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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Trudeau's brief summer of possibility followed by long winter of discontent
Saturday, September 30, 2000

Canadians who rightly mourn the passing of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and the brief, brilliant summer of possibility we lived through under his leadership can be forgiven for momentarily forgetting the grey, disjointed winter that followed.

But the truth remains: We live in a fractured Canada not despite his efforts, but because of them.

Mr. Trudeau embraced not a new national vision but a very old one: a unitary state dominated by a powerful central government, the Canada that John A. Macdonald strove to achieve.

Macdonald failed, brought low by provincial governments determined to protect their rights. Mr. Trudeau rode roughshod over those rights, leaving the provinces and the federal power locked in a cold war from which we have yet to emerge.

So determined was he to cow the separatist threat in Quebec, he suspended our fundamental liberties by invoking the War Measures Act in 1970. Quebeckers responded by electing a separatist government in 1976.

When the 1980 referendum revealed that a majority of them were still unwilling to leave outright, the prime minister rewarded their loyalty by imposing a Constitution that no Quebec government, separatist of federalist, has seen fit to ratify. The 1995 referendum revealed that Quebec remains attached to Canada by only the slenderest thread.

But it was not only his native Quebec that Mr. Trudeau left estranged. The Canadian Alliance, with its radical proposals for decentralizing the federation, stands a credible chance of winning government as a direct result of the National Energy Program of the early 1980s, in which the Trudeau government stripped Alberta of its profits from the oil industry. The NEP gave us Preston Manning, the Reform Party, the Alliance and Stockwell Day, the first opposition leader Prime Minister Jean Chrétien seems genuinely to fear.

On the other side of the country, Atlantic Canadians still burn with resentment over Mr. Trudeau's similar treatment of their offshore oil and fisheries.

But although it took longer to surface, the Trudeau legacy in Ontario may turn out to have been the most destructive of all.

In paying tribute to Mr. Trudeau, Ontario Premier Mike Harris said the former prime minister had inspired many of today's politicians to enter public life. How true.

Mr. Harris, as he has often remarked, is one of a generation of Ontario politicians who first ran for office in reaction to Mr. Trudeau's contemptuous neglect of the Canadian economy. His cavalier disregard for economic fundamentals and his mischievous misuse of the Foreign Investment Review Agency, industrial subsidies, and wage and profit controls dragged Canada from near the top among industrialized nations to near the bottom in economic performance. He gave us the national debt.

Now Mike Harris follows David Peterson and Bob Rae in waging a wearying war of attrition with Ottawa for control of Ontario's political space, a war Ontario appears to be winning. In the process, Ontario's premiers have become only a soupçon less separatist than their Quebec counterparts.

It is probably true that the centrifugal forces pulling the federation apart would have emerged even without Mr. Trudeau. It is certainly true he exacerbated those forces. Had Joe Clark won a majority government in 1979, Quebec probably would still have voted No, and there would have been no NEP, no failures of Meech and Charlottetown, and no Canadian Alliance. (How ironic that Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Clark's first nemesis, should have spawned his second.)

There would probably have been no patriated Constitution, either. Who knows if it would be missed.

Pierre Trudeau didn't live to see the next act in the federalist soap opera. But it is unlikely he would have felt any responsibility for it.

Trudeau was not given to confronting the dark side of his legacy.

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