Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
Visiting ghosts of elections past
By JEFFREY SIMPSON
Monday, October 2, 2000
Had this been Paris or London or Washington, the ceremonies for a deceased leader would have featured a cortege and some display of military pageantry.
But this was Ottawa, a modest capital in a modest country, so Saturday morning the ceremony for former prime minister Pierre Trudeau was suitably restrained.
His two handsome sons, supporting their mother Margaret, stood solemnly beside the casket in the House of Common's Hall of Honour. When Prime Minister Jean Chrétien greeted them, they threw their arms around him, and no one present remained unmoved.
There was, about the whole affair, not merely solemnity, as the occasion demanded, but a becoming, quiet dignity. Before and after paying their respects, various figures from the Trudeau era stood in small groups, reminiscing about a man they had all known in pieces.
For who could say, including those who worked for or chronicled him, that they knew the man? He was inevitably the most public of men, but also the most private. By turns outrageous and contemplative, combative and compassionate, he remained a kind of cut stone that refracted a kaleidoscope of images which changed according to circumstances and the eye of the beholder.
Some years ago, a prominent British historian (and Conservative MP) wrote an intelligent book about Winston Churchill entitled A Study in Failure. His argument consisted of documenting how, before becoming prime minister in Britain's darkest hour of 1940, Mr. Churchill had been on the wrong side of almost every issue. Had it not been for the war, he would have gone down as a fascinating failure.
When Pierre Trudeau was defeated in 1979, a defeat he assumed meant the political end, the obituaries were largely unkind. He read them, and they hurt.
So when Conservative Leader Joe Clark, accompanied by his wife Maureen McTeer, paid his respects yesterday, all the might-have-beens of Canadian political history washed over us.
If Mr. Clark had managed to avoid defeat in the Commons in December, 1979, a fate he easily could have avoided, Mr. Trudeau would never have returned to Canadian politics. Mr. Trudeau had already announced his resignation as Liberal leader, and the party executive had called a leadership convention. Former finance minister Donald Macdonald would definitely run; another former finance minister, John Turner, had ruled himself out of the race, but some Liberals still hoped he would change his mind. The Liberals were turning a page.
But for a series of classic errors, Joe Clark, and not Pierre Trudeau, would have been prime minister for the 1980 Quebec referendum campaign. There would have been no National Energy Policy, a smaller accumulation of national debt and certainly no patriation of the constitution with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Chances are, too, that there would have been no Brian Mulroney, at least not so soon, because Mr. Mulroney capitalized on those Clark errors to win the Conservative leadership. And if there had been no Brian Mulroney . . . but now the historical might-have-beens are getting out of hand. All that can be said is that the man who lay in state this weekend would still have been remembered if his political career ended when even he thought it had, for he was too arresting a figure even before his resurrection in 1980 to have been forgotten, but his impact on Canadian society would have been a more limited one.
All who knew Pierre Trudeau in life wrestled with understanding him, and that wrestling will now continue in death as future generations, with the advantage of distance, assess his contributions. Consideration will be given in a formal way about how he should be commemorated. There will be the usual suggestions: the naming of public monuments, the placing of a statue on Parliament Hill. Jean Pigott, former head of the National Capital Commission and Conservative MP, has the most creative idea thus far -- a park and a statue on an island in the Ottawa River between Quebec and Ontario. Mr. Trudeau loved rivers and understood their importance in Canada's history. So let there be a sculpture, but let it be something unlike all the others -- of a man, alone in that most Canadian of vessels, the canoe, paddling between Ontario and Quebec, steering for the Canadian heartland. He would, I think, approve.