Pierre Elliott Trudeau would have turned 100 this past October 18. Apart from some filial pieties on the campaign trail and inevitable comparisons drawn between father and son in the media, generally to the detriment of the latter, there was no real or official recognition of the centenary of the birth of Canada’s fifteenth prime minister. What former Prime Minister Kim Campbell famously said about discussing issues during an election campaign seems to apply to commemorating late prime ministers.
In fairness, honouring Pierre Trudeau’s memory during an election, especially when one of his offspring was in contention, would have been contentious. In America, they worry about foreign elements influencing their elections. Here, the ghost of a prime minister past might have turned the trick.
Some pundits argue that the past federal election was Seinfeldian, an election about nothing. A fair observation. Elections, unlike referendums, are called regularly as a matter of law and the democratic process. There is no guarantee that a compelling issue or particular urgency will have emerged when the writ of election is dropped.
President Eisenhower often said: “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” Pierre Trudeau entered politics at the dawn of Canada’s centenary, a time in our history when the urgent and the important did coincide. Beneath the surface of postwar affluence, concealed at the time by the Potemkin Village, Expo 67, lay existential problems. Quebec separatism, fused with widespread provincial demands for more powers invited the question: would the centre hold?
The provincially-chaired Confederation of Tomorrow Conference held during Centennial year put special status for Quebec on the agenda. It was boycotted by the feds. But Ottawa’s response would be forthcoming, and when it came to arguing the case, Trudeau, then Prime Minister Pearson’s justice minister, would be the only federal politician ready for prime time. At the next scheduled first minister’s conference, Trudeau, part of the federal delegation, clashed with Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson over the latter’s constitutional demands and the question of who spoke for French Canadians. The exchange went viral in a pre-internet age, and served as the unofficial launch of his undeclared leadership campaign and eventual election campaign.
Once elected prime minister, Pierre Trudeau provided his own mandate letter: to reassert federal power in the provinces and enfranchise French power in Ottawa. His vision was to excise the “Dominion” from “Canada” and allow French Canadians to exercise dominion beyond Quebec. Some twelve years later, the fall of Joe Clark’s government resurrected Pierre Trudeau, who single-handedly carried the federal side to victory in the first referendum on Quebec’s constitutional status. This was his opportunity to launch the process that would redefine Canada’s constitutional status and that of Canadians through repatriation and a constitutionally-entrenched human rights charter. In two strokes of the legislator’s pen, Canada became a sovereign nation in law, and Canadians became sovereign rights-bearing individuals. Claude Charron, perhaps René Lévesque’s most important cabinet minister at the time, said that from referendum to repatriation, Canada’s history was written by one man: Pierre Trudeau. It is not hyperbole to acknowledge our fifteenth prime minister as the last father of Confederation.
The centenary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birth fell on the midterm elections of 1982 during the Reagan years, and on deaf ears. But the failure to honour a great president wasn’t simply a casualty of competing ideologies or partisan politics. As the president of the FDR National Centennial Committee said at the time, “While most people over the age of 45 feel passionately about F.D.R. one way or another, in general those who are younger than 30 cannot distinguish Franklin Roosevelt from Theodore Roosevelt.” How many millennials today can identify Pierre Trudeau as someone other than the current prime minister’s father?
In a CBC interview with the late Peter Gzowski, Trudeau, then no longer in politics but again in the public eye as he spoke out against the Meech Lake Accord, was asked how he wished to be remembered. He expressed doubt he would be remembered at all for more than a generation, and simply hoped he would be remembered by his family.
In the early 1990s, at a press conference to promote “Towards a just society: The Trudeau years”, a collection of writings from intellectuals, historians and politicians of the Trudeau era, he was asked if the book represented anything other than yesterday’s ideas of yesterday’s men. His answer: Pythagoras has been dead for two thousand years but two and two is still four.
The catchphrase for JFK’s centenary in 2017 was “Visionaries never go out of style”. As we enter the millennium’s second decade, may it serve as watchword in belated commemoration of the centenary of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Howard Greenfield is a Montreal lawyer.