Hot! Pierre Trudeau saved Canada

NationalPost.com – FullComment/Canada
Mar 25, 2011.   John English

Without Pierre Trudeau, we would not have, today, a Canada from coast to coast to coast. He was, for us, the essential leader, the indispensable leader during the greatest national crisis of my lifetime.

My case for Trudeau does not rest on his economic policies. Yet it must be said that Canada during the 1970s, at a time when the West’s golden age came to an end, did remarkably well considering the circumstances. Canada did far better than Britain, whose pound collapsed to almost the equal of the American dollar, whose politicians proved unable to confront overly strong unions, and whose businesses were unable to compete with those of Europe after Britain entered the European Economic Community. For Germany and France, too, it was a disastrous decade, as these two countries responded haltingly to the oil crisis, the food crisis and increasing inflationary trends.

Then there was the United States. In his book about the 1970s, How We Got Here: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life, David Frum details how Richard Nixon’s economic policies were a mess. Arthur Burns, the chairman of the Federal Reserve and a Republican pillar, bloated the money supply, blowing apart the Bretton Woods system of global monetary management, resulting in Washington’s 1971 announcement of a 10% import tax, the creation of special zones for American exporters and the end of the link between the American dollar and gold.

America’s trading partners were stunned. The Japanese called it the Nixon shokku. For Canada, the crisis epitomized the image Trudeau gave us: Canada is like a mouse sleeping with an elephant. Everything is fine until the elephant twitches. In 1971, the elephant rolled over and almost smothered us.

We were not alone. All of America’s major trading partners scrambled to develop trade and economic policies that reflected the new reality. Sure, we became protectionist. What country would not in those circumstances? Is it any wonder that we began seeking alternative trade partners, and tried to secure greater markets in China and Russia for our wheat?

Check the Hansard records from the time. The New Democrats who held a gun to the Liberals during the 1972-4 minority government wanted to nationalize most of our national resources. Even the Conservative opposition advocated national protectionist measures, as did many of the provincial premiers. When the Atlantic Richfield Company pulled out of the pioneering oil-sands consortium in 1975, a move that threatened to end oil-sands development, it was the Conservative Ontario government of Bill Davis that took a 5% share in the ensuing bailout. Alberta took 10%, the federal government 15%. Without that deal, the oil-sands would have remained yet another grand Canadian project that went unfulfilled.

On foreign policy, Trudeau himself declared that the subject was not his major interest — and it wasn’t. (It seems odd because Trudeau was without doubt the most cosmopolitan of our prime ministers, speaking fluent English, French, Spanish, with passable Italian and German.) He entered politics to deal with domestic issues — specifically, the place of Quebec, and of French-speaking Canadians, in Canada.

He knew that the external face of Canada then did not have French features. No English Canadian PM could speak French — including its greatest diplomat, Lester Pearson. External Affairs and Defence were not bilingual departments. And nearly all French Canadians felt excluded from their inner ranks. Only 8% of Canadian public servants were francophones during the years of Louis St. Laurent, a time when 26% of the Canadian population was francophone.

Today, on the other hand, 27% of Canadian soldiers are francophones, and all above the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel speak French. The Foreign Affairs department has a similar French presence. Our external face now reflects what we are — principally because of Pierre Trudeau.

Trudeau will not be judged in history by his economic policies or his foreign policy but rather by how he responded to what the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism rightly called, in February, 1965, “the greatest crisis in our history” — the challenge of Quebec nationalism and separatism.

Canada’s dominant political leaders of the 1960s were two unilingual First World War veterans, John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson, and the political atmosphere was foul and stale. By 1967, when their time ran out, their approval ratings were close to single digits. Canadian politics, in Peter Newman’s words, had attained a profound “distemper.”

Scandals dominated the news and politics. In May, 1966, Joseph Chartier carried a bomb into the Centre Block of Parliament, intending to throw it into the middle of the Commons chamber. Nature called, he went to a washroom, and the bomb exploded. I was working as a summer student in the East Block at the time. An all-too-common refrain in the men’s beverage rooms of the day was: It’s a pity Chartier didn’t get to throw it.

This was the situation when Pierre Trudeau came to Ottawa. Geoffrey Stevens, The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa correspondent, the biographer of Trudeau’s opponent Robert Stanfield, and a strong critic of Trudeau, later recalled what Trudeau meant in those times: “He did what no politician before or since has done. He touched the dreams of an entire generation of Canadians. He made them excited about politics and public affairs. He caused them to believe they could actually change the country and even the world. He inspired them to get personally involved in the life of their nation and community. He changed their lives. He set them off along paths they might not otherwise have taken.”

Very simply, Trudeau changed the character and atmosphere of Canadian politics. Journalists abandoned objectivity in embracing that change. Academics stepped down from the ivory tower and embraced Trudeau. One of them, Ramsay Cook, took it upon himself to prove to Trudeau that he must run for the Liberal leadership. He got four leading journalists — June Callwood, Trent Frayne, Peter Gzowski and Barbara Frum — to sign a scrap of paper encouraging Trudeau to become prime minister. (It said simply: “Pierre Trudeau is a good s–t. Merde.”)

Ultimately, Trudeau came to Ottawa in 1965 with Pearson because he knew Canada was in serious trouble. Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, which began with the election of the provincial Liberal government of Jean Lesage in 1960, was no longer quiet. It was punctuated by bomb explosions in 1963 — which continued, at the average rate of about one every 10 days, until 1969.

Foreign observers reported on the extraordinary internal dynamic in Quebec. Charles de Gaulle sent emissaries, including his minister of culture André Malraux, to determine whether Quebec could become independent. They reported that it could and likely would. He told his cabinet that Quebec would become free by necessity and that it was his duty to advance that cause. He gave the process a historic shove with his famous declaration on the balcony of Montreal’s Hotel de Ville in 1967: “Vive le Quebec libre.” It was truly a call to arms.

Meanwhile, the federal Liberal government was drifting; and the Conservatives had moved ahead in the polls with Stanfield as their leader. Pearson resigned in December 1967, and candidates lined up to replace him. It appeared the Liberal leader would be Paul Hellyer or Bob Winters, both unilingual businessmen. .

Trudeau barely won the leadership. The close runner-up was Winters. Had he won, Canada’s 1968 federal election would have been contested by two unilingual Maritimers, neither of whom could have talked directly to Quebec.

The timing would have been atrocious. The voice of separatism had become much stronger with the formation of the Parti Québécois under the leadership of René Lévesque in the summer of 1967. Only Trudeau could have matched Lévesque’s eloquence, intelligence and passionate commitment. And he did.

Separatism has become an anachronism these days. But it was far from anachronistic in 1976, when the PQ took office, and Trudeau and Lévesque began the battle for Canada. The PQ leader promised a referendum but he knew Trudeau was too strong an opponent. He waited for Trudeau to depart, which he did after an election loss in May, 1979 to Joe Clark, who announced he would not participate in the Referendum that Lévesque has announced as soon as Trudeau was gone. In the Quebec national assembly, Lévesque demolished Liberal leader Claude Ryan’s defence of federalism.

But then Clark inexplicably decided to take on Trudeau again, and was trounced. Trudeau returned to office on the eve of the referendum. He won 74 of 75 seats in Quebec and an astonishing 68% of the popular vote in the province. Separatism began to stumble and, in the referendum of 1980, it was defeated by almost 20 points.

Claude Charron, Lévesque’s favourite minister, later said that Lévesque was the greatest Quebec politician of his generation — the most eloquent and passionate, and the great hope for an independent Quebec. But, Charron added, he confronted the only leader who could defeat him: Pierre Trudeau.

Trudeau left his lasting mark following the Referendum by pushing through, by sheer determination, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter has its critics, on both right and left, but it has been a rare source of common agreement among Canadians east and west, north and south, English and French. Approval of it has remained consistent at the 90% level over the last two decades. It has become a symbol of Trudeau’s vision of Canada.

In that vision, individual Canadians possess defined rights, and no province or region has a special status. In this bilingual, pluralist Canada, it would not all turn on Newfoundland’s cod, Alberta’s oil, or, most decisively, Quebec’s language. We would be masters in our house, but our own house would be all of Canada.

It is this vision that makes Pierre Trudeau an irreplaceable leader for his times.

National Post

Historian and author John English served as a Liberal member of parliament for Kitchener between 1993 and 1997. His books include Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Volume One: 1919-1968, and Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Volume Two: 1968-2000.

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1 Comment

  1. Well written! Enjoyed reading every bit.

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