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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

The father's role
Wednesday, October 4, 2000

So many things can go wrong in famous families. Children of celebrities have written bitter books complaining of parents who were absent or who, when present, made their lives a misery.

Not here. Not with Pierre Trudeau. A particularly moving aspect of the mourning for the former prime minister has been the unmistakable evidence that he loved his children deeply and was loved in return. He spent the past 30 years, in power and in private life, treating his family as if they were the most important thing in his life, which they were.

It could have been otherwise. The raw ingredients have produced unhappy consequences in all too many other homes: a rift between parents, mother and father separated and having affairs with others, a father whose job demanded his time and attention. Yet he and Margaret Trudeau were there for Justin, Sacha and Michel, even after the marriage crumbled. After he fathered a daughter with Deborah Coyne -- Sarah, now 9 -- he visited her regularly: not the perfunctory swooping down of a father ticking off duties on a list, but encounters in which she had his full attention and he hers.

We have caught glimpses of his life with his three sons, of whom he had custody. Sacha and Justin, interviewed last year for a CTV documentary, remembered with amusement the camping trips on which their father would be standing outside the tent, covered in mosquitoes, while they cowered inside to escape the bugs and resisted his entreaties to enjoy nature. Yet they did enjoy it; they were all athletic. Michel -- who was asked at 7 how he had become such an excellent skier and replied, "Our mother taught us" -- made skiing his life. When he died two years ago, a tragedy that sapped his father's strength, it was while on the slopes.

"He encouraged us to push ourselves, to test limits, to challenge anyone and anything," Justin said of his father at yesterday's service. ". . . He doted on us but didn't indulge." We heard that Mr. Trudeau would spend Sundays with his sons, reading favourite passages from the Bible to feed their spiritual side and remind them of their roots. He instilled in them a sense that you can disagree with an opinion while respecting the person who holds it. "People perceived him as tough and arrogant," Justin said last year. "We would perceive him as strong and disciplined." He and Sacha have shown themselves in recent days as men who took his strength and discipline to heart.

As The Globe's Hugh Winsor wrote, they have conveyed a maturity and grace at a time of grief and overwhelming public attention. Yesterday's front-page photograph -- of the two sons warmly acknowledging the crowds that lined the tracks as the train carried Mr. Trudeau's coffin from Ottawa to Montreal -- spoke volumes about their poise and character.

One more reason to admire him, and them.

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