Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
Trudeau fans cling to his notion of country
By HUGH WINSOR
Saturday, September 30, 2000
The part of Pierre Trudeau's legacy to be found in the statute books is profound, especially the injection of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms into the Constitution in a way that fundamentally changed the Westminster parliamentary system Canada inherited from Britain.
But the legal changes pale in comparison to the way Mr. Trudeau changed the Canadian spirit, the way he changed the image of politicians at home and the image of Canada abroad.
There are already shelves of scholarly and popular books devoted to the legal initiatives of the Trudeau era, ranging from the late prime minister's early move to decriminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults to what amounted to confiscation of provincial resources in the national energy program of 1980. Indeed, on the day Mr. Trudeau died in Montreal, the nine justices of the Supreme Court and an assortment of legal commentators were locked in debate in Ottawa over the merits of the Charter, almost two decades after its imposition.
It opened the door to American-style judicial activism, which has, in itself, prompted a growing right-wing response and provided some of the fodder for the rise of the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties.
The Trudeau contribution to the Canadian spirit is much harder to quantify, but nobody would deny it has been all-pervasive. Love him or hate him and what he stood for, no one who grew up in the 1960s or 1970s could avoid dealing with his notion of Canada.
One of the most lauded Canadian feature films in recent years, Trudeau, Just Watch Me,was Catherine Annau's attempt to capture that impact on her generation. The 35-year-old filmmaker, the daughter of immigrant parents who grew up prosperous in North Toronto and then took advantage of the Trudeau-inspired scholarship program to learn French, believed fervently in the Trudeau notion of Canada, but could not reach a definitive conclusion in her 70 minutes of celluloid.
The rest of us too are still struggling to come to terms with his combination of charisma, flair and intellect, not to mention contrarianism, because we have no living Canadians in his league with whom to compare him.
But first, the formal record: The changes to the Criminal Code mentioned above, made shortly after he became minister of justice in the government of the late Lester Pearson, were a major step toward liberalizing Canadian society. They should be read together with Mr. Trudeau's eventual success in eliminating capital punishment.
One of his first major thrusts after becoming prime minister was to pass the Official Languages Act, probably the most distorted and misunderstood initiative of his 15 years in office. The law required all federal institutions to operate in both official languages and provided for bilingual labelling and signage.
Its intent was to permit French-speaking Canadians equal access to the federal government, either as civil servants or to obtain federal services in their own language. But it was often misportrayed, especially in Western Canada, as an attempt by the Trudeau government to "ram French down our throats" or to force all Canadians to become bilingual.
It is obvious that Mr. Trudeau felt his greatest accomplishment was the patriation of the Constitution and converting it from a statute of the British Parliament into a Canadian institution, augmented by the Charter, which placed many rights and freedoms out of the reach of elected parliaments. The flip side of this reduced power of politicians was the increased influence of the courts, especially the Supreme Court of Canada as the final interpreter.
It is no small irony that the Charter was instituted only two years after Mr. Trudeau had reluctantly acceded to Quebec's request to impose the War Measures Act during the FLQ crisis: The Draconian powers of arrest and detention without trial, unlimited wiretapping and elimination of the right of assembly were anathema to everything the prime minister had stood for in his pre-electoral career as a civil-rights activist. Torn between the principles of civil rights and what was seen as a threat to civil order, however, Mr. Trudeau opted for order and claimed he never regretted the move. Historians, especially Quebec historians, are likely to conclude he overreacted, but at the time he had massive support.
His idealism about a Canadian society founded on the equal partnership of two founding peoples, or the ability to leverage Canadian prestige and innovation on the world stage have been less durable.
As filmmaker Ms. Annau put it, Mr. Trudeau "largely shaped the course of events in my life because I admired him so much. . . . I really believed in the dream of a bilingual, bicultural Canada." So did many of her generation in English Canada who adopted the Trudeau vision, in part "because we believed Quebeckers were more fun. We went to Montreal as often as we could looking for French boyfriends."
But it was standing in Dominion Square in Montreal on that cold November Friday before the 1995 referendum that made Ms. Annau realize that "something in the dream had gone terribly wrong."
The vote three days later showed that a majority of French-speaking Quebeckers had rejected the Trudeau notion of Canada. That led to her searching out a representative sample of the Trudeau generation from both sides of the linguistic divide and making a film about them.
That film delved into the deep emotions of her participants, but did not find an answer to what had gone wrong.
"I don't really know what I was left with as a Canadian identity without that Trudeau dream, and I still don't. His vision of the country is the Canada I still believe in. That's the [Trudeau's] Canada I am interested in, for all of his contradictions and complexities."