Pierre Trudeau was a remarkable man, but not Canada's national saviour

This year is the 100th anniversary of the former prime minister's birth, and it's important to sort fact from fiction when it comes to his legacy, says Donald Wright.

100 years after former prime minister's birth, fact and fiction about his legacy collide

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau gives a speech on Oct. 30, 1972, after losing his majority. Canada's 15th prime minister was born Oct. 18, 1919, in Montreal, and passed away in the same city on Sept. 28, 2000. (Peter Bregg/Canadian Press)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Pierre Trudeau's birth, on Oct. 18, 1919. Almost no one noticed except for a handful of diehards, including a non-partisan outfit calling itself the P4P Foundation, or Party 4 Pierre.

Led by a group of self-described "Trudeaumaniacs," P4P launched a website and invited everyone to check after the election, on Oct. 26, for a series of announcements. A clock on the site counted down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds, but when the big moment came nothing happened.

No doubt P4P's excitement about Pierre Trudeau and his legacy is genuine, but it's over-the-top, hopelessly naive, and unlikely to inspire what the group calls "a popular uprising of progessive Canadians."

Its video tribute to the great man certainly won't.

To begin with, it's only in English, a stunning decision. Watching it, one can be forgiven for thinking that Canada's longest-serving French Canadian prime minister never spoke French.

But it gets worse.

The soundtrack is Leonard Cohen's Here It Is, a funereal song about Christ and his love for the homeless, their carts, their cardboard, and even their piss. Cohen's reference to the cross, the nails, and the hill – to Christ's crucifixion at Golgotha – is presumably an invitation by P4P to see Trudeau as our national saviour, who died for our sins but whose love will redeem and inspire us. In Cohen's words, "Here is the love / That it's all built upon" – "it" being modern Canada in this instance, according to the logic of the video's producers.

Good grief.

Meanwhile, video statements by "ordinary Canadians" – all English-speaking – approach historical fantasy.

One young man, who describes himself as an environmental activist, tells us that Pierre Trudeau formed Environment and Climate Change Canada (he didn't) and a number of other organizations to address the climate crisis "head-on."

Trudeau has been labelled many things, but this is surely the first time that he has been cast as a climate hero. To the best of my knowledge, Trudeau only addressed what was then called global warming once, in less than 150 words in a 1990 address at Stanford University.

Another testimonial, from a transplanted Anglo-Quebecer now living in Toronto, thanks Trudeau for the War Measures Act.

But progressive Canadians – then and now – have criticized his response to the October Crisis as an awful abuse of civil liberties. What, exactly, was progressive about 10,000 police searches, often in the middle of the night, and the arrest and detention of 450 Canadians on mere suspicion?

Moreover, the decision to invoke the War Measures Act remains contentious, to say the least, in Quebec's collective memory. It's as if P4P is going out of its way to alienate French-speaking Quebecers.

Reporter Tim Ralfe, right, questions Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, left, on the steps of Parliament Hill about the FLQ crisis and the invocation of the War Measures Act, on Oct. 13, 1970. The question elicited the famous quote by Trudeau, 'just watch me.' (Peter Bregg/Canadian Press)

Meanwhile, two more ordinary Canadians who offer testimonials self-identify as members of the LGBTQ community, while P4P tells us that Pierre Trudeau was pro-LGBTQ2S.

Hardly. His 1969 amendments to the Criminal Code only recognized the obvious: the state could not police the bedrooms of the nation. But it could and it did police both public spaces and workplaces. As has been well documented, gays and lesbians were fired from the RCMP and discharged from the military under his watch, something his son would later apologize for.

The historical errors continue when P4P claims that Trudeau was pro-choice.

True, his 1969 amendment to the Criminal Code introduced therapeutic abortion committees, but it did not legalize abortion on demand. Trudeau emphatically did not support a woman's right to choose.

As he told the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Toronto in December 1981, should a court ever decide "that sections 7 or 15 [of the Charter] establish a right to abortion on demand, Parliament will continue to legislate on the matter by overriding the court's decision and the specific Charter right as interpreted by the court."

In other words, he would use the notwithstanding clause. Disappointed second-wave feminists called him, in the language of the day, a male chauvinist.

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Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau defends the amendments he wants to make to the Criminal Code. 2:52

I could go on – for example, it's difficult to imagine progressives rallying around a man who attacked the right to strike and bargain collectively, and whose policy of wage and price controls was called the Wage Measures Act by organized labour – but why beat a dead horse?

In short, P4P confirms my thesis: once he is untethered from history, from the burden of historical fact, Pierre Trudeau is a blank slate on which some Canadians, mostly English-speaking and mostly centred in Toronto, write their hopes and dreams for a more just society and a more decent future.

Pierre Trudeau was a remarkable man whose legacy includes official bilingualism, multiculturalism, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but he wasn't the second coming.

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Donald Wright is a professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, where he teaches a course called Trudeau’s Canada.


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