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One of Our Best and Brightest

Martin O'Malley

In December 1999, Pierre Elliott Trudeau was named top Canadian newsmaker of the 20th century. He finished ahead of prime ministers Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson, Wilfrid Laurier and Brian Mulroney, all of whom made the top ten. Think what you will of the century-ending poll, but no one will ever will remember the man as Pierre Who.

At the turn of the century, he had been out of office 15 years. He had recently lost his son, Michel, who was killed in November 1998 at the age of 23 when an avalanche carried him into a glacial lake in British Columbia. At the memorial service weeks later, Trudeau looked gaunt, almost skeletal, in his grief. The following year, on October 18, Pierre Elliott Trudeau turned 80.

In his prime, Trudeau was exciting, charismatic, sexy. He drove sports cars, wore capes, ascots and floppy hats, and always the signature red rose in his lapel. He slid down bannisters, canoed in white-water rapids, did pirouettes behind the Queen's back at Buckingham Palace. He made politics fashionable for the upbeat Sixties generation that emerged from the sleepy 1950s. He dated some of the most interesting women in the world — singer Barbra Streisand, movie star Margot Kidder, classical guitarist Liona Boyd. At the age of 52, he married Margaret Sinclair, the beautiful 22-year-old he had met while vacationing in Tahiti.

He seemed to come from out of nowhere in the 1960s, saying things like, "The state has no business in the nation's bedrooms." He borrowed the phrase from a Globe and Mail editorial in December 1967 when he was Minister of Justice explaining legislation he had introduced in the House of Commons that would reform divorce laws and liberalize laws on abortion and homosexuality.


The Three Wise Men from Quebec

It might have appeared he came out of nowhere, but in Quebec, where he was born on October 18, 1919, Trudeau had been a formidable presence.

His father was a wealthy Quebecois, his mother was of Scottish descent. Trudeau's given names thus captured the bilingual, bicultural personality of Canada, the federalism the man dedicated his political life to preserving and enhancing. The Trudeau family often went on extensive European tours, allowing young Pierre to develop what would become an unquenchable taste for faraway places and adventure.

He studied at Jean de Brebeuf College, a Jesuit institution where doubtless he acquired his lifelong belief in reason (as in "reason over passion," which became his motto). He earned a law degree at the University of Montreal, a master's degree in political economy at Harvard University, then studied at Ecole des sciences politiques in Paris in 1946-47, followed by an academic year at the London School of Economics in 1947-48.

After a year backpacking throughout Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Far East, Trudeau returned to Canada where he worked in Ottawa as an advisor to the Privy Council. Soon he returned to Montreal where he worked with labour unions, championing the rights of workers during the violent Asbestos Strike in Quebec and attacking the repressive regime of the Union Nationale under Premier Maurice Duplessis. What he is best remembered for from this period is his work with Cite Libre, a journal of ideas he founded with other Quebec intellectuals when he taught law at the University of Montreal.

In 1965, the federal Liberal party was looking for candidates from Quebec. Trudeau and two friends, Jean Marchand and Gerard Pelletier, were invited to run in the federal election that year. Trudeau was the least known of the group that quickly became known as "the three wise men."

This soon would change.

Trudeaumania sweeps Canada

Marchand, Pelletier and Trudeau all won their seats in the 1965 federal election. Trudeau, as Justice Minister, worked closely with Prime Minister Lester Pearson, who appeared to take a fatherly interest in the bright young man from Quebec.

When Pearson resigned as prime minister in 1968, Trudeau signed on as a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal party. At the beginning of the leadership contest, he was no shoo-in, but his personality and style suited the times that were a-changin' and by the spring of 1968 a wave of "Trudeaumania" swept Canada and Trudeau became a star. He hit all the demographic buttons — old and young, male and female, French and English, East and West. In their book Mondo Canuck, authors Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond describe Trudeau as "the greatest pop star this country has ever produced."

Soon after winning the leadership of the Liberal Party in April 1968, Trudeau called an election, and trounced the opposition.

It is no coincidence that Trudeau and media guru Marshall McLuhan became cohorts in the 1960s and maintained a creative relationship throughout the 1970s. Trudeau could have been the model for what McLuhan meant when he coined the phrase "the medium is the message." It wasn't what the man said, but how he said it — style over substance. That creased, angular, Gallic face worked marvelously on television, providing traction for the camera. Until the 1960s — John F. Kennedy first demonstrated it with his win over an earnest but sweaty Richard Nixon — politics was perceived as exclusionary, or as McLuhan might have said, "hot." Trudeau instantly made dull Canadian politics accessible and exciting. Trudeau was "cool."

But it was not that he lacked substance, far from it. During his 16 years as prime minister he championed seminal changes in the Canadian political landscape, among them:


  • Official Languages Act, 1969

  • Implementation of War Measure Act, 1970 ("Just watch me…")

  • Wage and Price controls, 1975

  • Appointed Jeanne Sauve first woman Speaker of House of Commons, 1980

  • Canadian Charter of Rights, 1982

  • Partition of Canadian Constitution, 1982

  • Appointed Jeanne Sauve first woman Governor-General, 1984


He didn't do things on the cheap. Over 16 years with Trudeau as prime minister, Canada's national debt skyrocketed by 1,200 per cent, from $17 billion to more than $200 billion.

Alone in his Montreal mansion

The Trudeaumania of the 1960s turned to Trudeauphobia in the late 1970s and early 1980s, mainly among members of the news media, with whom Trudeau never was totally comfortable, and often did not respect. Once in a clumsy scrum he took a swing at a reporter who had been jostled into him. Another time, when journalist Peter Desbarats sat down to interview him for Global Television, Desbarats cautiously raised the matter of a reconciliation between Trudeau and Margaret. Infuriated, Trudeau shot back at Desbarats, who was also experiencing marital difficulties, and asked about his chances of a reconciliation.

Though his personal motto was "reason over passion," he suffered as much or more as any man in politics. There was the humiliation of Margaret running off to the bright lights with the Rolling Stones, the very public break-up, then, as he approached 80, he suffered two grievous blows. The first was the death of his lifelong friend Gerard Pelletier, which caused Trudeau to say of the loss: "A part of my soul has left me." A year later, in November 1998, his youngest son Michel died when an avalanche swept him to a frigid lake in British Columbia.

The loss of Michel drew Trudeau closer to his two other sons, Justin and Alexandre. Justin, a philosophy graduate, was teaching English literature in Vancouver. Alexandre (known as "Sacha") travelled the world making television documentaries. Trudeau also has a daughter, Sarah, whom he fathered with Deboroah Coyne, a constitutional law expert. At the end, Trudeau worked for a Montreal law firm and lived alone in his Montreal mansion.

When he turned 80 on October 18, 1999, he was still cool. The Toronto Star noted in an editorial:

"…for those of us who were there when Pierre
was prime minister it was the magic of the man that is etched and cherished in the mind's eye. We embraced his diamond-sharp intellect, his irreverence, and the style of his leadership and life.


Special Status for Quebec




"For the better he changed us as a nation."

Trudeau about FLQ terrorists






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