Pierre Elliot Trudeau was born on October 18, 1919, in Montreal. His father was a French-Canadian business lawyer and his mother was a Scottish homemaker. Trudeau attended school without problems and was seen as a bright pupil. He went to Universite de Montreal and graduated with a law degree in 1943, where he was promptly drafted into the army. As a Quebecois, Trudeau was staunchly opposed to conscription and was eventually expelled from the army for being undisciplined and defiant to his commanders, thus he never saw combat overseas. This experience with the army launched him onto a political career when he ran in a local Montreal election on a strong anti-conscription platform.
After the war Trudeau attended Harvard Law School and earned his Masters in Political Economy, and then he went on to study at the Institut Politiques De Paris and the London School of Economics, but he failed to finish his Doctorate thesis before returning home to Canada.
Trudeau’s student life had a strong Marxist backing, and Trudeau regularly wrote articles concerning communism and socialism and their practicalities in a modern capitalist society. Around Montreal he was seen as an intellectual and attracted a following of left wing supporters, students, union organizers and feminists. In the mid-1950s Trudeau attended a political economy conference in Moscow where he met with Nikita Kruschev, and was blacklisted from entering the United States as a result.
Trudeau’s early stint with politics had earned him some connections in Quebec’s highly fragmented political world. In 1965 he joined the Liberal Party despite being opposed to then-Prime Minister Lester Pearson, a fellow Liberal, decision to arm Canada with nuclear weapons. Trudeau ran in the election that year won his riding, and he was appointed as Minister of Justice under Pearson.
It was as Justice Minister that Trudeau began to make a national name for himself. He wrote, sponsored and saw a bill passed that altered the justice system in Canada, including decriminalizing homosexual relations, legalizing abortion, granting women equal pension rights, imposing new gun ownership laws and criminalizing drunk driving. In 1967 Lester Pearson announced his retirement and a new federal election was held. The Liberal Party, now headed by the maverick Trudeau, won a landslide victory.
Trudeau had utilized the evolving mass media of the time to win, courting television reporters and giving exclusive interviews to newspapers and tabloid magazines. He went so far as to have his blacklist in the US removed and actively campaigned there, knowing that if he created a buzz in America, then Canadians would vote for him. It worked. He developed a massive following in both countries as a social revolutionary, anti-war supporter, civil rights defender and a symbol among the restless youth of the era as a generational change in power politics.
He made Time’s “Man of the Year” for 1967 and allegedly became embroiled in an affair with Paul Cartney’s girlfriend Jane Asher. Nevertheless, in 1968 Trudeau was sworn in as Canada’s 15th Prime Minister.
During his first few years in office Trudeau garnered an image as a bachelor, a youthful playboy who girls swooned over. When he travelled anywhere in Canada thousands of people would come, cheering and screaming. He publicly danced with young women from farm towns, and held dinner banquets with poor students. He courted the arts and the media and perfected his public identity to such a high degree that he attained international fame. John Lennon and Yoko Ono invited him to visit them in New York, and they became fast friends (Trudeau was one of the people in the front row at Lennon’s funeral).
Politically, he worked hard to transform Canada into his vision of his homeland. Unlike his public image, Trudeau was known by friends and enemies alike as driven, commanding and determined. He was a workaholic and the light in his office at 24 Sussex Drive could be seen burning late into the night.
Trudeau worked hard to implement Canada’s Universal Health Care, which Pearson had only recently enacted before stepping down. The Canada Health Act was under intense fire from Conservatives, and Trudeau was forced to fight a vicious political war in Parliament to see it fully implemented. Trudeau’s main goal was to implement a “Just Society” in Canada. Like Pearson, Trudeau saw Canada’s role in the world to be a place of freedom and equality for all, with security and justice, fairness, peace and democracy for a new era. He thought of Canada as the modern democratic experiment, taking over where America had failed in the new post-war
Most of Trudeau’s policies stemmed
from his Just Society philosophy, and this attracted a wide array of international backers, from the likes of Nelson Mandela to Bob Dylan to Fidel Castro.
Unfortunately for Trudeau, in 1970 Quebec exploded into chaos with several terrorist bombings and kidnappings, riots and political assassinations which have been called the “October Crisis”. For years a militant Quebec seperatist group, the FLQ (Front du Liberation de Quebec) had been sending operatives to train in Libyan terrorist camps. Spurred on by Marxist revolutionary writings, IRA methodology and their own fanatical desire for an independent Quebec, they unleashed a storm of terror in Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa. It was Trudeau’s first real crisis.
Trudeau enacted the War Measures Act and brought in martial law in Quebec. Suspects could be arrested and held without trial, searches and seizures conducted without warrant, and a strong military and police presence was put on the streets of Quebec’s major cities. After a short time most of the FLQ had been rounded up and imprisoned, however, Trudeau’s popularity in Quebec plummeted and today his legacy in that province is one of tyranny and oppression.
Despite his detractors in Quebec, Trudeau managed to enact the Constitution Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In these two groundbreaking documents, Trudeau managed to implement an official policy of French-English bilingualism in Canada, creating two “official languages”. They also espouse an official policy of multiculturalism, celebrating all the cultures of all the immigrants who live in Canada, and, most importantly, affording rights strongly protected in constitutional law to all the minorities (before Trudeau most rights had to be wrestled from long and costly court decisions, and the myriad laws were open to much speculation).
Trudeau continued to meet with John Lennon, who said during a 60 Minutes interview that “..if all politicians were like Pierre Trudeau, there would be world peace.” This despite the fact that Trudeau increased Canada’s involvement in NATO and NORAD and increased military spending in Ottawa.
In 1971 Pierre Trudeau married Margaret Sinclair, ending his hallmark image as Canada’s first bachelor Prime Minister. Margaret was 30 years younger than Trudeau and was, at the time, under the age of majority. Nevertheless they had 3 children together but divorced in 1984, giving Trudeau another groundbreaking title as Canada’s only single-parent Prime-Minister and Canada’s only Prime-Minister to divorce while in office.
Trudeau went on to win several more elections. In the 1974 elections the left-wing New Democratic Party ended up holding the balance of power in Ottawa, and this helped spur Trudeau to a more leftist policy that defined his later years in office. In Alberta, home of the world’s 3rd largest oil reserves, multinational oil companies were raking in massive profits and lining the coffers of the provincial government. Alberta was “oil booming” while the rest of Canada was suffering through the global oil recession of the time. Trudeau, with NDP support, created the crown corporation Petro-Canada and nationalized the Alberta oil sands. The profits from the oil sands were then managed by the federal government and added to the federal treasury. This incensed Albertans and Conservatives, and turned western Canada increasingly against the Trudeau Liberals.
The Petro Canada contraversy reached such a furor that in 1976 Parliament passed a motion of no-confidence and a snap election was called. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, Trudeau won another majority. Trudeau then went on to implement wage and price controls, causing his Finance Minister, John Turner, to resign in protest.
Finally, in 1977, Canada officially joined the G7 and Trudeau lost the support in Parliament of the NDP. In the 1979 elections Trudeau was finally defeated and the Conservatives won.
The Conservative victory was short-lived however.
Prime Minister Joe Clark, who replaced Trudeau, would make history by having the shortest time in office of any Canadian politician. His minority government was brought down on a no-confidence motion after only 6 months, and a new election called. The Liberal Party managed to convince Trudeau to run again, and he won another comfortable majority in the 1980 elections. It was his last term in office. In the run-up to the 1984 elections, Trudeau announced that he was retiring after 15 years as Prime Minister.
Pierre Elliot Trudeau spent the last years of his life enjoying his favourite pastimes: canoeing, camping, carpentry and writing for liberal newspapers. He published several books between 1985 and 1995, and continued to meet with influential human rights organizers, authors and politicians. On September 28, 2000, at the age of 81, Pierre Trudeau passed away. His funeral was one of the largest in Canadian history, and his coffin laid in state for 3 days while more than 1 million people visited the Parliamentary foyer to pay their respects. More than 44 world leaders and celebrities, including Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama, attended his state funeral. His son, Justin Trudeau, gave a tear-inspiring eulogy, giving way to rumours that Justin would carry on the Trudeau legacy in politics (he was elected to Parliament in 2008).
Trudeau’s legacy continues to be felt in Canada. Universal Health Care, official bilingualism, multiculturalism, guarantees of rights for everybody, a strong resource economy and national unity are all parts Trudeau’s “Just Society” vision. Whether loved (as in Eastern Canada) or hated (as in Quebec and Western Canada), there is no denying that Trudeau was the most important and extraordinary leader in Canadian history.