no problem at all,” Trudeau said. But I knew he hadn’t taken my point about the difference between running a government and managing a business.
SOME 10 YEARS later, Marc Lalonde, Trudeau’s Quebec lieutenant, asked me to become involved in raising money for the Liberal party.
“The Jewish community doesn’t give enough,” Lalonde said.
“How much do you want to raise?” I asked.
“Fifty thousand dollars,” he replied.
“Tell you what,” I said. “You get Trudeau to come to my house for a fundraiser, and I’ll get you a hundred.”
So Lalonde, the one person who could deliver Trudeau, did.
“What do you expect me to do?” Trudeau asked when he came.
“I want you to mingle and pose for as many photographs as possible, because I’ll send these photographs as a memento, and this is what people will remember.”
“What’s for dinner?” he asked.
So I told him—caviar to start, followed by a full-course dinner, top of the line. “Can we afford that?” he asked. “I mean, can the party afford it?” “We can’t. I can,” I replied. “I’m paying for it. Everything they pay goes right to the party.”
“Oh,” Trudeau said. “That’s good.”
We charged $1,000 a couple for those dinners—a lot of money in those days. But because it was Trudeau, we never had any trouble getting people to come.
NOT LONG AFTER Lalonde asked me to help with fundraising, Trudeau invited me to lunch at 24 Sussex. It was the two of us at the small table in the alcove of the dining room that overlooked the Ottawa River. He took off his jacket, sat down to a huge hot lunch, and devoured everything.
He told me he didn’t have any particular agenda. “I wanted to get to know you a bit,” he said. “Do you have anything you would like to discuss with me?” “Well,” I said, “you are the leader of the party, and I find that you are taking the party too far left. Your relations with the business community are lousy. And I don’t think that is very productive.”
“You know,” Trudeau replied, “you have a point, but they are always tarring me with the socialist brush.” He gave me the exampie ofjean de Grandpré, his classmate from law school, later the founding chairman of BCE, who was always on his case.
“I’ve given up on them,” Trudeau said of the business community.
“Prime Minister,” I replied, “I voted for you, I’m a Liberal, and I’m a businessman.”
“Yes, I know all that,” he said.
“Well, you certainly don’t have a mandate from me to give up on the business community.”
So he smiled, and he said, “You are right. I will try harder.” He didn’t, of course, but he was gracious enough to say that he would.
Trudeau’s management, or rather his mismanagement, of Canada’s finances was one issue on which we agreed to disagree. After he left office, I had no hesitation in telling him that he’d really “screwed up.”
IN 1983,1 lobbied Trudeau, through two of his closest associates, to name me to the Senate. There is a tradition in Canada that the party bagman is appointed to the Senate, and there is also a tradition of a Jewish seat from Quebec. I qualified on both counts, and besides, the Bronfmans were thinking of breaking up Cemp Investments and I thought the Senate would be an interesting place to spend part of my time.
I, as it turned out, was the choice of the only person who mattered—the prime minister. We were in Palm Beach in December 1983. I was getting home from a round of golf when Sandra rushed out to meet me.
“You’ve got to call the prime minister,” she said. “He’s calling you.”
“I’m inviting you to join the Senate,” Trudeau began. “But you’re not the first choice of the Jewish community.”
“I’m aware of that, Prime Minister.” “But you’re my first choice,” he said with a light chuckle.
“Thank you, Prime Minister,” I replied. “I’m honoured and delighted to accept.” Now that I was actually being appointed to the Senate, I wondered how time-consuming it would be.
“How often do I have to go?” I asked. Trudeau laughed. “Just show up once in a while,” he said. “It’s no big deal.”
That was then, before senators were docked $250 a day for being absent.
JUST A FEW WEEKS after my appointment, Trudeau took his famous walk in the snow on Leap Year Day and then announced his retirement. At the time, in 1984, Trudeau was a vigorous 64 years old. He had enough to do, but he was no longer prime minister, and it was clearly not an easy adjustment to private life after so many years in power.
Sandra and I kind of befriended him, inviting him on weekends to New York and, occasionally, London. In those days, I had the use of the company plane, so it didn’t cost anything to invite Pierre. In New York, we would take a suite at the Regency or Plaza Athenee, and he would be our guest in the second bedroom. Once, when we all landed in London from Moscow, Pierre had a lovely room at the Dorchester. The hotel had sent up a bowl of fruit, and Pierre flashed that devilish grin of his and said, “This is what I’ll have for breakfast so I won’t have to spend any money.” He was making fun of his reputation for being tight. But he was tight, as opposed to cheap, and there is a difference. As for accommodations, he could stay in a royal suite or a dungeon, it didn’t matter to him. He could be on the road for weeks with a pair of jeans and a couple of T-shirts. Once, in the middle of nowhere, he did his own laundry and hung it from a tree.
We travelled with Trudeau to Pakistan and China; Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia; Central America and the Galapagos Islands; and finally Viemam, Laos, and Cambodia. Trudeau always chose the destinations, and Sandra, Jack Austin, a friend and colleague from the Senate, and I always organized them. The one trip he had always wanted to take was the Trans-Siberian Railway.
So I went to see the Russian ambassador in Ottawa, and he said that they would be honoured to receive Mr. Trudeau and that everything would be arranged. I told Pierre it was a go, and asked him who else he would like to invite. He suggested Bernard Lamarre, the head of Lavalin Engineering, and his wife, Louise; and Paul Desmarais, the chairman of Power Corporation, who brought along his daughter-in-law Helene, who is married to Paul Desmarais Jr. Paul Sr.’s wife, Jackie, couldn’t come.
The Orient Express it wasn’t. But because it was Trudeau, the Soviets put on three cars just for us. A brand new dining car and sleeping car with private compartments. Sandra and I had one compartment for our luggage and one for each of us. And Trudeau had an entire car. It must have gone back to the czar’s days because there was a large bedroom, full bathroom with a bath, and a full sitting room with a boardroom table.
It’s a long journey, seven days and six nights. Trudeau was the only one with a bath, so we all had to ask him if we could use it. And he said, “OK, everybody can come and have a bath every day, but you have to clean up.” So we paraded into his car in our bathrobes and nightshirts every night and had our baths. At dinner and afterwards, Trudeau would talk about politics, the Canadian and world scene. And he would regale us with anecdotes of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter and all the people he had known at G7 summits, Commonwealth conferences, and bilateral visits.
He said that Reagan, for example, was one of the nicest men he had ever met, but obviously not too bright. He said that whenever he met with Reagan, the president had all his talking points on three-by-five cards— he was totally scripted. So if Trudeau asked him about nuclear disarmament, Reagan would fish a card out of his pocket and read the answer. If he didn’t have an appropriate card, Trudeau said, he would tell you an anecdote about Hollywood. But he would never extemporize. Trudeau liked Jimmyq Carter very much, but shared the view that he micromanaged the American presidency.
TRUDEAU’S mismanagement of Canada’s finances was one issue on which we agreed to disagree
On the long train journey across Russia, Trudeau often said what a great country it was, extolling the virtues of the Soviet system. “Pierre,” I said, “it may be the worst system that ever existed.” But the Russians took very good care of us, from the moment we stepped on the plane in Montreal. The Russian ambassador came to see us off, informing us that as a special gesture in honour of Mr. Tmdeau, Aeroflot was going to fly non-stop from Montreal to Moscow.
“Doesn’t it usually?” I asked.
“No,” he replied, “normally we stop in Gander because the fuel there is cheaper.”
IN THE SUMMER of1989, Jean Chrétien was getting set to run for the Liberal leadership, and Trudeau was giving him a hard time about Meech Lake. He had even come to the Senate in the spring of 1988, where he predicted that Meech would mean the end of Canada as we know it.
As for the Liberal leadership, Trudeau made it quite clear to Chrétien that, as he later put it, “my support is not unconditional” and might depend on Chrétien’s position on Meech. I was raising money for Chrétien and doing my bit for his leadership campaign, and he mentioned that Trudeau was giving him a hard time over Meech.
“Do you want me to talk to him?” I asked Chrétien. “Maybe I can help.”
“That would be a big help,” Chrétien said. So I asked Trudeau if he would come to dinner at the house to talk about it with Chrétien. I told him I’d invite Marc Lalonde, Michael Pitfield, who had been clerk of the Privy Council under Trudeau, as well as Tom Axworthy, his former principal secretary, who was then working for Charles Bronfman at the CRB Foundation.
Trudeau showed up late and wandered into the house wearing sandals, a grungy pair of shorts, and a T-shirt. He was pretty hard on the people around the table who were asking him to ease up in his opposition to Meech. Around 10:30, he got up to leave. I walked him to the door.
“Pierre,” I told him, “it’s very easy for you to be critical because you’re not running for anything. But Jean is running for the leadership, and you ought to support him.” He looked at me and said, “You’re right, tell him I’m onside.”
HE SAID he didn’t do prefaces, he didn’t do introductions, he didn’t visit hospitals and he didn’t go to funerals
OUR TRAVELS with Trudeau sadly came to an abrupt end in 1991, after Sandra’s stroke. It happened that she later received the Governor General’s Award in recognition of her volunteerism. It’s an important honour, and a major black-tie event before 2,000 people and television cameras at the National Arts Centre. While she was incapacitated, her mind was still working quite well, and she wondered if Trudeau would introduce her, either live or on video.
He had lunch with me and explained that there were some things he didn’t do: he didn’t do prefaces, he didn’t do introductions. He wrote her a nice long letter of apology, but he wouldn’t do it.
There were other things he didn’t do—he didn’t visit hospitals and he never visited Sandra. That kind of cooled things between us. He didn’t go to funerals either, though there were exceptions, such as the funeral of his closest friend, Gérard Pelletier.
The last time I saw Pierre was on his 80th birthday in 1999. Prime Minister Chrétien was giving a dinner in his honour. I flew up to Ottawa with Trudeau on a plane provided by Power Corporation, and it was a very memorable evening. By that time, it was clear that he was not himself. Less than a year later, in September 2000, he died, and a grieving nation recognized what a different and remarkable leader he had been. In 1993, when he brought out his autobiography, Memoirs, he signed my copy with an inscription I’ll always cherish: “Leo, intrepid companion of our travels.” I don’t know about the intrepid part, but I was privileged to be his companion on our travels. Ail
Copyright 2003, Leo Kolber and L. Ian MacDonald. Reprinted by permission of McGill-Queen’s University Press.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.