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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Teachers used Trudeau's passion to inspire many young Canadians
Saturday, September 30, 2000

As I read the tributes in the newspapers, as I listen to the recordings of that drawling, familiar voice, as I watch the famous news clips on the television, I keep thinking about my teachers.

Hardly surprising, I suppose. I had no personal contact with Pierre Trudeau. I shook hands with him once, in a crowd, sometime in 1968. I was in Grade 11. He was making a campaign stop before the election that gave him his first majority government, and my hand was just one of the many that were thrust toward him. And so, for me, Pierre Trudeau was always most alive -- indeed, he remains most vividly in memory -- in history classrooms and high school debating halls where he never set foot.

There can be few professions -- perhaps there are no professions -- on which a free and just society more depends than its teachers. The really good ones are rare, I suppose, but no more rare than the really good in any other occupation.

Contrary to what Mike Harris may think, it isn't easy to inspire students -- to teach them about knowledge, and ideas, and morality, and thought, and communication, and logic, and discipline, and creativity. And it's all too easy for small minds to belittle the importance of a broad and impassioned education.

I was lucky enough to have had a few really good teachers. I recall the impassioned discussions by which they brought their classes so to life -- arguments about Russian history, or Canadian politics, or Athenian democracy; debates about the role of the state and the rights of the individual; fights about sexual morality, or wire-tapping, or pop culture, or nationalism. Our teachers, so it seems to me, were almost always talking, one way or another in those days, about Pierre Trudeau.

His time as Minister of Justice, his leadership campaign, and his first few years as Prime Minister coincided with my high school years, and I often think he must have been a godsend to teachers. He kept making headlines about the very things they were trying to teach. He made subjects exciting that had always been anything but. "I wonder if you heard what Mr. Trudeau said yesterday about . . . " so a history class would often begin. And remarkably enough -- considering that we were teenagers -- we usually had heard his comments. We paid attention to him.

Often it's the brightest kids in high school who can look beyond what they are being taught and see that adult life will not be based on knowledge, and morality, and idealism but rather on the narrow, more reliable rewards of self-interest. Certainly, that's what the evidence suggested.

But then, suddenly, there was Trudeau: A man whose personality and career and ambitions seemed not added-to, but built resolutely upon his education. He seemed to be walking proof that ideas were more than 25-mark questions on tests, and that philosophy was not something you dropped after first-year university. He appeared to think that thinking was important. And he conveyed, by his own irresistibly stylish example, that a belief should be held with reason and passion and commitment. More than anything, he conveyed to us -- those of us who were students at the time, and who were just beginning to feel the first glimmering of intellectual excitement -- that history, our very own history, had consequences.

The year after I shook his hand, our school debated "Resolved: Independence is in the best interest of the people of Quebec." And it was largely because argument and counter-argument swirled so constantly around Pierre Trudeau, because he had, by then, already embarked on the path of ambition and philosophy and idealism that would lead to his own triumphs and disasters. And because his own thinking had thrown the very notion of being a Canadian into such high relief, none of us thought for an instant that our debating was not real, or consequential, or important, simply because we were young. Quite the contrary.

David Macfarlane writes Cheap Seats for The Globe and Mail. He is the author of the novel Summer Gone.

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