Pierre Elliott Trudeau (born 1919) was the leader of the Liberal Party and Canada's prime minister for about 15 years. He successfully defeated the separatist movement in Quebec and led Canada both to greater strength nationally and to more independence internationally.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau was born in Montreal, Quebec, on October 18, 1919. The son of a wealthy French-Canadian businessman, Charles Trudeau, and a mother of United Empire Loyalist background, Trudeau received his early education in French, attending the elite College Jean de Brébeuf for eight years. After obtaining his B.A. from Brébeuf in 1940, Trudeau studied law at the University of Montreal; political economy at Harvard; law, economics, and political science at Paris; and political economy at the London School of Economics (1947-1948). He completed his education with a year-long trip around the world on $800 in 1948-1949.
He returned to Quebec in April 1949 and immediately became involved in a strike at Asbestos, where the labor movement in the province confronted a repressive and conservative government of Maurice Duplessis. Although Trudeau did work briefly as an economic adviser to the Privy Council Office in Ottawa in 1950-1951, his major concern in the 1950s was the reform of Quebec society and politics. Together with other Montreal intellectuals and journalists who had been roused to action by the events at Asbestos, Trudeau founded Cité Libre, an influential journal of opinion. He also acted as an unpaid legal consultant to Quebec unions, was a counsel in some civil liberty cases, wrote pungent political criticism, and continued to travel widely. He sought to organize the diverse groups opposing Duplessis into a coherent force for political action after 1956. Simultaneously, he flirted with socialist politics. In 1960, however, he supported the Quebec Liberals in the election which traditionally is identified as the beginning of the so-called "Quiet Revolution" in Quebec.
Disillusionment came quickly. In 1961 Trudeau was appointed associate professor of law at the University of Montreal. He continued to take an active part in the ever more lively debate about Quebec's future. While approving of most of the secularizing and modernizing approaches of the Lesage government, he strongly attacked its increasingly nationalist approach, declaring it stifling, irrational, and fundamentally elitist. When nationalism became separatism for many of the young and the intellectuals, Trudeau denounced the trend as reactionary. In the case of the intellectuals it was "treason, " a betrayal of the commitment to rationalism and open-mindedness which should mark an intellectual's approach to politics.
Quick Rise in Canadian Politics
Trudeau's anti-separatist position made him turn his attention toward federal politics. His name was mentioned as a possible Liberal candidate in the 1963 general election, but Liberal leader Lester Pearson's acceptance of nuclear weapons for the Canadian armed forces offended Trudeau, who angrily denounced Pearson. The Pearson minority government which came to power in 1963 did win Trudeau's approval for its determined effort to make the federal public service more bicultural and bilingual. Nevertheless, Trudeau thought Pearson was too conciliatory in dealing with the increasingly nationalist Quebec government. When Pearson, on the advice of the Quebec labor leader Jean Marchand, asked Trudeau to run as a Liberal candidate in the general election of 1965, Trudeau quickly agreed.
Pearson made Trudeau his parliamentary secretary in January 1966. His constitutional skills quickly impressed the prime minister and others, and in April 1967 he became minister of justice and attorney general for Canada. In this position he attracted much attention because of his articulate defense of the federal government's position in the debates with the provinces and because of his willingness to undertake reforms in such areas as divorce legislation, criminal law, and judicial appointments. His personal appearance and style, which contrasted sharply with that of other politicians, also focussed media attention upon him. Even though he had been a cabinet minister for only a year, Trudeau was elected Liberal leader and thus became prime minister in 1968.
In the election which followed, so-called "Trudeau-mania" swept the country as the media became fascinated with the quick mind, the athletic prowess, the romantic attachments, and the surprising indifference to traditional political concerns of Canada's new prime minister. In the campaign Trudeau promised a new deal for French Canadians in Canada, but no tolerance for separatism or extreme Quebec nationalism. He also indicated that Canada's foreign policy would be reassessed so that domestic interests would be given more weight. Canadians, Trudeau declared, should have the right to participate in making the governmental decisions which most affected their lives. The appeal fit the times.
Trudeau's government undertook a wide-ranging review of Canada's foreign policy. The military commitment to NATO was reduced, and Canadian foreign policy became less sympathetic to the international policies of the United States. Domestically, Trudeau sought constitutional reform without much success, but he did work more fruitfully to secure French Canadian rights within Canadian confederation. His economic policies were surprisingly conservative, although a significant reform in the taxation system did occur in 1971 and unemployment benefits became more generous and more widely available.
Trudeau's personal popularity reached its peak during the so-called October crisis of 1970. The kidnaping of James Cross, a British trade commissioner, and Pierre Laporte, Quebec's labor minister, by extreme separatists in Montreal prompted Trudeau to invoke the War Measures Act which suspended civil liberties so long as there was an "apprehended insurrection" in Montreal. The crisis ended, although Laporte was murdered, and most Canadians applauded Trudeau's forceful stand. Doubts arose later when civil libertarians and others began to question whether such a harsh response was in fact required.
Compromise and Continued Rule
By 1972 Trudeau's position had weakened, and he managed to cling to power after the general election in October only with the help of the socialist New Democratic Party. He quickly adapted his party to the situation and introduced popular, though expensive, legislation. He admitted that he had been too "rational" in his approach to politics, and sadly he concluded that politics was "ninetenths" emotion.
In the 1974 election Trudeau aggressively campaigned as a populist, effectively undercutting the Conservative arguments for wage and price controls. He regained his majority and began to plan for longer range changes in Canadian government. The first effect was a recognized bureaucracy, but various developments undermined his attempts to establish clear directions. In 1975 Trudeau, fearing rampant inflation, introduced the same type of wage and price controls he had denounced in 1974. In 1976 Quebec elected the separatist Parti Québéçois, which meant that long range planning gave way to what seemed a profound crisis in nationhood. Perhaps equally important was the breakdown of Trudeau's 1971 marriage to Margaret Sinclair, a separation which received international attention. In the late 1970s the Trudeau government scrambled to maintain its position, and it failed. The Conservatives defeated Trudeau's Liberals in the general election of May 1979.
In November 1979 Trudeau announced that he would step aside for a new leader, but before a new leader could be chosen, the minority Conservative government fell, and a general election was called for February 18, 1980. After some deft manipulation of the party by his friends, Trudeau agreed to remain as leader. He won another majority.
Between 1980 and February 1984, when he announced his resignation, Trudeau provided decisive but controversial leadership. The compromises and hesitations of the 1970s disappeared. The first task was to win the Quebec referendum on separatism. He campaigned vigorously, and the "no" side triumphed decisively. He then moved to "keep the promise" made during the referendum debate to give a new constitution to Quebec and Canada which would include a Charter of Rights. Against the strong opposition of Western Canada, Quebec, and most of the Atlantic provinces, the opposition parties, and leading newspapers, Trudeau pushed ahead his scheme for a new constitution which would be the last act of the United Kingdom Parliament to affect Canada. At the final moment, the provinces, excepting Quebec, agreed to a compromise, and Trudeau's cherished Charter of Rights became part of a fundamentally Canadian constitution.
Trudeau's government also took radical action to deal with the energy crisis of the early 1980s. The National Energy Program was highly nationalistic in aim and tone. Through incentives and taxation benefits it encouraged the growth of Canadian ownership in the energy field. It also set a price for Canadian oil below that on the world market. American investors were infuriated; so were the major producing provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan. The business community was strongly opposed to what it perceived as an attempt by government to grab most of the oil windfall for itself. Western Canada's bitterness towards Trudeau, which had long persisted, even aroused talk of Western separatism.
The Trudeau Legacy
By 1983 Trudeau's government had become very unpopular. The Conservatives chose a new leader, Brian Mulroney, and moved well ahead of the Liberals in the polls. The constitution was in place, the National Energy Program was collapsing as oil prices fell, and the threat of Quebec separatism had receded. Dissenters in his party began to suggest openly that Trudeau should resign. A "peace initiative" which he began in November 1983 had by the beginning of 1984 accomplished all that could be hoped in the face of the indifference of the superpowers to Trudeau's pleas for cooperation. In February 1984 he announced his intention to resign, and in late June he left the office of the prime minister, giving way to John Turner, who, it seemed clear, was not his choice as successor. In the general election of September 1984 the Liberal Party collapsed, winning only 40 seats compared to 211 seats for the Conservatives.
In his final speech to the Liberal Party in June 1984 Trudeau told his listeners that when Parliament, the bureaucracy, or the media failed to do what was necessary, he had gone directly to the people. With some Canadians Trudeau did fashion a remarkable bond. In others he aroused remarkable antagonism. He dominated his party, his cabinet, and Parliament so long as he was prime minister. When he left, the party fell apart. He had groomed no successor and appeared to care little about what happened after his departure. The party was in a decrepit condition; the nation was weary of the confrontation over energy, the constitution, and foreign policy which it had endured so long. The economy had faltered badly since the early 1970s, and basic restructuring had been postponed too long. Because his personality so fascinated Canadians, Trudeau bore much of the criticism for these apparent failings of the nation. Back in the private sector, in 1985, he became a senior consultant with Heenan, Blaikie. In 1993, he published his Memoirs, followed by The Canadian Way: Shaping Canada's Foreign Policy 1968-1984 (1995), co-authored by Ivan Head. In 1997, Trudeau, along with Jacques Hebert, published Two Innocents in Red China, which sparked mixed review.
Only one Canadian prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, served longer than Trudeau. Among post-war democratic leaders, only three were in office for as long. If his faults seemed so clear to his contemporaries, his accomplishments, especially in making Canada a nation that more fully accepts its bicultural nature, will probably mean more to posterity. In a country with so many doubts, the memory of one who had so few will likely grow.
Further Reading on Pierre Elliott Trudeau
Both Trudeau's Memoirs (1993) and his The Canadian Way (1995) are autobiographical in nature. He tops the list of Canada's most politically-powerful persons in Anthony Wilson-Smith's Bench Strength for Maclean's (1996). He is also covered in Mondo Canuck (1996), Greig Dymond's and Geoff Pevere's book on Canadian cultural icons. There are two major studies of Trudeau, both by journalists. George Radwanski's Trudeau (1978) is based upon extensive interviews with Trudeau and his colleagues. It is largely favorable in tone. Richard Gwyn's The Northern Magus: Pierre Trudeau and Canadians (1980) is much more critical. Both books do not cover Trudeau's final years as prime minister. A good sample of Trudeau's early writings is found in his Federalism and the French Canadians (1968).