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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

They won't profit from his loss
Chrétien and Day are already trying to capitalize on
Trudeau's legacy, but neither wears his mantle well,
JOHN GRAY believes. In any case, the nostalgia Canadians
are feeling is about the man, not his policies

Saturday, October 7, 2000

Pierre Trudeau had not been buried 24 hours before Jean Chrétien was doing his best to hitch his wagon to the Trudeau star and the Trudeau legacy. It's an old political adage that even if you're ahead in the polls, you don't turn up your nose at a free ride.

"These values were the values that were proposed by Mr. Trudeau and have been adopted by the Liberal Party and most of the Canadians," the Prime Minister said. "So we will talk about it, yes indeed we will."

Mr. Chrétien was even more explicit on Thursday in Vancouver, saying that "the best tribute we can pay to him, to his memory and achievements, we have to keep building and guarding the Canada that inspired his dreams and ours."

Not to be outdone, Stockwell Day, the leader of the Canadian Alliance, also clutched at the coattails of Mr. Trudeau's values. "Those are values that I happen to endorse as well," he said earlier.

Ah, yes. To adapt Hamlet, the funeral-baked meats do coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.

Two questions: Have they no shame? Shame aside, will anyone believe them?

Donning another man's cloak is never entirely easy. It is made more difficult in this case because Pierre Trudeau wore his cloak with a particular personal panache.

Consider the five leaders who might like to assume the Trudeau mantle: Jean Chrétien, Stockwell Day, Gilles Duceppe, Alexa McDonough, Joe Clark. Frankly, to be as kind as possible, none is what you would call a natural fit.

It's hard to blame them if they try. For five days, the country was focused and, in a sense, united as it has not been for a long time. An opinion poll showed that Mr. Trudeau's demise produced an immediate spike in popularity for the Liberal Party.

For the moment at least, that emotional response may be the most powerful political force in the country. So politics was there to be played.

But to what end? Aside from a certain nostalgia, the death of Mr. Trudeau points in no political direction. Certainly, in an age of federal decentralization and international free trade, Trudeauism can probably offer little except nostalgia.

And the nostalgia is not about policy, but about the man.

In the hours after that extraordinary funeral service for Mr. Trudeau in Notre Dame Basilica, an e-mail arrived from an old friend. He confessed himself fascinated and to a degree haunted by the public reaction to the death of the former prime minister.

"There is such a profound, entirely visceral, reaction to him. I never voted for him and I thought he was terribly wrong about almost anything, but I am part of the same visceral reaction," he wrote.

That reaction, I suspect, was shared by tens of thousands, if not millions, of Canadians.

To be candid, I must be included with my friend -- never voted for the man and frequently thought he was terribly wrong.

Indeed, watching him in Ottawa for the better part of 16 years, I regarded him often as a jerk -- though that was probably just the particularly sour relationship between the prime minister and the journalists who covered him. As a general rule, he thought we were inadequate, and made no secret of it, and as a general rule, he was right.

But that does not really matter. What has been arresting has been not what the great people said about him, but what ordinary people said about him. Mr. Trudeau is now a mythic figure.

Pierre Trudeau the prime minister left us long ago. It was Pierre Trudeau the man and the myth who has been mourned these past days.
Wherever you turned, whether watching or listening to the interviews of people in the endless lines on Parliament Hill or, in my own case, talking to people on the streets of Montreal, everyone wanted to invest Mr. Trudeau with their own dreams.

In a sense, it did not really matter what he had done or said. He had become the symbol of what Canadians saw in their country or what they wanted from the country. Everyone had a different vision.

So, he was responsible for making Canada a bilingual country, for creating a Just Society, for standing up to the Americans, for welcoming newcomers from distant lands with his policy of multiculturalism, for making Canada economically independent, for creating national unity. The list goes on.

The skeptical could point out that bilingualism was launched before Mr. Trudeau became prime minister, that for many Canada remains a sadly unjust society, that the Americans hardly noticed, that multiculturalism was an afterthought prompted by hostility to bilingualism, that Canada is far less economically independent than it was when Mr. Trudeau came to power and that the country has become a far less unified society.

But each of the claims do have an element of truth, if for no reason other than Mr. Trudeau talked about it as a problem, a goal or an idea and tried to do something.

When he talked about matters of public concern, he did it with intelligence and coherence. Compare the Mr. Trudeau we have seen on television for the past several days with what passes for public discourse by our current leaders. Your choice is laughing or weeping.

This is not just a reflection on Canadian politics. The first debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush managed to prove that with enough coaching and rehearsal, you can make anyone into a virtually incomprehensible robot -- down to the rote courtesy of, "That's a good question, Jim."

So Mr. Trudeau set a standard, and he did so at times in spite of what he said or did.

A woman on Parliament Hill told an interviewer that Mr. Trudeau was the reason her parents came to Canada. It then became apparent that her parents had come to this country before Mr. Trudeau got into politics -- so that is one of those cases where essential truth transcends mere facts.

It was new Canadians especially who were touched by Mr. Trudeau's death. Outside his house on Pine Avenue in Montreal, with the mound of red roses at the front door, or at the line-up outside City Hall, they explained that they were there because he was a great man or because they wanted to say thank you.

But even committed nationalists were respectful of the man. Thus Hervé Brousseau began a conversation on an east-end street by saying, no, he did not like Mr. Trudeau or anything he stood for. Mind you, he was brilliant, intelligent and elegant.

Finally, Mr. Brousseau asked whether I wouldn't like to go around the corner for a coffee or a beer? So for half an hour we drank beer and he talked constantly and admiringly about Mr. Trudeau.

Nobody in recent days ever had anything astonishingly new to say about Mr. Trudeau. What has happened is that for now, at least, he has become the Canadian ideal. Small wonder that others would try to seize that magic and bottle it for their own use.

It is Mr. Chrétien who would most easily claim the Trudeau legacy. The fundamentals of the Liberal Party have not changed since the Trudeau years and he was a cabinet minister throughout those 16 years.

Yet Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Chrétien are profoundly different people.

Where one was the cool and endlessly curious intellectual, the other is the hot, gut politician who called his ghost-written autobiography Straight from the Heart and prefers briefing notes that are no more than a page in length.

But, to lead us back to the Trudeau era, what would he do? Abolish the GST? Renegotiate the free-trade agreement? We have heard that before. It is to laugh.

The younger and athletic Mr. Day would clearly like to duplicate the early success of Mr. Trudeau, the breath of fresh air who suddenly captured the imagination of the country. And he certainly is different.

But suggesting that he and Mr. Trudeau share the same values, that is a bit of a stretch. From his fundamentalist, social conservatism to his view of federalism and his ideal of taxation, he is virtually the antithesis of Mr. Trudeau.

As for the others, Mr. Duceppe, Ms. McDonough and Mr. Clark, they are probably sufficiently wise not to try to wear a cloak that is not theirs.

Over the years, Peter Worthington of The Toronto Sun probably produced more excoriating criticism of Pierre Trudeau than anyone else. His conservatism was always defiant and cantankerous, but his final judgment on Mr. Trudeau last week was intriguing in its generosity:

"Personally, when one compares Jean Chrétien today with Pierre Trudeau then, it makes one realize how diluted the leadership of our country has become. . . . We are led by little men. Mr. Trudeau was a big man. We are unlikely to see his likes again -- and that may be a good thing. But I, for one, shall miss him."

It is not just Mr. Chrétien who should find that judgment daunting. Mr. Worthington was talking not about policies and politics that he liked or disliked, but about the man himself and the mythic figure he has become in the eyes of a great many Canadians.

Mr. Trudeau is more loved and respected in death than he was in life, for even his adversaries can now afford to acknowledge respect for the man apart from his politics.

Perhaps Canadians want a new Pierre Trudeau. But I don't think so. They are content with their own image of the man. It would seem indecent for others to try to wear his cloak, and they would all seem so foolishly small.

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