Finally Canadians are starting to grasp the meaning of Pierre Elliott Trudeau …

Oct 27th, 2009 | By | Category: In Brief
Trudeau the gunslinger, celebrating Canada Day, towards the end of his almost 16-year stint as Prime Minister of Canada.

Trudeau the gunslinger, celebrating Canada Day, towards the end of his almost 16-year stint as Prime Minister of Canada.

The second volume of John English’s biography of Pierre Trudeau – Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau 1968—2000hits the bookstores today. All of us who enjoyed the first volume – Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau 1919—1968 – will want to read the new book, which deals with the period from Trudeau’s accession to the office of Prime Minister of Canada to his death. Already it has prompted some commentary in the press.

A photo in the Toronto Star, showing Trudeau at his desk shooting an elastic band, bears the caption “Pierre Elliott Trudeau ranks as Canada’s top prime minister of the last four decades, poll shows.” But not everyone liked him when he was in office and there are still many who do not admire his contribution to Canadian institutions – especially perhaps among the business community and in at least some parts of Western Canada (and certainly among soveregntists in his native province of Quebec).

Our view here is that while Pierre Elliott Trudeau was far from perfect, and much of what he did during his “almost 16-year stint as prime minister” is open to sometimes even harsh criticism, he was almost certainly the most unusual and most interesting prime minister Canada has ever had. He also projected a kind of bold belief in this still so largely under-developed country that transcended the ordinary calculations of Canadian politicians. And that helps account for his continuing popularity among so many ordinary voters who still do remember and respect him.

Perhaps inevitably, the initial press commentary on the second volume of John English’s “exhaustive biography” has focused on the “tantalizing glimpses into the private life the enigmatic Trudeau guarded jealously, particularly his romantic liaisons with a series of glamorous women – including actresses Barbra Streisand, Kim Cattrall and Gale Zoe Garnett and classical guitarist Liona Boyd.”Â  This has even prompted PUBLIUS at Western to opine: “Trudeau and the Women … So maybe it wasn’t all that socialist bunk he picked up at LSE. Maybe he was just trying to get laid.”

Comment writers on the net have also urged: “Trudeau and girl friend in the same sentence, you must be joking … His preferences lay elsewhere.” Or: “ This biography is not complete… until the bisexual activities of Pierre Elliot Trudeau are laid bare. It was common knowledge on the hill and among the Ottawa scene journalists that some of the lovers were males.” Mr. English, it seems, does not pursue such speculations in his second volume – just like in his first volume. But there can be no doubt that they were common enough during Pierre Trudeau’s time as Canadian prime minister, even among many who had no acquaintance with him personally at all, and lived many hundreds and even thousands of miles away from Ottawa (or Trudeau’s native city of Montreal).

Without a doubt, it seems to us at any rate, Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s greatest contribution to the Canadian future was his skillful engineering of the Constitution Act, 1982 – the centrepiece of which is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (still the only Canadian constitutional document with any kind of claim to any serious distinction and high sentiment, whatever else you might think about Pierre Trudeau and his legacy). As Canadians we have still only begun to grasp and appreciate what Trudeau has left to his country in this respect. But there are lately signs that we have at least begun.

“Pierre Elliott Trudeau ranks as Canada's top prime minister of the last four decades, poll shows.” Boris Spremo, CM/Toronto Star file photo.

“Pierre Elliott Trudeau ranks as Canada's top prime minister of the last four decades, poll shows.” Boris Spremo, CM/Toronto Star file photo.

The political scientist Frederick Vaughan, for instance, has written that: “With the Charter, Canada began a new life as a nation, a republican nation. [Not “Republican” of course, as in the United States.] The Charter is based upon republican principles. It is the closest Canadians have ever come to a document that affirms the rights of the people.” And now, a quarter-century or so since the Charter’s inauguration, the CBC website tells us: “Just days of ahead of a visit to Canada by Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Canadians appear less than excited about the first-in-line to the crown … According to a recent poll … More than 60 per cent felt that a constitutional monarchy was outdated.”

Back some 27 years ago, the Constitution Act, 1982 at last formally “patriated” Canada’s constitution from the United Kingdom. But it still kept some vague attachment to the British monarchy alive, as a compromise with those Peter-Pan-like anglophone Canadian currents that were still afraid of altogether growing up. Now, somewhere, somehow, as it watches the second volume of John English’s biography hit the bookstores, from coast to coast to coast, the ghost of Pierre Elliott Trudeau must be smiling, perhaps as it also casually shoots yet another elastic band across its desk in the true northern sky.

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