Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
For women, there was the Smile
By LEAH McLAREN
Saturday, September 30, 2000
When I attended McGill University in the mid-1990s, I met a young man who liked to complain half-bitterly about a campus phenomenon he called the Trudeau Smile. Pierre Trudeau, as everyone in Montreal knows, lived in a stately, art-deco monument on Pine Avenue, not far from the university. It was this same house where he died of prostate cancer, surrounded by family on Thursday afternoon. On most days of his postprime-ministerial life, however, he could be spotted walking down Peel Street, on the way to or returning from his law office.
Without exception, whenever a young woman, accompanied by a boyfriend or not, passed him, the great man would slow his pace, make eye contact with the woman, smile and wish her good day. Of course, they melted every time. Their boyfriends were then subjected to gushings over the Trudeau Smile for weeks afterward.
"As it turned out, he smiled at every girlfriend I've ever had in my life," my friend from McGill reflected yesterday. "At the time, I always pretended to be irritated, but secretly I didn't really mind. It was incredibly flattering when your girlfriend got the Smile. It was like the Trudeau nod of approval."
Mr. Trudeau was first elected prime minister in 1968, seven years before I was born. In many ways, for my generation, his influence seems as much cultural as political. During his leadership, he was all of the things this country promised to be but wasn't yet. He gave my generation a licence to be flamboyant and sophisticated and rebellious -- qualities that most of Canada viewed with parochial horror in the 1970s.
Mr. Trudeau provided a model for an ambitious, globally minded, yet politically independent Canada. Against conventional advice, he went to Moscow and Havana, chummed with Fidel Castro. He anticipated Canada's participation in a world community without the dominating influence of the United States or any other superpower. He made it acceptable to be an outspoken and swaggering Canadian.
I remember being allowed to stay up well past my bedtime to watch the results of the February, 1980, election that saw Mr. Trudeau returned to power with a parliamentary majority only three months after he had announced his retirement from public life. I remember thinking it was very boring TV -- all those numbers flashing across the screen -- but I knew it was something important from the way my father kept jumping up and throwing himself back against the couch, my mother grinding another Craven A into the ashtray. I wondered when the man with the red rose and the jester-mask face would let me stay up late again.
My mother, like most bored young housewives in the 1970s, was obsessed with Mr. Trudeau. She indoctrinated me into her own particular brand of Trudeaumania while I was still in preschool through long, incomprehensible lectures on Canadian cultural sovereignty and the high hopes of bilingualism. You may not agree with him, I remember her saying, tapping her finger on the French-language side of a Beefaroni can, but our Prime Minister has vision.
In my childhood mind, Mr. Trudeau was so much more than the prime minister. He was a movie star, a kindly prince and a silver-tongued magician rolled into one.
And then, when I was 20, I, too, got the Smile. One day in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood, a stooped man with a jester's face walked pastholding the hand of a tiny, blond child. After helping the little girl into a car parked outside our apartment, he turned and smiled at me.
"It's a beautiful day," he said, although it was overcast and muggy.
"Yes, it is," I said.