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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

When the elephant sneezed
Monday, October 2, 2000

For a man who knew the world, Pierre Trudeau didn't really know America. A relentless traveller, he liked to say he had visited virtually every country on Earth, but his passion was more Europe and Asia than the United States.

Still, he had studied at Harvard in Massachusetts and summered at Old Orchard Beach in Maine. There, his family rented a clapboard cottage down the street from where the Kennedys used to stay. The young Mr. Trudeau would take an armful of books and disappear among the dunes and rocks, happily absorbed for hours.

As a bachelor, he would weekend in New York; years later, he looked incredulous when told you couldn't do that any more for $100. There was the odd trip when he was a parliamentarian and a cabinet minister -- one in which he memorably saw Bobby Kennedy speak -- and, of course, official visits as prime minister.

For all that, though, the United States meant more to Mr. Trudeau as an idea than a destination. He had read and loved Jefferson, Thoreau and Whitman. For this world adventurer, America was perhaps too close and too safe.

Yet his view of the United States, its dominance and its challenges, would shape his view of Canada in the world. He recognized that Canadian foreign relations were largely Canadian-American relations. He also recognized that living in the shadow of the colossus -- when the elephant sneezes, everyone catches a cold, he'd say -- made it imperative that a middle power such as Canada find ways to safeguard its independence.

So, he extended Canada's maritime borders and declared its sovereignty in the Arctic. He recognized Red China and embraced Castro's Cuba and opposed the Vietnam War and reduced Canada's role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, none of which pleased the United States. Richard Nixon called him "an asshole." Mr. Trudeau shrugged, a mask of indifference, and said, "I've been called worse things by better people."

Over 16 years and five presidents, Mr. Trudeau would often challenge the assumptions of the United States, sometimes foolishly, as he struggled to escape its heavy embrace.

The Third Option. The Contractual Link. The Foreign Investment Review Agency. The National Energy Policy. Petro-Canada. Canadian content.

His early hope was to diversify trade -- pursuing new markets in Europe and elsewhere -- so that Canada wasn't so dependent on the United States. Another was to try to limit foreign ownership in Canada.

Today, of course, all that's gone. Long before he left office in 1984, Mr. Trudeau knew that diversifying trade was impossible because the pull of U.S. markets was too strong. Then, he worried about two-thirds of Canada's trade going to the United States. Now, it's four-fifths.

Brian Mulroney and his free-trading Conservatives gleefully dismantled what they considered anti-American policies, determined to root out any vestige of economic nationalism in their rush to accommodate the United States, convinced that it was good for business. Maybe it was.

Some of Mr. Trudeau's policies toward the United States were naive in concept and clumsy in execution. But for those who worry that Canada is slipping irretrievably into America's orbit, his attempts to reduce dependence and broaden sovereignty are courageous, if Sisyphean. Today, they look like a spirited bid to hold back the tide of Americanism.

As much as Mr. Trudeau wanted an economic and political distance from America, he also wanted an intellectual one. Although he once dismissed the Pearsonian notion of Canada as the helpful fixer, he came to appreciate Canada's influence in international institutions such as the Commonwealth and the UN and its stature in peacekeeping.

In the multilateral realm, he never shrank from taking positions that antagonized Washington -- promoting a better deal for the Third World, opposing the arms race, and leading his quixotic, though heartfelt, "peace initiative" to lower international tensions during his last days in office.

If his defiance brought frostiness from Mr. Nixon, it brought bemusement from Ronald Reagan. On the other hand, Mr. Trudeau had a warm relationship with Jimmy Carter and, particularly, with Jerry Ford, with whom he skied.

Certainly, Mr. Trudeau's legacy is at home more than abroad. In its fundamentals, today's Canada -- bilingualism, the Charter of Rights, the equality of the provinces, the prominence of francophones in the public service -- remains Mr. Trudeau's Canada. But there is another legacy. In his championing of the national interest, his belief in liberal internationalism and his commitment to an independent Canada, Pierre Trudeau may have been the last, great Canadian.
Andrew Cohen is co-editor of Trudeau's Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

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