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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

We were wrong to call him arrogant
Saturday, September 30, 2000

Afew years ago in a house in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood, some of the country's leading adherents of the Trudeau constitutional vision met with the former prime minister to talk about Canada's future.

This was 15 years after Pierre Trudeau had patriated the Constitution, given Canada its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, constitutionally enshrined its modern language rights.

Years in which he undoubtedly had been told 10,000 times what a giant of the nation he was.

At one point in the conversation, constitutional law Professor Lorraine Weinrib eloquently praised Mr. Trudeau for what he had done for the country.

Somewhat to the surprise of others in the room, Mr. Trudeau, then in his late 70s, appeared genuinely touched, indeed abashed and discountenanced.

Just that brief personal glimpse. For the rest of the meeting he was immersed in the exploration of ideas.

So a footnote for the record: He wasn't arrogant. That was always the wrong word.

We -- the media -- applied arrogance to his theatrics, to his habit of breaking out of convention's mould to use unconventional patterns of language, to his discipline and rigour, to the muscularity of his intellect and to his uncorked testosterone when he got into a debate.

And we were wrong.

Journalists who occasionally glimpsed him outside the media spotlight saw a man without artifice, self-effacing, unassuming, soft-spoken, shy, at times socially awkward (as many intellectuals and academics are). And, like many shy people, someone who had perfected a mask of manners, a mask of Edwardian courtesy and politeness.

Traits that were more visible after he left public office.

There is such a contrast between former American presidents who retain the trappings of security and former Canadian prime ministers who almost instantly melt back into the landscape as ordinary citizens (and so much for the so-called defining myths of America-the-egalitarian and Canada-the-deferential).

Mr. Trudeau, in his post-prime-ministerial years, walking along sidewalks and in parks, was the antithesis of haughty. He surrounded himself with no aura saying "Keep off."

He was reserved, but that's a national trait. He also was patient, warm and unfailingly polite with people who encountered him . . . people of all ages -- but it seemed mainly the old -- who displayed such proprietary interest in him, who would momentarily sit beside him on park benches to say hello, to tell him how much they liked him, and then move away and let him be.

We're such a wonderfully polite people still.

Canadians often were astonished to see him in the setting of their own ordinary lives, occasionally unbelieving that he was who he was.

One woman, seeing him in a Toronto park, left her knot of friends and came up to him. "Are you Pierre Trudeau?" she asked. For the puckish Mr. Trudeau, the temptation was too great. "No, but I've been told I look like him," he replied and walked on, leaving behind a totally baffled group.

And a codicil: At times, the things he did could look a little, well, arrogant.

Twenty years ago Robert Sheppard, now a Macleans journalist, and I, in the preparation of our book on the patriation of the Constitution, were granted a 45-minute interview with prime minister Trudeau.

I remember looking at my watch as we were shown into Mr. Trudeau's cool, minimalist office in Parliament Hill's Centre Block.

The interview went well. Mr. Trudeau appeared engaged by our questions.

Precisely at the 45-minute mark, an aide stuck his head in the door. Mr. Trudeau stopped speaking in mid-sentence and, without another word, picked up some papers on his desk and returned to work.

We were so startled by this termination of our interview and the speed with which we were whisked out of his office that Rob Sheppard left his briefcase behind.

He was allowed to go back and retrieve it.

"Did he say anything to you?" I asked.

Mr. Sheppard said, "He didn't look up, but he told me if it had been a cabinet minister who had left behind his briefcase, he would have fired him."

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