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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

With a whimper, not a bang
Pierre Trudeau once said of Members of Parliament
that they are nobodies when they leave the House.
Yesterday, many of them proved his point

Saturday, September 30, 2000

The House of Commons usually rises to such occasions. It can be counted upon to dispense with its usual cheap partisanship and canned rhetoric and to lead the nation in an act of collective remembrance.

We expect our Parliamentarians at moments such as these to soothe our national sorrow in rivers of eloquence and pools of dignity. We turn to them to provide public expression to our private emotions. Such was the case when the shocking news broke about Lucien Bouchard battling for his life against a flesh-eating disease; such was the case the morning after Shaughnessy Cohen collapsed in the Commons and died.

Against all odds, yesterday proved to be an occasion lost. In sharp contrast to the orchestral splendour of ordinary Canadians pouring forth their memories of Pierre Trudeau, the Commons chamber came up oddly flat. Its special session of tribute to Canada's longest-serving prime minister in the post-war era served more as a reflection on the mediocrity of contemporary political leadership than as a meditation on the man and his times.

The place gave off the hollow feel of a half-empty church. I counted 104 MPs -- 54 Liberals, 50 Opposition -- seated in their green-padded pews. Nearly 200 couldn't be bothered to show. The galleries, too, remained largely unoccupied. The Commons staff turned the lights on, but the electricity never flowed.

One would expect a moment so marinated in political history to draw a crowd. Where, in particular, were all those Liberals who so painstakingly trace their political lineage to their fallen hero? Perhaps Stockwell Day is right about Fridays. Why bother?

The House was so vacant that Ethel Blondin-Andrew, Secretary of State for Children and Youth, had to gesture to two of her colleagues to move closer to the front. All parties grouped their thin rank of MPs around their leaders so as to create an impression for the television audiences of a large congregation.

Then there were the speeches by the five party leaders. Jean Chrétien, who was rightly treated by everyone as a grieving family member, spoke well of a man he described as his colleague, mentor and friend. But he lacked the raw emotion of the previous night, when he spilled forth movingly, eyes three-quarters shut, with a torrent of thoughts on Mr. Trudeau during a refuelling stop in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Alexa McDonough and Gilles Duceppe delivered the passable but forgettable sort of speeches that have become de rigeur in public life.

The two standouts were Stockwell Day and Joe Clark, one bad and one good. Mr. Day likes to project the image of a cocky, self-assured politician. Mr. Trudeau's death seems to have unmasked the new kid on the block as anxious and insecure. Most MPs wore red roses in their lapels yesterday in honour of Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Clark and Ms. McDonough chose to forsake the flowers, even though most of their caucus members opted for them. Mr. Chrétien, naturally, wore one. So, almost inexplicably, did Mr. Duceppe.

The awkward Mr. Day, though, couldn't seem to make up his mind. One can imagine the sleepless night he must have suffered at Stornoway, tossing and turning and asking poor Valorie every five minutes whether she was for or against the floral thing. The morning would have brought phone calls to the image consultants. Would it look like he was dishonouring Mr. Trudeau if he showed up sans rose? Would it look grasping if he put one on? Worse yet, would he alienate core supporters by looking to be sucking up to the father of the National Energy Program? Oh my, oh my! What's a new kid in town, especially one burdened by an agenda of respect, to do?

Here's what he did. He put the rose on a small silver serving tray and asked one of the House of Commons pages to walk it down the corridor and place it under the famous portrait of Mr. Trudeau with a coat draped over his shoulders. "I honour those who wear the rose today as a sign of respect and trademark," the Leader of the Opposition informed the Commons. "I did not ever know him. I do not feel that closeness."

Within half an hour, the silver tray had disappeared (retrieved by the Alliance and returned to Deborah Grey's office) and Mr. Day's rose was lost amid a blooming garden of them on the marble floor.

The Alliance leader is quickly earning himself a reputation for being too calculating by half. He too often seems to be working the angles. Yesterday was a petty but miserable demonstration.

Now for Joe Clark, who, as he pointed out, sat the two swords' lengths across the Commons aisle from Mr. Trudeau -- leader of the opposition to his prime minister and vice versa -- for seven years. Say what you want about Mr. Clark -- some of that grace and intellectual honesty crossed the floor. His political judgment and interpersonal skills can inexplicably go missing in action, but he is a man of substance, and one who understands the balance required in eulogizing an opponent.

He was generous without becoming disingenuous. He spoke admiringly of his former nemesis, but made sure to separate himself on the place of Quebec in Canada, the 1982 Constitution and the National Energy Program. He even offered his own explanation of why a man so committed to the unity of Canada often exacerbated its differences. "His intellect guided him more than his intuition," Mr. Clark offered. "In a sense, he was too rational for this country, which, after all, was formed and grew against logic."

Then, Mr. Clark, in speaking of the boldness of Mr. Trudeau's vision and actions, uttered a line that probably captured Mr. Trudeau, as public leader, best. "Like our first controversial prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, Pierre Trudeau would have built the railway."

Pierre Trudeau was a political giant. He cast an enormous shadow in the course of his life.

Yesterday, his legend continued to reduce most of the pretenders to his crown.

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