Reconsidering Pierre Trudeau’s legacy 100 years after his birth

Lost in the federal election was the elder Trudeau’s 100th birthday — so a group of heavy-hitters from back in the day gathered to right that wrong
By Steve Paikin - Published on Oct 28, 2019
a speaker at a podium
Former Liberal MP David Collenette speaks at a conference dedicated to Pierre Trudeau at Toronto's Massey College on October 24. (Steve Paikin)

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In the dying days of the 2019 election campaign, while Justin Trudeau was fighting for his political life, the country completely missed a significant political event related to another Trudeau.

October 18 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the current prime minister’s father and the 15th prime minister of Canada.

Had the election not been happening, there no doubt would have been significant ink spilled on reconsiderations of the elder Trudeau’s life and legacy. Instead, the date passed with barely a comment or any recognition.

One of Trudeau’s closest advisers and most fervent admirers thought it was wrong for the date to pass unnoticed. And so, last week, Trudeau’s former principal secretary Tom Axworthy (with a big helping hand from another Trudeau acolyte, Howard Brown) organized a daylong conference at Toronto’s Massey College. Numerous heavy-hitters from back in the day gathered to share stories, lend some critical analysis to the existing record, and essentially right the wrong — the neglect of a big anniversary — that the election had caused.

Love him or hate him — and plenty of Canadians did both — Trudeau was a historic figure and hugely consequential. He won four elections: a majority in 1968, a bare two-seat minority-government victory in 1972, a majority in 1974, and yet another in 1980. His only defeat was in 1979 to the Progressive Conservatives’ Joe Clark. But, even then, he got 4 per cent more of the total votes cast than the PCs and was sidelined for only nine months. After Clark lost the confidence of the House, Trudeau roared back into power, noting famously and to the screams of supporters on election night: “Well, welcome to the 1980s.”  Still, when he retired in 1984, Trudeau was remarkably unpopular across the country. He left politics as the third-longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history, behind only William Lyon Mackenzie King and Sir John A. Macdonald.

So much about the Trudeau record is already known, but, at the Massey College conference, one of his former cabinet ministers shared a story I’d never heard before. David Collenette was first elected as a Liberal MP from Toronto in 1974 and went on to win four more elections and lose two. He recalls Trudeau saying, “If we’re elected just to have the trains run on time, let someone else do it. I want to be on the right side of history.”

That led Trudeau, in his final term, to champion constitutional renewal with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Collenette recalls that “if he liked you and was engaged in an issue you brought before cabinet, it was exhilarating. But if he didn’t, he’d look up at the ceiling,” bored to tears.

By 1983, Canadians were getting fed up with Trudeau. The economy was tanking. In fact, it turned out to be the worst recession since the Great Depression, and, yet, the prime minister seemed to be obsessed with the Constitution at the expense of the pocket-book issues Canadians cared about so much more. The Liberal polling numbers were as bad as the economy.

Collenette recalls one Liberal caucus meeting in which as many as 13 MPs “called for the prime minister’s resignation to his face.”

The mood of caucus was one of utter shock. This was something Trudeau had never faced before, and caucus members had no idea what would happen next.

What did happen was that, one by one, supportive MPs stood and spoke in favour of the PM, instantly converting the mood of caucus from utterly grim to supremely buoyant.

“But the blow to his integrity and his pride was intense,” Collenette told the conference.

Everyone was waiting to see what the prime minister would say in response to this attempted coup. And, eventually, respond he did.

“I want you to know I’d never do anything to hurt this party,” Trudeau began. “But never again will I sit here and be humiliated as I have been today.” And, with that, he stood up and left the caucus meeting to thunderous applause.

“Trudeau was speaking from the heart,” Collenette says. “He didn’t deserve this. Those who led the coup slinked out of the room as the rest of us gave him an enormous ovation.”

History records that, less than a year later, Trudeau went for perhaps the most famous walk in the snow any Canadian has ever taken. And, on February 29, 1984, he announced that he would retire from public life; he did so in June and was replaced by former finance minister John Turner, who’d been out of politics for a decade.

A critical analysis of Trudeau’s last year in power could perhaps lead one to conclude that the coup plotters had been right. By the time he stepped aside, Trudeau and the Liberal party were unprecedentedly unpopular. Turner made the mistake of calling a snap election after his leadership-convention victory. He also acquiesced to a request by Trudeau to make dozens and dozens of last-minute patronage appointments that further soured the public on the Grits. This all contributed to Brian Mulroney winning the largest majority government in Canadian history, in September.

But according to Collenette, and others who loved the man, Trudeau was “thoughtful, well prepared, visionary, and progressive. He was a statesman. He did more to shape Canada’s perception on the world stage than anyone in history.”

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