Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
Love in a cold climate
Public grief, it turns out, is an aphrodisiac.
When Pierre Trudeau was laid to rest this week in Montreal,
everyone dressed up, schmoozed it up, declared wild
ambitions, flirted with total strangers.
As IAN BROWN found, no stultifying rites
could squelch the love-in's radical hint that maybe
nations aren't built by bills and clauses, but by
affection - even come-ons - among citizens.
By IAN BROWN
Saturday, October 7, 2000
Four couples necking in the lineup. Four couples burbling, nuzzling, cooing, giggling -- four couples necking, I say, for two-and-a-half hours in the lineup to what? To see Pierre Elliott Trudeau's body lying in state in the Palais de Justice in Old Montreal.
Not that public groping is rare in Montreal. But this was different. I mean, four couples in the lead-up to the biggest single spectacle of public political mourning in Canadian history?
And they were just the tip of the love-grief iceberg. The same day, I watched a guy in his late 30s pick up a woman 10 years his junior entirely on the strength of a conversation about the virtues of bilingualism. They eventually left together in a taxi.
Then I had to make a phone call. The operator was ecstatic. "Oh, I have big plans. I'm going to Toronto, and then to Colorado, and I'm going to New York City! I want to be a Broadway actress. I know I can achieve whatever I put my mind to achieving."
I heard the same expression six times in the course of two days, the popular street distillation of the Trudeau philosophy. She'd been watching the Trudeau coverage. She was even a graduate of Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, where Justin and Sacha Trudeau had been students.
"I want to get married," she said -- the operator, have I made this clear? -- "but I only want someone who's passionate." And then, unprompted, she said, "I can't really give you my number, because I could get fired for that."
Flirty stuff like that was happening all over the place, as if Trudeau's death had bared everyone's hearts and brought all their longings to the surface. Public grief turns out to be an aphrodisiac.
Me, I went to Montreal on an impulse, because I admired Trudeau. My reasons weren't original. He was as intelligent and daring as any leader of my generation or the next. He pirouetted -- who'd try that nowadays? He was the equal of Mandela or Havel or even Roosevelt. He had a vision, and he made it real.
I grew up in Montreal's West End, on a comfortable anglo street lined with the names of comfortable anglos: Blandford, Simpson, Dunford, Cross, Ramsay, Tooke. Today the names are Patry, Bouzouita, Deshaies, Normandin, Soliman (Farid), Leblanc, Poulin and Lee (Ki Y). This is what you call real social progress, against 200 years of oppression and parochialism in Quebec.
It didn't happen because of Lévesque or Bourassa or Bouchard. It happened because of Pierre Trudeau. I figured he was worth paying homage to. Sex was the last thing on my mind. Love, however, turned out to be a different story.
On the plane I sat next to two women from the West. They were on their way to Montreal to buy a $30,000 dialysis machine. "I had nothing against Trudeau," one of the women said. "But he wasn't so popular out west. If they had the funeral in Calgary or Regina, there'd be maybe two people there."
I ignored her. My plan was simple. Snag a hotel room and head out right away to the Palais, to see the body in state.
This turned out to be everyone's plan. Fine: On the way to the Palais, I'd pop into the Notre Dame Basilica, where the funeral was to be held.
The vaults of the ceiling were deep Prussian blue and studded with a vast firmament of gilt stars and gold fleurs-de-lys, once the symbol of French colonialism and today the standard of separatism. There were 7,000 pipes in the organ. The pulpits and confessionals (12) and altars (at least four) and back pieces and vestry and side chapels were hand carved.
James O'Donnell, the architect of the Basilica, was an Irish Protestant from New York when he came to work on it; by the time he died in 1830, he'd converted. No wonder. It was a flamboyant place, as only a Roman Catholic cathedral built in increments since 1672 in the province of Quebec can be. Nothing was ever thrown away. Walking into Notre Dame was like walking into a vast spiritual bazaar, or even a sauna with too many coats on. Claustrophobia was always a possibility.
I did like the cathedral floor, a bright light-blue linoleum with French-vanilla borders -- the kitchen colours of Quebec Roman Catholicism, whose motto has always been get 'em where they eat. For 30 years Pierre Trudeau attacked the narrowness of the Catholic church in Quebec. Now the church had him.
The nationalists -- even those of the left -- are politically reactionary because, in attaching such importance to the idea of nation, they are surely led to a definition of the common good as a function of an ethnic group, rather than of all the people, regardless of characteristics . . .
I was reading The Essential Trudeau, an anthology of Trudeau's writings. I was reading the book because I was bored. I was bored because I had decided to stand for three hours to see the flag-draped coffin of Pierre Trudeau. Standing in the night for three hours made me feel like a fool, and feeling like a fool made me feel like a cynic. It was hard to know which was worse.
The immigrants didn't have this trouble. The very first couple I spoke to coming out of the viewing room were rabid Trudeauites: He'd given them a new home, a new and better life. The woman was crying.
"How long did you wait?" I asked.
"Thirty-five years," she said.
"Inside, I mean."
"Oh. Two-and-a-half hours."
"Mr. Trudeau was Number 1 person for me, and Number 1 Canadian," the man said. His name was Nikolas Pantalakis. "And we won't have another one like him."
"Goodbye," I said.
"Have a nice life," Mrs. Pantalakis said. "Because eveybody is one day zero." She made a tiny circle with her finger.
Students didn't have any trouble either. Trudeau appealed to their hunger for action. A week before the former prime minister died, Marni Benson was a biochemistry major in Regina. She had four courses left. "Some people dream of winning the million-dollar lottery," she said. "I just dreamed of going to Montreal and learning French. It's a very doable dream."
She was the new Trudeaumania at its most concrete, wild ambition acted upon instinctively. The Monday before Trudeau's death, she decided to move to Montreal. On Tuesday, she bought a ticket. By Thursday, she was living here. On Friday, the day Trudeau died, she answered an ad for a roommate. Now she was visiting the coffin with her new friends.
But she was 23. What about us yuppies? Maybe we were we here just for the Elvis factor, nostalgic for the last time we could fit into our flares. Waiting three hours to see a coffin is not a political philosophy. A Chinese girl circulated a petition through the lineup to rename Dorval airport Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport. At least that was practical. Some showboat from out west with a flat-brimmed hat that resembled a straw scaloppine walked by with a huge flag stitched together from provincial flags.
The only high point occurred at half-past eight in the evening. Twelve motorcycles and half-a-dozen minivans raced up to the basement entrance to the Palais de Justice, and Fidel Castro got out of the car. He was wearing a taupe grey suit -- Armani, from the looks of it -- and was well-barbered. The crowd cheered. Twenty-five journalists shouted "El Presidente! El Presidente!" Fidel waved once, softly clenched his fist, and disappeared.
"Did he clench his fist?" one of the journalists said. "Isn't that the sign of Che Guevara?"
Maybe it was. Personally, I thought it was the international symbol for go to hell ya buncha morons I'm keeping my mouth shut tighter than a new set of bongo skins, but I could be wrong.
And in the end the coffin was a bust. The TV lights made the room feel like a toaster oven. Even the condolence books seemed repetitive. From Acadia: "Thanks for everything." From St. Jerome: "Bon Courage." My favourite was more direct. "Thank you," it read. "You were my first customer at the boutique."
The night sky was nice, though, peacock green and blue, the moon a paring in the sky, the logos of Montreal's skyscrapers standing out like bright toys in the darkness. Back in my room at the Basement Hotel, English CBC was playing O Canada. On a French channel, by contrast, I enjoyed a diagram and discussion of the lower bowel. Reports of the nation's mourning in the English and French press fell into pretty much the same categories.
The next day, the morning of the funeral, the dilemma was easier. Inside, or outside? Inside was where the real thing was, where the body of Pierre Trudeau would be consecrated. Outside you could watch the service on the big screen. It was 6 a.m.
George Smitherman was pushing for inside. He'd been lined up since 5. With him were Tom Jakobsh and Tom Allison, both paid political operators and advance men. They were comparing Trudeau buttons. "This?" Jakobsh said. "This is actually 1974. But look at this." He pulled Allison over by the lapel. Allison was wearing a strange little red and yellow parallelogram with an early Trudeau silhouette on it. "This is 1968." They could have been discussing Egyptian incunabulae.
"I think it might be original," Allison said.
"His basement is full of this stuff," Jakobsh said. "His basement is called The Archives."
If you asked these people why they had come, they looked at you as if you'd forgotten your own name. "Because it's a historic moment," said a woman named Annie. She'd flown up from Memphis. "So you can say to your kids, 'I was at Trudeau's funeral.' "
"I haven't been here since 1991," a woman from Moscow said. "Who are the rising stars, politically?"
Everyone looked at her. No one could think of anyone.
"Have you heard about this Barbra Streisand rumour?" Jakobsh said. "That she's coming?"
Then the church doors opened. "Okay," Allison shouted. 'Front row, first balcony!'
But the first balcony turned out to be reserved for MPs from Ottawa. Meanwhile ex-cabinet ministers were schmoozing so vigorously, the main floor of the Basilica resembled a tailgate party more than a funeral. A string of Trudeau mistresses traipsed about or sat quietly. People were dressed to the nines.
But from the third balcony, they looked like ants. The third balcony was hot. It smelled, too, as the body heat of the entire Canadian Liberal establishment wafted up. There were a number of lunatics amongst us, including several dressed so bizarrely they could easily have been servants of de Maisonneuve, the 17th-century founder of Ville Marie.
The service droned on. That's how the Catholic fathers do it: They prevent you from feeling any grief by boring you unconscious. Sacha's lesson (Daniel 4: 7-1) was gripping, but the only other hope was the eulogies. I ran down to the basement to watch them on TV, in the press room. The view was better, but more alarming.
Why had Justin chosen to start his eulogy with Marc Antony's famous salutation -- the one that begins his treacherous funeral oration in Julius Caesar? Perhaps it just a joke from a young high-school drama teacher. Or was he doing what Antony did, pretending to praise Caesar, but burying him instead?
And was it true what Justin said, that the outpouring of grief and affection (the train, the roses) was all because people loved Pierre Trudeau -- because he loved us? Is that what we have misplaced -- not love of country, but love of countrymen?
You wouldn't want to negotiate health care transfer payments with Mike Harris on that basis. But it's an interesting idea, a nation based on -- groovy! -- love and repect for your fellow citizens.
And when he finally delivered his now-famous line, "Je t'aime, Papa," he swallowed it. He cried and I missed what he said. I raced back upstairs to the upper balcony to find everyone in tears and clapping. (Clapping, at a funeral! Clapping, when the body arrived! You can take the politician out of the House of Commons, but you can never kill his love of applause.)
"What did Justin say?" I asked the woman next to me.
"I couldn't hear him, because he was crying," she said. She was crying too.
I rushed outside. Then I realized: It was better outside. Inside, the funeral we all saw on TV was too Inside, too Establishment, too churchy. Outside was where Trudeau communicated best.
Outside, everyone was in tears, and things were getting wild. This actually did feel like a moment in history. The bells of Notre Dame were ringing out like mad now, hammering away from the twin towers of the Basilica, the Tower of Temperance and the Tower of Perseverance. The coffin was emerging from the church as well, a thin black band holding the flag in place, carried by nine Mounties moving at the eternal pace of the funeral march, the pace that slows everything down, not just for gravity but to make you notice, to make the last glimpse count: This is the last time.
Thirty thousand people were packed into the square, the police claimed, maybe 50,000 if you added side streets. Every window in every building of every office and every parapet and every balcony around the square was filled with people.
"It's Trudeaumania all over again," an elegant women in a striking velvet slouch hat said. She was Diana Gillespie, wife of Alistair, Trudeau's old minister of industry -- one of the architects of Trudeau's famous Cuba trip that had led, in its sad way, to Castro's presence next to Jimmy Carter, 15 feet from where we were standing.
I asked Diana if she'd heard what Justin said. I had to shout.
"You can't get the whole thing," she said. "It was very hard to hear. But I think he said, 'Papa, je t'aime.' "
And then I lost it too.
It was as if everyone had been waiting for five days for someone to say it. Someone had finally fingered Pierre Trudeau as the father of late-20th-century political Canada, like it or lump it. It felt as if a huge weight suddenly lifted into the air. It was an unusual feeling.
"Is that Jimmy Carter with Castro?" Alistair said then. "Fidel liked to talk to my wife."
"Yes," Diana said. "He said, 'Madame, I hear you have two children. Tell me about them.' Then he offered me a cigar. And at first I refused, but then I thought, what am I doing, refusing a cigar from Fidel Castro? So I accepted."
"His cigars were that long," Gillespie said, holding his hands 10 inches apart. "Thin, but long. She'd just quit smoking."
"I didn't smoke it, I don't think."
"Oh yes you did," her husband said. "Though not the whole thing."
"Oh," she said. "It's so nice to laugh after so much sadness."
Twenty minutes later, it was all over.
The next afternoon I decided to retrace the walk Pierre Trudeau took home every day from the ofice.
I took the elevator down from the 26th-floor offices of Heenan Blaikie on Boulevard René Lévesque, as Trudeau always did, and started up the mountain. Up Drummond; past the Ritz, all black and gold like an old tart's favourite bed; up through McGill to the slope of Mont Royal; up the public stairs, and left on Avenue des Pins; past Le Noble, the brown modern ashtray-style building where Lévesque lived (the two foes used to wave to each other passing on the street); and then a final block west to the dapper Art Deco mansion at 1418 -- right across from the Cuban consulate, no less.
A day earlier, flowers from well-wishers, mostly roses, had been stacked 12 feet deep against the house. ("I brought lilies," a Westmount woman told me. "They seemed more appropriate for a funeral." That's the difference between a tasteful gesture and a political one.) But the day after the funeral, they were all gone.
It seemed like a long walk for an old man.
Senator Michael Pitfield still lives nearby. Pitfield was once Clerk of the Privy Council, the man who masterminded the repatriation of the constitution, and one of Trudeau's closest friends. Some consider him to have been Trudeau's only intellectual equal in the government. Like Trudeau, he suffers from Parkinson's. I could tell it was hard for him to speak, even on the phone.
He liked the idea of a newfound Trudeaumania, though -- if the circumstances were right, if there was enough instability in the status quo, the way there had been the first time around. Pitfield was a man of brilliant ifs. He didn't know what to think of Justin and his future in politics. What he especially liked was the idea that an entire country had acknowledged the political paternity of Pierre Trudeau, had been forced to admit to some love for him, even if it was in the complicated way you love a stern father.
"It would be wonderful if it were true," he said. "Because our history is incomplete, on both the French and the English side. You're trying in this country to carry a country from colony to nation without the flame of violence, of civil war. That is just about unheard of for a technologically advanced society. I think Trudeau did accomplish a lot in that regard. If your suggestion is true, then we've made substantial strides."
We talked on for a bit. He'd last seen his old prime minister four days before his dear friend died. "What were his last words to you?" I asked.
"I didn't remark on them as last words," Pitfield said. "Because it wasn't a formal farewell. It was more, I'll see you tomorrow."