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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Trudeau made intellect interesting
Saturday, September 30, 2000

"Lord jumpin', he's here!"

Channel-Port-aux-Basques, Nfld., isn't a place you visit, it's a ferry landing you pass through on your way to the glories of Corner Brook, or in the other direction, Isle aux Morts and Burgeo.

It was 1972, I was 12 years old and Pierre Trudeau visiting with his bride, Margaret, was the biggest thing since, well, it was the biggest thing. His plane had landed; he was going to be speaking at the arena and my parents, New Democrats turned momentarily Liberal, of course would be taking us to see him. It was important, they said.

The crowd was happy and rowdy, as Canadians get in rinks. Pierre was slim and handsome; Margaret was ineffably glamorous with surprisingly auburn hair and a suit of palest mint, looking very much as a political wife would wish to look in this retro era.

The whisper went round. "She's shy." Apparently, someone had crushed her toes. She'd prefer to stay on the plane. Pierre had coaxed her out.

He went round shaking our hands with courtesy, not like the professional politicians who won't take the time to shake -- it's more like a frenetic sweep of hands. Margaret looked terrified. She'd accept your proffered hand, give you a huge, blue-eyed look of attractive despair and be guided away by her handlers.

Pierre thrilled me, but not for reasons I could analyze at the time. The fact was, this person was running my life. He still does today. We fortysomethings are Trudeau kids and that's the way it is.

He was a snooty, eccentric intellectual who dressed in capes and wore the most exquisite roses in his lapel. He was loaded with attitude. No wonder teenagers loved him. He looked elegant when he leaped out of his Mercedes sports car without opening the door; but when Americans did that, it was just so Dukes of Hazzard.

Children take their surroundings for granted; I was Canadian-born but hadn't yet realized that I was lucky to be so until a federalist such as Pierre Trudeau -- half-French, half-English and proud of it, as he so famously declared during the referendum campaign -- pointed it out. My parents had voted for Canada with their feet in the 1950s. My father was born in India, my mother in Scotland, and they met in Glasgow at university. He was a doctor, she a teacher.

Their attitude was very Trudeau-like: They were citizens of the world, but Canada looked like heaven to them. I see only now that Canada looks ambrosial to the world's unhappy billions.

We ended up in Kapuskasing, Ont., a mostly French town where even the English, whose rule was absolute, knew it was unfair and were embarrassed by their inability to speak French. When the federal government started forking out millions to immerse tender young anglos in French, I, at 17, went off to do Trudeau's bidding.

French immersion at a CÉGEP in Sainte-Foy was one of the formative experiences of my life, as it was for those interviewed in Catherine Annau's 1999 NFB film, Just Watch Me, about Canadian kids who grew up with Trudeau as their figurative dad.

I mostly learned French, yes, but was so impressed with the beauty of the language that I felt that speaking it imperfectly was dishonouring it. I still think that to this day. I doubt Trudeau would have approved.

From a personal standpoint -- and I think that every Canadian who heard the shocking news Thursday took it very personally -- the greatest thing Trudeau did was to make intelligence an alluring quality. Intellect was interesting. He made it safe to be smart and apart.

When we complain about politicians now -- Stock Boy with that tiny little bump in his ridiculous wetsuit, the false and cunning Blair, the moronic Dubya, that golf pro running Ontario -- we're saying we miss Trudeau's boldness, his vast reading, his continuing adherence to the values of the young, his habit of walking alone in the snow when he had a decision to make.

Because of him, I often ask myself a question that at one time I would have considered ludicrous: Am I a good Canadian?

It's part of a pompous speech I have often made to my patient, bilingual (and secretly eye-rolling) teenagers. As self-serving as this may sound, it's part of why I work for The Globe and Mail, a national newspaper that loves its country. Am I lucky to live here? Yes. Do I miss Trudeau? With all my heart.

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