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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

'The high mark of Canadian idealism'
Friday, September 29, 2000

'Zap, you're frozen!" Pierre Elliott Trudeau shouted at a heckler in a Peterborough, Ont., park toward the close of the 1974 election campaign. He was taunting a heckler who was citing a promise by Robert Stanfield, then the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, to freeze wages and prices as a way of dealing with inflation.

It may have been a silly, meaningless epithet but it became a metaphor for the Conservatives' prospects in the election that Mr. Trudeau went on to win a few days later with a smashing majority.

It was not by any means Mr. Trudeau's finest hour, and indeed it was barely a year later that he adopted the Stanfield policy he had so successfully ridiculed. But it was a turning point in the political career of the man who charmed us, confused us and who sometimes insulted us while becoming the most compelling Canadian public figure since the Second World War.

In that campaign, it seemed that the world was truly, as he liked to quote from the Desiderata, unfolding as it should. He was a vigorous 54, a new father accompanied by his beautiful, dewy-eyed, flower-child wife Margaret and finally enjoying the political game he had only adopted reluctantly.

Together they crossed the country -- even reverted to a campaign train for effect -- and Trudeau attacked his opponents mercilessly on bread-and-butter issues: If he was uncomfortable with this crass populism, he kept his philosophical reservations to himself.

His new counsellors, Jim Coutts and Keith Davey, had assured him the polls were showing he was going to win and win big, as long as he followed their advice and go for the Stanfield jugular.

Two years earlier, Mr. Stanfield, the often dour and colourless leader of the opposition, had come within one seat of ending the initial Trudeau career that was based on a mixture of personal public flair and a governing style based on a cold and often Cartesian intellectualism.

Mr. Coutts and Mr. Davey had convinced him that politics could be fun if he would only open up a bit and play the game. He repeated the process six years later, after Mr. Stanfield's successor, Joe Clark, had narrowly defeated his Liberals. Although he went into a prolonged sulk after this rejection by the electorate and announced he was stepping down as leader of the Liberal Party, he was again persuaded to turn on his old political charm and capitalize on Mr. Clark's fatal stumble on his first budget in 1979.

In between, Mr. Trudeau had largely reverted to his intellectually demanding, no-nonsense and often arrogant approach. His cabinet ministers were treated no better in the privacy of the cabinet room than the journalists who hounded him were treated in public. He dominated both groups, who regarded him with a mixture of awe and fear.

His finest hour came after this second revival. He returned to centre stage as prime minister just weeks before his onetime friend and later his nemesis, the late Quebec premier René Lévesque, initiated a referendum on his proposed new relationship with the rest of Canada, called sovereignty association.

It was the Trudeau strength of character and his laser-like intelligence that defeated the Lévesque proposal. Even Quebeckers who did not like him were swayed by the force of his arguments. For Quebeckers, Mr. Trudeau represented the best of both Quebec and English-speaking Canada. Even his opponents in both parts of the country respected him, although there was never the emotional attachment that Quebeckers had with Mr. Lévesque.

But it is only the truly superior leaders such as Trudeau or Wilfrid Laurier who have been able to bridge the two Canadian solitudes. In death Mr. Trudeau remains a hero to a whole generation of English-speaking Canadians. His values of French-English partnership, bilingualism and a determination to have Canada compete with the best in the world defined their goals.

Pollster Michael Adams spoke for the English-speaking Canadians of my generation when he said, on the news of Mr. Trudeau's failing health, that "he was better than the rest of us and he knew it.

"He represented the high mark of Canadian idealism, the last real coherent articulator of a Canadian vision of the country. Love him or hate him, we are all Trudeau's children."

At his peak, a goodly proportion of Quebeckers also supported the Trudeau view that French power could be exercised and augmented by participating in the larger whole that was Canada and that, indeed, they were also Trudeau's children.

His death bleakens the horizon.

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