Ten years after his death, Canadians are still divided over the enigma that was Pierre Elliott Trudeau
© The Canadian Press
Prime minister Pierre Trudeau stands before a crowd in Grand Bank in August 1971. Trudeau made a visit to Newfoundland during a tour of Canada's eastern provinces.
In the halcyon days of 1969 (halcyon, at least, in the drug-soaked minds of the time), John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a meeting with Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. It was around the same time the pair were giving peace a chance by inviting TV cameras into their bed.
Afterwards, Lennon and his wife spoke briefly with reporters.
“We talked in generalizations. … We want hope for the future, and in that respect our views are similar,” said Lennon.
“We achieved something by communication, and talk, even as old-fashioned as it is as a communication method, it is still the method we use. And talk is the basic start to any communication.”
Had these heady negotiations continued, who knows how the world may have been changed. As much as he loved to flirt with celebrity, however, Trudeau hardly needed advice from an ex-Beatle to shape his political agenda.
Pierre Trudeau died 10 years ago today.
Even at his funeral, his legacy was very much a subject of debate, and little has changed a decade later.
At best, our mental images of Trudeau have started to crystalize as his physical presence fades further into history. He is becoming a curious icon from an earlier time, adorned with his red rose and flared ’70s clothes, pirouetting behind the Queen and dancing in sheiks’ tents.
Love him or hate him, Trudeau’s accomplishments unquestionably changed the face of Canada as we know it. Today, we take many of these changes for granted.
“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,” Bruce Cheadle wrote in Saturday’s Globe and Mail.
“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 health care.”
It’s an impressive list, even if some of those achievements still spur debate to this day. Certainly the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, his most famous legacy, was enacted during a furious battle with provinces in the 1980s over the structure of legislative powers.
At the time, few provincial leaders were opposed to the charter. Rather, they were frustrated that it distracted from what they saw as the essential question in constitutional talks: how much power the federal government should wield over the regions. And it is through this lens that most of Trudeau’s detractors view him.
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Trudeau was a centralist.
He believed Canada should have a strong central government, one that oversees all but the most parochial of provincial affairs.
His disdain for provincial leaders bubbled to the surface many times over his years as PM.
Trudeau’s battles with Quebec nationalists were legion. Invoking the War Measures Act during the FLQ crisis in 1970 was arguably his most radical move in politics. It was also his most hypocritical. The irony was not lost when he went on to forge a new national charter of rights 10 years after suspending those of Quebec citizens.
The National Energy Program of 1980 spurred a huge backlash in Western provinces, particularly Alberta, where it was seen as a blatant intrusion on provincial jurisdiction over resources.
And in Newfoundland, Trudeau’s legacy pivots on his dogged determination to retain total control over two of the province’s primary resources: fish and oil. In this, the province had little recourse, since Ottawa’s jurisdiction over the offshore was upheld in the Supreme Court of Canada. (Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford was forced into a challenge when Trudeau slipped the question of jurisdiction into an unrelated case concerning offshore workers.)
Trudeau voiced his disgust with provincial leaders on numerous .occasions. He talked about “going over the heads” of politicians and speaking directly to all Canadians.
In 1987, explaining his opposition to the Meech Lake Accord to CBC’s Barbara Frum, he painted provincial leaders as petty, greedy and utterly disconnected from the electorate.
“Who needs special powers, but politicians?” he said, referring to the accord’s emphasis on strengthening provincial rights.
“They’re the ones who want special powers, naturally, because they’re in the power game. That’s the game of politics — power.”
In Trudeau’s world, provincial agendas must be erased in favour of universal rights and freedoms for the individual.
“You have a charter of rights to protect you,” he told Frum. “Women, men, black, white, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant — they’re all equal under the charter. … I don’t need politicians with special powers to protect me, because I’m no weaker than you are and I don’t need to be more protected than you are.”
Unlike Western Canada, where Liberal candidates were completely frozen out, Newfoundland and Labrador shared in the ebullience of Trudeaumania, at least initially. The PM was greeted like royalty. He embodied a new, more exciting country; a hip and cool Canada. But his hardline stance on resource ownership and management left a bitter taste in many mouths.
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Those in the country who embraced Trudeau’s vision feel he was creating a greater nation, one that steered away from the destructive force of divided powers. Others feel he unfairly smeared provincial leaders and steamrolled over legitimate provincial concerns in his zeal to do so.
In truth, Canada is a country built along a number of cultural and historical fault lines. There will always be some tension between regions.
As the current political landscape demonstrates, however, excessively regionalized agendas can indeed threaten the delicate fabric of Canadian unity.
Perhaps we need to throw a grain or two of Trudeau’s vision back into the mix. Because right now, deep-set regional and ideological differences have created a dangerously toxic brew.
There must be a better balance, one that brings forth a more unified vision of the country without stripping provinces of their unique role in the federation.
At the very least, we need more hip and cool in Ottawa.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.