Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
History's judgment will mirror our values
Author and professor Stephen Clarkson
examines the Trudeau years and the
complexity of charisma, concluding
that 'He daunts us still.' The legacy is rich,
'but for all his attempts to watch over
his orthodoxy, there is no consistency.'
By Stephen Clarkson
Saturday, September 30, 2000
The question of Pierre Trudeau's legacy is a subject so distorted by the paeans of praise from his acolytes and allies, so scorched with vituperation by his political and intellectual enemies, so awash in controversy (which he continually provoked by contradicting his critics as well as himself) that making a balanced assessment -- even when his agile body and his indomitable spirit have finally been stilled -- is a delicate task.
Beyond being highly contested, any assessment of the Trudeau legacy is complicated by how our own views of past events change in response to new developments. Historian Jack Granatstein originally condemned Trudeau's tough action during the October crisis of 1970; now he applauds it. Right wingers who could never bring themselves to vote for such a "socialist" as Trudeau, flocked to support his attack on a distinct society status for Quebec. Those on the left, who excoriated what they saw as his niggardliness toward social policies when he was governing, now wax nostalgic for the golden age of the generous welfare state.
It's beginning to look as though any attempt to identify Pierre Trudeau's legacy is as much about us as it is about him. In our mourning, we may be projecting onto him our grief for the lost opportunity to build that proud and independent Canada which no leader could have managed under the inexorable pressures of Americanization.
Let's start with his first political promise, participatory democracy. As he once acknowledged to me, the slogan sprang from both a lack of knowledge of the Liberal party he aspired to lead and a need to induce its activists to support his candidacy. He buttressed the slogan he had pinched from the American Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s with the thoughts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 1760s to tell the public in general, but his Liberal militants in particular, that they should play a direct role in making the laws by which they would be governed.
Did he fail to make good on this promise? Yes. Was he apologetic? No. Did he explain? Of course. He found another rationalization, not from populist political thought but from its opposing elitist current. Borrowing from John Locke and Edmund Burke and lifting the ideas of his Harvard professor, Joseph Schumpeter, he spat back at his astonished supporters that they had no business claiming the right to interfere with the workings of government. Policy-making was not to be made in the street by the mob. They should shut up and wait for the next election when they could throw him out.
And what about the Just Society -- the great end for which participatory democracy constituted the means? Sometimes Trudeau defined justice as equality of opportunity. But he also endorsed the notion that justice was impossible without bridging the gap between rich and poor he'd devastatingly denounced in his 1950s critique of Canadian capitalism.
Depending on which definition of a just society one takes, Trudeau was either a success or a failure. He improved equality of opportunity in Canada by defending universal medicare and regional development programs. But as for material equality, his governments achieved little.
By appointing John Turner as Minister of Finance and Simon Reisman as his deputy minister in the early 1970s, Trudeau in effect mandated the prime agency of his government to cut back taxes on business and upper-income groups. A quarter of a century before Mike Harris, Turner and Reisman deliberately made the federal government incapable of financing the more generous, guaranteed annual income that Marc Lalonde, Trudeau's Minister of National Health and Welfare, and his deputy, Al Johnson, wanted to introduce.
This was a perverse application of Trudeau's much touted theory of counterweights -- blocking the left-leaning thrust of one part of his government with countervailing action by an opposing, right-leaning thrust.
Trudeau's proclivity for a strong central government is often linked to his famous question, "Who will speak for Canada?" This was a legitimate challenge for the leader of a decentralized federal system to put to the baying pack of provincial premiers.
Yet in office, one of the Trudeau government's most effective -- if least understood -- actions was to dismantle the fiscal base for federal dominance by abandoning the policy instruments that had made Ottawa's primacy possible in the first place. The Established Program Funding of 1977 washed Ottawa's hands of the conditional grants it had previously made to the provinces in support of specific social programs. In the name of greater provincial autonomy, this new unconditional block funding allowed the provinces to do what they wished with the federal tax revenues that were placed in their hands -- two decades before Paul Martin's Canada Health and Social Transfer.
When we turn to the neighbouring issue of national unity, we come to that policy on which Trudeau first lavished his government's energy. Official bilingualism may have been set in train by Lester Pearson, but language rights for francophones outside Quebec and inside the federal government were marketed by Trudeau as the panacea that would mollify the grievances of French-speaking Canadians and, even in Quebec, make the separatists finally feel at home from coast to coast to coast.
By the time the Parti Québécois first won power in 1976, Trudeau himself admitted his failure to stop separatism.
But he did not admit error. He could never see that his one-dimensional solution to Quebec's alienation was irrelevant. Insisting it was enough to correct the federal government's past linguistic mistakes, he denied to Quebec nationalists the progressive, interventionist, muscular state that their vibrant democracy was demanding and that he himself advocated for the federal government.
In the end he became an incarnation of the intolerant, overbearing English-Canadian nationalism which he had once decried as the first cause of Quebeckers' defensive nationalism. In this intolerance he reinforced the very separatism that he had entered politics to defeat.
Even his beloved Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- the fruit of his Harvard training in individualistic liberal constitutionalism -- is lodged in self-contradiction. Trudeau was a child of the modernist generation that came of age during the Second World War and, armed with Lord Keynes's formulas, committed itself to build a powerful state that could banish unemployment, harness the private sector, and create a social-democratic order for an industrialized society. He preached the virtue of government when run by men of integrity (such as himself) as a necessity for reforming the reactionary society into which he had been born. He supported the trade union movement to defend the weak against the strong.
But in the Charter he created an instrument that deliberately weakened parliamentary government. Besides empowering minorities, it gave corporations a greater capacity to defend themselves, using the guarantees of individual rights, against a state whose mission, in Trudeau's own words, was to defend the interests of the whole. Thus the Charter was used to eviscerate the very laws to increase electoral fairness and contain the corrupting power of corporate cash in politics that the Trudeau government successfully enacted in 1974.
As for foreign policy, especially his handling of Canada's relations with the all-important United States, there are still more contradictions between high moral grounds and low pragmatic performance. The inspiring words on developing nations' poverty that Canada's prime minister expressed elegantly and empathetically in a famous speech at London's Mansion House in 1975 made bitter reading for any Third World country expecting him to produce more generous Canadian support for the plight of the clearly oppressed or for those resisting apartheid in South Africa.
If reason were our only guide (passion having been banished as he admonished us), how can we explain our interest in this man and his government which were in so many ways a failure? The short explanation is charisma. But this word begs a further set of questions. Did the charisma lie in his person? In the Canadian public? Or in their interaction?
If it takes two to tango, it takes a whole society plus a leader to charisma. Because charisma is a function of the interplay between the leader and the led, we need to understand the psychology of the connection between the object (him) and the subjects (us). We know that the first burst of Trudeaumania 32 years ago exhibited the qualities that Max Weber first articulated. A mysterious, somewhat intriguing, powerfully attractive figure and a public with certain psychic and social needs created the conditions for a charismatic connection.
Canadians in 1968 were both full of hope and riven by angst. Pierre Trudeau was perceived as a Messiah who could lead them to the greatness that the centennial celebrations of 1967 had made them believe was theirs. And he was someone who could also deal with that threat to this destiny that Québécois separatism presented.
Unlike the charismatic U.S. president John Kennedy or civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Trudeau was not martyred before being discredited. He continued to govern for a very long period, during which time he alienated almost every group in the public worthy of insult. Extraordinarily, the charismatic effect continued nonetheless.
Canadians supported his vision in large enough numbers to re-elect him prime minister three more times after 1968. Until his terminal illness became public knowledge, focus groups kept reporting that he was the Canadian that most people would prefer to have dinner with (along with Wayne Gretzky). CTV acclaimed him in the final days of 1999 as the most exciting Canadian of the 20th century.
There are, of course, critics like Guy Laforest of Laval University, who see Trudeau as responsible for the "end of the Canadian dream." A core of responsible academic analysts -- notably Ken McRoberts of York University -- believe that because of his stubborn insistence on individual rights and bilingualism and thanks to his unrelenting attacks on Quebec nationalists, he did more than anyone to create Canada's continuing crisis, which could leave the country broken following one more referendum.
In his own province there are demonizers in abundance who find his very name a source of apoplexy. They who demonstrated outside his house protesting the 20th anniversary of the War Measures Act. They made his appearance at the last rally of the 1995 referendum campaign a liability for the No side. There is still a feeling of betrayal, a sense that, if he had only been on the other side of the great debate, Quebeckers would by now be independent. The resentment still burns at his stinging rebukes over the bad French they spoke, over their narrowness, their chauvinism.
All these emotions that well up in the Quebec nationalist breast attest to Trudeau's negative power in the Quebec imagination. This demonization does not negate his charismatic appeal. It confirms it: for, if this man is such a source of anger, it is because his magic was feared.
Certainly he was magic for the generation that came to consciousness while he was prime minister. These are Trudeau's children for whom Canada was great because their prime minister had something special about him. He wasn't just sexy because he was dating Barbra Streisand or Margot Kidder or Liona Boyd; he was completely different from other politicians. He had a vision that many of them were brought up in. They were sent to be immersed in bilingual schools, bearing his example with them in their minds, travelling to the other culture in large numbers. Some started as idolizers and ended as demonizers, for in the end many of them also felt betrayed because all their efforts at learning the other language did not save Canada from coming to the brink.
And there is the still younger generation, those who came to political awareness when Trudeau was already history, replaced in power by Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien. For them Trudeau is virtual reality, someone seen on the screen in news clips or documentary movies, even in textbooks. My students in the past decade, who were toddlers when he left office, would flock to one of his regular book signings in the hope of catching sight of the man and, with luck, his signature scrawled on their copy.
But in other university classes where undergraduate and graduate students are set Trudeau's own writings to read alongside works about him -- McRoberts's Misconceiving Canada or even Trudeau and Our Times, the two-volume biography I wrote with Christina McCall -- the atmosphere is more critical. Yes, I heard in a doctoral seminar recently, his Constitution and Charter may have incorporated the major themes of Trudeau's liberal philosophy, the one-Canada national unity, the equality of provinces, the democratic contract, the individual rights primacy. But they did so too rigidly, too inflexibly to accommodate the country's diversity, too inconsistently with his professed tolerance to allow Quebec the asymmetry to develop as it needed. Quebec does need special powers, was the class consensus, and Trudeau violated the respect that was due to provincial jurisdictions, undermining with his dogmatic individualism the communitarian basis on which the Canadian federation had originally been constructed.
In an amnesiac society whose access to its collective memory is blocked by the communications channels kept under Hollywood's control, he symbolizes for many their collective identity by proxy. Standing out in profile, the champion who could face down Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in debate about how best to deal with the Soviet Union, the man who "branded" Canada as a bilingual and multicultural society, the leader who told us that we could create a just, participatory society through a generous and activist state -- he is the idealized model of what Canadians, at least English-speaking Canadians, like to think they are.
The question remains: Why does he still fascinate us? Why, in other words, has there been political life for Pierre Trudeau after the political death that retirement from politics represents for most politicians?
The answer lies in something completely unique about the biography of Pierre Trudeau. Many is the idealistic intellectual who has ventured onto the political field only to come to grief. But young man Trudeau spent over a decade working out his ideas, clarifying his analysis, writing the script for his own star role. Having written that script, Trudeau entered politics and played the part, considering the camera angles, improvising on occasion, rewriting the lines when they no longer suited his purposes, but dominating the stage. This was highly unusual, putting him in the ranks of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle as a figure who had thought, written and then been able to act in consequence.
But what makes Trudeau unique in modern politics is his post partum sequel, his capacity to withdraw from politics while remaining poised to re-enter and do battle for the ideas to which he clung. His interventions on the Meech Lake accord turned the tide that eventually brought Mulroney's first constitutional deal to its knees in 1990. His single speech in an obscure Montreal restaurant two years later on the Charlottetown accord immediately swayed 20 per cent of the vote outside Quebec against the deal.
In The Essential Trudeau, Ron Graham's selections from Trudeau's writings (published in 1998), what was interesting was less the conscious modelling on Pascal's Pensées (the grandiosity was not new), than the italicized postscripts the former prime minister inserted throughout the text as addenda and errata to his earlier statements. Here Trudeau was getting the last word once again, by selecting out the self-contradictory passages we were not meant to read, expanding on others, and revising lines that he felt needed correcting.
(His definition of democracy as government by majorities of 50 per cent, for instance, got corrected in italics to make exceptions for some decisions -- such as the next Quebec referendum? -- which should be made by majorities greater than 50 percent plus one vote.)
Thus he was the keeper of his own intellectual heritage. In newsrooms all over the English-speaking world, the obituary writers were kept on edge by his refusal to lie down and let their last draft be the final one.
Charisma is circular. We projected onto him our longings and our hope, but he remained the keeper of his faith, the maker of his image, the guardian of his orthodoxy. For 16 more years he remained charismatic, because he still surprised, he still wielded moral power, he was still the one who defined his Truth.
The last question is: Why is the present interest in his death far more intense than that of any other prime minister? In 1994, when Christina and I published the second volume of our big study on Trudeau and his era, The Heroic Delusion,there was far more interest in Brian Mulroney's peccadillos, real or imagined, then in the achievements of his predecessor.
The present nostalgia and the revived interest in him may have more to do with the future than the past because of deep transformations taking place in our political economy, one that is connected both to developments at home and changes abroad.
On the international scene we are experiencing a crisis in the world's political economy. If global financial markets are out of control and the nation state is scrambling to reassert its authority over its economic frontiers, do we not need some notion of what that state should be? If this is the case, should we not turn back to the era during which the Canadian nation-state reached its highest level of development -- that is, to the era that bears Trudeau's name?
Internally, too, there is a sense of crisis in the air, but this time the crisis is in the neo-liberal paradigm. The mean state -- the one that takes unemployment insurance premiums from workers and uses it to pay off the national debt, the one that cuts education budgets and then blames teachers for the crisis of the school system -- is failing. Whether at the federal or provincial levels, the public can contrast neo-liberalism's rhetoric of progress and prosperity with the reality of emergency room delays and contaminated water systems. If a sullen electorate is reflecting these days with nostalgia on a nobler, more optimistic vision of society, this has something to do with the land mines that Pierre Trudeau and his colleagues had planted in Ottawa's culture and the Canadian psyche. By having defended the Canada Health Act to the end, they convinced Canadians that high-quality public medical services were as central to their identity as was the canoe and bilingualism.
Some maintain that today's Canada is Trudeau's Canada. They cite the familiar list -- patriation, the Charter, bilingualism, French power in Ottawa, equality of the provinces, multiculturalism, Canada as exemplar to the world. I beg to differ. Against these markers of the Trudeau era I would put a government constrained from outside by such new trade treaties as NAFTA and the WTO and constrained from inside by its own shift to neo-liberal small government.
Today's Canada is decreasingly bilingual. Under the Social Union Agreement, Quebec is treated not equally with the other provinces, but distinctly. The Canadian state has been truncated by privatizing the major Crown corporations, deregulating transportation, cutting back the cultural agencies, getting out of the business of managing the economy. And it faces the strong possibility of Quebec seceding from the federation.
The issue here is not whether today's Canada is Trudeau's, but whether tomorrow's Canada should be. Those who want to take the "neo-" out of Canadian Liberalism, now that surpluses have replaced deficits on the public agenda, need to decide which elements of Trudeau's multifaceted and contradictory theory and practice they would resurrect.
Of his liberalism, do they want his social, state-centred thrust or his egoistical, individual-rights approach?
Of his nationalism, do they feel his appeal to patriotic pride on the basis of a bilingual identity needs reaffirming, or is it a nationalism based on achieving some basic economic autonomy?
Of his federalism, is it federal leadership, federal-provincial balance, or federal passivity?
The legacy is rich, but for all his attempts to watch over his orthodoxy, there is no consistency. If there are lessons to be culled for our future from the Trudeau past, it is all three generations of people who participated in his charisma who will have to do the hard work. They will, of course, have to do this without his help.
When I had an intense discussion with him not long before his death, it was clear that Pierre Trudeau's views in old age had returned to those more radical positions he had adopted in his younger years. He was dismayed that global capitalism was escaping control by governments thanks to trade liberalizing agreements like NAFTA. He recognized the social polarization resulting from deficit cutting. If his charisma persists beyond the grave in our consciousness the way he would like it to, it will be as champion of justice and democracy, of social equality and national integrity.
But it is his survivors who will have to decide. This will not be an easy task. To rework the much plagiarized sentence from Trudeau and Our Times: The Magnificent Obsession, let me observe by way of warning and conclusion: "He daunts us still."
Stephen Clarkson is a professor of political economy at the University of Toronto, a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, and the co-author with Christina McCall of Trudeau and Our Times.