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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

'I'll remember the gunslinger look'

MPs of all stripes recall moments with former PM
after House learns of his death

Friday, September 29, 2000

The emotion of losing a man he saw as a friend and mentor was, after a struggle, too much for Senator Serge Joyal to handle.

In the middle of explaining what he felt Pierre Elliott Trudeau meant to Canada, and to him personally, he broke down. Unable to enunciate fully what he wanted to say, he turned away from reporters, faced the marble wall in the lobby of the House of Commons, and cried.

The long-time Liberal MP and senator, a minister in Mr. Trudeau's last cabinet, had dealt with the cameras and microphones hundreds of times and faced much tougher questions. What Canada would be like after Mr. Trudeau seemed one he never thought he'd have to answer.

"When you were with Mr. Trudeau, you had the deep conviction you were part of building Canada," he said.

He spoke in English, his face flushed and his voice a halting whisper. Moments later, when he tried to repeat the sentiment in his native French, he tumbled into tears.

Word of Mr. Trudeau's death gave pause to many when it hit Parliament Hill late yesterday afternoon. New Democratic Party MP Nelson Riis had a motion before the House of Commons when Deputy Speaker Ian McClelland interrupted debate with news of Mr. Trudeau's death.

Mr. Riis immediately moved that the House adjourn for the day. Everyone present -- just a dozen or so MPs on duty for their various parties as the parliamentary day drew to a close -- agreed.

"To continue on, with this news, would be inappropriate. Out of respect for the family," Mr. Riis said.

Moments later, the flag atop the Peace Tower was slowly lowered to half-mast.

Tourists watched the ceremony in stunned silence as news of Mr. Trudeau's passing quieted everyone who heard it.

Several stopped walking and sat down on the grass on Parliament Hill to take a few minutes to reflect on a man who helped define a generation. "It's totally the end of an era," said an man who was in Ottawa on vacation from Alberta.

But it was in the lobby of the House of Commons, Mr. Trudeau's second home for the better part of two decades, that the emotion was deepest. Politicians of all stripes -- from long-time allies such as Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray to political opponents such Conservative Leader Joe Clark -- returned to the House to make their statements to the media, but then seemed to linger a while longer, as if sharing a last moment with an old friend.

"I had the privilege of serving in his caucus as a member, and the privilege of working in his cabinet. It was a tremendous experience working with a person of the calibre of Pierre Elliott Trudeau," Mr. Gray said. Mr. Clark recalled an adversary of blistering intelligence and an unfailing commitment to his country.

NDP MP Lorne Nystrom remembered walking into the House of Commons as a newly elected MP at the age of 22 in 1968, and being intimidated by the presence of the man who had just flown into office on the wings of what became known as Trudeaumania.

"He was a formidable adversary," he recalled.

"The sparring matches in Parliament were really incredible in those days, it's hard really to describe it."

Like Mr. Joyal, Liberal House Leader Don Boudria was another normally confident politician pummelled by the magnitude of the moment. He recalled being in the House of Commons as a teenager, working as a parliamentary page, and being drawn into politics and the Liberal Party by Mr. Trudeau's magnetic personality and legendary charm.

"I don't think I'd be in public office if it hadn't been for Pierre Elliott Trudeau," he said, his own reddened eyes glistening. "He was a role model."

Even the day of Mr. Trudeau's death -- and 16 years after he left office -- Mr. Boudria still referred to him occasionally as Prime Minister Trudeau.

"I'll remember the gunslinger look and everything else every Canadian will remember about Pierre Elliott Trudeau. How could you not? He's the closest any Western country of modern age ever had to a philosopher king. There's no other person in our country, certainly, like him," Mr. Boudria said.

"He could go to a meeting 15 years after he ceased to be prime minister and attract a huge, huge crowd. He was Pierre Elliott Trudeau. What can you say?"

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