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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

One man and his battle for national unity
Friday, September 29, 2000

Pierre Trudeau once wrote that he entered federal politics to prevent French-speaking Quebeckers from leaving Canada and to stop English-speaking Canadians from kicking them out.

Neither has happened, although Quebec's departure from Canada in the last referendum was a very near thing. Exasperation with Quebec elsewhere has simmered and sometimes boiled, but those who want to be rid of Quebec have never amounted to more than an angry rump.

So Canada, during and after the Trudeau years, has bumped along, spasmodically erupting into constitutional psychodramas, surviving two Quebec referendums, escaping from linguistic tussles, remaining together still, if not happily, united.

Pierre Trudeau always passionately believed that defensive nationalism centred on the Catholic Church or the secular provincial state not only served French-speaking Quebeckers poorly, it threatened their individual liberties. Rights were held inherently by individuals, not collectivities, and when the winds of collective nationalism blew they could topple individual rights, especially of minorities.

With a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, strong French-speaking Quebeckers in Ottawa, and institutional bilingualism, Mr. Trudeau believed that Canada could envelop the aspirations and reflect the pride of French-speaking Quebeckers.

All these institutions and initiatives have now been in place for decades. Quebeckers have led the federal government for 31 of the last 32 years. Not long ago, the following positions were held by Quebeckers or French-speakers from outside the province: prime minister, minister of finance, clerk of the Privy Council, governor-general, chief justice of the Supreme Court, chief of the defence staff, auditor-general, speaker of the Commons.

And yet, in the heartland of Quebec, it sometimes seemed as if all this had never happened. In the last referendum campaign, French-speaking Quebeckers voted 60 per cent for an admittedly slippery question that might have eventually led to secession. Today, a solid majority of Quebec seats is held by the Parti Québécois and the Bloc Québécois.

Put parties aside. In poll after poll, when asked questions about their preferences for Quebec's role in Canada, only a tiny minority of Quebeckers responds in ways Mr. Trudeau would find satisfying.

He alone cannot be blamed for failing to persuade Quebeckers to see themselves within Canada in a different way. Indeed, perhaps he cannot be blamed at all, because he tried -- oh, how he tried -- with the full arsenal of his formidable gifts to make them see their destiny his way.

He argued and cajoled as pamphleteer, secular preacher, teacher, politician and prime minister. He patriated the Constitution and insisted upon including within it the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He offered political battle on every front, with government spending programs, publicity campaigns, "French Power" in Ottawa and, of course, crucial rhetorical interventions in the 1980 referendum campaign.

And while all this was going on, with no discernible long-term adjustment in the way Quebeckers saw themselves or their province within Canada, out there in the rest of Canada, where so many of his initiatives were often so resented, people came, almost without knowing it, to accept more fully his vision of Canada.

Like him, the rest of Canada opposed "special status" or "distinct society," believing instead that all provinces should somehow be equal. It took a long time, and the battle is not fully won, but the resentment against bilingualism faded into a grudging, and for some, even a proud acceptance. As for the Charter, it is now the most popular symbol for the rest of Canada, eclipsing the monarchy, the RCMP, Parliament, multiculturalism or anything else.

Provincial governments and some Western Canadians chafe at the strength of the federal government -- a strength Mr. Trudeau always defended -- but among Canadians in the main, Ottawa's role remains primus inter pares. They want it to be, as he did, a shaper of national policy led by a prime minister who would not act, as he once quipped, like a "head waiter for the premiers."

Playwright Samuel Butler once wrote that "the most perfect irony is generally quite unconscious." When the historians take Pierre Trudeau's full measure -- a task not permitted his contemporaries -- assessing the "unconscious irony" of his national unity ambitions will be among their most difficult challenges.

That Mr. Trudeau possessed a vaulting vision to which he hewed with astonishing tenacity through all the torments of politics set him apart from those prime ministers who preceded him, and most certainly from those who followed. That this vision implanted itself so deeply outside his native province but left such feeble traces in Quebec is merely one part of the ambiguous but certainly arresting legacy Pierre Trudeau bequeathed Canada.

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