Canadian politics are usually boring.
When I was a kid in Canada, I believed I was American. When Kennedy was assassinated, my mother said to me ‘The President’ has died, as if he were our president.
Ninety-five percent of Canadians live within fifty kilometres of the U.S. border, and more than half of them watched U.S. television rather than Canadian. If you think American culture infiltrates us in New Zealand, try living next door. Everything American was more extravagant, more bombastic, and less boring.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau banished the boredom. Canada had always had older prime ministers from the English-speaking establishment. Trudeau, at forty-eight, was athletic, and charismatic. On the campaign trail, he attained rock star status, and won his Liberal party a resounding victory in the 1968 election.
I was twelve years old, and my elementary school had a mock election. Myself, and maybe my sister, were the only ones who did not vote for Trudeau. My father was a staunch supporter of the Conservative party, and being the good boy that I was, I always did as my parents said or indicated. Notwithstanding their distain, when Trudeau came to town, my mother took my sister and I to the airport to see him. He was famous for kissing the ladies who had a place at the front of the hordes lining the walkway to his waiting car.
He was, however, more than a playboy. Although born to privilege, and the recipient of an elite education, his guiding principles were tolerance, fairness, and equal opportunity. He was a liberal in every sense of the word.
He became prime minister at a time when the Quebec separatist movement was strong. Had Trudeau not won the election it is likely that Canada would have been cleaved in two. Trudeau was committed to holding Canada together and as a French Canadian himself, was possibly the only one capable of doing so.
Canada’s previous government (also Liberal) had already started the bilingual ball rolling. Trudeau saw it enshrined in law with The Official Languages Act 1969. It was adopted with gusto.
Living in British Columbia, and I had never encountered a French speaking person. It was looking as if my father was going to be forced to print the catalogue for his small business in both French and English.
Fortunately, reason prevailed, and it didn’t come to that. It was not so for larger businesses. All Canadian sourced food soon appeared with packaging in both French and English.
If anyone doubted how serious the separatists were, they had little doubt after the fifth of October 1970. Four men posing as deliverymen kidnapped the British trade commissioner from his home in Montreal. He had been seized by Quebec's most radical separatist group, the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). Five days later, they struck again, kidnapping the Quebec’s Minister of Labour.
For Trudeau, a lifelong champion of individual rights, it was a defining moment. He came down hard: saying: "There's a lot of bleeding hearts around who don't like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is 'go ahead and bleed' but it's more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don't like the looks of ...etc."
On October 16th Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, suspending basic civil rights and liberties, allowing police searches and arrests without warrants, and prolonged detentions without charges and without the right to see a lawyer.
The day after the first arrests, an FLQ communiqué led police to a parked car. In the trunk was the body of the Minister of Labour. He had been strangled to death. The FLQ had been responsible for approximate two hundred bomb attacks in the 1960s, but this was a bridge too far. Canadians had had enough of the FLQ. Its leaders were hunted down, and the FLQ was erased.
In 1971, fifty-one years old, Trudeau married twenty-two year old Margaret Sinclair.
Their first son, Justin, (Canada’s current Prime Minister), was born on Christmas day of the same year. Justin was given a brother two years later (also born on Christmas day), and then another brother two years later after that. The third son died in an avalanche when he was in his early 20s.
Margaret was as inappropriate as she was easy on the eye. I recall her announcing to the world that Pierre was a great lover.
Not long after the birth of their third son, the Trudeaus were living apart, but their divorce was not finalised until 1984. If you want to know more, don’t bother looking in Trudeau’s biography. He dismisses the whole business, as something he wishes to discuss no more, and he doesn’t.
Margaret, Justin (current Canadian Prime Minister) and Pierre: 1972
In 1972 Trudeau won yet another majority government for the Liberals. He won again in 1974 but with a minority, forcing the Liberals to govern in co-operation with one of the minor parties.
The Liberals won the popular vote in 1979, but lost the election. (400,000 more people voted for the Liberals than the Conservatives, but Canada had and still has a first-past-the-post electoral system, which often results in opposition parties that won more votes than the government).
After the 1979 defeat, Trudeau retired.
Meanwhile the Conservative government had only a tenuous grip on power. Like Julia Gillard in Australia, it was a proposal to increase fossil fuel tax, that was to be their undoing. They proposed a 4c/litre tax on petrol. The governments minor partner demurred. For the vote on this bill, the Liberals assembled all but one member of their caucus, even going as far as to take two MPs out of the hospital.
The proposal was defeated, bringing down the government and forcing a new election.
Trudeau quickly rescinded his resignation and led the Liberals to another victorious majority government.
Alas, petrol was also to be the undoing of the Liberals. In response to the 1970s oil crisis Trudeau pursued nationalisation of the fossil fuel exploration and delivery. This was an anathema to Western Canada.
In 1984, the Liberal government was routed, suffering the worst defeat in Canadian history.
Trudeau retired from politics again.
He returned to practising law in Montreal. But did not disappear completely from public life, speaking out against Quebec being recognised as a distinct society, as was being proposed at the time. He argued that doing so would weaken federalism and strengthen Quebec nationalism.
Trudeau died of prostate cancer in 2000, having lived an energetic life underpinned by a belief in fairness, tolerance and a united Canada.