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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

'Merci, Pierre'
The Globe and Mail
September 31, 2000

Ottawa - Thousands of Canadians who lined up Saturday on Parliament Hill to mourn the death of Pierre Elliott Trudeau kept the Hall of Honour where he lay in state open until well into the night, filing past his casket until the early into the wee hours.

The hall had been scheduled to close at 11 p.m., but officials had said they would not turn away any one seeking to pay their respects to the former prime minister. After 24,000 people had streamed through the doors, officials closed the viewing: It was 3:40 a.m.

And when the hall was also opened up at 9 a.m. Sunday, an hour earlier than scheduled, up to a thousand Canadians had already gathered outside.

On Saturday, after politicians and dignitaries had filed past Mr. Trudeau's casket, the public was given a chance to grieve the man who spent 16 tumultuous years as their prime minister.

The black hearse arrived on Parliament Hill at 10 a.m. Saturday, escorted by a detail of police motorcycles. As thousands of mourners looked on, the casket was carried inside the main doors of Centre Block by eight red-coated and white-gloved RCMP pallbearers. Overhead, the sun shone on a spring-like day as the great bell inside the Peace Tower chimed 81 times - Mr. Trudeau's age, plus one.

Inside, the casket was carried into the Hall of Honour - a massive limestone-walled room separating the House of Commons and the Senate. Behind the casket, in stoic silence, walked Mr. Trudeau's two living sons, Justin and Sacha, along with their mother, Margaret. With them walked Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his wife Aline.

The casket, draped in a Canadian flag, was laid near the end of the Hall of Honour, just outside the entrance to the parliamentary library, the only part of the building to survive a massive fire in 1916. Above it hung a simple wooden cross. Mr. Trudeau was Roman Catholic.

After a short period of time that Mr. Trudeau's family spent alone with the casket, Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson and her husband John Ralston Saul were the first to pay their respects. Next came the Chrétiens, followed by the rest of Mr. Trudeau's family.

The most emotional moment came when Mr. Chrétien - who considered Mr. Trudeau his mentor - clutched Sacha and Justin separately in hugs. Later, as Ms. Clarkson chatted with Margaret, the Governor-General reached out and wiped a tear from Sacha's face.

Then came the dignitaries. A steady stream began with Madam Justice Beverley McLachlin, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and continued with Conservative Leader Joe Clark, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Matthew Coon Come, former Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells and a smattering of judges, diplomats, MPs and senators.

Outside, the crowd had formed into two long lines that stretched from the front doors of Centre Block, twisted along the driveway that joins the three Parliament Buildings, and down the sprawling lawn to the Centennial Flame - a fire near the foot of Parliament Hill that burns continuously in the centre of a fountain as a tribute to the first 100 years of Confederation.

While they waited, visitors swapped stories and chuckled about their favourite Trudeau moments - his pirouette behind the Queen, his unparliamentary "fuddle-duddle" and the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Many added red roses to the hundreds piled in a circle around the Centennial Flame.

When the doors were opened to the public, one of the first to reach the casket was Suse Corbeil. Wearing a ballcap emblazoned with red maple leaves, she powered her automatic wheelchair close enough to the coffin that she could reach out and lay a hand on it. After a moment of quiet reflection, she placed a white rose on top that stayed there the rest of the afternoon.

"I just wanted to come and pay my respects," she said later, losing a fight to restrain her tears. "He had such pure love for Canada. And there isn't anyone today who can speak up and fight for us. It's a sad day."

Many of visitors spent close to four hours in line for only a few seconds in front of the casket. Security officials estimated that about 1,600 people an hour were filing through the hall.

Some crossed themselves, some wept, some reached out to touch the casket or grasped their loved ones. One woman seemed to give Mr. Trudeau a parting kiss, kissing her hand then touching the casket with it.

But while most reflected only on their fleeting encounters with the former prime minister, or memories constructed by television news footage, some came to mourn a deeply personal loss.

Karen Morgan moved with her mother to Ottawa from Jamaica in 1974. Karen was 3, and her mother got a job working at Mr. Trudeau's official residence, 24 Sussex Drive, where Karen lived for the next six years. Her memory of Mr. Trudeau is not of a politician, but of a man who was much warmer in person than the media portrayed him.

"He was gentle and caring - a lot different than the public saw him," Ms. Morgan said on Saturday.

After visitors filed by the body, most took a moment to sign one of numerous guest books set out for the occasion. Many of the messages spoke of the inspiration and leadership Mr. Trudeau gave to Canada during his years in office. But it was the simplest message that was also the most common: "Merci, Pierre."

Mr. Trudeau's body will lie in state on Parliament Hill until Monday, when he will be taken by train to Montreal, where he will also lie in state, at Montreal City Hall. His funeral is Tuesday at the city's towering Notre-Dame Basilica.

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