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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Founding father
Pierre Trudeau boldly went where few Quebeckers had gone
before, says WILLIAM JOHNSON, and we will never be the same

Friday, September 29, 2000

Today we are all orphans. Pierre Trudeau, the second father of our country, has left us, this time irrevocably. He has passed into history. But the country that he left us in legacy bears extraordinarily his imprint, his vision, his character, even his style. He truly founded Canada anew.

He was born into the Canada created by Confederation. In 1867, the provincial politicians from several colonies who had met to lay the foundations of "one dominion" made no claim to build as visionaries. Practical people, they intended "a constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom," as they inscribed in the preamble to the British North America Act. What they produced was quite different, as a result of struggling with intractable local realities, conflicting interests and divergent experiences. Their Constitution was the collective work of a committee. It had a fatal flaw: It made no provision for the expansion of the French stream of Canada's history outside the confines of the St. Lawrence watershed. It erected a dam against the dynamism of New France, obstructing its flow into the future.

In his own person, Pierre Elliott Trudeau embodied the stresses straining the country. He grew up in Quebec when English dominance was a complacent fact of life, with French resentment and resistance a subtext informing religion, education, politics and the collective imagination. He studied at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in the 1930s even while the crash of capitalism inspired in Quebec a renewed repudiation of industrialization and of the city in favour of a retour à la terre, a back-to-the-land movement that was also a recoil into a mythical past.

In 1940, he moved on to study law at the Université de Montréal just as the great ideologies that had been fermenting in Europe since 1789 reached their fullest expression and their explosive confrontation. Nationalism, liberalism, capitalism, socialism, Marxism-Leninism were in crisis and the world was at war.

As the war forced Quebec out of its isolationism, the young man at first embraced the resentful tribalism expressed by the anti-conscription movement and the Bloc Populaire.

That mistake would warn him for life: He could not trust the certitudes and myths of the society that had nurtured him. He must, like Descartes, leave all assumptions behind and set out on his own vision quest.

So he went to Harvard, then Paris, then the London School of Economics. He grappled with economics, philosophy and political history. But the greatest lesson was the sight of Europe in ruins, condemned by its ideologies, shattered and devastated by war, tottering on its foundations, threatened in the new era of the Cold War with a return to barbarism.

He committed to the conviction that politics must serve a high moral purpose when the stakes were so high. And nothing could be taken for granted, no teacher could show the way. As important as his academic studies was his personal pilgrimage on which he set out, travelling on the ground in foreign countries, ascetically, carrying his few possessions on his back, forswearing all past certitudes and comforts, searching for wisdom.

Such was the preparation that would eventually set Trudeau on the course to refashioning Canada. But his real objective was to refashion Quebec. He, Gérard Pelletier and a few others set out to free Quebec of its superstitions and paralyses, to separate church and state, state and party, public and personal interests, to modernize. They placed their venture under the sign of personal freedom and founded in 1950 the intellectual-political review Cité libre. Throughout the 1950s they bombarded Quebec with words, attempting to light fires in la grande noirceur, the great darkness.

The battle for modernization was essentially won after Jean Lesage's Liberals displaced the Union Nationale in 1960 and launched the Quiet Revolution. But the neo-nationalism that emerged brought back, more virulently, earlier tribalism and anglophobia. Where previous nationalism had been joined to extreme anti-statism, now Quebec's political class embraced the provincial government as the liberator and champion of defeated French Quebec. To fill that new role, the Quebec government was required to have ever more powers, more money. How much more was left to constantly rising expectations.

As happens after a long period when a society's vital forces were pent-up, the bursting dam threatens to smash all before it. The new doctrine swept the political spectrum in French Quebec, uniting right and left, poor and professional, city and countryside, all parties and all prominent voices. Quebec's political class now plunged into building castles on the St. Lawrence, inventing ever new and larger structures for l'État du Québec, whether in the form of special status, two nations, associate states, sovereign associate states, sovereignty-association, multiple "third options" and independence.

The coalition that had united contributors to Cité libre against la grande noirceur broke apart. Some, like Pierre Vallières and Charles Gagnon, chose the path of revolution via terrorism. Most became separatists, like Marcel Rioux, Fernand Dumont and Pierre Vadeboncoeur. Almost all, even the most moderate, espoused "special status" as Quebec's minimum acceptable new option -- and special status was viewed as a way station to independence.

Pierre Trudeau engaged on the mission of his life, first in writing and broadcasting, then in politics, struggling to divert Quebec nationalism from its destructive course. Again he resisted the tide, the momentum, the consensus of the political class in favour of special status and other forms of unstable devolution toward a spinning Quebec.

As minister of justice in early 1968, he put forward his constitutional proposals. Against the demand for a national status for the Quebec government he offered national status for the French language. Against the construction of a fortress Quebec he proposed the freedom of French schooling across the land. And he put forward a Charter of Rights to entrench the rights of the citizen against governments.

After he won the Liberal leadership, premier Daniel Johnson was assured that Quebeckers would never vote for a man espousing such dissident views. Far from dissembling, Mr. Trudeau flaunted his opposition to special status or two nations and proposed, instead, one Canada with two official languages. He appealed to Quebeckers over the heads of the consensually hostile pundits and politicians. And he won. He carried Quebec with a majority vote in 1968, and with increasing majorities in 1972, 1974, 1979 and in 1980 -- when he won 74 of Quebec's 75 seats.

Again and again he tried to keep his promise, to end Canada's colonial status by patriating the Constitution and vesting French rights. Each time the premiers defeated him. He failed in 1971 when Robert Bourassa repudiated the Victoria Charter, he failed in 1976 when premier Bourassa called snap elections to prevent patriation, he failed in 1978-79 when the premiers leagued with René Lévesque against patriation and he was voted out of office.

For 14 years he tried, promoting the Official Languages Act and French power, paying a heavy price as he lost every seat but one west of Ontario and as Liberal provincial governments fell one by one across the land. But he also inspired the people with a new vision of their country.

His masterful victory in the 1980 referendum positioned him to complete the constitutional structure of Canada. At last, in November, 1981, he won nine premiers over, in part by the threat to go to the people in a referendum if they refused. In 1982, his life's work was complete. The new Constitution recognized two official languages, no official culture but respect for all cultures of origin, it recognized the rights of aboriginal peoples (as they are to be discovered and renegotiated), equalization of government spending between richer and poorer regions, and the sovereign rights of the citizen against all governments.

By what he implemented and what he prevented, Canada was set on a new course, correcting the failures of 1867. When he left office, Quebec was quiescent. The issue of separatism seemed settled.

In a postscript, sorcerers' apprentices, innocent of the implications, struck deals to smuggle into the Constitution the tribalist vision that Mr. Trudeau had defeated. The new words were "distinct society" rather than special status or two nations, but the intent was the same. The elites understood so little of Mr. Trudeau's vision that almost all went for it. Even his former party supported the Meech and Charlottetown accords. He made sorties against each in May, 1987, and Oct. 1, 1992. Despite the support for both by every daily in the country and almost every premier and opposition leader, the people never accepted either, and they went down to defeat.

Pierre Trudeau's work, though badly understood, has proved resistant because it is embedded in our Constitution and in the consciences of Canadians. May it long survive as his monument, protected by a grateful people.

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