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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

A surface flash, a profound vision
Sixteen years after he left public
life, JOHN GRAY writes, the discussions
of Canada's future are still bound by
Trudeau's ground rules.

Saturday, September 30, 2000

Pierre Trudeau did not arrive on the national scene. He burst upon it.

He had been in Ottawa for three years, but nobody had taken the time to notice him properly, and then someone said, perhaps he should be the prime minister.

The country never recovered from that first furious explosion of Trudeaumania.

Even those who nurtured a profound rage against the man, and there were many of them, understood from those early days that he was a figure such as we had never seen before. He changed everything.

It was, of course, outrageous.

He was the king of cool, gently mocking the very process that was making him a national figure. What would he do with the Mercedes now that he was prime minister? someone asked. Do you mean the car or the girl? he replied.

Even his critics thought he was engagingly outrageous. Who could believe that a Canadian prime minister could be regarded as sexy and monumentally bright, and, in spite of the adoration all around him, apparently indifferent to public approval?

It was also flattering. Imagine Canada having a prime minister like that. After Expo 67, he seemed to be the outward and visible sign that we had, indeed, moved up in the world.

But there was something profoundly more important than the flash. What Mr. Trudeau brought to Canadian public life was an understanding of what the country was and a vision of what it should be.

That vision was not cast in stone. Witness how the man who arrived in public life committed to the view that nobody should open the Pandora's box of the Constitution was in time caught up in the inevitability of opening the Constitution to change.

What did not alter, however, were the fundamental values that informed the process of change. What bound those values together was the sharp and sometimes cruel intelligence that was so intimidating to most who crossed his path.

It was the coherence of those values that sustained Mr. Trudeau and, indeed, the country, through the difficult months and years after the election of René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in November, 1976, when many feared that Canada's days were numbered.

But that was counting Mr. Trudeau out, and that was always dangerous.

On the night of Mr. Lévesque's election, Mr. Trudeau went on television to set out ground rules that were at once scrupulously democratic and yet seemed to open the door to the breakup of the country.

"I believe that Canada cannot, indeed that Canada must not survive by force. The country will only remain united, it should only remain united, if its citizens want to live together in one civil society."

In the following weeks, the prime minister who had been so remote from the news media was suddenly available every week for a formal press conference. Inevitably, the chief subject of concern was Quebec.

It was in those press conferences that he pulled the country back together again.

The country would not be held together by force, he repeated, it would be held together by the democratic decision of its people.

If the people of Quebec decided in a clear vote that they wanted to leave, then they could leave.

That was the issue on which intransigence could have inflamed, understandably, a Quebec that was democratically trying to decide what it would do with its future.

From then on, those press conferences were fundamental in shaping the debate through which the whole country travelled and, in a sense, is still travelling.

Sixteen years after he left public life, the discussions of Canada's future are still bound by the Trudeau ground rules.

His political legacy is uncertain. He left office with the country bitterly disappointed and frustrated, his party doomed to defeat.

Yet he dominated the years in which he was in power, and for a generation or two he has defined what politics are and should be, for friend and foe alike.

And in future years it will be a brave prime minister who presumes to wear a red rose in his lapel.

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