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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

The state has no place in the gene pool of the nation
Tuesday, October 3, 2000

Though he studied foreign affairs, travelled the globe and saw himself as a citizen of the world, Pierre Trudeau's actual accomplishments as an international statesman were meager. In one way, though, he proved to be ahead of his time. He saw the danger of rampant ethnic nationalism and confronted it.

When Mr. Trudeau came to power in 1968, nationalism was in full flood. In the 1950s and 1960s, as European empires crumbled, dozens of Third World peoples had thrown off their colonial shackles and declared their independence. Most Western intellectuals were sympathetic. Not Mr. Trudeau. He came to believe that nations formed purely on the basis of common language, religion or ethnic background were inherently intolerant.

Then there was the question of minorities. Because no nation was truly homogeneous, a "pure" ethnic nation was impossible. There was always a smaller group within the dominant one to act as whipping boy. "To insist that a particular nationality must have complete sovereign power is to pursue a self-destructive end," he wrote in 1962.

History has justified his fears. Since Mr. Trudeau left office in 1984, we have seen Yugoslavia break up, Rwanda explode, and Sri Lanka tear itself apart. Last year's bloodshed in Kosovo, and in East Timor, was over ethnic nationalism.

Ethnic nationalism continues to be a source of disorder and violence in the world -- perhaps the greatest source. How to confront it? Several methods have been tried. One is partition. If part of a country wants to break away, let it.

But this almost always brings bloodshed: Look at the Indian subcontinent in 1947, or think of Cyprus or Northern Ireland or Bosnia. Another method is power-sharing. Instead of letting the restive minority break way, give it a share of autonomy at the local level or a guaranteed share of power at the national one. Yugoslavia tried a form of it under Tito, before everything fell apart. Lebanon tried it, sharing power among Christians and Muslims. That failed, too.

Mr. Trudeau had a different idea. Don't surrender to partition: That way lies disaster. Don't permit special status either: It's the thin edge of the wedge. Instead of trying to appease the group, empower the individual. Bulk up constitutional rights. Give individuals the opportunity and the tools to flourish and grow within the existing nation, rather than break away to form their own. Build a broader definition of the group, not a narrower one. Thus bilingualism, multiculturalism and the Charter of Rights.

Whether it worked in Canada will be debated for years, but on the international scene, the Trudeau vision is looking better and better. When South Africa did away with white rule in 1994, it flirted with special status for whites and minority black and coloured groups, but, instead, chose a rights-based constitution that made everyone formally equal. So far, it has worked. All over the world, international groups are striving to rebuild violence-torn societies by implanting the idea of civil society based on rights and laws, rather than ethnic oneupmanship.

Idealistic? Naive? That is what many said about the Trudeau vision. In fact, it is brutally practical. We live in a mongrel world. People everywhere live jumbled together, Hindu beside Muslim, Serb next to Croat, Tamil up against Sinhalese. If every group that considers itself a people strives to become a nation, the horrors of Yugoslavia will look quaint.

The point is not that people should live together. The point is that they have to. Mr. Trudeau the realist understood that. He was ahead of his time.

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