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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

After Pierre: back to the sovereigntists
Monday, October 9, 2000

Toward the end of the 1995 referendum campaign on sovereignty, a friend called to voice his anger at the federalist camp. He was a fortysomething teacher who had voted Yes 15 years earlier but was tempted to vote No this time. Yet, he was incensed at the flat, boring campaign of the No camp.

The federalist leaders had no vision, he complained. They couldn't galvanize people. "Look at the other side. They're able to stir emotions, they're positive and enthusiastic, they have a project. Trudeau's the only one who could match Lucien Bouchard! Now here's someone who could infuse passion in the No camp. Why don't they bring him out?"

The answer, of course, had already filtered out from the No camp: Pierre Trudeau had been asked to stay home.

The federalist strategists feared that an appearance by the former prime minister would be counterproductive. Mr. Trudeau was widely painted as ferociously "anti-Quebec," which was false, unless one confuses a government or a political movement with the population as a whole.

The process of demonization had started much earlier, increasing as the sovereigntist movement gained ground. In any case, the operation had been so successful that, in 1995, most francophone federalists would have died rather than be seen next to Mr. Trudeau on a podium. Nobody can tell whether Mr. Trudeau could have prevented the erosion of the No camp in '95. Probably not. His intervention would have been a media event, but a single appearance of a suspected anti-Quebecker wouldn't have turned the tables.

Things had been different in 1980, when Mr. Trudeau had been the sovereigntists' nemesis. His two masterful speeches provided momentum to the No camp, which had been limping along under Jean Chrétien and Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan. But Mr. Trudeau was prime minister. Ordinary Quebeckers admired him and many basically agreed with his views, but they didn't want him to humiliate his already defeated foes.

Chances are Pierre Trudeau will be remembered in Quebec as a great man who made his native province proud, but who erred on constitutional issues because he couldn't come to terms with Quebec nationalism. The general atmosphere in French Quebec was a mixture of admiration, respect and reserved criticism. When reviewing Mr. Trudeau's life, most commentators focused on non-controversial issues: his intellect, his devotion to his sons, his progressive social views, his belief in the power of the state, while concluding that his "dream" of a united Canada had "failed."

Mr. Bouchard did what the occasion called for: His cabinet issued a respectful, if equivocal, eulogy focusing on Mr. Trudeau's "intelligence and willpower"; the Premier dutifully went to Montreal City Hall, where Mr. Trudeau lay in state; and he attended the funeral mass with two senior cabinet ministers. But a day hadn't passed before the Bouchard government stepped up the sovereigntist rhetoric.

This time, the government is trying to rekindle sovereigntist passions by evoking the perilous state of the French language. A commission of inquiry on language presided over by Gérald Larose, a former union leader who is a fervent sovereigntist, will be held from Nov. 1 to May 1; that will put language at the forefront of the news for most of the year. Already, not a day goes by without a government agency publishing yet another set of dire statistics about the anglicization of Montreal or the sorry state of French in the workplace. If this doesn't work, nothing will.

Lysiane Gagnon is a political columnist at La Presse.

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