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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Trudeau's mantle is too big for the coat rack
Friday, October 6, 2000

Pierre Trudeau's legacy is one Jean Chrétien is proud to have his Liberals inherit. "I feel we have a flame to carry," he said shortly after Mr. Trudeau's death last week, "and so I expressed to his sons that his legacy is big for the party and for the nation."

That legacy is also, as Mr. Chrétien surely knows, a tricky item to have prominently displayed in the Liberal window.

He is keen to hold an election in November. Since he was promoting an early vote well before Mr. Trudeau died, he cannot fairly be accused of racing into it merely to capitalize on the brief lift in Liberal fortunes from the public outpouring of love and respect for the late leader. What Mr. Chrétien must fear is something worse: being compared with Mr. Trudeau.

Mr. Chrétien has made it clear that he sees the Liberal Party as the force that will keep Mr. Trudeau's values -- a just society, tolerance, compassion -- from being eroded. He told reporters: "These values were the values that were proposed by Mr. Trudeau and have been adopted by the Liberal Party and most of the Canadians. So we will talk about it, yes indeed we will." But to remind people of the link with the sophisticated, articulate, adventurous Pierre Trudeau is to remind voters of what they are missing in the current prime minister.

Mr. Chrétien was present throughout the Trudeau years. He noted in the Commons on Friday that the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms "allowed me, as Minister of Justice at the time, the opportunity to have many very personal discussions with him on a subject that fired his passions."

However, it is safe to say that Mr. Trudeau's pursuit of his passions did not always depend on having others along on the ride. He sought to proceed with patriation and the Charter without involving the provinces. After being persuaded of the virtues of fiscal restraint by West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 1978, he returned from Bonn to announce a $2-billion cut in federal spending -- without first consulting his finance minister, one Jean Chrétien.

Which is to say, Mr. Trudeau was an activist intent on pursuing his goals: getting the state out of the bedroom of the nation, promoting bilingualism and multiculturalism, championing Canada as an international player that no other country, not even the United States, could boss around. Those were heady years from 1968 on, when a youthful, articulate, suffer-no-fools leader set about telling Canadians that their just society could be the envy of the planet. Mr. Chrétien, who is now older than Mr. Trudeau was when he retired as Liberal leader in 1984, has proved more of a caretaker, providing calm after the polarizing storm of the Mulroney years.

It is anyone's guess how Mr. Trudeau of the 1970s might have dealt with the globalizing challenges of the 1990s. He might well have reacted as Mr. Chrétien and Paul Martin have done, waving goodbye to deficit spending and pruning the debt to give the country more room to manoeuvre. Times change and approaches change with them.

What is missing from Mr. Chrétien's Liberal stewardship is the excitement, the passion, the sense of important missions and overarching goals, the spirit of action rather than reaction, that galvanized Canadians during the Trudeau years. Mr. Chrétien is caution to Mr. Trudeau's adventurism.

In reminding Canadians of the charismatic torch Mr. Trudeau handed to his Liberal successors, Mr. Chrétien risks reminding them of his own dullness. Voters transported by the period of mourning may fall back to earth with a thump if they are too rudely reminded of the contrast.

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