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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Teens regret not knowing Trudeau years

Students discuss former prime minister
at high school that bears his name

Saturday, September 30, 2000
With a report from André Picard in Montreal

WINNIPEG and SURREY, B.C. -- It is the only school in Canada bearing his name, and yesterday the flag outside Collège Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau in the Winnipeg suburb of Transcona, was flying at half-mast.

The high school, with 400 French-immersion students from Grades 9 to 12, broadcast a morning eulogy for the former prime minister over its public-address system. It was followed by two minutes of silence.

The students here, who weren't even born when Mr. Trudeau was in power, retain a special affinity for the man. A signed portrait of him hangs in the school. As they walked past it yesterday, they reflected on the fact that they are the living legacy of Mr. Trudeau's vision of a bilingual Canada.

John Cherwinski, 17, a Grade-12 student, noted that it was under Mr. Trudeau's administration that Canada became officially bilingual.

"He's had a great influence on me because I go to a French-immersion school," he said. "And because he was such a well-rounded individual, you look up to him. He's been all over the world . . . and what he got from the world he gave back to Canada."

Another student spoke of her feelings about Mr. Trudeau's death.

"I didn't really feel the overwhelming grief. I wasn't even alive when he was in office," said Jacqueline Kotyk, a 16-year-old, Grade-11 student. "But at the same time, my initial reaction was shock. I never really expected him to die. He's so much larger than life. It's almost like Princess Diana's death. He was kind of like Canada's royalty."

Despite their youth, these Winnipeggers understand their history and Mr. Trudeau's obvious impact on their own lives. "When I heard [about his death], I started to think about our school and I just realized that Mr. Trudeau built the foundation of our Constitution and that legacy has been passed on. And we're living it. It's too bad we weren't around to experience his popularity," said Cam Kaye, 17.

"Trudeau kind of dragged Canada kicking and screaming into becoming bilingual," he added. "Lots of people were opposed to it on both sides . . . but I think Canada came out ahead because of his influence."

Ms. Kotyk said it was a special feeling to be bilingual. "I know how to speak French. I go to job interviews and stuff and I get to put a check mark on those questions."

At Queen Elizabeth Secondary School in Surrey, B.C., a group of teenagers studying French immersion had a simple farewell message for Mr. Trudeau.

"We wish we could have thanked him," said Karissa Moon, a Grade-12 student.

She was thinking of the time that she and her family travelled to Europe and she was able to communicate with those who spoke French.

Her classmate, Barbara Vit, 16, said she appreciated speaking French when it saved her from getting lost in Vancouver's Stanley Park. She found her way by asking a couple who spoke only French.

Six French-immersion students, sitting around a table at the school, admitted that they didn't know much about Mr. Trudeau until they read about him yesterday in the reports following his death.

They said they were grateful when they learned of his passionate commitment to bilingualism.

"It makes me feel more privileged to be in a program knowing he fought for [bilingualism]," said Angela Buie, a Grade-12 student. "It makes me feel proud."

They said some other students at the school, who aren't in French immersion, occasionally made fun of them, calling them names such as "French fries."

However, this didn't seem to bother them very much.

Rosa Hong, 18, who moved to Canada from Korea when she was nine, said her family believes that speaking French is sophisticated.

According to Gino LeBlanc, president of a group that represents more than one million francophones living outside Quebec, official bilingualism is Mr. Trudeau's greatest legacy.

"Pierre Trudeau incarnated linguistic duality. His was a vision of Canada that clearly made a place for all francophones, even those outside Quebec," he said yesterday from Ottawa. "Without Trudeau, Canada would have a very different face today."

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