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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

The elements that made Pierre Trudeau great

Friday, September 29, 2000

'Just watch me," Pierre Elliott Trudeau said once, when a reporter asked how far he would go during the October Crisis. For three decades, we did, standing transfixed as he tumbled and pirouetted across the national stage. No other prime minister has seized our attention the way he did. He grabbed us by the lapels and never let go.

When he emerged suddenly onto the national scene in the late 1960s, a bohemian figure who wore sandals into Parliament, the country was caught up in a kind of frenzy: Trudeaumania. Nothing like it had ever happened to a Canadian politician. When he quietly wed the young Margaret Sinclair in 1971, the country cheered and women sighed. When he finally quit politics in 1984 after his famous walk in the snow, he left a hole in our national life that has never quite been filled.

No politician since has come close to matching him for intellect, rhetorical power or sheer dash. Pierre Trudeau in the full heat of debate, eyes flashing, voice soaring, was a sight to behold. No one who has ever seen him in action is likely to forget it.

Even in retirement, a remote, private figure, he retained his power to fascinate. When he broke his customary silence to denounce the Meech Lake accord and later the Charlottetown accord, the whole country sat up and took notice. The old knight was back on his charger, roaring with anger and spitting venom at his enemies. Who else could rouse us that way?

What explains the Trudeau magic? Certainly not charm. Mr. Trudeau was an aloof, often arrogant leader who suffered fools never. He alienated many of his cabinet colleagues, treating them more like busboys than ministers of the Crown. He called members of Parliament "nobodies" and gave hecklers the finger. His highhanded manner soured relations between Ottawa and the provinces for a generation.

Not his legislative achievements, either. Mr. Trudeau's economic record was abysmal. Federal spending rose ninefold during his tenure. It was his spade that began digging the debt hole that still yawns before us. His tendency was to meddle and fuss with the economic engine. He distrusted business, businessmen and the free market in general. Thus the National Energy Program, wage and price controls and foreign-investment restrictions.

He was far more interested in foreign policy than economics, but here too his record was disappointing. He got along poorly with the United States, Canada's most important ally and partner. He thumbed his nose at Washington by courting Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. His one-man attempt to bridge the gulf between the Cold War superpowers was a well-intentioned flop, scorned by Washington and patronized by Moscow.

Civil rights? Mr. Trudeau was a fervent believer in individual freedom, as might be expected of a man of his independent character. But his decision to invoke the War Measures Act in 1970 and round up hundreds of innocent people was a dangerous and unnecessary abridgment of our freedoms.

His greatest achievement was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which accompanied the historic deal to patriate the Constitution in 1981. Because of that deal, Canada need never go through the humilating exercise of calling on another country to amend its founding charter. But Quebec's absence from the patriation deal has haunted Canadian politics through the failed Meech and Charlottetown accords. The Charter of Rights was a mixed blessing, codifying civil rights and guarantees of personal liberty while inviting the country's judges to make law in many areas that were more appropriately left to Parliament and the legislatures.

Then, of course, there is the question of national unity. Here is the centrepiece of the Trudeau record. Mr. Trudeau brought capable Quebeckers into the highest ranks of the federal government. He made the country officially bilingual. He fought back the first referendum on Quebec independence, securing a convincing No.

Yet separatism flourished during his time. His idea of a Canada where individual freedoms, not group rights, would guarantee the culture of Quebec never really caught on in his home province. Quebeckers admired him as a man, but often rejected his most fundamental ideas. His passionate opposition helped defeat Meech Lake and Charlottetown -- reasonable, well-crafted attempts to bring Quebec into the constitutional family for good and stop separatism in its tracks.

No, it is not his record that makes us call Mr. Trudeau great. It is his passion. Canadians are a moderate, soft-spoken people, slow to anger and wary of intellectual conflict. We tend to be suspicious of unusually bright, argumentative people. Ours is the way of compromise and accommodation, not strife and struggle.

Mr. Trudeau was different. He hated to compromise. He refused to be mealy-mouthed. He loved to swim against the tide. He had a vision of Canada and he stuck to it. In his dreams, he saw a Canada where everyone is equal under the law, where no one need suffer hatred or discrimination, where no group is above another. It was a wonderful dream and he fought for it to his last breath. Canadians for generations will honour him for it.

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