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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

How The Globe saw Mr. Trudeau

Saturday, September 30, 2000

It stands to reason that Pierre Elliott Trudeau, having alternately delighted and infuriated the Canadian public, would have had the same effect on The Globe and Mail's editorial board. His death this week at 80 sent us to the files to remind ourselves how, and how strongly, this newspaper reacted to the magic and mischief he worked since coming to national attention in the 1960s:

Dec. 23, 1967: Changes in the Criminal Code proposed this week by Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau [to legalize homosexual acts between consenting adults and to legalize abortion in certain cases] give shape and direction to the unstructured and accelerating social revolution that touches all of us. . . . Mr. Trudeau (doubtless it will go down as his bill) has done what we had hoped he would have the courage to do. He has dared to grapple publicly with the total issue of liberty: that formerly treacherous no-man's-land between private and public morality. . . .

The Justice Minister's next job will see him centre-stage at the constitutional conference in February. With any success at all in this tricky arena, Mr. Trudeau might find Liberal leadership candidates eyeing him as a difficult act to follow.

Oct. 20, 1970, after the Commons approved the Prime Minister's invocation of the War Measures Act to deal with terrorist acts in Quebec: On the present occasion we are still waiting for Mr. Trudeau to reveal the facts that led the government to believe we are in a state of 'apprehended insurrection' which could be dealt with only by arbitrary measures. We are taking him on trust. Oct. 29: Ottawa can't again proclaim legislation that abrogates our freedoms, and then wash its hands of any responsibility for how it is used or abused.

Jan. 21, 1976, after the introduction of wage and price controls in response to runaway inflation: If the anti-inflation program fails it will be because the government has made a mess of it. Mr. Trudeau is significantly disinclined to accept government activity as a cause of our woes. . . . But inflation was caused by the government's printing too much money to spend on programs the economy couldn't afford. And the government has interfered so much with business that business has become too nervous to invest the kind of money that would produce the number of jobs Canadians need.

On April 17, 1982, the day the Constitution was patriated: The Prime Minister deserves some credit for bringing it back. Had he not been seized with a sudden determination to achieve patriation, it is unlikely that we would be witnessing this week's ceremonies. But Pierre Trudeau's methods were divisive and left political scars that will not be healed in his lifetime.

Aug. 21, 1982: If nothing else, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau has returned from his holiday out west with the knowledge that people are angry enough to throw things. They tossed tomatoes at his railway coach as it emerged from the Connaught Tunnel in Rogers Pass. They pelted his car with eggs in Exshaw and Canmore and on the outskirts of Calgary. Five hundred of them threw rocks, eggs and tomatoes at the coach in Sudbury, breaking two windows in the process.

Not even helpless anger in the face of the recession can excuse the tactics of these demonstrators, particularly the dangerous behaviour of the mob in Sudbury. But Mr. Trudeau's own behaviour -- giving the finger to three placard-carrying people along the rail lines at Salmon Arm -- is an example of the arrogance which has driven people to believe nothing short of tomatoes and eggs will catch his attention.

Those without jobs, and those whose paycheques can't keep up with rising costs, are frustrated, angry, even desperate. If Mr. Trudeau has returned to Ottawa with a heightened sense of that desperation, his trip has proved more than a vacation; it has given him a timely glimpse into the communities whose welfare is determined by his government's policies.

March 1, 1984, after he had announced his final resignation: What shall we tell our children about Pierre Trudeau? That he was the most dashing, magnetic politician of his generation, a man who made foreigners sigh with envy as they contemplated their own grey and stolid leaders? That he seized the imagination of a country just entering its second century and made it dream dreams of justice and compassion? That he made us finally come to terms with our history, forcing English Canadians into irrevocable acceptance of bilingualism and leading his fellow Québécois out of their stockade into the battles and triumphs of the country beyond?

Shall we tell them he was one of the greatest of our prime ministers, one to rank with the visionary Macdonald, the eloquent Laurier and the crafty King?

Or will we, in years to come, remember more the negative side of the Trudeau record: the economic drift, the contempt for Parliament, the grubbiness of the patronage politics, the personal arrogance? When again shall we hear a leader curse us, fluently, in both official languages, and invite unhappy voters to perch and rotate on an upraised middle finger?

Only an extraordinary politician would let himself behave like this. Only an extraordinarily gifted, and extraordinarily lucky, one could actually get away with it.

For he was lucky, sometimes amazingly so. Lucky, mainly, in the opponents the Opposition Conservatives put up against him. Robert Stanfield was the embodiment of decent, solid Canadianism just at the moment when Canadians wanted a leader who could boogie. Even so, he almost beat Mr. Trudeau in 1972. Joe Clark won for the Tories in 1979, pushing Mr. Trudeau halfway out the exit door, then brought him back with blunders that will make the historians gasp in wonder. . . .

The great contribution of Pierre Trudeau, arriving in Ottawa in 1965 along with Jean Marchand and Gérard Pelletier, was to carve out a major role for francophones in the national life of Canada. They could play, and win, in federal politics, the civil service, the Crown corporations and agencies, the army, the foreign service, big business -- and in French. They could go as far as their talents would take them, while the Official Languages Act provided protection for their culture and hope for beleaguered pockets of francophones across the country.

Many of the very best in a generation of Québécois turned outward rather than inward, even as millions of English-speaking Canadians discovered (sometimes grudgingly) the opportunities of a second language. In 1980 a francophone prime minister of Canada and his colleagues were able to give the lie to the arguments of a separatist premier of Quebec in a referendum on independence. That federal case could not have been made before the years of Mr. Trudeau's ascendancy. . . .

The other great thing he has done is patriate a Canadian constitution that, to the amazement of outside observers, rested firmly in the hands of a colonial power more than a century after we began to walk on our own. His tactics were sometimes reprehensible, even dangerous to the country's unity. He was impeded variously by provincial premiers, the Supreme Court and huffy British parliamentarians and, thank God for them all, forced to compromise; but in the end all the premiers but the separatist one were able to agree on patriation, an amending formula and a welcome Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Without Mr. Trudeau, Canadians might still have been fighting about the Constitution at their second centenary.

The record beyond these things is more mixed. He never seemed able to rouse an interest in the economy. There were spasms of attention, and then we would have wage and price controls or dramatic announcements about restraint; but for the most part he let his finance ministers pad the deficit and jab about ineffectually while productivity lagged, unemployment ratcheted upward and structural problems remained unsolved. Yesterday's rise in the stock market after Mr. Trudeau's announcement makes its own quiet statement. . . .

He was not, in fact, a great or noble player of the political game. He preferred to fight with provincial premiers rather than stroke them, and westerners in particular came to feel, probably correctly, that he had little understanding of their grievances. The result was an almost complete wiping out of the Liberal Party, both federal and provincially, west of the Lakehead, one of the more unhappy legacies of Pierre Trudeau.

In Ottawa itself he damaged Parliament, drove away able ministers and failed to groom a successor. Beginning with the promise that he would attract the best and the brightest, he wound up dipping as deeply into the patronage barrel as any of his predecessors, making appointments to Crown corporations and the Senate that were sometimes little short of disgusting.

Self-indulgent, personally cold, always combative, sometimes absurdly so; passionate about causes, eloquent in fury, a man with a profound commitment to his country; a leader who excited, infuriated, often exhausted us, Pierre Trudeau has dominated all our lives for 16 years. Getting over him will take some little time.

Sixteen years later, we see no reason to change a word.

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