"We're a different people from you, and we're a different people partly because of you. Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant." - Pierre Trudeau 

"Pierre Trudeau was too much of a professional politician to be described as a good man, nor, it can be argued despite much publicity to the contrary, was he a particularly clever or even wise one. But he was a great man, perhaps the greatest Canada has produced in this century." - Peter Brimelow, in The Patriot Game: Canada and the Canadian Question Revisited (1986)

One of the interesting aspects of growing up in North Tonawanda, NY was that you could watch the television stations from Canada. In 1968, the news was horrible every single day in the United States. There was the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the murders of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and riots on campuses and in inner cities. Even in grade school, you could sense that things were seeming to fall apart, and the country seemed on the verge of some sort of nervous breakdown. 

At the same time, there was a different energy on the Canadian stations. For the phenomenon of "Trudeau Mania" was sweeping Canada. The formerly staid old country was infatuated with a flashy bachelor, who was modern in dress, a bit of a ladies man, and who in three years went from an obscure law professor to parliament member, to prime minister. Speaking of creating “a just society” seems like a rhetorical flourish. To a young man viewing his ascent in Canada from the prism of the United States in 1968, he quickly became a hero. For after the loss of two Kennedys and Dr. King, Pierre Trudeau seemed to be the only sane politician the planet had left. 

It was not just his personal style that made Pierre seem like a breath of needed air. It was the truths he stated almost 50 years ago. His argument for decriminalizing homosexuality and liberalizing divorce statutes was that “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.” It was decades before American statutes caught up. 

For Canadians, he was an original whose style reflected their view of him: his daring, the power of his oratory, his originality in dealing with a problem. There was nothing more original than his political career. He became a member of Parliament in 1965. Three years later he was prime minister. In the beginning, it seemed as if his success was due to good fortune. 

To rise so rapidly to the pinnacle and remain for nearly 16 years required more than style. His success was not really because he was a skilled politician. As an obituary stated, "Whether he was arguing a case with passion, kissing beautiful women or canoeing some remote river, he was daring Canadians to be venturesome, to shed caution."

In the 1960s, being "with it"  and hip were political assets. Most of Canada's population was under 30. The 14 previous Canadian prime ministers had been decidedly stodgy. The notoriously pompous ex-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker criticised him for wearing sandals in Parliament.  Even at my young age, it was amazing to see him meeting with and hitting it off with John and Yoko. "Did you find him to be a beautiful person?" Lennon was asked. "I think he is," John replied. 

Trudeau starkly contrasted with the tired and defeated men in Washington. He welcomed draft dodgers and had no issues with the Soviet Union. He established Canada's separate identity from the superpower neighbor down South.  He made friends with Fidel Castro, opposed the Vietnam war, sniped at NATO, and generally pissed off Richard Nixon. Living next door, he said, was like “sleeping with an elephant” and was influenced by “every twitch and grunt”.


Eventually, the winds of dissent experienced throughout the world touched Canada. Unlike the situation in the US, where the issue was not based on skin color., it was the clash between the dual Anglophone and Francophone cultures, that was centered in the province of Quebec. Domestically Trudeau fought to keep Canada from fracturing.  Trudeau's belief in a one-nation Canada, rejecting Quebec separatism, was the reason he gave up a career as a lawyer and entered politics. 

Pierre was often compared to the Kennedys. For one thing, he was a child of privilege.  Pierre was born of a marriage between a francophone father and anglophone mother and was brought up fluent in both English and French. The Trudeau who eventually appeared on the international stage was a parochial Quebecer growing up.  In line with the majority of his province, he viewed the second world war as a squabble between the big powers.  He admitted some regret for  “missing one of the major events of the century”. Postwar, Pierre traveled to Europe and throughout the world.  He then earned a law degree and even spent time at Harvard. He returned to Canada and grew appalled at the narrow nationalism in Quebec, and the authoritarianism of the province's government under Maurice Duplessis. 

In 1970 Quebec separatists affiliated with terrorist cells of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) murdered Pierre Laporte, a Quebec provincial minister, and kidnapped British diplomat James Cross. Trudeau put tanks on the streets of Montreal to stop a potential insurrection. This classic soundbite was vintage Trudeau, a man who never backed down from a challenge and had zero tolerance for fools. 

Tim Ralfe (CBC)…what you're talking about to me is choices, and my choice is to live in a society that is free and democratic, which means that you don't have people with guns running around in it.
Pierre TrudeauCorrect.
RalfeAnd one of the things I have to give up for that choice is the fact that people like you may be kidnapped.
TrudeauSure, but this isn't my choice, obviously. You know, I think it is more important to get rid of those who are committing violence against the total society and those who are trying to run the government through a parallel power by establishing their authority by kidnapping and blackmail. And I think it is our duty as a government to protect government officials and important people in our society against being used as tools in this blackmail. Now, you don't agree to this but I am sure that once again with hindsight, you would probably have found it preferable if Mr. Cross and Mr. Laporte had been protected from kidnapping, which they weren't because these steps we're taking now weren't taken. But even with your hindsight, I don't see how you can deny that.
RalfeNo, I still go back to the choice that you have to make in the kind of society that you live in.
TrudeauYes, well there are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don't like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it is more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don't like the looks of a soldier's helmet.
RalfeAt any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?
TrudeauWell, just watch me.
RalfeAt reducing civil liberties? To that extent?
TrudeauTo what extent?
RalfeWell, if you extend this and you say, ok, you're going to do anything to protect them, does this include wire-tapping, reducing other civil liberties in some way?
TrudeauYes, I think the society must take every means at its disposal to defend itself against the emergence of a parallel power which defies the elected power in this country and I think that goes to any distance. So long as there is a power in here which is challenging the elected representative of the people I think that power must be stopped and I think it's only, I repeat, weak-kneed bleeding hearts who are afraid to take these measures.

No one doubted where he stood about keeping Canada unified. Ten years later, Quebec under the leadership of the Parti Quebecois held a referendum on independence. The "yes" side was led by his great rival, Rene Levesque, but Trudeau led the fight against separatism and decisively won.  His view prevailed in subsequent battles over the status of Quebec. He simply towered above the nationalists with speeches that quelled their bid for independence. Keeping the country together was among his most important achievements, although the separatists came within 1% of the vote in 1995. 

As experienced by their southern neighbors, Canadians faced sky-high interest rates as well as "stagflation" and high unemployment in the 1970's, Many blamed Trudeau's economic policies for the issue, and he was often accused of ignoring day to day domestic affairs. One memorable moment came as Pierre was "whistle-stopping" through Western Canada while campaigning for re-election. Having had enough of being badgered by questions on agricultural policy, Trudeau finally snapped and said to his heckler, "Why should I sell your wheat?"  

It is hard to conceive that the Canadian constitution was still under British control until the early 1980's. In the process of "repatriating" the constitution, Trudeau inserted a Canadian bill of rights. Called the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it changed the system into something like the American model by strengthening the judiciary. That alone made a big impact on minorities, gays, and lesbians, native peoples, handicapped and women who all felt their rights enhanced from where they were before. 


Pierre Trudeau was one of the first politicians to leverage being a celebrity, merging the spotlight of office with popular culture. He used it in a calculated way that many would try to imitate, at least until his marriage to a woman thirty years younger imploded in a very public way in the late seventies. Those who knew him best realized that his dating Barbara Streisand, Kim Cattrall, and Margot Kidder was only enhancing a public persona. It was the mask that he had on for the cameras. 

For essentially he was an intellectual- a very, very intelligent man. He attended Harvard and studied with the best minds in the political economy of his era. Having studied government for many years before going into politics in his mid-forties, he knew what he had to do. He was adept at creating his own imagery, "working the camera" in order to look terrific, exemplified in the iconic shot of him executing a pirouette behind the back of Queen Elizabeth. He was a complex and always very interesting public figure. 

Pierre was seen as an exciting politician by the world at large. It can't just have been the tabloid fodder, though his marriage at 51, to a 22-year-old, sold millions of checkout counter publications. His admirers shared his agony when she humiliated him by becoming a rock groupie, and a worse agony when one of his three sons died in an avalanche. 

When Pierre died in 2000, his successor Jean Chrétien summed up his friend's career, "Pierre Trudeau's motto was reason over passion. But it was his passion for Canada that defined him. It was his dream of a just society that captured the imagination of the country and made the entire world sit up and take notice. " 

Pierre Trudeau gave to his country a pride in being Canadian that arose from the confidence this unconventional prime minister imparted for nearly sixteen years. Without him, it's doubtful the Canadian map would include Quebec. 


PS- In case you have not heard, Pierre's son Justin turned out pretty well. In fact, Justin was not yet out of diapers when Nixon foresaw that he’d one day be Prime Minister himself. During a state visit to Canada in 1972, Nixon raised a toast to the four-month-old son of Canada’s Prime Minister,  “Tonight we’ll dispense with the formalities. I’d like to toast the future Prime Minister of Canada: to Justin Pierre Trudeau,” Nixon said, raising a glass at a state visit gala in Ottawa.  

Years later Justin Trudeau's eulogy at his father's funeral began his journey to succeed his father as the 23rd, Prime Minister of Canada. It's linked below. 

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