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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Coming of age under Pierre
Friday, September 29, 2000

I was 11 years old the day I first met my member of Parliament, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The date was June 25, 1968. The place: the little strip of stores off Mackle Road in Côté St. Luc, Montreal. Political aficionados will recall how, the night before, he stood bravely in the viewing stand as St. Jean Baptiste Day rioters threw missiles at the dignitaries. Others bolted. He defiantly refused to budge. We looked on reverentially as he made a tour of his campaign office down the block from my house. Then he approached my friend, Richard, and signed the plaster cast on his leg. Our photo with the prime minister appeared in the next day's newspaper.

As he has been for so many Canadians, Pierre Trudeau has always been a part of my life. I wrote a 12-page "book" on him in Grade 7. He once came to my high school. I stuck out my hand and asked if he remembered me. (After all, we had once graced the centrespread of the paper together.) He said "I know your father, don't I?" They had never met. "That's right," I replied excitedly. At 15, I worked the phones on behalf of his 1972 campaign.

Eight years later, I would cover his final election as a young reporter in the barren Liberal plains of the Canadian Prairies. It was a good place to learn of the complexity of the country and begin to release some air from the Trudeau myth.

The firmness of Trudeau's grasp on my generation, and even more the generation before me, remains a Canadian phenomenon. Our values were shaped in an era dominated by his world view. There existed such a thing as a Trudeau consensus, one built around the the twin virtues of tolerance and opportunity. His style and verve spoke to a period of unbridled optimism in this country. He represented the best of Canada during our great moment in the sun in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The land was, indeed, strong back then, or so it seemed.

Our neighbours to the south were consumed by the evils of political assassinations, war and race hatred. We, in contrast, embraced tolerance and crusaded for social good. They had Nixon. We had our brilliant and sexy new leader with an inspiring vision of a Just Society. Thirty years later, Canadians would tell pollsters he remained the country's most trusted and respected politician.

But somewhere along the way, reality intruded. He defeated the separatists but failed to unify the country. His henchmen squelched democracy in his own party. His attention to the economy, the foundation stone of a Just Society, could be maddeningly indifferent. He introduced programs he had previously mocked. (Remember "Zap! You're frozen," the line he used to ridicule the idea of wage and price controls.) He trampled the very civil liberties he worked so hard to promote. He defied his own warning that governments that pander to the public will ruin the treasury.

He was rightly a hero to new Canadians and minority groups, but the Trudeau coalition steadily shed constituencies as his political life marched on -- small business people, Westerners, farmers. To them, the prime minister offered not tolerance, but the finger known as the "Salmon Arm salute." My father, an early Trudeau supporter, kept a little Ben Wicks cartoon taped to a corner of his bulletin board, a gift from a friend who had soured on Trudeau. "I've got to hand it to you," it said, "you hated Trudeau even when he was good."

As a 40-something Canadian today, I simply can't consider the Trudeau record without pausing for long reflection over the generation of economic decline that began on his watch. For a quarter-century until 1974, successive Canadian governments paid down our war debt, balanced our books and provided economic and social leadership. But, hit by the OPEC oil crisis in 1973-74, the Trudeau governments lurched from policy mistake to policy mistake. Over the next decade, his last in office, the national debt would leap from about $18-billion to $199-billion. Inflation and unemployment would defy the convention of the day and gallop ever upward in tandem. Double-digits became the norm.

To be fair, this wasn't an easy time for any government. The rules of the game had changed, but politicians didn't fully understand it yet. That said, the Trudeau government, with its revolving door of finance ministers (including Jean Chrétien) possessed a special genius for not getting it. Trudeau himself, the great intellect we counted on to prepare us for the future, didn't appear all that interested in our problems. He boarded a plane to save the world from nuclear ruin.

He left the Mulroney government a gigantic $38.6-billion deficit in his last year in office. It would take another decade before a new Liberal government would regain control of the country's finances. In the process, millions would suffer from program cuts and high taxes. The author of The Just Society sowed the seeds of some very heartless policies. The optimism Canadians felt at the start of the Trudeau years would degenerate into a deep-seated national pessimism.

Through it all, though, the Trudeau myth continued to grow. It drew its sustenance in part from his guts and his grace, which remain so compelling against the blandness of contemporary Canadian political leaders. As a pioneering people, we respect his singular character. You always knew where Trudeau stood.

To be sure, the myth also grows out of a very real legacy, the most enduring aspect of which is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In his inimitable style, he gave it to us over the heads of the premiers. An achievement of that same singular character.

The dreamer may be dead. But not the dream. The pride of country that he instilled in us lives on. As we prepare for an election to choose our next national government, one can expect the Trudeau name to be invoked regularly. Prime Minister Chrétien will speak to Trudeau values (the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation) and to his insistence upon a strong central government. Stockwell Day will talk of the unabashed gunslinger intent on challenging Canadians with new ideas. In their own ways, they'll both claim lineage.

In death, as in life, his meaning confounds us. He remains, most assuredly though, our national touchstone.

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