This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 6, 1998. Partner content is not updated.In the 15 years and five months that Pierre Elliott Trudeau served as prime minister, he conjured up every emotion in the Canadian people except indifference. The retained images of his years in office are a highlight reel of the Canadian psyche.
In the 15 years and five months that Pierre Elliott Trudeau served as prime minister, he conjured up every emotion in the Canadian people except indifference. The retained images of his years in office are a highlight reel of the Canadian psyche. From the "Just Society" to "Just watch me," he left powerful and potent memories of joy and triumph, disappointment and defeat. From the moment of his election 30 years ago as Liberal leader on April 6, 1968, to the solitary walk in the February snow that preceded his resignation in 1984, Trudeau dominated the scene as no other prime minister. Only Sir John A. Macdonald and Mackenzie King served longer. But Trudeau was the first prime minister of the electronic age. He had cool and charisma. His insouciant shrug was as powerful a weapon as his verbal stiletto. But his results were mixed. He advocated a strong and united Canada, even as decentralization became the rage. While he built his bedrock commitment to national unity on minority language rights and a place for francophones in the Canadian mainstream, his years in office embraced the election of a separatist government in Quebec and a backlash against official bilingualism. Since his retirement into relative seclusion in Montreal, many of his other policies - from deficit spending to disengagement from the United States - have been dismantled. But he will be remembered for changing the course of Canadian history - and, above all, for entrenching a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in a new Constitution.
Two images, two sides of Trudeau:
It is the fall of 1978 and Trudeau's Liberals are desperate. He is trailing Joe Clark's Tories in the polls, and must call an election within months. Otto Lang, Trudeau's justice minister, floats the notion of restoring the death penalty as a way to placate voters concerned about crime. Now, at an Ottawa news conference, Trudeau concedes that, yes, perhaps the Liberals would allow for a national referendum on capital punishment. "In the present climate," he added, "maybe we should throw a lot of hot potatoes back to the people." There is shock and horror in the halls. If there is one thing that Liberals still stand for, it is abolition. Now, here was their leader prepared to pursue re-election over principle. Ultimately, abolition remained, but it was a measure of how far Trudeau had given himself over to the pollsters and backroomers of the Liberal party.
It is the spring of 1979, and now Trudeau knows that he is going down to defeat with 10 days to go in the election campaign. He retreats to a hotel room to write the first of two speeches he will deliver on successive days in Montreal and Toronto. Aides rush the handwritten drafts out for typing, their hearts sinking as they preview the subject. Against all advice, he actually has decided to go down swinging on the one subject that matters most to him in political life - the Constitution. In both cities, he delivers long, intricate but fascinating lectures on the need for Canada to bring the Constitution home from Great Britain and to have a Canadian-made method for its amendment. Trudeau loses the election and steps down as Liberal leader.
What happens next is the first paragraph in the "Canada-is-not- boring-because ..." essay contest: Joe Clark's Tories, the gang that couldn't count straight, lose a vote on John Crosbie's budget - on a motion proposed by then-NDP MP Bob Rae - and Trudeau, improbably, is persuaded to unretire a month after his resignation. He wins the election and he proceeds to implement what will become his lasting legacy - as he put it in the Toronto speech, "a Constitution made in Canada, by Canadians, for Canadians." He goes on to fight the 1980 referendum in Quebec, a victory he savors.
It is the winter of 1998 and Peter Lougheed, one of Trudeau's most ardent foes at the federal-provincial bargaining table, has not mellowed during a vacation in the Arizona sunshine. The former Alberta premier calls Trudeau's decision to move ahead with patriation, when there was a separatist government in Quebec, "an historic mistake. He should not have brought it forward then. It was a Rubicon for us." Retired McGill University professor of philosophy Charles Taylor, who ran against Trudeau in 1965 as an NDP candidate, is only slightly more forgiving. Trudeau's hard line on special status for Quebec, he notes, has gained wide acceptance. "The Trudeau solution," says Taylor, "is common property. It turns out that it is not the right solution. If we come through this, it will only be by negating that policy."
Trudeau declined requests to be interviewed for a 30th anniversary retrospective. But in a Maclean's interview on his 10th anniversary in 1978, he told me: "Ask yourself if that [separatist] movement would be stronger if we hadn't in the past 10 years done all we did in Ottawa to make French an official language and to show that French-Canadians in Quebec and Ottawa could pull their weight and exercise sufficient power." One of his most loyal supporters notes more bluntly that Trudeau "came into politics to entrench minority rights - and he did. He did not come into politics for the Foreign Investment Review Act or the National Energy Program."
The NEP came in later years, but FIRA had more to do with staying alive - retaining the votes of New Democrats during the minority government period from 1972 to 1974. There has been only one other minority since - the nine-month Clark interregnum in 1979. It was as if Canadians had a mystical bond with Trudeau. They wanted to teach him a lesson in humility in 1972 and they did: the Liberal candidate in an Ontario riding won a recount by four votes, enough to keep Trudeau in power. And eight years later, they returned Trudeau to power with a majority, seemingly just in time to engage René Lévesque in the1980 Quebec referendum.
During the Trudeau years in power - April 20, 1968, to June 4, 1979, and March 3, 1980, to June 30, 1984 - the United States had five presidents: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Duke University historian John Herd Thompson, a fierce critic of Trudeau, acknowledges: "Could there have been a single Canadian who did not reflect with pride at some time during those years that Canada had chosen a better man?" There was no doubt about his style. He slid down banisters, did backflips off diving boards and sat on a rock nibbling reindeer meat in Lapland. He dated Barbra Streisand, Margot Kidder and Liona Boyd. In the House of Commons, he told an opposition MP to "f--- off," in Ottawa he advised protesting strikers "Mangez la merde," and he hoisted a middle finger at demonstrators in Salmon Arm, B.C. He was bad.
In foreign affairs, he gave Canada a place in the world beyond our previous modest expectations. He extended diplomatic recognition to the Vatican and mainland China and he steadfastly opposed arms sales to South Africa, which angered the British. He asserted Canadian sovereignty when the American oil tanker Manhattan sailed through Arctic waters in 1970 - a stance that raised concern about who controlled our Arctic waters. But by the end of his time, he had abandoned the so-called Third Option of strengthening ties with Europe and his government accepted the first tests of the U.S. cruise missile in Canada.
Domestically, Trudeau lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, introduced television to the House of Commons and led the move to legalize abortion and homosexual acts between consenting adults in a major Criminal Code overhaul billed as the Just Society. On the economy, his performance was uneven. He brought in wage and price controls after denouncing them. Inflation and deficits soared.
Typically, it was Trudeau's performance in several crises in Quebec that most endeared him to his admirers - and provoked his adversaries. Just before the 1968 election, during the St-Jean-Baptiste parade in Montreal - a traditional time of nationalist expression - Trudeau faced down bottle-throwing separatists in a symbolic gesture of his determination to oppose people who would break up the country. "I am trying to put Quebec in its place," he said to cheers during that campaign, "and the place of Quebec is in all of Canada." The magic lasted until Front de libération du Québec terrorists in Montreal kidnapped British diplomat James Cross and murdered Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte. Canada, truly, had come of age. Trudeau was defiant when asked how far he would go to fight the FLQ: "Just watch me." What Canadians saw was his stern imposition of the draconian War Measures Act. The Canadian army took over the streets and authorities had unlimited powers of search and arrest. Trudeau's response rankled the separatists and civil libertarians, but proved to be one of his most admired acts in public opinion. And, in the first Quebec referendum in 1980, Trudeau delivered the coup de grâce to the separatist campaign in three magnificent speeches.
The subsequent failures to find an accommodation between Quebec and English Canada is an enduring frustration that has persisted for the 14 years since Trudeau retired. He patriated the Constitution, but without the agreement of the government of Quebec. Trudeau's critics blame him for that, and for leading the fight against the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional agreements, which might finally have resolved the unity issues. Now, another showdown looms in Quebec. How that is resolved will determine Quebec's role in Canada - and Pierre Trudeau's true place in history.
The Lion in Winter
The reason is almost certainly not the 30th anniversary on April 6 of his rise to power as leader of the Liberal party. Pierre Elliott Trudeau, say friends, has always been far more interested in looking ahead than behind. But this week, Trudeau is doing something different from the regimen he has followed in winter and springtime in recent years. Usually, he spends part of each weekend skiing at Mont Tremblant, about 140 km north of his Montreal home and offices - spending "about 2 ½ hours on the slopes without break: no rest, no coffee, no nothing," says his friend, Montreal businessman and social maven Stratton Stevens, who usually accompanies him. On the anniversary day, he is expected to be in British Columbia where he is spending most of about a week and a half skiing at Whistler and visiting two of his three sons, Justin, 26, and Michel, 22. (The third son, Sacha, 24, lives with him in Montreal.) He departed Montreal in good spirits; Trudeau, says Stevens, who lunched with him just before he left, "is happiest and most content when he is seeing his boys."
That is the good news for admirers of Trudeau: even at 78 years of age, some stories about him from friends suggest that he maintains a pace and lifestyle that would exhaust many people 20 years younger. But as with almost everything else Trudeau has done in life, there are sharply different opinions of how he is faring these days. Stevens, who sees him regularly, is the most upbeat. "He has extraordinary energy," says Stevens, who has also frequently travelled abroad with the former prime minister. But many people who have seen Trudeau recently acknowledge that age is taking its toll. "He still skis, but less aggressively," says Max Nemni, publisher of the revived pro-federalist magazine Cité libre, which Trudeau helped found. "He still recites poetry, but not as many stanzas. He, too, must be allowed to grow old."
Everyone agrees that Trudeau (who did not respond to a request from Maclean's for an interview) remains a formidable force intellectually. But as with many people of a certain age, some days are better than others. Former colleagues who still see him monitor his health closely: most, as they come away from lunches or meetings, delightedly report that his powers of reason remain sharp. But in the last two years, he has suffered from occasional memory lapses - something that once seemed unthinkable in a man renowned for his strength of recall. At a launch of the English-language edition of Cité libre in Toronto in January, Trudeau was asked if the occasion brought back memories. "Memory? I'm losing my memory," he responded.
Acquaintances who have not seen him in several years are sometimes shocked by how visibly he has aged. He almost never has visitors at the Art Deco mansion that he bought in 1979 on Pine Avenue, adjacent to the southern slope of Mount Royal. He no longer likes to drive, preferring to walk or be driven. He moves deliberately and speaks almost painfully slowly, and some of his wardrobe seems tattered and threadbare. Occasionally, he now reflects on his time in politics and, says someone who saw him recently, "he seems, incredibly, to be mellowing."
In particular, friends say, Trudeau was devastated by the death last year of Gérard Pelletier, whom he had known since high-school days. Pelletier, Trudeau and the late Jean Marchand were the so-called Three Wise Men who went to Ottawa together in 1965 with the aim of combatting separatism and reforming federalism. "Pierre is very, very reserved about his emotions, but it is clear that Gérard's loss hit him hard," says Donald Macdonald, a former cabinet colleague of both men who lunched with Trudeau recently. "He spent a lot of time reminiscing about Gérard. This was really the last of a small circle of lifelong friends." And a longtime Liberal acquaintance who bumped into Trudeau on the street last month said "he looked like a little old man - and then I realized that is what he now is."
But the fascination with the man who served as prime minister for 15 years remains. In October, Toronto's York University will play host to a conference featuring academics and former politicians and colleagues of Trudeau debating his record. Historian J. L. Granatstein and author and journalist Andrew Cohen are editing a book of essays on Trudeau that will be published this fall by Random House. Contributors include Macdonald, former Trudeau senior adviser James Coutts, former Ontario premier Bob Rae, internationally renowned author and philosopher Michael Ignatieff, along with Cohen and Granatstein.
Even among those who have followed Trudeau closely for years, says Granatstein, "opinions are constantly in evolution." For example, Granatstein says, "I never voted for the guy, disliked most of his policies, and was opposed to the War Measures Act." But in the 14 years since Trudeau left office, Granatstein says he has "come around to admiring him and his accomplishments a great deal" - and his chapter in the book defends Trudeau's decision to invoke the act during the 1970 October Crisis.
On the issue that matters most to him - Quebec's place in Canada - Trudeau's firm views are unchanged, and still presented with characteristic rigor. That was evident in the vehement opposition Trudeau showed to any form of special status for Quebec in an interview he gave to Cité libre late last year. On that subject, Trudeau said: "Distinct society and special status are one and the same thing. We fought against them, and for a while no one heard about them. We explained to the people of Quebec that they didn't need crutches to walk."
But, increasingly, such words fall on deaf ears. Michel C. Auger, political columnist with Quebec's largest newspaper, Le Journal de Montréal, says that "for both federalists and sovereigntists, Trudeau has fallen off the radar screen in the present debate. His ideas are seen as outdated." Even among those federalists who say they admire Trudeau personally, there is skepticism about his ideas. Gordon Gibson, for one, was Trudeau's first executive assistant in 1968 and a self-described "huge admirer of the man." But over the years, the native British Columbian now says, "I came to realize that he had a rational, fully formed vision of the direction Canada should move in - and it was a wrong one and a failure." Today, Gibson, an author and political analyst at the B.C.-based Fraser Institute, says: "There is no question the country is in worse shape for those ideas."
Perhaps the biggest source of frustration for Trudeau is that his views seem to carry little weight with the present Liberal government. In the wake of the 1995 referendum, Trudeau publicly fretted at a news conference that he had "sat on my hands" during the campaign because the No committee made it clear they did not want him involved. Since then, he has occasionally expressed frustration to friends that he is not consulted more often. After Prime Minister Jean Chrétien led the Liberals to power in 1993, he initially made a point of calling Trudeau about once a month to sound out his views. But those calls have lessened - although, says Peter Donolo, Chrétien's director of communications, "the Prime Minister places the greatest respect and importance on Mr. Trudeau's ideas."
Sometimes, in fact, it can seem as if Trudeau is admired more by his political opponents than his traditional allies. Bloc Québécois MP Daniel Turp says that he has "never agreed with any of Trudeau's views towards Quebec." But on a personal level, Turp adds, "It is easy for me to understand why people admire him. He has the convictions and mannerisms of a statesman, not just a standard politician." And Reform MP Rahim Jaffer, whose family moved to Alberta from Uganda in 1971, exemplifies Trudeau's vision of a country of bilingual, multicultural citizens. Jaffer, who attended the University of Ottawa in order to learn French, is Reform's principal spokesman within Quebec. "It was Mr. Trudeau who fired my passion for politics," he says. "And if, today, his ideas are no longer mine, that takes away none of my admiration for his intelligence, dedication and charisma."
In turn, Trudeau occasionally, and carefully, confides to friends his own views on what the Liberals are - or should be - doing. He bemoans Chrétien's relative lack of commitment to what he considers traditional Liberal values - although, said one Trudeau friend, he is aware that "this group has had to deal with some harsh economic realities that he didn't have to deal with, or, at least, didn't deal with." On Quebec, Trudeau has suggested that the Liberals - through some decentralizing policies and their recognition of Quebec as a "distinct society" - have dismantled some of what he worked so hard to build. The party, says Max Nemni bluntly, has "failed to keep Mr. Trudeau's vision alive."
It is also likely that Trudeau is less than happy about the Liberals' commitment to reduce international trade barriers. During his recent lunch with Macdonald, Trudeau for the first time discussed the key role that Macdonald played in heading a royal commission that recommended a free trade treaty with the United States in the mid-1980s. That position enraged many Liberals at the time. Trudeau, said Macdonald, "allowed very politely to me that it was not at all the sort of position he would have taken at the time." On the other hand, Trudeau has been enthusiastic about the efforts of Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy - particularly in helping to organize an international treaty banning the use of land mines. Trudeau has told at least one friend that Axworthy's work is "admirable."
But for the most part, Trudeau seems content to live as far removed from the public eye as possible. He still appears regularly, though not daily, at his office at the law firm of Heenan Blaikie - located, ironically enough, on René Lévesque Boulevard. For lunch, he alternates between Italian or Greek restaurants in the area - favoring tzatziki - and often settles for something from the fast-food court in the building. "I have never seen Pierre either refuse any kind of food or fail to clean his plate," says Stevens, who estimates he has known Trudeau for close to 20 years.
And Trudeau's famed fondness for penny-pinching persists. Trudeau is a millionaire, the result of a fortune made by his father, Charles-Emile, who owned a chain of service stations. But he has always cut corners wherever possible. For example, he orders a cheaper senior citizen's ticket whenever he goes to the movies. He pays for purchases with a plain Visa card, disdaining the more expensive gold category. Trudeau visits Toronto about once a month to visit his daughter, Sarah, age 6, and her mother, constitutional lawyer Deborah Coyne, whom he dated briefly. While there, Trudeau saves money by staying in a residence building at the University of Toronto.
Occasionally, Trudeau travels to Asia - often Hong Kong - to represent his law firm with key corporate clients. In the past decade, he has travelled with Stevens to, among other places, Greece, Turkey and France. In Paris, Stevens says, they occasionally share some wildly contrasting experiences. On one visit several years ago, the two men - both wearing cut-off jeans and T-shirts - checked into an inexpensive hotel favored by backpacking students. "One student," Stevens recalls with a laugh, "whispered to his friend: 'There's Pierre Trudeau,' but the other guy said: 'Naw - he wouldn't stay in a dump like this.' " That night, Stevens adds, the two "went out for dinner and blew about $500 at Le Tour d'Argent" - a famed Paris restaurant.
Such extravagance is something Trudeau rarely indulges in at home. Friends who know him best agree that the reserved figure of recent years is much more the real Pierre Trudeau than the outgoing, outspoken character who alternately amused, amazed and infuriated Canadians while in public office. Gordon Robertson has known Trudeau for almost half a century - since he was Trudeau's superior when the future prime minister worked in the Privy Council Office in 1949. Later, Robertson served as secretary to the cabinet when Trudeau headed the government. Says Robertson: "The man I first met was brilliant and quite friendly, but extremely shy and diffident. I always felt that as prime minister, he was behaving in a way that people seemed to want - but that the real Trudeau is the man I first met."
Like it or not, Trudeau cannot escape recognition. Even in Greece, says Stevens, when they were going through customs in the early 1990s, "one agent immediately knew who he was." And former senior Liberal party official Norm MacLeod, whose daughter and son-in-law live near Deborah and Sarah Coyne in Toronto, says that they often see Trudeau walking with his daughter when he visits. "Whenever people walk by," says MacLeod, "they do a double take." Once, MacLeod recounts, "A woman came up and said: 'Has anyone ever told you that you look like Pierre Trudeau?' All he said, with a smile, was, 'As a matter of fact, they have.' " Even in the autumn of his years, everyone knows who Trudeau is - but few, if any, can say they ever really knew him.
Breaking the Mould
"Trudeau came to the leadership of the Liberal party like a stone through a stained-glass window." - Author Gordon Donaldson
No one who was there on that magic weekend 30 years ago will ever forget it. The air in the Ottawa Civic Centre hung heavy with excitement and nervous trepidation (not to mention the body heat of nearly 10,000 people crammed into the undersized arena) as Liberals from every corner of the country gathered to choose their new national leader - and Canada's 15th prime minister. The Liberal meeting was not the first of the big, splashy American-style conventions in Canada; that distinction went to the spectacular Progressive Conservative convention in 1967 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto where Nova Scotia premier Bob Stanfield had been elected to replace John Diefenbaker. But there was something special about that Liberal convention on the first weekend of April, 1968 that set it apart from the leadership conventions that had gone before or would come after.
There was a sense of high drama, even danger. Not only would the Liberals be choosing a prime minister, they would, if they mustered the courage, be electing the man - there being no women leadership contestants in those days and precious few female MPs - who would break the mould of Canadian political leadership. Henceforth, a new standard would apply. Political leaders would be measured not against John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier or, perish, Mackenzie King, but against Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the most charismatic, enigmatic and arguably the most complex leader Canada, perhaps North America, has ever known.
In retrospect, the choice of Trudeau, then 48, to succeed Lester Pearson seems natural - even inevitable. He was the only French-Canadian candidate in a party that prided itself on alternating its leadership between the two founding nations. He was the only viable left-liberal candidate in a field heavy with veterans like Paul Martin Sr., Bob Winters and Paul Hellyer, and up-and-comer John Turner. Trudeau had the private, and ill-disguised, support of Pearson who, determined that there be a francophone in the race, had practically ordered him to run. In the happy afterglow of Centennial Year and Expo '67, he was the only truly contemporary candidate - and he had, it was universally conceded, more political sex appeal than the other seven serious contenders combined.
And, not least, he was the darling of the news media. They - we - loved his style: his irreverence, his independence, his playboy lifestyle, his Mercedes convertible and his chutzpah in appearing in sandals and an ascot on Parliament Hill, a place where "serious" politicians wore "suitable" three-piece suits. But Trudeau's election did not seem inevitable that April weekend in Ottawa. He was an outsider. A singles player in a team sport, he was barely a Liberal - or, for that matter, a politician. When, in 1962, as an underemployed academic, he was first approached to run for the Liberals, he spurned the offer, contemptuously. "I am concerned," he wrote later, "with the anti-democratic reflexes of the spineless Liberal herd."
What won the leadership for Trudeau was the speech he made to the full convention on the Friday night, the day before the balloting. He did not, however, make the best speech of the evening. That honor went to the "Abe Lincoln of the Ottawa Valley," agriculture minister Joe Greene, who delivered the speech of his life - funny, emotional, at times searing - in both official languages. But if Trudeau could not match Greene in stump oratory, he surpassed him in impact. A solitary figure at the podium, seemingly untouched by the hoopla and the sea of burnt orange and white Trudeau signs that swayed around him, he delivered what sounded more like an acceptance speech than an appeal for votes. Switching seamlessly, often in mid-sentence, between French and English, he talked about war (Vietnam was tearing the United States apart that spring), famine, sickness and poverty. He was the only leadership contender who thought to invoke the name and achievements of Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated just the day before. He told the crowd that Canada would be strong when Canadians from all parts of the country felt at home everywhere in the country, "and when they feel that all Canada belongs to them. We want nothing more, but we will accept nothing less. Masters in our own house we must be, but our house is all of Canada." When he finished, the chants swelled through the arena: "We want Trudeau. On veut Trudeau."
From the perspective of 30 years, Trudeau's fourth-ballot victory the next day seems to have been ordained. But it was only with the greatest reluctance and the deepest foreboding that hundreds of the 2,400 voting delegates acquiesced in the election of their new leader. Elected to Parliament in 1965, he had been a cabinet minister - Justice - for less than a year when he entered the leadership race. The party rank and file still did not know him or what, beyond an intellectual commitment to individual rights, he stood for. They did not know where he wanted to lead them. They did not know whether they could safely give their trust to a man whom many suspected of being some sort of weird radical.
He was very much a stone crashing through the stained glass of the Canadian political establishment. Official Ottawa, wrote Christina McCall-Newman, woke up the morning after the convention "feeling a little like a sober maiden who'd unexpectedly found herself on a wild party the night before, and was now asking, if not in horror, at least in delicious trepidation, 'What have I done?' It was as though, having always been wooed and won by upright men in blazers, she'd suddenly succumbed to Belmondo in a Cardin suit."
Among Conservatives, the reaction to Trudeau was far from delicious. Following their convention the previous September, the party had moved ahead of the Liberals in the polls. But as the Liberal delegates assembled in Ottawa, Tory guru Dalton Camp met with Stanfield. "Both of us accepted the fact that if Trudeau was going to win, we were going to be defeated," Camp said in an interview. "It was because of you people in the media, making him into a god. He was so beautiful, he was so lovely, he was so gorgeous, he was so intellectual, and he could quote from Descartes and Socrates. And everybody was having orgasms every time he opened his mouth." Camp and Stanfield were prescient. Before they knew it, they were staring into the abyss of a general election campaign, trailing by 22 points in their own internal polls.
That June, 1968 election, which Trudeau won with relative ease, was an astonishing campaign, unlike any before or since. As Trudeaumania swept the land, matrons swooned and their daughters begged for a kiss. It was too good to last, of course: 1968 proved to be his high-water mark. Unlike King and Louis St. Laurent before him, and Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien after him, Trudeau - by far the most compelling politician of the lot - was never able to win back-to-back majorities. He came within two seats of losing in 1972, barely hanging on to a minority government. He regained a majority in 1974 when he campaigned against wage and price controls (only to impose them after the election). He lost to Joe Clark and the Tories in 1979, announced his retirement, changed his mind and returned to regain a majority government in 1980 as a sullen electorate concluded that anyone, even Trudeau, was better than Clark. By the time Trudeau retired for good in 1984, his dispirited, lacklustre Liberals were ripe for picking by Mulroney's Conservatives.
The man whom former United States vice-president Walter Mondale once described as "a priceless asset to the industrialized world" wore better abroad than he did at home. Trudeaumania proved to be an aberration, a phenomenon fueled by some of the same forces that produced the counter-culture and anti-war protests that swept North America and Europe in the late 1960s, driving from office two of the most powerful leaders in the world, Lyndon Johnson in Washington and Charles de Gaulle in Paris. But Trudeaumania was too intense and too transitory to be sustained as a partisan feedstock. And Trudeau himself was too much a loner and too little a politician to translate his early popularity into any sort of lasting hold on the hearts of the Canadian people. He commanded respect (never more so than during the FLQ crisis of 1970) and, sometimes, fear. Even today, 14 years after departing public life, Trudeau is highly admired by Canadians, according to pollsters - usually ranking with, or just above, Wayne Gretzky atop lists of most-admired Canadians. "He still has the image of a leader," says Donna Dasko, of Environics Research Group. "He was strong, he had a powerful point of view and unwavering principles on issues that mattered to him. People just keep on admiring him."
But those same strengths took a toll during his years in office. To the public, his intensity became increasingly trying - and tiring. No one was neutral about him: people either loved Trudeau or hated him - and they did both in roughly equal numbers. But he felt no craving to be loved. He was too much his own man. He would adapt to the public will when he had to, but he was not prepared to change to enhance his popularity. In the end, he exhausted Canadians - including the very Liberals he challenged and inspired on that unforgettable first weekend in April, 30 years ago.
The Iron Mask
It was a glorious April morning in that once-upon-a-time spring of 1968, and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau who greeted me as I stepped into his yet-to-be furnished office had just won the Liberal party leadership and would soon be Canada's 15th prime minister. We were friends. In the early 1960s, I had spent many a hilarious hour visiting his bare cubicle at the University of Montreal's Institute for Public Law, where he taught, wore outrageously mismatched clothes, and made trouble for Maurice Duplessis, a fellow bachelor, then premier of Quebec. When he arrived in Ottawa, after the 1965 election, we met for monthly lunches in the parliamentary restaurant: he to probe my knowledge of the national press corps - who not to trust and who not to trust absolutely; me to gather news leaks about the justice department he had recently taken over. This was his "the state-has-no-business-in-the-bedrooms-of-the-nation" period, so there was lots to write about.
At the time, I was Ottawa editor of The Toronto Star, and was the first to advocate his running for the Liberal leadership in one of my columns. I recognized in him a desperately needed antidote to the Diefenbaker-Pearson feud, which had polluted our politics for most of a decade. The idea was widely dismissed as a bad joke. The denizens of Ottawa's Rideau Club, which was then where the powerful met, poked one another in the ribs as they told and retold the story about how Trudeau had turned up on a Saturday morning at the Privy Council office dressed in desert boots and a boiler suit. He was minister of justice by then, but the commissionaire on duty, convinced he was a plumber with a jumbled worksheet, had turned him away.
When he fooled the experts and gained the Liberal party's leadership, becoming prime minister in the process, Trudeau had promised to give me his first interview as PM, and here he was, ready to muse into my tape recorder. "Hey," I said, clearly meaning it as a joke. "I'm really glad you won. Now, I'll be able to get leaks from all the ministries, not only Justice"
"Listen," Trudeau shot back, his face suddenly an iron mask. "The first cabinet leak you get, I'll have the RCMP tap your telephone." The freshly minted prime minister was of course legally correct to squash my feeble attempt to poke fun at the Privy Council oath that binds cabinet members to secrecy. But his reaction to what was obviously a tension-relieving quip was so extreme that our exchange has always stayed with me. It was an early warning signal of how power would change the man who, literally hours before, had been on the Ottawa Civic Centre convention floor, doing the boogaloo, shrugging away his victory, and kissing swooning women under the shimmering lights.
Trudeau's performance in the 1968 election, which followed our interview, was his greatest moment. Teeny-boppers, their long manes of hair streaming like banners in the wind, clutching their machine-autographed pictures, followed him everywhere, swarming whenever he deigned to kiss one of them. Bemused toddlers were held up on the shoulders of their parents and admonished to "remember him," as the excitement surged across the country. The press cameras clicked like a hundred crickets every time Trudeau would alight from his prime ministerial jet, conjuring up images of Caesar touring the Roman Empire, as he made his triumphant way from one shopping plaza to the next.
I recall in particular flying into Dartmouth, N.S. We in his media entourage trudged down the plane's steps into a cold, drizzly night. That was wall-to-wall Tory country at the time. But along the route from the airport, as if on a prearranged signal, people came out on their porches to wave at the procession of darkened limousines. Many had backed their cars into their driveways, so that they could flash their headlights in silent tribute to the invisible man in the leather coat.
In Victoria, where the monarchy was still an important issue, Trudeau was questioned on the topic he had previously dismissed as irrelevant. He won the crowd over with a shrug: "I was in Saskatoon last night and crowned a lovely queen, so I feel warm towards the monarchy." Asked about the future of Liberalism, he replied: "An exciting political party should have both blonds and brunets." Prime ministers don't talk like that.
What the people expected was a swinging bachelor, pretending to be a statesman. What they got was a cool cat possessed by that rarest of political qualities: magic. His presence seemed to affect less his listeners' minds or hearts as their nervous systems. I remember standing beside a matronly woman at a reception in Ottawa's Château Laurier Hotel. Just before Trudeau was due to be ushered through the door, she stiffened and turned to her huge block of a sideburned husband with the whimper: "What if I faint when he comes in?" The husband cut her in two with a look of disgust, his eyes rolling to heaven. But when Trudeau finally loped by and happened to shake the man's hand, he quietly started to cry.
The election campaign hardly qualified as a discourse out of Aristotle. Trudeau in Winnipeg, to yet another screeching herd of supporters: "I do not feel myself bound by any doctrine or rigid approaches. I am a pragmatist." Their response: "Yeah, you tell 'em, Pierre baby!" All through that incredible circus, Trudeau maintained his inner repose, refusing to compromise his essence, or bend to the gravitational pull of the crowds. And the more he held back, the more the people wanted a piece of him.
He had appeared out of nowhere like a desert prince who knows the mystery of the shifting sands. And never would there be a prime minister like that again. He magicked us. He was the dancing man, sliding down banisters, dodging picketers, pirouetting behind the Queen's back, vaulting onto platforms, or standing his ground, thumbs hooked into his belt loops. No other country could boast of a head of government who could dance the Arab moozmaad in Sheik Yamani's desert tent; be named "the world's seventh-sexiest man" by the London Daily Sketch; yell "Mangez la merde!" at striking mail-truck drivers; skin-dive, high-dive, and unicycle ride; earn a brown belt in judo; date some of the world's most desirable women, marry a sexy 22-year-old, and have two of his three sons born on the same day as Jesus Christ.
He was the product of Harvard, l'Ecole des sciences politiques in Paris and the London School of Economics, but it was at Montreal's College Jean-de-Brébeuf that he was imbued with the Jesuit gambit of smiling sweetly as he speared his antagonists. (Trudeau and the provincial premiers would later develop a unique relationship: on good days, they would agree to disagree.) Pierre Elliott Trudeau's candor, his intellectual curiosity, and his nose-thumbing at the staid traditions of the country's highest political office tested us more than it tested him. He was the man with the red rose in his buttonhole who rescued us - finally - from the dead hand of Mackenzie King.
But there was always a shadow in his makeup, as in my brief encounter with a politician I had considered a friend, and it would be years before I realized what that shadow was. He had an icicle for a heart. That was what made him incomplete, that was what turned him into an emotional cripple incapable of genuine response, and that was why the people stopped trusting him. We recognized him as the man in the iron mask. He never changed. But we did. Trudeau realized early on that his reason would always triumph over his feelings. When the opportunity came, he decided to reinvent himself: he would surrender his treasured academic privacy and become a politician. Trudeau saw his brave gambit as a gamble on the maturity of Canadians. He staked his future on an intuitive conviction that after a lifetime of 19th-century leaders, Canadians were no longer searching for a father, but were ready for a leading man, a postmodern existential hero.
Trudeau knew nothing about ordinary voters but he could read the national mood. The contradictions in the country's character had grown so acute, he reasoned, that no symbol of authority could reconcile them. That process required a master of ambiguity, a leader whose thoughts and aspirations remained as unknowable and as unpredictable as those of his subjects. That ambiguity helped create his personal magnetism; people could endow him with their own aspirations and fantasies. Trudeau thus became a mirror for Canadians' neuroses, performing the indispensable psychic act of releasing our anxieties to the surface, where they belong.
Once that happened, Pierre Elliott Trudeau inevitably became the natural target of our individual anger and regional rage. So much so that we were as glad to bid him adieu after that chilly winter of 1984 as we had been to welcome him, back in the hopeful spring of 1968.
"Oh, yeah, Trudeau." It is not exactly an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response, but at least it shows the dim light of recognition. And it is the most that the question of Pierre Elliott Trudeau - Canada's third-longest-serving prime minister, Mr. Rose-in-the-Lapel, the cool Sixties dude who (allegedly, anyway) made Twiggy wanna-bes and June Cleaver matrons alike swoon - is likely to prompt in Canadians under 35 or so. People like David Foot and Douglas Coupland have gone on and on about how 1960, demographically, was a watershed year: those of us born after it - late boomers, Gen Xers, baby busters - have a different way of remembering the past, and interpreting the present, than those born before. Not that it comes up often, but on the topic of Trudeau, the schism seems especially stark. "I dunno," says one 29-year-old woman. "He was in there so long. You just kind of thought that there was this guy who was Prime Minister, and he'd have the job until he retired. He was kind of like a piece of furniture."
That is a description of the Great Man that will be hard to find in the inevitable raft of retrospectives, tributes and revisionist interpretations marking the 30th anniversary of Trudeau's Liberal party leadership victory. But considering that the woman who uttered it was, literally, still in the womb in the spring of 1968 - well, a little apathy is hardly surprising. For generations of Canadians who were too young to vote for him, Trudeaumania is less than a memory. It survives only in news clips, film footage and CBC documentaries, and in anniversary issues of magazines like this one, which attempt to recreate the spirit of Canada back then, ad infinitum.
Watching and reading and hearing all this stuff about Trudeau inspires much the same feeling as the hoopla over the 25th anniversary of Woodstock did in 1994. For all the media reflection at the time about hippiedom, drugs and Sixties culture, Woodstock seems like just a bunch of stoned teenagers having mud fights and dangerous sex while listening to badly produced tunes. Ditto ol' Pierre. Yeah, we see the rose, and there was something about fuddle-duddle and The Finger, and Maggie was sort of a babe (didn't she date Mick, or was it - yuck - Ron Wood?). But hey, after 30 years, what's the big deal?
There is a twinge of jealousy involved in all of this, of course. For those who weren't born or were too young to follow the news during the "magic moments" of 1968, when the Montreal Mandarin took the country by charismatic storm, accounts of Trudeaumania only point up the relative dullness of what followed. Can anyone imagine, say, Aline Chrétien hopping on the Concorde and partying at Studio 54? Joe Clark giving reporters the finger through a darkened train window? Brian Mulroney pirouetting behind the Queen? Even that current curly-headed darling, Jean Charest, were he to show up at parties with Barbra Streisand (as Trudeau did), would it create a fuss? All Streisand beau James Brolin would have to do is take one look at Charest - his smile, soft-spokenness, boyish demeanor - and he would be able to tell that they were "just friends."
So Trudeau was a bigger celebrity than the following crop of Canadian politicos - as the old Monty Python line goes, "High praise, indeed." In these anniversarial times, it will no doubt be batted around (again) that Trudeau was "Canada's JFK." The comparisons are evident: Trudeau was, like Kennedy, the first leader of his country born in the 20th century - although not as late in the century (1919) as his swashbuckling-hippie style would invite people to believe. And both men were bigger on vision than they often were on the nuts and bolts of governance. Kennedy had his Camelot, Trudeau his Just Society. But the salient difference between Kennedy- and Trudeaumania is that JFK exited the political scene early (due to Lee Harvey Oswald). P.E.T., to the detriment of his star status, is still around. And while Camelot was shattered by a sniper's bullet, Canadians have watched the Just Society grow old, become cantankerous and turn grey around the temples.
The lingering fascination with Trudeau - particularly among the media - seems by now a little forced. And through the eyes of someone who does not remember the mania but grew up during the reign, the gap between the image and the accomplishments (especially on Quebec) seems almost painful. One suspects that what is really driving Trudeaumania redux is nostalgia, pure and simple. Nostalgia for a time (which never was) when everyone got along and doors remained unlocked at night and kids could talk to strangers. It is a depressing form of rewriting history - typically undertaken by journalists and academics well over 40 - which holds that all the exciting and important stuff happened back when they were young. Like most nostalgic exercises, it implies two mutually exclusive assumptions: things would be so much better if only we could reincarnate those heady days, and nothing, in the end, ever changes.
Sorry, dudes. Time to get over it.
When the movie As Good as It Gets opened in Ottawa over the Christmas holidays, Margaret Trudeau Kemper rushed to see it with her nine-year-old daughter, Alicia. Although Margaret has always been a sucker for a romantic comedy, she had more than an average moviegoer's interest in the film. When it was over she turned to her daughter and, in a low, conspiratorial whisper, said: "Alicia, I have a secret. Mommy dated that man." The man she was referring to was Jack Nicholson - who last week won an Academy Award for his performance as a boorish writer with a tender soul. She and Nicholson didn't exactly "date" so much as have a torrid fling in the late 1970s when her marriage to Pierre Trudeau was in tatters. At first, Alicia acted giddy after being entrusted with her mother's serious and sexy confidence. Then, after giving it some thought, she said: "But Mom, he's soooooo old."
Margaret laughs when she tells this story. It is mid-March and she is sitting in an Ottawa restaurant after a lunch of salmon and salad, smoking cigarettes, working on her second glass of red wine and roaring down memory lane like a car without brakes. Clearly, she is enjoying the ride, revelling in her flamboyant exploits which made headlines all over the world. They began in 1971 when, as a breathtakingly beautiful 22-year-old flower child from North Vancouver, she married Canada's most eligible bachelor, the 51-year-old Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. From that fairy-tale wedding, Margaret launched herself into a celebrity orbit unheard of in Canada.
She was known simply as Margaret, sometimes Maggie - a gust of fresh air that blew through the musty archives of past prime ministerial wives. In the beginning, she was universally admired. She became the sainted mother of Trudeau's three sons - Justin, Sacha and Michel. She was considered down-to-earth, making her own dresses and remaking Trudeau's reclusive image, softening his uncompromising edges. But, in 1977, public opinion began to shift when she rejected the sole role of mother, complained about the prison of protocol and burst out of her suffocating marriage.
It wasn't her leaving that caused concern - after all, many women were re-evaluating their lives as a result of the feminist movement. It was where she ended up that seemed so problematic: jet-setting with the cocaine-and-Concorde crowd, hooking up with an international roster of glitter boys like Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood, Hollywood leading man Ryan O'Neal and trash-TV talk-show host Geraldo Rivera. When she wasn't doing drugs or dancing at New York City's Studio 54, she was writing about it in her books, Beyond Reason (1979) and Consequences (1982), which also talked about her intimate life with the prime minister. Here, the public drew the line: it was one thing for her to write honestly about her personal quest for freedom, but quite another to rob Trudeau of the most important thing in his life: his privacy.
Margaret still keeps in touch with some of the people from those heady days. In November, during a visit to London, a friend arranged a phone call to her old flame Nicholson in Los Angeles.
"Are you ever coming back on my road, Margaret?" he asked.
"No, Jack," she replied.
"Not even a little detour, Margaret?"
Then, after flirting with him for a half-hour, she convinced him that her days of taking detours, of making U-turns and illegal lefts were over. "I wished him well," says Margaret. "But he's a bad boy. A totally, totally bad boy. I loved that chapter in my life. Those were roads I was on and was happy to be on, but they're not a part of my life now."
These days, her life is far more sedate than sensational. In September, she will turn 50. It is hard to believe, and harder still to erase the old images of the young Margaret that seem burned into memory. Though her face no longer has the angular beauty that was captured so often by so many photographers, she still has a radiant smile and eyes as clear and blue as the sky. For the past 14 years, she has been married to Ottawa businessman Fried Kemper, a Conservative who, ironically, was once a member of Brian Mulroney's famous 500 Club of well-heeled supporters. Along with Alicia, she and Kemper have a 13-year-old son, Kyle. After trying various careers - photographer, actress, talk-show host for an Ottawa TV station - she does not have a paying job. Still, she is devoted to her fund-raising efforts for a non-profit agency called WaterCan, which delivers clean water to the Third World, and operates out of a basement office in an old red-brick building near the University of Ottawa.
Margaret admits it was hard to give up being Trudeau's wife. She still refers to him as "the love of my life" and says he still calls her "his wife." When she separated from him in May, 1977, they shared custody of the three boys, an arrangement that continued for seven years. She says Trudeau made her write a handwritten note at 2 a.m. one morning in 1977, giving up any right to the considerable personal wealth he inherited from his father - and to the children. He also took back the wedding and engagement rings he gave her. He still has them in a safe in Montreal, she says. Of the note, she adds: "It wouldn't have stood up in court. But I think when you have old wealth as he has, you're very suspicious that people are in it to take you for your money."
In 1984, when Trudeau quit as Liberal leader and moved back to Montreal, the estranged couple finally divorced. Trudeau demanded sole custody of the kids. In return, Margaret received a financial settlement. "Because of the strength of Pierre in every way, I had to give in and let him have it his way," said Margaret. But she has remained close to her three boys and kept in regular contact with Trudeau throughout the years. Two weeks ago, she visited her youngest, Michel, 22, who, after getting a degree in marine biology from Halifax's Dalhousie University, now lives as "a ski bum," as she describes it, at a resort in Rossland, B.C. Her eldest, 26-year-old Justin, also lives out west. When not studying education at the University of British Columbia, he teaches snowboarding at Whistler.
According to Margaret, Trudeau was "devastated" last September when the two boys moved to British Columbia, leaving him alone in his Montreal mansion for the first time since 1984 (Sacha, the 24-year-old middle son, was living in Toronto at the time). "It was the empty-nest syndrome," says Margaret. "Pierre knew it was coming, but it was still very hard for him. It was hard for Justin too. He's our tender heart. He's been the one that's been consistently there for Pierre." It was the second blow for Trudeau last year. In June, his oldest friend, Gérard Pelletier, died at age 78. According to Margaret, Trudeau, now 78 as well, usually doesn't attend funerals because "he's a crier. He's very emotional." Still, with his boys' support, he went to Pelletier's funeral. "It aged him tremendously," adds Margaret. "It's hard for him to lose his friends. I think this is the first year he's really felt old - he'd put it off for so long."
Recently, however, Sacha moved back into Trudeau's home. After getting a philosophy degree from McGill University in Montreal and studying German in Berlin, he worked as a documentary film-maker in Toronto. (To date, he's only made one film: an examination of the Liberian civil war.) Now, Sacha has set up an editing suite in Trudeau's home and enjoys the time with his father. "Sacha and Pierre put on their black ties and go off to the ballet together," says Margaret. "Or, Sacha takes him to all the exciting new films and they do endless walks together. Sacha never did like the competition when his brothers were around."
According to Margaret, all three boys share Trudeau's passion for skiing and his love for the rugged outdoors. None of them, though, have embraced Trudeau's devotion to Roman Catholicism, which Margaret says includes his practice of praying to Mary on his knees twice a day. But she notes that her boys are deeply spiritual, if not traditionally religious - even though Trudeau often read to them from the Bible. She recalls an incident when the boys, in their mid-teens, started physically fighting while on a car trip with her. "When they got home and told their father about it," she says, "Pierre whipped out the Bible and read them the story of Cain and Abel. He told them if he ever heard again of them being brother against brother, he'd give away their legacy to the Catholic charities up north. It was really profound for them."
Two years ago, Margaret hit menopause. "I thought my usefulness was finished," she says. "After all, I believed my job on earth was to procreate and be a pleasant sexual diversion for hardworking men." She spiralled into a depression (a disease that has struck her before) and tried leaving her marriage in the summer of 1996. Psychotherapy and Prozac brought her around and now, she says, she feels "totally, totally liberated." In therapy, she discovered she hadn't come to grips with the losses in her life: the death of her father, former federal Liberal cabinet minister James Sinclair, in 1984 - or the collapse of her marriage to Trudeau. "I was like Scarlett O'Hara," says Margaret. "I always said I'll deal with it tomorrow."
After almost three hours, she signals it is time to end the interview. Her daughter is waiting to be picked up at school and she has to pack for a weeklong family ski trip. There is just one more question: will she let a photographer come and take her picture? As she dashes out with her coat halfway on, she says: "Use one of me when I was 20."
Maclean's April 6, 1998