Margaret Trudeau | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Margaret Trudeau

Margaret Joan (née Sinclair) Trudeau (Kemper), author, actor, photographer, mental health advocate (born 10 September 1948 in North Vancouver, BC). Margaret Trudeau’s marriage to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1971 made her a public figure overnight. The dissolution of their union occurred under withering public scrutiny at a time when traditional roles, for homemakers and political wives alike, were being challenged. As the wife of one prime minister and the mother of another — Justin Trudeau — Margaret Trudeau carved out a public role for herself after revealing her diagnosis with bipolar disorder. In two books and in well-received public speeches, she has been an outspoken advocate for people with mental health issues.

Margaret Trudeau in 2014

Early Life and Family

Margaret Joan Sinclair was born on 10 September 1948, in North Vancouver, British Columbia. She was the fourth of five daughters (Heather, Janet, Rosalind preceded her; Betsy followed). Her mother, Kathleen (née Bernard), was the daughter of Thomas Bernard, a railway clerk. Margaret’s father, James Sinclair, was a Scottish-born Rhodes scholar who moved to Canada in his youth. He served as an RCAF pilot in Libya, Sicily and Malta during the Second World War. He was first elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) in 1940, the same year he married 20-year-old Kathleen, a nursing student 12 years his junior; he had previously been her high school math teacher. James Sinclair went on to serve as federal fisheries minister in the Cabinet of Liberal prime minister Louis St-Laurent from 1952 until 1957. He served as an MP until 1958. (See also Elections of 1957 and 1958.)

The family moved to Ottawa after Sinclair was appointed to cabinet. Margaret attended Rockcliffe Park Public School, doing so well she skipped Grade 3, before the family returned to the West Coast. She graduated from Delbrook Senior Secondary in North Vancouver in 1965 before attending Simon Fraser University, where she was introduced to marijuana and radical politics.

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While on a family vacation on the French Polynesian island of Moorea, she met an older man from Canada who had spotted her while he was waterskiing. Her mother asked her if she knew whom she had been talking to. “Oh, Pierre someone or other,” she replied. Her mother told her it was Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian justice minister; in a few short months, he would become prime minister. “Pierre struck me as very old and very square,” Margaret later wrote in a memoir.

After graduating with an arts degree in sociology, Margaret travelled the “hippie trail” through Europe and North Africa. For a time, she hung out with Leonard Cohen in Morocco. After returning to Canada, she surreptitiously dated the prime minister for 18 months. She lived briefly in Ottawa, where she worked as a junior sociologist for the manpower and immigration department.

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Marriage to Pierre Trudeau

On 4 March 1971, Pierre Trudeau flew west from Ottawa in what was announced as a short skiing vacation. It was actually for a wedding attended only by a handful of members of both families. Margaret Sinclair, 22, married Trudeau, 51, in a ceremony performed by Reverend John Swinkels, a Roman Catholic priest. (Margaret converted to Catholicism before the marriage.) The bride, who was known for making her own clothes, baked the three-tiered wedding cake herself. After celebrating with family, the couple enjoyed a brief skiing honeymoon at the Sinclair family’s cabin in Whistler, BC.

A little more than nine months later, the couple’s first son, Justin, was born on Christmas Day, 1971. He was followed by Alexandre, known as Sasha, on Christmas Day, 1973. Michel was born on 2 October 1975.

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Media Attention

Margaret Trudeau was commonly described as beautiful and high-spirited in media accounts. The writer June Callwood once described her as “a perfectly preserved flower child.” ( See also Hippies in Canada.) In 1974, Margaret said in a television interview that she had been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment because of the “frightening” strains of being the prime minister’s wife, a celebrity status for which she had little training or preparation. “I prepared myself for marriage to Pierre,” she said, “but I didn’t prepare myself for marriage to the prime minister.” She was criticized in the media for violating protocol and for erratic behaviour, at times exhibiting the wild swings between depression and mania that are characteristic of bipolar disorder. For example, she regularly smoking marijuana around her security detail; she divulged intimate details of her relationship with Pierre in a 1977 magazine interview; and she once spontaneously sang a song she had written for the wife of the Venezuelan president at a state dinner.

Her personal struggles also came at a time of changing social mores, as more women — and certainly women of her generation — sought fulfillment outside the traditional role of homemaker. (See also Women’s Movements in Canada: 1960–85.) “I’m not a weirdo, a wacko or an eccentric for wanting to do good, honest work on a day-to-day basis,” she once said. “I just want to find my individuality. I’ve had enough of being public property.”

Margaret and Pierre had a long trial separation, beginning in 1977. Her absences from the prime minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa while she studied photography in New York City led to speculation over the state of the Trudeau marriage. The most scrutinized couple in Canada became global tabloid fodder in 1977 when Margaret was invited by Ron Woods of the Rolling Stones to take pictures of the band during a performance in Toronto. Several other escapades with famous personalities also made the news. On the night of her husband’s electoral defeat in 1979, Maggie T, as she had been dubbed, was photographed kicking up her heels at the Studio 54 nightclub in Manhattan.

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Divorce and Deaths

Margaret returned to Ottawa in the early 1980s, living close to 24 Sussex so she could be more involved in raising her sons. She filed for divorce from Pierre in November 1983; it was finalized on 2 April 1984, one month after Pierre announced his retirement from politics. On 18 April 1984, Margaret married Ottawa real estate developer Fried Kemper. Margaret spent the next 15 years mostly out of the spotlight, save for a 1988 charge for marijuana possession that was later dropped. She and Kemper had two children together: a son, Kyle, and a daughter, Alicia.

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However, during this time Margaret also struggled with various mental health issues, including post-partum depression following the birth of Alicia, suicidal ideation and an eating disorder. After fabricating a story about skiing with Princess Diana’s sons, she was hospitalized for depression in 1998. Later that year, Michel Trudeau died at age 23, when he was swept into British Columbia’s Kokanee Lake by an avalanche. His body was never recovered. “My mother endured horrific, debilitating grief at losing her son, compounded by and compounding her mental health issues,” Justin Trudeau later wrote in his memoir, Common Ground.

Less than two years after their son’s death, Pierre Trudeau died on 28 September 2000. He and Margaret had mended their relationship and were close friends by the late 1990s. She was at his bedside when he died. (See also Maclean’s Article: Trudeau’s Funeral.)

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Mental Health Advocate

The dual loss of Michel and Pierre Trudeau sent Margaret into a mental breakdown. “I went into complete and utter madness,” she told the Globe and Mail in 2009. “I couldn’t leave my house to buy groceries.” Her marriage to Fried Kemper ended in divorce in 1999. In 2001, she sought treatment at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, where she finally received a formal diagnosis of bipolar disorder, along with proper medication and therapy. “I didn’t get fixed until I got broken, and that was when I was 50,” she said in a 2017 interview.

Margaret went public with her history of mental illness at a press conference in support of the Royal Ottawa Hospital in 2006. She later described her lifelong struggles with manic-depression and mental illness and became a public advocate for mental health. Her experience made her an effective communicator on a subject long taboo in the media. Her 2010 memoir, Changing My Mind, was a bestseller and received positive reviews, some of which encouraged a re-evaluation of Trudeau’s time in the public spotlight.

Margaret Trudeau also demonstrated herself to be an effective public speaker. The Margaret Trudeau Advocacy Award is presented annually to honour those who have dedicated their lives to reducing the stigma and improving the dialogue about mental illness. Trudeau presented the inaugural award in 2016 to CBC Radio broadcaster Shelagh Rogers. The award is sponsored by Margaret’s Housing and Community Support Services, an agency Trudeau founded that provides housing and mental health supports.

WE Charity payments

In 2020, it was revealed that Margaret Trudeau was one of several Trudeau family members to receive honoraria from the WE Charity (see Craig Kielburger). Margaret was paid more than $250,000 for speaking at 28 events. The payments became an issue after the federal government awarded a sole source contract to the charity. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he had not recused himself from cabinet deliberations over awarding the contract to administer the Canada Student Service Grant, a $912-million program offering modest grants to post-secondary students for supervised charity work.

Author and Other Activities

Margaret Trudeau wrote a titillating, first-person account of her marriage with Pierre Trudeau in Beyond Reason (1979). It was followed three years later by Consequences, in which she described her romantic relationships with such Hollywood stars as Ryan O’Neal and Jack Nicholson, as well as US senator Ted Kennedy. She followed the success of Changing My Mind with The Time of Your Life (2015), a self-help guide.

She had starring roles in the romantic comedy Guardian Angel, a poorly received 1979 movie, as well as in the thriller Kings and Desperate Men (1981). She also appeared on American and Canadian talk shows and as a guest panellist on such television game shows as To Tell the Truth and The Hollywood Squares. She was co-host of a morning program on Ottawa television station CJOH for two years in the early 1980s.

She premiered her one-woman show, Certain Woman of an Age, at Second City in Chicago on Mother’s Day in 2019. She later performed the show at Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy festival; that work is now available as an audiobook.

Further Reading