Despite Pierre Trudeau's flaws, give him the credit he deserves on national unity

Despite all of Pierre Trudeau's flaws and failures, it is the success he achieved in dealing with the crucial issue of his day that defines his legacy, writes Wyatt James Schierman.

The success Pierre Trudeau achieved around national unity defines his legacy

The flamboyant former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau died at his home in Montreal on Sept. 28, 2000, at the age of 80. He left a legacy as a charismatic politician who stood firm on bringing the nation together. (AFP/Getty Images)

"He haunts us still."

Veteran political writers Christina McCall and Stephen Clarkson began their seminal biography entitled, Trudeau and Our Times: The Magnificent Obsession, using these words.

The book was first published in 1990, many years after Pierre Trudeau's formal retirement from politics. Nonetheless, the authors argue persuasively that the man still looms large in the minds of Canadians, and his legacy continues to reverberate and have an impact on the national consciousness today.

After reading the recently published CBC opinion piece by Professor Donald Wright, it is clear that not all observers of Canadian history share this sentiment.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Pierre Trudeau's birth, on Oct. 18, 1919, and Wright debunks some of the myths surrounding Trudeau and his legacy as prime minister. Whether it is with regard to the October Crisis, or Trudeau's criminal code amendments, Wright does a fine job providing a counter-balanced view to those who would naively pledge their fealty to the man.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was criticized for breaking his promise not to introduce wage and price controls in response to rising inflation. (Bill Becker/Canadian Press)

However, he spends almost the entire article criticizing Trudeau and his record. Only in his final sentence does he grant Trudeau passing credit by listing a handful of his major achievements. According to Wright, Pierre Trudeau was a "remarkable man, but not Canada's national saviour."

At least we both can agree that Trudeau was indeed remarkable.

With all due respect to Professor Wright, he couldn't be more wrong when assessing Trudeau's importance to the unity of the country. And it is truly a disservice to the man, and to this country's history, to not give Pierre Trudeau the credit he deserves on his 100th anniversary.

The case for Trudeau's greatness is not to be found in his social policies, nor in foreign affairs or economic management (though for the record, he does have his achievements in each).

Rather, it is within the realm of national unity where Pierre Trudeau's importance truly lies.

By the time Trudeau came to office in 1968, the Royal Commission for Bilingualism and Biculturalism had already released its preliminary findings, urgently declaring that Canada was undergoing the "greatest crisis in its history." After all, violence within Quebec had been rampant, as seen with the formation of the Front de liberation du Quebec and the frequent bombings that occurred throughout the decade.

Furthermore, the mobilization for sovereignty amongst the Quebecois had been growing for years. Within months of Pierre Trudeau's election win as Prime Minister, the Parti Quebecois was formally created under the leadership of the passionate and charismatic Rene Lévesque. The two men were on a collision course that would determine the future of Canada, and Quebec's place within it.

Quebec Premier Rene Levesque, right, shrugs his shoulders and walks away from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau after they spoke prior to the beginning of the second day of the Constitution Conference on Sept. 9, 1980. (Drew Gragg/Canadian Press)

How did Trudeau respond to the turmoil within Quebec?

For starters, he transformed the civil structure of the government through the provision of federal services in both French and English. Finally, after 100 years of discrimination, the federal government would provide language services to the 25 per cent Francophone population that had been ignored throughout Canadian history.

Not only this, but Trudeau brought Quebec representation to his cabinet, something sorely needed when dealing with the growing surge of separatism.

He also carried Quebec in every election he contested, winning four out of five elections. In his final term, Trudeau won 74 of 75 seats, complete with 68 per cent of the vote, throughout la belle province.

This support proved incredibly necessary during the 1980 referendum on Quebec sovereignty. Fortunately for Canadians, Trudeau was at hand to counter the formidable challenge posed by Lévesque. With his decisive intervention in the referendum campaign, Trudeau and his federalist forces ensured the rejection of sovereignty-association by almost 60 per cent of the population in Quebec.

Without a doubt, though, Pierre Trudeau's most significant act as Prime Minister was to repatriate the Constitution, complete with an entrenched Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The patriation of the Canadian Constitution culminated in Queen Elizabeth signing the proclamation on April 17, 1982, followed by then prime minister Pierre Trudeau. (Canadian Press)

It was a feat that had eluded the country since Mackenzie King's unsuccessful attempt in 1927. Successive failures over the next 50 years only provided fuel to Lévesque's claims that Canadian federalism wasn't functioning.

Well, that is until Trudeau's Herculean triumph in 1982.

After extensive negotiations and a last minute compromise over the notwithstanding clause, Trudeau was finally able to secure the agreement he needed with nine out of 10 provincial premiers.

As well as the support of 72 Quebec MPs, I might add. To suggest that Quebec was ever betrayed by the 1982 Constitutional agreement is the real myth that unfortunately still exists.

With patriation, the last remaining colonial control Britain had over Canada was finally severed. And in its place, Canadians acquired a Charter,  one which has even usurped the American Bill of Rights as the world's most emulated constitutional document.

Pierre Trudeau, seen here in a November 1993 photo, secured the 1982 Constitutional agreement. (The Canadian Press)

Highly popular, and often described as a "surrogate citizenship" for Canadians, the Charter has proven to be Trudeau's most enduring legacy to the country and its unity.

Without a doubt, Trudeau had his faults. Under his tenure, the Liberals compiled significant debt, which later proved debilitating for successive governments. And Trudeau alienated the already alienated western provinces through a combination of Liberal arrogance and reckless economic policy.

Yet these failures pale in comparison when evaluated against Trudeau's efforts to save the country from both separatism and further, crippling decentralization (in a country already the most decentralized in the world). 

When the 1960s presented Canada with its "greatest crisis," it was Trudeau who confronted that crisis and overcame it. It was Trudeau who settled the constitutional challenges of his time and provided a path forward for the country.

Despite all of Pierre Trudeau's flaws and failures, it is the success he achieved in dealing with the crucial issue of his day that exceeds anything else.

With time, the memory of the man may fade. Fortunately, his vision of a united Canada will not.

  • This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


Wyatt James Schierman is a freelance writer from Alberta and a regular columnist with Loonie Politics. His writing has also been published in the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Star, the Calgary Herald, Huffington Post Canada and the Hill Times. When he is not writing, Wyatt is traveling abroad as an election observer.


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