Saturday, October 19, 2013

Pierre Elliott Trudeau

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The father of the current Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, Pierre Elliott Trudeau was among Canada's most famous Prime Ministers. When he was born in 1919, World War I was over. However, the returned soldiers expressed their dissatisfaction with conditions in the social unrest that culminated in the Winnipeg General Strike.

Physically, Montrealer Trudeau embodied the bilingual and bicultural nation he was born into. Born to a French Canadian father and a Scottish-French mother, he grew up in Outremont, speaking both official languages as a native. Educated in a Jesuit preparatory school, he completed his law degree at Universite de Montreal and began to work for the Privy Council. He specialized in labour law and took an interest in civil liberty cases. 

In 1961, at the beginning of the modernizing decade called the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, he became a professor of constitutional law at his alma mater. In 1964 he was recruited to run for the Liberal Party. As Pearson's Minister of Justice, he liberalized the laws concerning divorce, abortion and homosexuality, famously saying "The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation."

When Pearson retired, Trudeau easily won Liberal leadership. Sweeping to victory on a wave of "Trudeaumania," he took the helm in 1968. The charm, wit and intelligence made Trudeau more than a match for the press and his fellow parliamentarians. His playful side, as when he pierouetted behind the queen, was also appreciated by Canadians. An eligible bachelor in his forties, he married a woman many years younger, had three sons and became even more popular.

In 1970, Trudeau faced the October Crisis. Violent FLQ terrorists had been setting off bombs in Montreal. In their violent bid for Quebec independence, they kidnapped a British diplomat and a Quebec Minister and publicly threatened to kill both men if their demands were not met.

After being swooned over by women and given babies to kiss during the election campaign, the new Prime Minister now faced a serious political challenge. His response was serious and decisive; deeming the FLQ threat an attempt at insurrection against the democratically elected government, he invoked the War Measures Act. As an emergency measure, the police, assisted by the army, were allowed to detain suspects for questioning without charging them.

This show of strength was controversial. However, negotiations also took place with the terrorists and the life of diplomat James Cross was saved.  The kidnappers were apprehended, but only after Pierre Laporte, the Quebec Minister of Labour, was found dead in the trunk of a car. The Quiet Revolution was over; it had culminated in a show of violence that shocked the nation.

In the coming years, the wave of separatist sentiment in Quebec would find expression through peaceful political activity. Led by Rene Levesque, the Parti Quebecois demanded a vote to determine whether Quebec would separate: "sovereignty association." Defeated 60% to 40% in the referendum of 1980, this later became known as the First Referendum; the separatism issue hadn't gone away.

Many would agree that Trudeau's most dramatic accomplishment was to patriate the Constitution; however, his strong federalist stance did not prevail in Quebec. After much wrangling about Quebec's special status, separatist Premier Rene Levesque refused to sign on behalf of his province. To this day, Quebec is not a signatory to the Canadian Constitution.

And in spite of the Trudeau ideal of the Just Society, times were troubled for aboriginal Canadians. Eventually, though, the Berger Commission's lengthy consultations with the people on the land caused the government to decide against allowing an oil pipeline to be built through their territory. And before a large Hydro Quebec project was implemented in Quebec, the James Bay Cree and the Inuit of the region were consulted. In the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, money and rights were given in exchange for the ceded territory.

Trudeau made other changes that deeply affected the nation. It was during his term that Canada became officially bilingual. This allowed French speakers equal access to government service through the right to access them in their native tongue.

Multiculturalism was also a Trudeau policy. With an internationalist perspective, he liberalized immigration policy, created more foreign embassies, and opened diplomatic relations with Communist China at a time when the US was unwilling to doing so. He also visited Cuba, another nation on the American banned list, and made friends with Fidel Castro.

On the world stage, Trudeau ensured that Canada carried out its own independent foreign policy. He made sure Canada went its own way, though he told the President that Canada's position beside the US was "like sleeping with an elephant; no matter how friendly and even-tempered is the is affected by every twitch and grunt."

Trudeau resigned from politics in 1984, but he continued to write and speak in support of federalism. On the occasion of his funeral in 2000, thousands of Canadians wore roses in their lapels in his memory, paid their respects as his body lay in state in Ottawa, and lined the railway tracks in silence to see the train that carried his remains to their last resting place in Montreal.

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