Pierre Trudeau
September 28, 2011

The Death of Pierre Trudeau

Pierre Trudeau

(Photo credit: Tedd Church/Montreal Gazette)

“Pierre Trudeau among us was his greatest contribution.” - Rex Murphy

Pierre Trudeau’s death on September 28, 2000, brought about a spontaneous outpouring of national pride and mourning perhaps unprecedented for any political leader in our history. To many Canadians, he was the very embodiment of the nation. Yet, by what means can we judge a life? In a recent book two historians ranked Pierre Trudeau a paltry fifth among Canada’s prime ministers. If criteria for eminence were to include vision, force of character, style or intellect, then surely none but Macdonald would surpass Trudeau. He would be considered truly the second father of his country.

There is a powerful irony in the nationalistic outpouring that followed Trudeau’s death. He hated nationalism of all kinds and French-Canadian nationalism in particular. The whole idea of the nation state, he once wrote, “managed to cripple the advance of civilization.” He argued throughout his life that nationalism was fundamentally racist and a threat to individual freedoms. This view was formed in Maurice Duplessis’s Québec and hardened with the efflorescence of Québec nationalism during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. His views were comforting to English Canadians threatened by the stirrings in Québec, but they increasingly alienated Québeckers. Hence the headline in La Presse on Trudeau’s death, “The Hero of English Canada.”

Pierre Trudeau was more than that. For many Canadians he was the best in us. Fluently bilingual, of mixed parentage, he had charisma and style. In an era of politics starved of imagination and vision, Trudeau’s ability to inspire passion is a poignant memory.

Pierre Trudeau

Trudeau triumphant after the 1980 election, determined to bring the constitution home to Canada (courtesy Canapress).

From the very beginning Trudeau did not sound like other politicians. On February 28, 1968, when he announced his candidacy for the Liberal leadership, he quipped “To be quite frank, if I try to analyze it, well, I think in the subconscious mind of the press it started out like a huge practical joke on the Liberal Party.” This insouciance could as easily sound glib and uncaring. His infamous musing in Winnipeg, “Well, why should I sell the Canadian farmers’ wheat?” began a swell of indignation that has not abated. In 1969 he dismissed opposition MPs as “just nobodies.” During the October Crisis of 1970 he scorned those who questioned his use of the army as “a lot of bleeding hearts.” When pressed as to how far he would go, he said “well, just watch me.” When asked by a reporter if a touch of arrogance is among his sins, Trudeau replied “I certainly have many sins, but I generally confess them to a priest and not to the press.”

Although he played a key role in laying the ground for the Quiet Revolution, Trudeau remained on the fringe of active politics until 1965. As federal minister of justice in early 1968, he put forward his constitutional proposals, which included national status for the French language, the freedom of French schooling across Canada, and a Charter of Rights to entrench the rights of citizens against governments.

Trudeau tried to keep his promise to end Canada’s colonial status by “patriating” the Constitution but his plans fell afoul of the premiers each time. In 1971 and 1976 Robert Bourassa repudiated Trudeau’s plans and in 1978-79 the premiers formed an unholy alliance with René Lévesque to oppose him.

Trudeau paid for his perceived arrogance in the 1979 campaign. “Farmers are professional complainers,” he told Québec agriculture students. “When there is too much sun, they complain. When there is too much rain, they complain. A farmer is a complainer.” He lost and stepped down only to rise from the ashes and lead the Liberals to a majority in 1980. In this campaign, he actually embraced the symbols of cultural nationalism, especially in English Canada. He encouraged the funding of the Genie awards for Canadian films and supported Canadian content rules for radio and television.

The 1980 election was a turning point in Canadian federalism, for Trudeau returned to power with a single-minded mission. His masterful victory in the 1980 referendum positioned him to push home his constitutional reforms. On November 5, 1981 Trudeau and nine premiers agreed to a deal that would allow Canada to have its own independent constitution after 114 years of Confederation. An angry René Lévesque howled indignation and duplicity, but few believe that Québec could have been persuaded under any conditions.

“To insist that a particular nationality must have complete sovereign power is to pursue a self-destructive end,” Trudeau wrote in 1962. However this view played out in Canada, it proved accurate on the world stage. He saw the danger of rampant ethnic nationalism. He believed that nations formed purely on the basis of common language, religion or ethnic background were inherently intolerant. Recent history strife in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Kosovo and East Timor seems to have justified his warnings.

Even out of office Trudeau continued to dominate the national debate through the 1990s. Through his well-timed and effective intervention, he was largely responsible for the failure of the Meech Lake (1990) and Charlottetown (1992) accords. Nevertheless, despite the leadership of the most charismatic figure of the 20th century, the Canadian state remains precarious and undermined. While Trudeau was a tireless opponent of nationalism and collective rights, the last decades have been marked by a rise in aboriginal, Québec, and regional nationalisms.

Would Canada be better served by a liberalism that embraces a greater pluralism, that could accommodate different nations within the same state? Ultimately, then, has a limitation in our greatest leader’s vision prevented Canada from embracing the one solution that would accommodate the plurality of nations within Canada?

Pollster Michael Adams wrote of Trudeau: “He represented the high mark of Canadian idealism, the last real coherent articulator of a Canadian vision of the country. Love him or hate him, we are all Trudeau’s children.”

Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Pierre Trudeau, Trudeau’s Death, Trudeau’s Funeral30 Years After Pierre Trudeau, and Pierre Trudeau as a Comics Writer?

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About James Marsh

James Marsh was born in Toronto and has spent most of his working life in publishing as an editor and writer. He has edited over 200 books in Canadian history and social science and is the author of several books and over 100 articles on Canadian history. James was editor in chief of all three print editions of The Canadian Encyclopedia (1985, 1988 and 1999) and of The Junior Encyclopedia of Canada and guided the encyclopedias into the digital world with numerous editions on CD-ROM. He remains Editor Emeritus of The Canadian Encyclopedia. James is a member of the Order of Canada and recipient of the Centenary Lorne Dawson Chauveau Medal of the Royal Society of Canada in recognition of his achievement of producing The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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