May 16, 2000
Pierre Trudeau: The Planta speech - THE COMMENTARY
By Joseph Planta
VANCOUVER -- On May 16, 2000, I’ll be delivering the following text in History 12. These are my speaking notes, so you are able to read them here. The subject of my presentation is Pierre Trudeau.
From the horrors of genocide and terrorism, the lives of Mandela and FDR, the wars of Korea and Vietnam and the inner workings of the Third Reich, It is a great pleasure to rise today, to speak on my paper on the life of Pierre Trudeau.
We have, in this room, on many occasions, incessantly, talked about the role of Canada in the face of the 20th Century and the role that Canadian content should play in this course, History 12. This is probably the last time I’ll get to speak in this setting in front of my peers, so let me digress for a moment on why I chose Pierre Trudeau as the subject of my paper.
Pierre Trudeau is a former Prime Minister, he’s also an interesting character. The title of my paper is: “Pierre Elliot Trudeau: An enigma of Canadian proportion.” Trudeau is Canadian. His life has altered the landscape of this land and it’s history. He is identified as a definer of ourselves, what it is to be Canadian and why it’s so special and so difficult to define.
As we know, this course is pretty lax on Canadian content, as it should be, but I chose Trudeau, because I have long admired the man as millions of other Canadians. He’s a Canadian that all Canadians should learn about. That’s a tall order, and I shall explain that in a moment.
I also chose Trudeau, because when I came to Tupper 5 years ago, I always expected to do a research project on the man, and when opportunity knocked, I took it on.
Pierre Elliot Trudeau was born in 1919. Born to parents, one of French decent, the other of Scottish-English decent.
While the world was sinking into a Depression, the Trudeau family flourished. They took the grand tour of Europe in the summer of 1933. Young Pierre found himself watching the Nazis march up and down the streets of Berlin. He got bored and begged to leave, he did however say they had nice uniforms.
They were rich, his father died; he became rich. He took his formal education at an elite Jesuit school in Quebec topping that with stints at the University of Montreal, Harvard and the London School of Economics.
His other education was taken travelling the world. He refused to enlist for service during the 2nd World War, much like many other Quebeckers. But he did return to Eastern Europe following the end of the war and saw first hand the transition that region went through.
In 1949, he made it to China, and saw the beginnings of Communism. He admired Chairman Mao and much of those principles and policies stayed with him for the rest of his life.
It wasn’t until he was in his mid-fifties that he took a vested interest in federal politics. Seeing the growing discontent of Quebec in Canada, Trudeau and his contemporaries founded the Quebecois journal, Cite Libre, which continues to this day as a forum for intellectual discussion by Quebec intellectuals.
In 1965, he was persuaded to run under the Liberal Party, which at the time was led by, Lester B. Pearson.
It’s funny to note that Pearson was critized by one Pierre Trudeau when Pearson accepted Nuclear Weapons into the Canadian Armed Forces in the early 60’s. Now, Pearson was his boss.
Soon after that, Trudeau was given the portfolio of Minister of Justice and in that capacity he drafted modern legislation that made for stronger gun control and liberalised the laws on abortion, divorce and gambling.
When Pearson retired, Trudeau ran for the leadership and won. Soon after the country was on board and the word “Trudeaumania” entered our collective lexicon.
Wherever Trudeau went in that election year of 1968, he was loved. The women adored him and he didn’t mind at all. Up to that point he was a bachelor and on the campaign trail he confessed, “I am not the traditional politician that hit people’s backs or other parts of the anatomy. I didn’t like kissing babies, but I didn’t mind kissing their mothers.”
Part confident ladies man, part determined and articulate Quebecker. In 1968, the country adored the combination and voted him in, resoundingly.
By the early ‘70s however, recession hit and the Canadian debt was born. Trudeau, besides his compassionate stand on human rights, is also remembered, by conservatives, oddly enough, as the man responsible for the large size of bureaucracy and government.
Trevor Lautens, a member of the Vancouver Sun Editorial Board said: Trudeau, “is the Father of the Canadian Debt, which began in firm earnest in the early 1970’s and that has been the curse of Canada ever since - eating up our seed corn, exporting investment, suffocating initiative, impoverishing public services, generating unemployment, thinning our dollar, fattening tax rolls and stimulating tax cheating.”
One of the legendary facets of Trudeau is his toughness. His determination. Both of which were tested in the fall of 1970.
A radical terrorist group of separatists held Quebec and the rest of Canada hostage in October of that year. Trudeau, a pacifist, was forced to invoke the War Measures Act. Civil liberties were suspended as the army searched Quebec for the terrorist group, which by then had captured two hostages.
Donald Brittain, the country’s finest documentary film maker, captured Trudeau at his toughest, some say his finest, as he weathered through the tragedy of the October Crisis.
On the world front, he wasn’t that popular. When he realised the stupidity of the Vietnam War and decided to pull troops out, he bore the brunt of Richard Nixon’s reference of, “That bastard Trudeau.”
In Trudeau’s cocky and supreme arrogance, he countered with, “I’ve been called worse things, by better people.”
The US never took us all that seriously since.
He reduced our role in NATO. We were now mere “peacekeepers”.
He made historic diplomatic trips to China and the former Soviet Union in the early 1970’s. Those visits were made before the United States ventured yonder.
In Canada, however it was another story. Being a Quebecker, he moved vigorously to make French culture as much part of Canadian identity as English Canada. He made French the other official language and he soon implemented strong bilingual social policies, much to the consternation of us here in the “west”.
His efforts to stifle the desires of separatists in Quebec of distinct society status and special powers, may have backfired. With minor use of hindsight, as the problem is still prevalent, many historians and assessors of Trudeau have said he only furthered the problems of Quebec. He provoked René Lévesque’s hand into calling that 1980 referendum, a referendum that only yielded a 58% No vote. The 1995 vote was closer, as only 50.9% of Quebeckers voted No.
For my report, I spoke to the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge. From his anchor desk on The National he was most objective in his analysis of Trudeau. He hailed Trudeau’s achievement’s in patriating the constitution.
That act in 1982, removed our constitutional-amendment process from Great Britain, and made Canada all the more closer to fully divorcing from England. The process however was flawed in that Quebec was not given a voice in those negotiations.
If Quebec was the thorn in his lapel, British Columbia wasn’t blooming either. The province was struck with “Trudeaumania” and we went along. By the time the Liberal’s figured out that an election depended on the votes of Ontario and Quebec, and only Ontario and Quebec, British Columbians have always looked on Ottawa with disdain, disgust and contempt.
Rafe Mair, CKNW’s premier openliner and BC’s former Constitutional Affairs minister who worked with Trudeau in the Constitutional negotiations of 1979 had this assessment: “Trudeau never did understand Canada outside Quebec and Ontario. He saw the country as an extension of the Upper Canada/Lower Canada debate and was mystified about British Columbia even though his wife came from here.”
The bachelor PM finally did get married in 1971 to West Vancouver’s Margaret Sinclair. Sinclair, a flower child, nearly 20 years his junior bore Trudeau 3 sons. 2 of which were born on Christmas Day.
The Trudeau’s exemplified the all-Canadian couple of the ‘70s. She was young, vivacious and glamorous. And he was in power.
The marriage did not last however. On the night of the 1979 election, an election that Trudeau lost after 11 years as Prime Minister, Mrs. Trudeau was photographed dancing and getting high with the Rolling Stones, at the New York’s infamous Studio 54.
Like the legendary literary character of Cyrano de Bergerac, a character the young Trudeau saw as an early role model, Trudeau wanted to climb alone. He refused to flatter people to get ahead, and he fought his own way, and anyone who got in his way.
He retired in 1984 and here’s another Donald Brittain clip of the exit.
So, from 1968 to 1979. And again in 1980 to 1984, Pierre Elliot Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada. In that time he gave us hope as a nation, he disappointed us when he failed, he angered us and he made us proud to be Canadians.
He was a man that, according to Mansbridge: was “focused, prepared and willing to challenge anything you said to him.”
Gillian Cosgrove, a columnist for the National Post, said: “Trudeau was enigmatic, charismatic, capricious, arrogant, aloof, demanding, intolerant of the second-rate, stern, even rude. Yet head and shoulders above the pack.”
He loved this country a great deal. He served it with distinction, even though he alienated a number of us in the process. He changed this country, for better or worse, and it’s hard to figure which of the two he did.
His legacy is that of his efforts and the imprint his persona leaves on the face of Canadian history.
You may love him or hate him, there really isn’t room for middle-of-the-roaders in this debate, he changed our perception of ourselves, even though Americans will remember him as the Canadian President, whose wife did it with the Rolling Stones.
As Prime Minister he taunted us with the possibility this land and this country could reach if we came together and worked together.
Now that’s he’s out of office, and the nation seems fractured and without a vision, his legacy haunts us still.
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