"ARROGANT" IS THE WORD most often used when people talk
about him, regardless of whether they liked him or not -- and a lot of
people didn't like him, though far fewer than those who did. He was fiercely
intelligent and pitiless in debate, with good reason; his opponents at
the time included some of the most ferocious political animals this country
has ever seen, prime among which was Rene Levésque, his old colleague
and political nemesis, the haggard, rumpled, chain-smoking leader of the
separatist Parti Québécois.
He was an old-school liberal and civil libertarian who
nonetheless radiated contempt for anyone whose views differed from his
own. His disdain for the media came from a distaste for the way it simplified
issues and invariably went for the flash and scandal that, ironically,
he never failed to provide for them.
In the hours after his death, the t.v. news was full of
somber elegies from those who knew him -- and those who didn't, like the
Premier of Ontario, Mike Harris, and Stockwell Day, the head of the official
Harris, a dull bully and ham-fisted proponent of the kind
of conservative social and political policies Trudeau always hated, was
shown stumbling through a dreary and insincere recitation of cliches. Compared
to Trudeau's general candour, his mumbled obsequies were embarassing, and
he was cut off mid-sentence when it was obvious that his meandering would
come to no particularly satisfying conclusion.
Stockwell Day, the creationist leader of the Conservative
Alliance, aped the usual platitudes about Trudeau's "charisma", and credited
him with inspiring him to enter politics, even if it was to oppose everything
Trudeau stood for.
Only the current Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, a former
colleague of Trudeau's, seemed geniunely moved and saddened by the news,
visibly in tears at a hasty press conference in the Caribbean. As well
he should -- Chretien wouldn't be in power right now if it weren't for
the almost unassailable political primacy Trudeau gave the Liberal party.
It was a depressing sight, and only underlined the sad
fact that, compared to Trudeau and his era, we're living in a time of political
DURING THE NON-STOP special programming on television
last night -- most of which has been ready to air for months now -- was
a starkly revealing interview with one of Trudeau's separatist opponents
It was old footage -- slightly clotted colour film, the
subject leaning back in an armchair in a turtleneck and slacks, late-70s
vintage, it seemed. The interviewee was a Parti Québécois
activist whose name I didn't recognize.
He was talking about Trudeau and Rene Levésque,
two products of the "Quiet Revolution" that transformed Quebec from a deeply
conservative province, dominated by the Catholic Church and corrupt nationalist
politicians like Maurice Duplessis, to a dynamic, even sexy, place where
politics inspired passion, not cynicism.
Where Trudeau was charming and attractive, Levésque
was homely and hunched, gnome-like, with an appalling comb-over, massive
bags under his eyes and a cigarette constantly hanging from his drooping
lower lip. Trudeau believed in Canada remaining united to meet the challenge
of a world becoming more integrated (years before the word "globalization"
became so witlessly thrown around.) Trudeau felt that Canada's union of
French and English cultures, along with the numerous immigrant cultures
that were arriving every day, made it unique, and uniquely able to take
on a position of importance in a new, borderless world. He regarded our
history as preparation for a desperately important role in the future.
Levésque, on the other hand, was obsessed with
the historical wrongs he felt had been dealt to Quebec by English Canada,
despite the sorry truth that Quebec itself was -- and still is -- responsible
for its own shortcomings. He nursed the bitter self-righteousness that
is a hallmark of separatist rhetoric, and might aptly be called a "militant
provincial". The future, for the Parti Québécois, has never
seemed to reach beyond the moment when the break with Canada is complete.
In spite of it all, the fact is that they were both intelligent,
passionate men, a fact that becomes more apparent when you look at the
petty, inadequate, small men and women who have dominated Quebec and Ottawa
This Pequíste, searching for some way to describe
the relationship Quebecers had with Trudeau and Levésque, said of
the latter man: "He was the way we really were." Of Trudeau, though, the
relationship was more fraught, and tragic: "He was the way we wanted to
DANDYISH AND SLIGHTLY EFFEMINATE, well-spoken and cutting,
humourous and removed -- Trudeau was everything it seems no American politician
could ever be. With his French accent and sharp features, his eurocentricism
and agnosticism, his twin heritages (an English mother and a French father),
his Jesuit education and implied, bachelor promiscuity, there was no mistaking
Trudeau for an American male. Hardly the most anti-American Prime Minister
we've ever had, he nonetheless regarded our economic and physical proximity
to the United States as a regrettable fact, and ignored it as much as he
dared. Canadians are, by nature, passively anti-American. We won't go to
war for the principle, but we consider any implication that we share anything
deeply with our neighbour to the south with distaste. Trudeau could count
on the country's support on the most instinctual, inarticulate level if
only for one thing: whatever he might have been -- and we still disagree
on what that was -- he wasn't an American.
THE MAIN CRITICISM OF TRUDEAU, beyond his "arrogance",
is that he presided over the country while it slid into debt. There's still
a lot of bitterness in Canada that, once upon a time, our dollar was worth
more than the American dollar. There's very little acknowledgement of the
fact that most of the world, including the United States, was slipping
into debt during the economic downturn of the 1970s, or that the debt continued
to increase during the reign of Canada's fiscally conservative, Thatcher/Reagan-era
PM, Brian Mulroney.
Trudeau is still vilified for calling in the army and
suspending civil liberties in Quebec during the FLQ crisis of 1970, despite
the fact that it was Quebec's government under Robert Bourassa (and Montreal
mayor Jean Drapeau) who demanded that he institute the War Measures Act.
In spite of the fact that the FLQ, a revolutionary terrorist group, had
kidnapped a British diplomat, and a Quebec politician (who they executed),
there was something awful about the sight of tanks and choppers and men
in helmets on the streets of a Canadian city, arresting people in their
own homes, holding them without charges. It was 1970, and the sixties had
soured; somehow American-style paranoid politics had entered out country,
and we resented it deeply. For his part, Trudeau heaped contempt on "bleeding
hearts who don't like the sight of men in helmets", and taunted the squeamish
with a jeering "Just watch me." They were the three words that would define
his whole tenure in power.
In spite of his belief in Canada's global destiny, he
let the legacy of dynamic foreign diplomacy bequeathed to him by Lester
Pearson decline during his fifteen years in power. It was if he believed
that a whirlwind personal tour, dropping bon mots and twirling in front
of the cameras, could replace a strong diplomatic corps and coherent foreign
policy. At the time, it seemed like he was right.
The civil libertarian and swinging statesman made friends
with Castro and supported despots like Poland's Jaruzelski. His obsession
with national unity and the constitution seemed to let him ignore economics,
in an age when economics was becoming something like political religion.
He ran the country with scant respect for his own cabinet or party. He
inspired a generation with a vision of Canada as a modern country, but
left no salient political program to counter the fiscal obsession that
would dismantle many of the social policies he championed.
He was the "new Canadian", permissive and sophisticated,
who nevertheless supported that most unglamourous and retrograde of Canadian
obsessions: order and stability at all costs.
IN BARELY A MONTH AND A HALF, the city will go to the
polls, and there's still no candidate capable of challenging our current,
giddy half-wit of a mayor. I refuse to spoil my vote, but it doesn't seem
likely that I'll have much choice beyond a lame-duck candidate.
The country will probably go to the polls next year, and
the only real choice will be the Liberals, a party that has become calcified,
lazy and corrupt during its near-decade in power, or Stockwell Day's Conservative
Alliance, who've brought American-style "moral politics" into the national
arena, along with a cynical agenda of placating the separatists. Not much
of a choice.
At times like this, I feel like I've been cheated, like
I've never had a chance to vote for anyone who even approximates my own
vision of my country. Trudeau may have been may things -- capricious, flawed,
inconsistent, exasperating -- but he summed up the better part of Canada
for me, and for millions of Canadians. Cool, condescending and smart; impatient,
inspired and passionate; he remains a model of what we want to be.