Pierre Elliott Trudeau | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Pierre Elliott Trudeau, PC, CC, CH, FRSC, prime minister of Canada 1968–79 and 1980–84, politician, writer, constitutional lawyer (born 18 October 1919 in Montreal, QC; died 28 September 2000 in Montreal). A charismatic and controversial figure, Pierre Trudeau was arguably Canada’s best-known politician, both at home and abroad. He introduced legal reforms to make Canada a more “just society” and made Canada officially bilingual with the Official Languages Act of 1969. He negotiated Canada’s constitutional independence from Britain and established a new Canadian Constitution with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He played an important role in defeating the Quebec separatist movement of the 1970s and 1980s; although his decision to invoke the War Measures Act in response to the 1970 October Crisis drew sharp criticism. His federalist stance as well as his language and economic policies alienated many in Canada, particularly in the West. His eldest son, Justin Trudeau, became leader of the Liberal Party in 2013 and prime minister in 2015.

Pierre Trudeau, 1975

Education and Early Career

Pierre Trudeau was born into a wealthy family. He was the son of a successful French-Canadian businessman and a mother of Scottish ancestry. He was educated at the Jesuit Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf; Université de Montréal; Harvard University; and the London School of Economics. He also travelled extensively in his youth, including with longtime friend Jacques Hébert, who wrote extensively of their adventures.

Upon his return to Quebec from a year’s travels in 1949, Trudeau supported the unions in the bitter Asbestos Strike; a formative event in postwar Quebec society. In 1956, he edited a book on the strike. He contributed an introduction and conclusion that criticized the province’s dominant social, economic and political values.

Trudeau served briefly in Ottawa as an adviser to the Privy Council Office in 1950–51. He then returned to Montreal. He opposed the Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis and agitated for social and political change. With other young intellectuals, Trudeau founded the review Cité libre. In this and other forums, he sought to rouse opposition to what he believed were reactionary and inward-looking elites. In the process, he developed a reputation as a radical and a socialist. The values he championed, however, were closer to those of liberalism and democracy.

Trudeau and Federalism

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 Quebec. As a law professor at Université de Montréal in the 1960s, Trudeau became a sharp critic of contemporary Quebec nationalism. He argued for a Canadian federalism in which English and French Canada would find a new equality.

Entry into Federal Politics

Pierre Trudeau joined the federal Liberal Party in 1965. He was recruited along with union leader Jean Marchand and journalist Gérard Pelletier. Trudeau was elected to Parliament in the riding of Mount Royal. He was later appointed parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Lester Pearson.

A rising star in the Liberal Party, Trudeau was named minister of justice in 1967. In this role, he gained national attention for reforming divorce law (see Family Law in Canada); as well as for amending the Criminal Code to liberalize 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 Quebec.

As justice minister in 1967, Trudeau introduced reforms to the Criminal Code that effectively decriminalized homosexuality. Trudeau’s stated explanation for doing so — that “there is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” — captured the zeitgeist of a new, more progressive era. The same sentiment runs through the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) and the legalization of same-sex marriage (2005). The phrase marked Trudeau as edgy, iconoclastic and refreshingly sophisticated. It also helped launch him to political superstardom, signalling a sharp generational shift in Canada’s political leadership. (Source: Parli.ca)


Trudeau was persuaded to contest the Liberal leadership in 1968. He was elected on the fourth ballot. In the ensuing general election on 25 June 1968 — the campaign for which which was dominated by “Trudeaumania” — his government won in a landslide with 153 (of 249) seats and 45.37 per cent of the popular vote. On 20 April 1968, he was sworn in as Canada’s 15th prime minister. He then began a period in office which was to last longer than that of any other prime minister, except William Lyon Mackenzie King and Sir John A. Macdonald.

The October Crisis

The most dramatic event of Trudeau’s first government was the October Crisis of 1970. British diplomat James Cross and Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte were kidnapped by the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), a militant Quebec independence movement. In response, Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act; this gave the government sweeping powers of arrest, detention and censorship. Shortly after, Laporte was murdered by his abductors. Controversy over the appropriateness of these measures and their effect on liberal democracy in Canada and Quebec has continued to the present. (See also Timeline: The FLQ and the October Crisis.)

Key Policies

Less dramatic, but of lasting significance, was the Official Languages Act of 1969. It was a central feature of Trudeau’s new federalism. At the same time, he began to improve the position of francophones in Ottawa. However, one result of these policies was a growing anti-bilingual backlash in English Canada. This was particularly the case in Western Canada; Trudeau’s perceived lack of interest in Western economic problems and in Western perspectives led to a growing sense of alienation there.

An important initiative of Trudeau’s was the attempt to centralize and nationalize decision-making in the Prime Minister’s Office; as well as in central agencies such as the Privy Council Office and the Treasury Board. These changes were very much in line with administrative reorganizations in Washington, DC, and in other Western capitals. But they proved controversial in Canada; critics claimed they were inefficient and undermined the role of Parliament and cabinet. In the 1972 election, Trudeau came close to losing office. He was forced to form a minority government with the support of the New Democratic Party (NDP).

For his 1972 re-election campaign, Trudeau used the slogan “The Land is Strong.” The vague, faintly smug statement captured what some Canadians saw as Trudeau’s self-satisfaction and aloofness. Prior to the campaign, the Liberals had been heavily favoured to win another majority. Instead, they won a minority government with only a two-seat plurality over Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives — a huge reversal from the Trudeaumania landslide of 1968. “The land is strong” has since become political shorthand to describe when a front-runner squanders their lead through poor campaign choices. (Source: Parli.ca)

Marriage to Margaret Sinclair

In 1971, Pierre Trudeau married Margaret Sinclair, the daughter of a former Liberal cabinet minister. Many women were heartbroken over the marriage of Canada’s most eligible bachelor to a woman 28 years his junior. The media followed every move made by the famous couple. Their tempestuous marriage was beset by many well-publicized differences. They separated in 1977 and divorced in 1984. Trudeau retained custody of their three sons: Justin, Alexandre (“Sacha”) and Michel.

Defeat and Re-election

After restoring a Liberal majority in 1974, Trudeau faced the effects of inflation. In an atmosphere of economic crisis, various remedies were tried; these included mandatory wage and prices controls in 1975. This economic crisis was compounded by political challenge in 1976. The Parti Québécois under René Lévesque was elected to office; both were dedicated to Quebec independence.

In May 1979, Trudeau and the Liberals lost the federal election to the Progressive Conservatives under Joe Clark. A few months later, on 21 November, Trudeau announced his resignation as leader of the Liberal Party. However, three weeks after this announcement, the Progressive Conservative government was defeated in the House of Commons. A new general election was called. Trudeau was persuaded by the Liberal caucus to return as leader. On 18 February 1980 — three months after his retirement — he was returned once again as prime minister with a majority government of 147 seats. (See also Elections of 1979 and 1980.)

The opening line of Trudeau’s victory speech on 18 February 1980 — “Well, welcome to the 1980s!” — was made just nine months after losing the 1979 election to Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives. The astonishing turnaround capped a period that saw Trudeau resign and return as Liberal leader. Trudeau’s “welcome to the 1980s” opener is cited by his admirers as an example of his gift for capturing the political moment. Critics have seen it as an example of Liberal arrogance and entitlement — as in, now that the Liberals were restored to power, the decade (already six weeks old) could get properly underway. (Source: Parli.ca)

Trudeau’s last period in office as prime minister was eventful. His personal intervention in the 1980 Quebec Referendum campaign on sovereignty-association was significant. The defeat of the Parti Québécois’s proposition was a milestone in his crusade against Quebec separatism. In the wake of that victory, Trudeau pushed for an accord on a new Canadian constitution.

Constitutional Battles

Trudeau was unable to gain provincial agreement on a new constitution. So, he introduced into Parliament a unilateral federal initiative to “patriate” the British North America Act to Canada; along with an amending formula and an entrenched Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This was followed by one of the most epic federal-provincial battles in Canadian history. (See also Patriation Reference; Federal-Provincial Relations.) It culminated in the final compromise — the proclamation of the Constitution Act, 1982 on 17 April 1982. ( See Patriation of the Constitution; Editorial: The Canadian Constitution Comes Home.) The new constitution included entrenched minority language and education rights; as well as a charter of individual rights. Trudeau had fulfilled a goal he had set for himself upon entering public life.

Economic Challenges

In other areas, Trudeau’s 1980–84 government was less successful. Continued inflation, high levels of unemployment, and large federal deficits cut into his popular support. His government’s National Energy Program was one of the biggest government interventions in the economy since the Second World War. But it further alienated the energy-producing regions in Western Canada.

A continuing problem that plagued Trudeau's entire time in office was that of Canadian-American relations. Trudeau often played an ambiguous role with regard to the US; but during his last term in office, he moved toward a more nationalist position in economic relations with America. He began to criticize US 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. (See also Canada-US Economic Relations.)


International Involvement

In these years, Trudeau devoted more and more time to the international stage. First, he encouraged a “North–South” dialogue between wealthy, industrialized nations and underdeveloped countries. Then, in 1983–84, he persuaded leaders in both the Soviet and Western blocs to negotiate the reduction of nuclear weapons and to lower Cold War tensions. (See also Arms Control and Disarmament.) These activities led to his being awarded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize.

At the same time, however, Trudeau’s government was responsible for the decision to allow US testing of the cruise missile. This roused widespread opposition from Canadians concerned about the worsening nuclear arms race.


Public opinion in Canada was largely hostile to Trudeau and the Liberals from 1981 on. His personal style — sometimes charismatic; sometimes contemptuous of opposition; often arrogant, mercurial and unpredictable — became less of an asset in difficult economic times than it was early in his political career. On 29 February 1984, Trudeau announced his intention to retire. On 30 June he left office; his successor, John Turner, was sworn in. In 1985, Trudeau was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Trudeau’s retirement was relatively low profile. However, he intervened in public affairs with dramatic effect on two occasions. 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 Montreal on 1 October 1992 was credited with turning English Canadian opinion against the Accord in the 1992 Referendum. He did not, however, publicly intervene during the 1995 Quebec Referendum.

In 1993, Trudeau published his book, Memoirs. It was based on a five-part CBC miniseries. In 1996, he published Against the Current, a collection of his writings from 1939 to 1996.

Death and Funeral

Trudeau died of prostate cancer at his home in Montreal on 28 September 2000. (See Trudeau’s Death.) His two surviving sons were joined at Trudeau’s funeral by his ex-wife, Margaret Trudeau. (Trudeau’s youngest son, Michel, died in an avalanche in 1998.) Among the mourners were Jean and Aline Chrétien, Fidel Castro and Jimmy Carter. Justin Trudeau’s emotional eulogy was watched by Canadians across the country; it prompted speculation that he would follow his father’s example and enter federal politics. In 2013, Justin Trudeau was elected leader of the Liberal Party. In 2015, he became prime minister.


Overall, Pierre Trudeau’s career as prime minister was one of electoral success. He served longer than any other contemporary leader in the Western world, becoming the elder statesman of the West. His achievements include official bilingualism; the 1980 defeat of Quebec separatism; the patriated Constitution; and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

However, Trudeau was unable to alleviate regional alienation or to resolve the conflict between federal and provincial governments. By the late 1990s, his major legacy — Quebec’s retention as a partner in Confederation — was in serious question much more 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 Editorial: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Second Father of Canada?; Trudeau 30 Years Later; Timeline: Elections and Prime Ministers.

Selected Honours and Awards

  • Member of Queen’s Privy Council (1967)
  • Albert Einstein Peace Prize (1984)
  • Companion of Honour (1984)
  • Companion of the Order of Canada (1985)

Selected Publications

  • Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jacques Hébert, Two Innocents in Red China (1961).
  • Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Approaches to Politics (1970).
  • Pierre Elliott Trudeau and David Crenna, ed., Lifting the Shadow of War (1987).
  • Thomas S. Axworthy and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Towards a Just Society: The Trudeau Years (1990).
  • Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Memoirs (1993).
  • Ivan Head and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, The Canadian Way: Shaping Canada’s Foreign Policy, 1968-1984 (1995).
  • Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Gérard Pelletier, ed., Against the Current: Selected Writings, 1939-1996 (1996).
  • Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Ron Graham, ed., The Essential Trudeau (1999).

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