Robert Fulford on the Trudeau record

(The National Post, September 29, 2000)

No one ever glowed with such promise. No one ever carried such vibrant hopes into the Prime Minister's Office. And no one ever disappointed Canada on such a grand scale.

Early in 1968, as Lester B. Pearson prepared to retire and the Liberal party planned its leadership convention, the idea that Pierre Trudeau might become prime minister sent a charge of political energy flowing across Canada. But the very idea seemed impossible to many of us. "Too good to be true," said Blair Fraser of Maclean's, the shrewdest political writer in Ottawa, as well as a friend and admirer of Trudeau's. It couldn't happen.

Trudeau was intelligent, attractive, articulate and imaginative. In the 1950s he had fought the repressive political machine of Maurice Duplessis, the Quebec premier. He was a civil libertarian, and a Quebecer who believed in Canada. In 1965 he had pulled up his roots in the New Democratic Party and planted himself among the Liberals so that he could serve in Parliament and help save the country from Quebec separatism. As Pearson's justice minister in 1967, he had expunged the archaic anti-homosexual law from the Criminal Code.

It was hard to imagine the powerbrokers of the Liberal party endorsing someone so original, so bright, so aloof, and so alien to the normal style of Canadian politics. A friend phoned to ask that I sign up with my Liberal riding association and vote to send Trudeau-committed delegates to Ottawa.

So I spent one evening as a Liberal, my first and last experience of party membership. I told my friend that though I didn't expect we could win, just getting Trudeau a prominent place among the candidates would be worth the effort. My friend said no, we were going to win.

He was right. In that frantic and exciting spring, Trudeau embodied the spirit of the moment. The country was ready for new beginnings, even if we couldn't say what they should be. Canada was giddy with a fresh sense of nationhood, having just celebrated the centennial year at Expo '67, the magnificent world's fair in Trudeau's home town, Montreal. Young people were suddenly a larger force in politics and society than ever before; Trudeau, middle-aged but athletic, was (everyone agreed) young at heart. As the April leadership convention approached, the idea of a charming, totally bilingual French-Canadian federalist gathered national support, and by the time he defeated John Turner, Paul Martin Sr. and five others, his victory seemed entirely natural and almost inevitable. In the May election, the country gave him the parliamentary majority that had twice eluded the far more distinguished and experienced Pearson.

Trudeau came across as something of a movie star, the first such personality in our political history. If he was also sometimes silly, we could reassure ourselves that he was, after all, a constitutional lawyer, a former professor of law at the University of Montreal, and a friend of many of the country's leading intellectuals. It took some of us years to figure out that there was less to him than met the eye.

At the beginning, he did for Canadians what Ronald Reagan later did for Americans: He made us feel good about ourselves. Eventually he would make us feel bad -- about ourselves and about him. He was as brilliant as his earliest reviews had suggested, but the flaws in his personality swiftly became evident. For one thing, he was more obsessed with personal power than anyone expected -- much more than Pearson or Louis St. Laurent, his predecessors as Liberal leader. Having frowned in disapproval at conflicts among Pearson's ministers, he kept his own Cabinet on a short leash and made free discussion of issues a punishable offence. More important, he withdrew most of the power of the ministers and centralized all authority in his office and the Privy Council Office.

What he accomplished was a silent and entirely legal coup, and it took at least two years before many people outside Ottawa knew what he had done. By then it was 1970, and we were heading toward a new disillusionment: the discovery that our much-admired civil libertarian did not believe in civil liberties for those who radically disagreed with him. In October, FLQ separatist terrorists kidnapped a British diplomat, James Cross, and then a Quebec Cabinet minister, Pierre Laporte. It seemed to many in Quebec and Ottawa that frighteningly large numbers of citizens were sympathetic to the terrorists.

Trudeau, apparently in a panic, invoked the War Measures Act, which imposed censorship on the media and gave the police arbitrary powers of arrest. More than 450 Quebecers, most of whom had committed no crime and were never charged with one, were rounded up and hauled off briefly to jail, where they were held incommunicado. Here was an act worse than anything Duplessis ever dreamt of committing.

Not long after, the murder of Laporte seemed to give legitimacy to Trudeau's actions, at least for the moment. But those of us who had so admired him in 1968 now realized that he believed in a principle when that principle was convenient; otherwise, he believed in power.

In foreign affairs, his record was equally dubious and untrue to his own past. The man who had fought the censorship of the Duplessis government never quite understood that the many dictatorships imposed by the Soviet Union were incomparably worse. In the 1970s, Trudeau showed no sympathy for the dissidents across eastern Europe who were fighting a long and lonely (and often apparently hopeless) battle against Moscow. He saw them as irresponsible agents of disorder who might disturb the world's delicate status quo. "He considered them thugs," a senior diplomat told me, after watching Trudeau's reactions over the years. To Canada's eternal shame, Trudeau expressed sympathy with the venomous General Wojciech Jaruzelski when the general imposed martial law on Poland in 1981, banned Solidarity, and arrested union leaders. After fighting in the 1950s against uncaring elites, particularly on behalf of trade unions, Trudeau in power turned into the natural friend of despots -- even Fidel Castro.

His charm, so evident at the beginning, soured early. He found it hard to work with people who challenged him -- and he had no patience with those less bright than he. Condescension was the style of his conversation. He was usually the brightest person in the room, and he made sure everyone knew it. Ministers with independent reputations began drifting away. Two finance ministers left the Cabinet in quick succession, John Turner in 1975, Donald Macdonald in 1977. Eventually the Cabinet turned into a collection of mediocrities, and it became clear there was only one important Liberal in Ottawa. By comparison, Pearson's Cabinet shone with excellence.

The country had originally cast Trudeau as the mediator between Quebec and the rest, the man who would restore stability to government and let us all move on to more serious work. In this he failed miserably. He thought that making Canada nominally bilingual through the Official Languages Act would help French-Canadians to feel at home everywhere in the country, a vain hope -- at least in the short term. Instead, separatism persisted.

Respectable separatism (separatism considered as a viable "option" at every level of society and in every region) is a legacy of the Trudeau years.

In Quebec, his theories lasted only as long as his power. When he retired in 1984 he left behind no Trudeau school of thought in the universities and no Trudeau faction in politics. It seemed to outsiders that Quebec conquered Ottawa in the Trudeau years, but within Quebec this made no noticeable difference. Quebec voters supported him so long as he was there, but when he left office they appeared anxious to forget everything he stood for. Today, even federalists seldom quote him, and provincial Liberals show no sign that he ever mattered. The Quebec Liberal party remains dominated by purely provisional Canadians, prepared to remain Canadian only if Ottawa and the other provinces somehow provide an acceptable deal. It remains an astonishing fact that in his own province, Trudeau's beliefs about the meaning of Canada were like water poured in the sand (as one of his academic critics, Reg Whitaker, put it).

Would national unity have been served better by a less ferociously combative and more conciliatory prime minister? We can never know, but we know for sure that his way didn't work. Apparently, he had no interest in speculating on why this was so. When I asked him about it, his answer was grim, brief and totally incurious: his enemies were wrong, and that was the end of it. Not the reasoned response of an intellectual.

At some point a horrible thought occurred to many people who had once admired him: He wasn't nearly as serious about his job as he needed to be.

He was serious about creating a place of equality for French-Canadians, and about "patriating" the Constitution and entrenching the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In his own terms, he was a success on the constitutional issue, even if he did infuriate the Quebec government. The Charter, his chief monument, has changed Canada by greatly enhancing the power of appeal court judges and altering the way laws are made: Legislatures today operate in the knowledge that in most cases they must conform to the Charter and its judicial interpreters. Whether this has made us more free, as it was intended to do, is debatable. Those of us who dislike the Charter (mostly non-lawyers) and those who passionately love it (mostly lawyers and rights-seeking groups) have almost stopped arguing about it. We know that it will be part of Canada far into 21st century.

In the career of Trudeau, it remains a startling and incomprehensible anomaly. He was the most anti-American of all our Liberal prime ministers, but giving power over Parliament to the Supreme Court, and raising the court to the same level as the nine judges in Washington, did more to Americanize Canadian government than any other single act of the 20th century. Perhaps a Trudeau biographer will someday explain this most baffling of his many contradictions.

But even if his motives were hard to understand, he remained firm to the end on the Constitution, as he did on bilingualism. On everything else, he was capricious. He worried intensely about the Third World one year and forgot about it the next. He developed the Third Option in trade and foreign policy (meaning closer ties with Europe), talked about it a lot, then absent-mindedly dropped it. He fought passionately against wage and price controls in the 1974 election, then abruptly made them law soon after being re-elected. He seems never to have been much interested in economics, and he hardly noticed that he was presiding over the drift into crippling permanent debt. He appears to have approved the National Energy Policy without even being aware that it would make Albertans and many others curse his name.

In his early years as prime minister he devalued the External Affairs Department, belittled the legacy of Pearson, and brought Canada's greatest period of diplomacy to a melancholy end. And then, toward the end of his time in office, he became the great avatar of peace and demanded that the diplomats organize his last strut on the world stage, a global peace-seeking tour that in the end seemed more an empty gesture than a serious attempt to grapple with the issues of the Cold War.

But even those who spent much of their adult lives passionately disagreeing with him had to admit that in person he was supremely impressive. I last saw him in 1992, a few weeks before his 73rd birthday.

This was the time of the Charlottetown accord, and he was explaining to a private dinner of two dozen Torontonians why he was opposed to it. He spoke for 20 minutes, and made every second count. He used no notes, but forged ahead so confidently, and made his points so clearly, that he seemed to be reading from a teleprompter located behind his eyes. "I want to come back to that sixth point in a moment," he would say -- and by God, five minutes later he would come back, would find his place again, and would nail the point with astonishing precision. He had been thinking of these issues for four decades and had absorbed them into the core of his being. We were overhearing an internal conversation that stretched back to the middle of the 1950s.

In that room there were people who had long since grown tired of his cool rhetoric and in fact had privately decided that his smugness was insufferable. But at the end of this performance we knew we had been privileged to watch a great virtuoso of argument at the top of his artful, beguiling form.

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