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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

With the passing of a man, the birth of a myth
Wednesday, October 4, 2000

A nation buried Pierre Trudeau yesterday and gave birth to a myth.

All nations need myths. They are tales told by members of one generation to another, then passed on to future generations to become what Abraham Lincoln called a nation's "mystic chords of memory."

Myths are not history, but versions of it. They are not rounded portraits of what actually happened, but tales of triumph and tragedy that emerge over time, with lessons extracted by those who learn them.

Myths require a determined effort of amnesia about all the details that get in the way of the main outlines of the story. Critics may recall those details, even highlight them, but they fade in the public's mind before those main outlines.

So it will be for Pierre Trudeau.

Adversaries of his in public life never failed to highlight the details; indeed, in the outpouring of contemporary affection it is inconvenient to remember that twice in his political career, in 1972 and 1979, voters outside Quebec resoundingly rebuked him. When Mr. Trudeau departed public life in 1984, he knew he could not be re-elected.

Myths, however, usually centre on individuals of daring and courage who, against considerable odds, recorded accomplishments that touched contemporaries and are therefore worth retelling to future generations.

So it will be for Pierre Trudeau.

Much of what he did, or tried to do, has disappeared from Canadian life, and historians will record all these efforts. But myths will brush these disappointments aside, and focus instead on what he did accomplish and what legacy he left his country.

That he loved his country did not necessarily set him apart from other patriots, but rather how he loved it. He loved it in both languages and in its immense entirety. He loved it for what it was but, more important, for what it could become.

Myths are about dreams, some achieved, some broken. Myths can be as much about failure as success, but what counts in a myth is that an individual tried and, in the trying, inspired others.

So it will be for Pierre Trudeau.

He embraced the complexity of Canada and tried to persuade his fellow citizens to treat that complexity as an asset, rather than a frustration. It was never an easy sell in a country of regional resentments, linguistic tensions and vast geographic space. Other prime ministers had governed by trying to broker these differences, but he tried to synthesize them into a larger, coherent whole, often with polarizing rather than unifying results.

But as time has passed since he left public life, and Canadians have been better able to compare him with his predecessors and his successors, a certain appreciation has set in for what he attempted, even among those who liked neither his methods, nor the results.

He could be rough and insulting and infuriating. He was never one to let an argument die easily. But through his exertions, physical and intellectual, he tested himself and asked of his fellow citizens that they try to test themselves as individuals, and as members of the common weal. That will be, one suspects, his most enduring legacy, the one that will most shape the enfolding myth of his public life.

For all his sometimes trying methods, he did attempt to summon, again as Lincoln said, the "better angels of our nature." Those around whom myths form are not made of ordinary stuff, even if, as necessarily flawed human beings, there are elements of the ordinary about them.

So it will be for Pierre Trudeau.

He had personal and political flaws, but he also had characteristics of discipline and courage, and a set of ideas that through all the years never varied.

Those ideas were contested in his time, as they will be in the future, but they were rooted in the history of this country and in the intellectual traditions of the West, and never in our time has a Canadian articulated them more eloquently or defended them more passionately than he did.

Those ideas were large, and they, too, will shape the myth because myths are only about large ideas that are worth remembering long after those who articulated them have passed. Ultimately, those ideas transcend all the details that myths forget, and leave behind for future generations a legacy that passes into legend.

So it will be for Pierre Trudeau.

Requiescat in pace.

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