Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
The dream, the vision, the style, the man
By MICHAEL VALPY
Friday, September 29, 2000
Pierre Trudeau's death and the death of the Canada we've known for half a century come together as one. Both gone, now.
It is this dual loss that Canadians will be feeling today, this trauma on both sides of the language divide.
He said: "It's tough to build a country to match a dream." And with globalization's fog rolling over our borders, blurring the specialness, the distinctiveness we once thought we had on the northern half of a continent, it will be the dream we remember.
The dream, the vision, the style and the man, all one, all tangled together in our souls.
He was — is — our one mythological prime minister, our one mythic hero. Perhaps an archetypal icon — a little bent by television; TV made him look lithe, willowy; in real life, he was shorter, stockier, with big hands — but a genuine primordial Canadian mental image.
Mythology is the delivery of idea and image at the same time. It is the simultaneous cultural message delivered both to the mind and to the mind-below-the-mind. It reveals the deep patterns of meaning and coherence in a culture. It shows us who we dream ourselves to be.
Through mythic heroes we tell our cultural story.
Pierre Trudeau, and some might squirm a bit at the language here, was the divine enhancement of the earthbound Canadian.
He did not exactly fit the hero's definition in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces : He wasn't born of humble parents (which, in any event, is more American mythology than ours). But the rest was there:
There is the hero who is like us, but better than us, who was rich, smart, brave, who dressed in gorgeous clothes (the capes, the leather, the fedoras), who became beautiful and captured the beautiful maiden, who was a Hegelian spirit of the age, who had Vision and Ideals.
There is the heroic summons to adventure (to enter federal politics and become prime minister), which the hero initially avoids but eventually follows (he did not come to politics in the ordinary way; he was elevated into it).
There is the hero's path through a dark night of the soul (the 1979 election loss) to the supreme trial (the confrontations with Quebec nationalism, Anglo bigotry and provincial premiers opposed to his pan-Canadian vision).
There is — as Michael Higgins, president of St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ont., tells us — intimations of the hero on a Parsifalian spiritual quest: Mr. Trudeau's spiritual oasis was the English Benedictine community in downtown Montreal; he belonged to the intellectual and spiritual group that gathered for 25 years around the University of Montréal Dominican medievalist Louis-Marie Régis, who served as his spiritual adviser and baptized Justin, his first child; on visits to Paris, he sought out the great Dominican philosopher Marie-Dominique Chenu; back home in Quebec, he went on silent retreat to the monastery at St.-Benoît du Lac.
There is the hero whose images are burned deep into our minds-below-our-minds. The pirouette behind the Queen at Buckingham Palace that said, "I'm here but not part of it." The man defiant in the box at the St. Jean Baptiste parade as the rocks and bottles fly and lesser people scuttle to safety. The man who says, "Just watch me." The solitary figure in the buckskins, paddling his canoe in the wilderness. The man who goes for a walk in the snow and says goodbye to public life ("I have supped at your table but I am not like you").
Later we learn — from Mr. Trudeau's former principal secretary, James Coutts — that most of Mr. Trudeau's images (like the palace pirouette) were contrived, deliberate, rehearsed, planned hours in advance by a man who had become intrigued by Marshall McLuhan's idea that the public sees prominent figures as if they are wearing masks and identify with the character of the mask, not necessarily the person behind it.
The mythic hero knew how the mythological script worked.
There is the hero with the Achilles' heel who shows his fundamental vulnerability, almost a fragility (in any event a profound lack of judgment) by marrying the young, other-worldly Margaret Sinclair, the beautiful maiden who was the wrong choice.
There is even the hero triumphant over death.
For years, the woman who owns my neighbourhood dry cleaner had a photograph of an older Mr. Trudeau on the wall, visiting a nearby park. When he became ill this last time, she substituted that photograph for one of a young, cocky in-your-face Mr. Trudeau at the height of his political powers.
He had come into her shop on an election campaign, had spoken to her in Greek, had had flowers sent to her the next day. Of course, she never forgot him. "He is my man," she said a couple of days ago.
I once saw him marketed at a Liberal Party convention in flashing high-tech images that pounded the mind and dominated the senses, his high-cheekboned face hurled electronically against backdrops of mountains, Mounties, the monarch and monster Maple Leaves with a crowd screaming "Trudeau! Trudeau! Trudeau!" and a very dishy woman shouting into a microphone: "He's handsome. He's outspoken. He's controversial. He's a deep thinker. He makes us mad and [this said playfully to Mr. Trudeau] you do sometimes. He's made us cry. Pierre Trudeau is a leader. Pierre Trudeau is my kind of man."
The audio-visual presentation was described at the Liberal gathering as "a gift to Canadians" from George Cohon, president of McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Ltd.
McTrudeau. McLeader. McHero.
One might have wondered, what does it do to a man's perception of himself, to see and hear himself presented like this. To Pierre Trudeau, it seemed to mean nothing. "I'm here but not part of it." "I have supped at your table but I'm not like you."
To be sure, he was hated by many Canadians. To Quebec nationalists in particular, he was the terror of the simple answer. He disdained nationalism, disdained provincialism. Brilliantly French and brilliantly English, he was the proof there could be an English-French vision of the country.
And as Toronto psychiatrist Vivian Rakoff points out, the hero always attracts both positive and negative. "When you tangle with the hero, when you denounce the hero, you get into the ring with him. Maybe you can even conquer him." But what you do is identify with him.
Canadians, the inhabitants of the clichéd anti-heroic country, almost bizarrely had a dress rehearsal for Mr. Trudeau's death when his sons announced two weeks ago that he was ill.
The fact that he was "not well" — not well, at age 80, 16 years after he had left public office — forced other news from the front pages of newspapers and the airtime of television and radio broadcasts.
Canadians recognized then a startling truth: In a world said no longer to believe that myth is real, in a world where myth is said to have been delegitimized, here in humdrum boring Canada, the hero myth remained compelling.
Here in a Canada that never did succeed in being built to match a dream, we had dreamed a while with a dreamer whose dream we all knew. Now we will never hear from him again.