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October 2010 - Nr. 10

Pierre Trudeau, a Quebecer, went into politics to fight Quebec separatism. As Liberal prime minister from 1968–1979 and 1980–1984 he kept Canada together and also changed the country forever. Trudeau was the father of a new constitution for Canada that included a Charter of Rights and Freedoms and guarantees of multiculturalism. And his government made Canada officially bilingual.

Unlike prime ministers who believed in politics as a way of finding compromises, Trudeau felt that he had to confront and defeat his enemies. He would not compromise his principles. His governments made many mistakes and Trudeau was often deeply unpopular, but most Canadians respected him for his convictions and ability.

Trudeau had a French-Canadian father and a Scots-Canadian mother. The Trudeaus were wealthy, and young Pierre, born in 1919, was educated at the best universities in three countries before settling in Montreal as a lawyer and political commentator. In the early 1960s he decided that the growing separatist movement in Quebec was a rejection of Canada and the modern world that would be disastrous for French Canadians. He ran for Parliament in 1965 to help Lester Pearson’s Liberal government resist demands from the province of Quebec. Three years later he won the race to succeed Pearson and became prime minister.

Trudeau was a smart, handsome intellectual who liked beautiful women and fast cars. He was a Roman Catholic but as minister of justice in the Pearson government he sponsored the legalization of birth control, homosexuality, abortion, and easier divorce. He became an idol of many idealistic and young Canadians in the 1960s, sparking an outpouring of affection known as Trudeaumania. The 1968 election was an easy victory for Canada’s celebrity prime minister.

Trudeau believed that the homeland of French Canadians was not just Quebec, but all of Canada and that they should be able to use the French language all across the country. This was the foundation of the policy of official bilingualism. Trudeau also believed that the government of Canada should not support the culture of any one ethnic group but instead that Canada should be officially multicultural. By the Trudeau years Canada was accepting immigrants of many races and religions, many of whom were pleased that Canada welcomed cultural diversity.

In October 1970 political kidnappings by separatist terrorists in Quebec caused the Trudeau government to send armed soldiers into the province and suspend civil liberties. Most Canadians applauded Trudeau’s tough stand. However. six years later Quebec elected its first separatist government, René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois. In 1980 it held the first referendum on its plan to make Quebec a separate and equal partner with Canada. In leading the “Non” forces in that referendum, Trudeau promised that he would introduce constitutional change to protect the rights of all Canadians.

After a bitter struggle with most of the provincial governments, especially Quebec’s, in 1981 the Trudeau government was able to patriate the Canadian constitution from Canada’s former mother country, Great Britain. Except for the symbolic monarchy, Britain would no longer have any power in Canadian affairs. A new Charter of Rights and Freedoms defined Canadians’ fundamental rights, including the collective right of multiculturalism.

Trudeau considered constitutional change his greatest achievement. After he left office in 1984 he twice came out of retirement to help defeat the Brian Mulroney government’s attempts to give more constitutional powers to Quebec and the other provinces.

Trudeau’s governments had to wrestle with other difficult national issues as a result of the energy crisis of the 1970s and the rising costs of health care and other social programs. The federal government began running large budgetary deficits. It deeply angered western Canada with its National Energy Program to try to take control of oil and gas revenue from the producing provinces. Trudeau was widely disliked in some circles as an arrogant, spendthrift prime minister. His government’s foreign policy, including support for underdeveloped countries and attempts to ease the Cold War, also had limited success. His party lost the 1979 election, and his career seemed to have ended until he seized his second chance when Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark failed to make a minority government work.

Canadians and others were fascinated by Trudeau’s lifestyle. He had a glamorous wife, Margaret, three handsome sons, a well-publicized marriage break-up, and affairs with beautiful women. He had a habit of treating his enemies, and the media, with contempt. Polls showed that Trudeau was both the most admired and most disliked prime minister of our times. Still, when he died in 2000 there was a massive outpouring of respect and affection among Canadians. Even his opponents agreed that he had been one of
Canada’s most influential prime ministers.

Further Reading: Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Chretien, by Michael Bliss; The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau: (vol 1) Citizen of the World; (vol 1I) Just Watch Me, by John English.

Next Instalment: The Success Story of Brian Mulroney

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright ©2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

The Canadian Experience communicates to us about the many facets of Canada, the people, the Charter, brings us reality and creates understanding.

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