October 18, 2012
Though his flamboyant persona might belie the statement, “reason before passion” was Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s personal motto, but his very visible passion was a manifestation of reason.
Trudeau was born on Oct. 18, 1919, in Montreal. His family was well to do, and became wealthy when his entrepreneurial father built and then sold a chain of gas stations to Imperial Oil. Trudeau was 16 when his father, 47, passed away. Trudeau attended Jesuit schools and the University of Montreal, where he received a law degree. He was conscripted into the Canadian Army in 1943. After World War II, he went back to school, studying at the Harvard University School of Public Administration (now the Kennedy School of Government); then he studied at Institut d'études politiques de Paris; and finally at the London School of Economics (but he never completed his doctoral thesis).
He moved away from his Jesuit education during his international studies, and his thesis advisor at the London School of Economics was Harold Laski, a proponent of Marxism and social democracy. He was a great influence on the formation of India’s government, but Ayn Rand said Laski was the model for Ellsworth Toohey in “The Fountainhead.”
Trudeau returned to Canada, worked in government, and became a professor of law at the University of Montreal. In the 1950s, he was blacklisted by the United States and refused entry visas for attending a conference in Moscow and for his socialist writings and stances. The blacklist was lifted when Trudeau appealed.
He was elected to Parliament in 1965 as a member of the Liberal Party, which he had just joined. He was immediately appointed as parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Lester Pearson. When Pearson announced he was stepping down, Trudeau stepped up, entering the race for leadership of the Liberal Party. Though party faithful were opposed to the newcomer, the Canadian public embraced the handsome, energetic politician. His popularity was dubbed “Trudeaumania.” He won party leadership in 1968, and was sworn in as Prime Minister on April 20, 1968.
He called his approach to governing the “Just Society,” promoting the new national health care system, officially recognizing the French language, and the adoption of a constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms, guaranteeing political and civil rights for Canadians. He promoted Canadian nationalism, and though from Quebec Province, opposed the Quebec separatist movement, which became violent during the early years of his government. He introduced Canada’s multiculturalism policy in 1971.
He established diplomatic relations with China, and went on a mission to Beijing (before Richard Nixon). He was friendly with Fidel Castro.
In public he appeared confident and contemporaneous. He was photographed doing a pirouette entering Westminster Abbey in the Queen’s entourage; sliding down a hotel lobby bannister during his first party leadership convention; dancing with his hot, 30-years-younger wife, Margaret; and at every opportunity to be seen in public as hip, fun and cool.
It was for show. The French-Catholic workaholic was not who he played.
Trudeau embraced Marshall McLuhan’s idea that the voters see their leaders as if they are wearing a mask, and it is the mask that the public wants, not the person behind it.
As Michael Valpy, a political columnist for the Globe and Mail, and who is married to Deborah Coyne, mother of Trudeau’s youngest child, wrote, ''It would require a Joseph Campbell to explain to Canadians -- the beaver people of peace, order and good government -- why they found magic in a warrior chief's mask. But magic they found, served up by a practiced and consummate magician.''
Trudeau, except for a nine-month period in 1979-80, served as Prime Minister from 1968 until he retired in 1984. He died on Sept. 28, 2000.