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the diary thing 
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09.29.00
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 trudeau
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pierre elliott trudeauPIERRE ELLIOTT TRUDEAU DIED yesterday. He was our Prime Minister pretty much from my earliest memories till just before I was able to vote. If any single person formed the way I look at my country, he did.

I never had the chance to vote for him. Somehow, this still strikes me as almost tragic.

He was elected during a burst of national pride that coincided with Expo 67, the summer of love, psychedelia, Prague Spring, the '68 Paris riots, and Canada's emergence from a long period of hopeless, dull provincialism. A sophisticated and cosmopolitan man, he was somehow credited with the last of these phenomena, and considered by Canadians to be equal in importance to the rest. 

His death is a huge intimation of mortality for the baby boomers who supported him, voted for him, fought against him, or just basked in the glow of his presence as our country's most recognizable leader. I doubt that the death of any other Canadian Prime Minister -- not Mackenzie King, not Louis St. Laurent, not Lester Pearson or John Diefenbaker -- had quite the same impact at their death. Almost twenty years have passed since he left politics, and the obituaries often seem to be written as if he had died in office.

TRUDEAU WORE CAPES AND broad-brimmed, feathered "pimp hats", sported carnations or -- more often -- roses in the lapels of his wide-lapelled suits, walked around Parliament Hill in sandals, coveralls and desert boots, paddled around the bush in a fringed buckskin jacket that Neil Young would be happy to sport, and sat down in the House of Commons wearing an ascot instead of a tie.

He only gave up his sportscar when terrorism and assasination finally became factors in national politics, and returned to it when he left office. He could often be seen walking alone in Ottawa and Montreal, lining up for movies and chatting on street corners with any of the thousands of acquaintances he made during his life. 

This was often mistaken for some kind of "common touch". This couldn't be further from the truth -- Pierre Trudeau was a fastidious and wary man with no interest in making any connection with "the people" that wasn't controlled and mediated on his own terms. For the most part, though, "the people" didn't mind.

He gave the opposition across the House the finger, and smirkingly denied mouthing "fuck you" on camera, swearing instead that he had said "fuddle duddle or something like that". As a child, I remember "fuddle duddle" becoming a national catchphrase, without quite knowing what it really meant.

He was filmed goofing around in front of the guards outside 10 Downing St., pirouetting giddily, stopping short inches from an impassive bobby's nose, then tripping over the steps on his way in the door to see the British Prime Minister. He repeated the performance later by executing a far more graceful pirouette in black tie behind the Queen's back, causing an international scandal. In one inspired move, he reduced Canadian obsequiousness to the Crown to what it really is: a silly and absurd anachronism. More than taking the Union Jack off of our flag, this mad little gesture made us our own country, at least for awhile.

He dated women like Barbara Streisand and Margot Kidder, and married a beautiful flake who ended up splashing their breakup across newspapers all over the world. In spite of all this, he remained a politician with no urge to use his office for public therapy, and remained a private person in spite of his estranged wife's emotional exhibitionism. He was as unlike Bill Clinton as a politician could be without seeming Victorian, and thankfully this unhysterical tone still dominates Canadian politics.

As Minister of Justice, he de-criminalized anti-homosexuality laws, with the statement that "the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation". This single statement might have been the most important factor in bringing Canada into the late twentieth century.


 
"I remember hearing someone recite one of Cyrano de Bergerac's famous 'tirades', the conclusion of which is 'Ne pas monter bien haut peut être, mais tout seul'* and suddenly, I found there an expression of who I was and what I wanted to be."
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- Pierre Elliott Trudeau

 
*"Do not climb too high perhaps, but do it alone." - a rough translation.

"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 opposition.

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 midgets.

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 from Quebec.

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 since them.

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 be."

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.

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writing ©2000
Rick McGinnis
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