Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
A father's final quest
By LYSIANE GAGNON
Saturday, September 30, 2000
I first met Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the mid-1960s, at a book launching in a small bookstore near the University of Montreal, where he was a professor at the law faculty. Mr. Trudeau hadn't yet joined the Liberal Party, but in Quebec he was already a famous and controversial personality.
Somehow, we all instinctively expect great men to be taller than the rest of us, and so I remember my surprise at realizing that he wasn't much taller than I am (I barely reach 5 foot 5, but I was probably wearing high heels). I don't remember the conversation except that it was brief. I was intimidated and Mr. Trudeau was never very good at small talk. The splendid public speaker was a shy and distant man in private.
During the course of his 20 years in active politics, I rarely had an opportunity to see him in an informal setting, but after he moved back to Montreal, I was lucky enough to meet him many times.
In 1990, a few months before he lashed out against the Meech Lake accord, we had lunch in a Chinese restaurant near his office at the law firm of Heenan Blaikie. He was a bit taciturn, but as as the conversation turned to the constitutional, he became animated.
Methodically -- but the passion and fury were palpable behind the words -- he recounted the detailed story of his constitutional wars, from the 1971 Victoria Conference to the 1981 negotiations with the provinces. He insisted that Meech -- or any kind of special status, for that matter -- was a "crutch" that Quebeckers didn't need, and that would eventually reduce their influence on the federal scene.
By now, the restaurant was completely empty, but Mr. Trudeau kept talking. When we left, it was almost 4 p.m. and Mr. Trudeau, who had a bad knee, was limping slightly from having sat too long.
A few years later, we had lunch in an Indian restaurant. I asked him why he didn't write his memoirs. He replied that the book that his friend Tom Axworthy had just edited served the purpose. But this is a collection of articles by various authors, I said, it's not an autobiography. He said he couldn't find the time: There were so many books to read, and he travelled quite a lot. . . . I got the sense that what he wanted to leave as a legacy was not his personal story, nor anecdotes about his life in politics, but his ideas -- and his ideas had already been written down, mostly by himself in earlier writings.
The conversation turned to education, and he told me about his sons' studies. He mentioned that he had been invited to Prague as a special consultant by President Vaclav Havel, who was then trying to prevent the break-up of Czechoslovakia. "I hope you'll have more success there than here!" one of his sons had quipped. Mr. Trudeau laughed as he told me the story.
When he talked about his sons, his face always lit up; a wave of tenderness softened his patrician, angular features.
My last informal encounter with Mr. Trudeau was in January, 1998, at a friend's elegant condo in Old Montreal. About 10 people were there for dinner. Light conversations floated around the room. Nobody talked about politics. Mr. Trudeau listened more than he talked. He was, as usual, reserved and courteous but looked somewhat aged. (A few months earlier, he had lost his closest friend, former journalist and Liberal cabinet minister Gérard Pelletier. At the funeral, Mr. Trudeau looked shattered: "I lost a part of my soul," he said in a rare display of emotion.)
On that evening, though, he was in a good mood. He was about to leave for B.C. for a week of skiing with his three sons. His knee was bothering him, but he looked forward to the trip. "It's going to be a family reunion," he said joyfully. The kids were now living away from home -- one was studying in Halifax, another was in Vancouver, the third was a ski instructor in the Rockies. He was the daring one, the one who had inherited his father's love of the wilderness.
This was to be one of Michel Trudeau's last ski trips. A few months later, on Nov. 13, 1998, the youngest son of Pierre Trudeau was hurled by an avalanche into the frozen waters of Kokanee Lake.
Mr. Trudeau would never recover from this tragedy. Faced with a series of diseases, the combative leader lost all his fighting instincts. My belief is that he simply lost the will to live.
Now Pierre Elliott Trudeau has embarked on his last canoe trip into the wilderness. He is gliding down the dark waters of the river Styx, searching for his lost child. They will soon be reunited.
Lysiane Gagnon is a political columnist at La Presse.