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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

When the rose wilted
Thursday, October 5, 2000

When I first saw Pierre Trudeau, I didn't know what to think.

It was at a Winnipeg shopping mall, on a sunny day full of promise. It was 1968, the height of Trudeaumania, the eve of the election that would sweep him into power. I was 18.

It was a mob scene: hundreds of giddy women bouncing with excitement, waiting for a glimpse of the great man. It took a while before I realized he was right in front of me -- he was so short he was easily obscured by the women. But the crowd parted, and there he was. This mini-version of the TV colossus was wearing a seersucker suit, an ascot and, of course, a red rose in his lapel. His face was oddly pink, and he looked demure, delicate. My first thought: interior decorator.

This week, when millions of Canadians are taking stock of Pierre Trudeau, I have been surprised by that memory -- the first time he failed to live up to my exalted expectations of him. It was not the last. No one could live up to those expectations. A cool guy was talking about Canada in a way that made it seem as exciting as America, home of the Jefferson Airplane and wine sold in supermarkets.

I grew up under his vision. By the time he went for his walk in the snow, I was 34, and had experienced two marriages, two newspapers, a magazine and a TV station. And when he went, I was relieved.

But to an 18-year-old, the vision was intoxicating. A dynamic partnership of the two solitudes, an enlightened Canada based on justice and equality. Two years later, when he imposed the War Measures Act, I realized the cost of that vision. Wherever I went, there were soldiers, the RCMP, and commissionaires on guard, checking my credentials. A brief taste of a police state, courtesy of Pierre Trudeau.

It was disturbing, even more so when he was applauded by the thoughtless throughout the land. How could he reconcile his enlightened posturing with his authoritarian suppression under the guise of dealing with a few terrorists? The bloom was off the rose.

It continued to wilt as we lived through the painful imposition of bilingualism on a unilingual landscape, as well-meaning bureaucrats exhorted us to learn French or feel guilty if we didn't. It was on life support when he asked why he should sell our wheat. He wanted to micromanage every other aspect of the economy -- why wouldn't he want to sell our wheat? The rose finally expired when he imposed the National Energy Program, dealing a savage blow to Alberta's economy.

When your vision is so precious and fine, you will do anything to sustain it. Yet, when it fails to include the legitimate aspirations of your people, is it so precious and fine? Throughout his reign, I felt tolerated at best. And so I became more a Westerner and less a Canadian.

I'm sure something like that happened in Quebec, where he mistook distaste for the suffocating blanket of federal paternalism as treason.

And so now we have a whole new breed of warlord, whose visions don't extend beyond the boundaries of Alberta or Quebec. The federalism they challenge is the federalism of Pierre Trudeau, as sustained (feebly) by Jean Chrétien. But there is nothing for us in the peevish rhetoric of Lucien Bouchard or Stockwell Day. If Pierre Trudeau's vision was flawed, theirs are merely untenable.

I am surprised at the depth of my sadness, and confused by its source. How much am I mourning his lost promise or mine? And what's the difference?

As much as he failed us, we failed him. He was the last Father of Confederation, a man of vision who kept the country together although the cost was high. Small of stature, a giant of a man. Is there anyone who will stand on his shoulders?

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