Pierre Trudeau's Early Career
Upon his return to Québec from a year's travels in 1949, Trudeau supported the unions in the bitter ASBESTOS STRIKE, a formative event in postwar Québec society. In 1956 he edited a book on the strike, to which he contributed an introduction and conclusion criticizing the province's dominant social, economic and political values.
After serving briefly in Ottawa as an adviser to the Privy Council Office in 1950-51, Trudeau returned to Montréal and devoted his energies to opposing the Union Nationale government of Maurice DUPLESSIS and agitating for social and political change. With other young intellectuals he founded the review CITÉ LIBRE. In this and other forums, Trudeau sought to rouse opposition to what he believed were reactionary and inward-looking elites. In the process, he picked up a reputation as a radical and a socialist, although the values he espoused were closer to those of liberalism and democracy.
Trudeau's Federalist Beliefs
After the Liberal victory in the 1960 provincial election, the QUIET REVOLUTION fulfilled some of Trudeau's hopes for change. At the same time, it revealed a deep rift between Trudeau and many of his former colleagues who were moving toward the idea of an independent Québec. A law professor at U de M by the 1960s, Trudeau became a sharp critic of the contemporary Québec nationalism and argued for a Canadian FEDERALISM in which English and French Canada would find a new equality.
In 1965 Trudeau, with union leader Jean MARCHAND and journalist Gérard PELLETIER, joined the federal LIBERAL PARTY and was elected to Parliament. Trudeau was later appointed a parliamentary secretary to PM Lester PEARSON, and was named minister of justice in 1967. In the latter post, he gained national attention for his introduction of divorce law reform and for Criminal Code amendments liberalizing the laws on abortion, homosexuality and public lotteries. He also established a reputation as a defender of a strong federal government against the nationalist demands of Québec.
Trudeau was persuaded to contest the Liberal leadership in 1968 and was elected on the fourth ballot; on 20 April 1968 he was sworn in as Canada's fifteenth prime minister. In the ensuing general election - which was dominated by "Trudeau-mania" - his government won a majority, and thus he began a period in office which was to last longer than that of any other prime minister, save Mackenzie KING and Sir John A. MACDONALD.
Trudeau and the October Crisis
The most dramatic event of Trudeau's first government was the OCTOBER CRISIS of 1970, precipitated by the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross and of Québec Cabinet minister Pierre LAPORTE by the terrorist FRONT DE LIBÉRATION DU QUÉBEC (FLQ). In response, Trudeau invoked the WAR MEASURES ACT, with its extraordinary powers of arrest, detention and censorship. Shortly after, Laporte was murdered by his abductors. Controversy over the appropriateness of these emergency measures and their effect on liberal democracy in Canada and Québec has continued to the present.
Less dramatic, but of lasting significance, was the OFFICIAL LANGUAGES ACT, a central feature of Trudeau's new federalism. At the same time, he began to improve the position of francophones in Ottawa. A growing antibilingual backlash in English Canada, however, was one result of these policies. Western Canada's growing alienation against a perceived lack of interest in western economic problems and in western perspectives on national issues also began in his first term.
An important initiative in government brought about under Trudeau's direction was the attempt to centralize and nationalize decisionmaking under nondirect control of the PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE and by CENTRAL AGENCIES such as the PRIVY COUNCIL OFFICE and the TREASURY BOARD.
Although very much along the lines of administrative reorganization in Washington and in other Western capitals, these changes proved controversial, leading critics to charge inefficiency and the undermining of the role of Parliament and Cabinet. In the 1972 election, Trudeau came close to losing office and was forced to form a MINORITY GOVERNMENT with the support of the NDP.
In 1971 Trudeau, hitherto a bachelor, married Margaret Sinclair, daughter of a former Liberal Cabinet minister. Their tempestuous marriage, beset by many well-publicized differences, finally ended in separation in 1977 and divorce in 1984, with Trudeau retaining custody of their 3 sons, Justin, Sasha and Michel.
Trudeau's Defeat and Re-election
After restoring a Liberal majority in 1974, Trudeau faced the effects of inflation. In an atmosphere of economic crisis, various expedients were tried, including mandatory WAGE AND PRICE CONTROLS in 1975. This economic crisis was compounded in 1976 when the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS under René LÉVESQUE was elected to office, party and man dedicated to Québec independence.
In 1979 Trudeau and the Liberals suffered a narrow defeat at the polls. A few months later, he announced his intention to resign as Liberal leader and to retire from public life. Three weeks after this announcement, the Progressive Conservative government of Joe CLARK was defeated in the Commons and a new general election was called. Trudeau was persuaded by the Liberal caucus to remain as leader, and on 8 February 1980 - less than 3 months after his retirement - he was returned once again as prime minister with a parliamentary majority, thus accomplishing a remarkable resurrection.
Trudeau's last period in office as prime minister was eventful. His personal intervention in the 1980 QUÉBEC REFERENDUM campaign on SOVEREIGNTY-ASSOCIATION was significant. The defeat of the Parti Québécois's proposition was a milestone in his crusade against Québec separatism. In the wake of that victory, Trudeau pushed strongly for an accord on a new Canadian constitution.
Trudeau's Constitutional Battles
Unable to gain provincial agreement, he introduced into Parliament a unilateral federal initiative to "patriate" the BNA Act to Canada with an amending formula and an entrenched CANADIAN CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS. There followed one of the epic federal-provincial battles of Canadian history, culminating in the final compromise and the proclamation of the CONSTITUTION ACT, 1982 on 17 April 1982.
With the inclusion of entrenched minority language and education rights, and a charter of individual rights, Trudeau had thus fulfilled a goal he had set himself upon entering public life (see CONSTITUTION, PATRIATION OF).
In other areas, his 1980-84 government was less successful. Continued inflation and high levels of unemployment, along with huge federal deficits, cut deeply into his popular support. His government's National Energy Program, one of the major government interventions in the economy since WWII, further alienated the energy-producing regions in Western Canada.
A continuing problem that plagued his entire term of office was that of CANADIAN-AMERICAN RELATIONS. Trudeau often played an ambiguous role with regard to the US, but in his last period in office he moved toward a more nationalist position in economic relations with the US, and began to criticize its foreign and defence policies more freely than in the past. At the same time the policies of US President Reagan's administration were becoming more damaging to many of Canada's economic interests.
In these years Trudeau devoted more and more time to the international stage, first to encouraging a "North-South" dialogue between the wealthy industrial nations and the underdeveloped countries, and then in 1983-84 to a personal peace initiative in which he visited leaders in several countries in both the eastern and western blocs to persuade them to negotiate the reduction of nuclear weapons and to lower the level of Cold War tensions. These activities led to his being awarded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize.
At the same time, his government was responsible for the decision to allow US testings of the Cruise missile, which roused widespread opposition from Canadians concerned about the worsening nuclear arms race.
Public opinion in Canada remained hostile to Trudeau and the Liberals from 1981 on. His personal style - sometimes charismatic, sometimes contemptuous of opposition, often mercurial and unpredictable - seemed to have become less of an electoral asset in difficult economic times. On 29 February 1984, Trudeau announced his intention to retire; on June 30 he left office, and his successor, John TURNER, was sworn in. In 1985 he became a Companion of the Order of Canada.
Trudeau's retirement was relatively low profile, but on two occasions he intervened in public affairs with dramatic effect. His strong opposition to the MEECH LAKE ACCORD (see MEECH LAKE ACCORD: DOCUMENT) was considered influential. His speech against the CHARLOTTETOWN ACCORD (see CHARLOTTETOWN ACCORD: DOCUMENT) at the Maison du Egg Roll in Montréal on 1 October 1992 has been accredited decisive influence in turning English Canadian opinion against support for the Accord in the 1992 Referendum. He did not, however, publicly intervene during the 1995 QUÉBEC REFERENDUM on sovereignty. In 1993 Trudeau published his book Memoirs, based on a five-part miniseries by the CBC, and in 1996 he published a collection of his writings from 1939 to 1996, Against the Current.
Trudeau's career as prime minister was one of electoral success, matched in this century only by Mackenzie King. Moreover, he served longer than every other contemporary leader in the Western world, becoming the elder statesman of the West. His achievements include the 1980 defeat of Québec separatism, official bilingualism, the patriated Constitution and the Charter of Rights.
Trudeau was unable, however, to alleviate regional alienation or to end the conflict between federal and provincial governments. By the late 1990s, his major legacy, Québec's retention as a partner to Confederation was in much more serious question than at the time of his retirement. He left office much as he had entered it, a controversial figure with strong supporters and equally strong critics. That he was one of the dominant figures in 20th-century Canada is indisputable.
See also PRIME MINISTERS: TABLE.
Author REG WHITAKER
I. Head and P.E. Trudeau, The Canadian Way: Shaping Canada's Foreign Policy, 1968-1986 (1995); C. McCall and S. Clarkson, Trudeau And Our Times (vol. 1, 1990; vol. 2, 1994); P.E. Trudeau, Memoirs (1993); R. Gwyn, The Northern Magus (1980); G. Radwanski, Trudeau (1978). Trudeau's writings are collected in Federalism and the French Canadians (1968), Approaches to Politics (1970), The Asbestos Strike (1974) and Pierre Elliot Trudeau: Lifting the Shadow of War (1987).
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
First Among Equals
Learn about the private lives and political careers of Canada’s Prime Ministers. Includes biographies, speeches, and other historical documents. A Library and Archives Canada website.
Grave Sites of Canadian Prime Ministers
Check this site for photos and information about specific grave sites of former Prime Ministers of Canada. From the website for the National Program for the Grave Sites of Canadian Prime Ministers.
Top 10 Things Canadians Should Know About Canada
Click on the 101things.ca link to discover the top 10 things people should know about Canada, a list developed from a national survey of what Canadians felt were the 101 people, places, symbols, events and innovations that most define our nation. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau: Swinger, Philosopher, Prime Minister
This multimedia CBC Archives site documents the life and political career of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Last Lunch with Trudeau
Pierre Elliott Trudeau reflects on the October Crisis and related issues in this article by William Tetley, McGill law professor. Click on links on the left side of the page for additional articles about the October Crisis.
Citizen of the World, The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Volume One: 1919-1968
A synopsis of the book "Citizen of the World, The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Volume One: 1919-1968" written by John English. From Random House of Canada, Ltd.
The Teeth of Time, Remembering Pierre Elliott Trudeau
A synopsis of Ramsay Cook's memoir "The Teeth of Time, Remembering Pierre Elliott Trudeau." From McGill-Queen's University Press.
Young Trudeau: 1919-1944, Son of Quebec, Father of Canada
A synopsis of the biography "Young Trudeau: 1919-1944, Son of Quebec, Father of Canada" written by Max and Monique Nemni. A McClelland & Stewart website.
Justin Trudeau's eulogy
Justin Trudeau's poignant eulogy for his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. From the Oct. 3, 2000 edition of "The National." A CBC website.
The Right Honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau
A portrait of The Right Honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau by artist Myfanwy Spencer Pavelic. From the website for the House of Commons Heritage Collection.
Face to Face: The Canadian Personalities Hall
"Face to Face" features outstanding Canadians whose ideas and contributions have transformed this country. Click on the photos in "Meet the Personalities" to see their biographies. From the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Click on the brief profiles of "extraordinary Canadians" and the authors who wrote about them in this Penguin Group (Canada) series. Also includes bios of artists who created the cover art for each book.
Just Watch Me
Watch a CBC News clip of the memorable interaction between reporters and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on the steps of Parliament during the October Crisis.
The website for Jean-Marc Carisse, official photographer to former Canadian Prime Ministers Pierre Elliott Trudeau, John Turner, and Jean Chrétien. Features many photographs of Canadian politicians and other prominent Canadian and international personalities.
Summer Jobs Series: How summers spent collecting minimum wage shaped the legacies of Brian Mulroney, Paul Martin
An article that highlights some of the gritty summer jobs held by Canadian prime ministers in their younger years. From the National Post.