OTTAWA — It’s been 10 years this week since the death of Pierre Trudeau, whose guiding motto was “reason over passion.’’
It all seems a long, long time ago.
Today’s inflamed political battles over everything from the long-form
census to climate change and the long-gun registry — not to mention the
Mad Hatter’s tea party raging south of the border — suggest passion has
eclipsed reason in early 21st century political debates.
The former prime minister’s death on Sept. 28, 2000, sparked five days
of national introspection that indulged in baby-boomer nostalgia: his
trademark lapel rose, the pirouettes, the beautiful paramours.
A decade later, with the charisma frozen in old photographs, what
remains of Trudeau’s tumultuous 15-plus years in power is the subject
of enduring debate and historical revision.
“The legacy is ongoing in some areas, and still causing controversy,’’ historian Jack Granatstein said in an interview.
“If you tot it all up, the one thing that people would say is
indisputably his, and changed the country, was the charter. Now most of
the opposition to it has essentially disappeared and it’s seen as one
of the fundamentals of Canadian society.’’
Seldom does a week go by that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not
invoked in some context, whether it be the debate over how to deal with
boat loads of Tamil refugees, Canada’s blood supply, or government
services for the disabled. The charter codified reason over passion in
ways that continue to shape Canada.
Yet University of Toronto historian Robert Bothwell says his young
students have only vague impressions of Trudeau — “a name and an
“We’re probably now in a period which will last a couple of decades
until he’s rediscovered,’’ says Bothwell. “Then he’ll become
It’s impossible, however, to argue we don’t still live in Trudeau’s Canada.
For better or worse, he’s responsible in large measure for the charter,
official bilingualism and official multiculturalism. Trudeau legalized
contraception, abortion, homosexual acts between consenting adults and
lotteries. Divorce laws were loosened, gun ownership restricted and
breathalyzers introduced under his watch. Canada’s territorial waters
were extended to 200 miles and its voting age lowered to 18 from 21.
The Canada Health Act was enacted, restricting provinces from
experimenting with medicare.
“He had a huge vision. Some people would have called it extraordinary
arrogance,’’ Margaret Trudeau said of her former husband last week at a
book launch of famous Trudeau news photographs.
“I call it very determined discipline, demand for himself to achieve excellence at everything ….
“He gave us freedoms that no other country’s people have and we’re
educated and we’re healthy and we’re well and safe. How few of the
countries in the world can say that?’’
John English, a retired historian, former Liberal MP and author of the
definitive Trudeau biography, “Just Watch Me,’’ said Trudeau’s arrival
on the national scene bridged what the 1963 Commission on Bilingualism
and Biculturalism was calling Canada’s “greatest crisis in its
“Go into the House of Commons today and you’ll see Stephen Harper, Jim
Prentice and Stockwell Day — all Albertan politicians — answering
questions in French,’’ says English.
“It’s a revolution and it wouldn’t have happened without Pierre Trudeau.’’
Trudeau was also responsible for the toxic National Energy Program, the
unlamented Foreign Investment Review Act and federally imposed wage and
price controls — a regime Trudeau himself had previously mocked with
the dismissive put-down: “Zap! You’re frozen!’’
“From an economic perspective, I don’t think he left a lot,’’ says Guy
Lachapelle, a political scientist at Concordia University in Montreal.
“From a political perspective, his dream of Canadian unity, I don’t
think he achieved it. Canada has become a real mosaic…. It’s strange,
we are back now to (former Liberal prime minister Lester) Pearson’s
words of Quebec as a nation within a nation. But it took all those
years to get back there.’’
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2006 recognition of a “Quebecois
nation within a united Canada’’ would be anathema to Trudeau
federalists, but ended up being largely supported by today’s Liberal
The violent passions of earlier sovereignty debates have been replaced
by democratic expressions of the popular will — a victory made
possible, some such as Granatstein argue, by Trudeau’s hard line
against separatist extremists.
Paradoxically, one of Trudeau’s most contentious and historically
significant decisions would today likely be championed by Prairie
conservatives who otherwise revile his name.
Although 85 to 90 per cent of Canadians agreed with Trudeau’s
extraordinary, peacetime suspension of civil rights in October 1970 to
fight separatist Quebec terrorists who were bombing public buildings
and kidnapping officials, the near-unanimity has been shattered in the
“A number of dangerous precedents were implanted in the Canadian
political consciousness by the use of the War Measures Act,’’ Ron
Haggart and Aubrey Golden wrote just a year after the crisis in their
book “Rumours of War.’’
“One was the notion that peaceful opposition to government policies
should and can be suppressed by internment. Another was that in times
of stress the law should be used like a club.’’
The issue is still being debated. “Trudeau’s Darkest Hour, War
Measures in Time of Peace, October 1970,’’ is an anthology published
just this month that, as the title suggests, does nothing to burnish
This year, that perennial debate coincides with one of the more paradoxical fall-outs of Trudeau’s legacy.
A 20-year-old Montreal woman has filed a lawsuit in Toronto claiming
that arbitrary police abuse and detention during June’s G20 summit
violated her rights under the charter.
“If Trudeau had been alive and 25 years old, he would have been with
the demonstrators (at the G20), there’s not much doubt about it,’’ said
“The Trudeau of 1970 or 1980 probably would have been on the other side. He probably would have seen the irony in it.’’
Thirteen years ago, Granatstein helped canvass Canadian historians in
an effort to rank Canada’s prime ministers, best to worst. Trudeau came
in as a “high average,’’ behind such luminaries as Sir John A.
Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent.
A 2003 survey of historians and political scientists by the
Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy ranked Trudeau
behind Pearson and Brian Mulroney among prime ministers of the last 50
Granatstein argues there’s a “sense that Trudeau’s legacy is less than
it seemed at the time,’’ an opinion not shared by fellow historians
English and Bothwell.
Bothwell certainly agrees, however, that the view of Trudeau’s contribution to Canada will continue to evolve.
“It’s a very unusual public figure — like Winston Churchill — who remains fairly constant in the public mind,’’ he said.
Perhaps then, it is best at this 10-year anniversary of Trudeau’s death
to remember him for his larger-than-life human character, and leave
policy debates for another generation of historians.
The most impressive statesman Trudeau said he ever met, English recounts, was Zhou Enlai, the first premier of China.
Zhou is famous for his assessment of the historical impact of the 18th century French Revolution: “It’s too soon to tell.’’
“I think with Trudeau,’’ said English, “it’s too soon to tell.’’